T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry (Part 5)

The poet, according to Eliot, enables this “incarnation,” or “union / Of Spheres of existence” to become actual through his ability to make apparent an underlying, if often difficult to discern, order in the world of experience. In his 1940 lecture on “The Poetry of W. B. Yeats,” Eliot praises Yeats as “the poet who, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general system.” Helen Gardner, in her seminal work on the Art of T. S. Eliot, praises Eliot in similar words for having succeeding according to his own standard. She writes, “The effort of every true poet is to unify his experience, and the development of every great poet is the extension of the amount of experience he can order into poetry.” It is through the ordering of the many and disparate phenomena of experience, then, that the poet is able to accomplish his task, according to Eliot’s theory. The mark of a truly great poet is the breadth of experience which he is able to so arrange into a comprehensible pattern.

This does not imply, however, that the poet is to be a dogmatic ideologue who seeks to impose a false order upon experience to substantiate his desires and prejudices. Eliot condemned in unequivocal terms I. A. Richard attempts to create an ideology of poetry in which he hoped to replace the religious feeling with the poetic feeling, for example. Russell Kirk writes of Eliot’s criticism of Richards, “Poetry expresses many things, and it may express religious insights; yet is . . . foolish to say that ‘Poetry teaches us’ certain ultimate truths.” Quoting Eliot, Russell continues,

Any theory which relates poetry very closely to a religious or a social scheme of things aims, probably, to explain poetry by discerning its natural laws; but it is in danger of binding poetry by legislation to be observedand poetry can recognize no such laws.

To attempt to identify poetry and ideology too closely damages both poetry and whatever religious or political ideas it is being wedded to, according to Eliot. Poetry becomes a mere tool for propaganda and the ideas being propagandized are shown to be insufficient to stand on their own merits. As Kirk puts it, “No man is saved by poetry.” Poetry, like the other arts, is the means by which the poet may share his experience; it is not, properly, the means by which to propound an ideology to which one hopes to win new adherents nor is poetry itself an ideology that might stand alone without the need to be supplemented by other forms of thought and expression. This is the crux of Eliot’s criticism of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, of which Eliot, in 1937, wrote “it is a glimpse of a theology that I find in large part repellent, expressed through a mythology which would have better been left in the Book of Genesis, upon which Milton has not improved.” Milton failed, according to Eliot, in large part because he did not know when to be a philosopher or theologian and when to be a poet.

Eliot has himself, of course, been sometimes thought of a theological or philosophical poet. Olney, however, rejects such a label for Eliot, drawing on Eliot’s own theory of poetry to do so. Writing especially of the Four Quartets, the theological themes of which are apparent and have been frequently commented upon, Olney writes that

One might say that pondering is not only the mode but, in a sense, the subject as well of the poem. In any case, the pondering proves to be a circular process that does not issue in an answer but turns in upon itself for substance, and Eliot never, speaking in his own voice, formulates a philosophy or maintains a conclusion.

While the Four Quartets and other of Eliot’s poetry written after his conversion to Christianity may indeed reflect the importance of that event to Eliot’s life and may be written from the perspective of one who has taken on a new faith, none of this poetry is theological in the sense which Eliot attributed to Milton’s poetry. The Four Quartets ponder issues of faith, but they do not cajole the reader into accepting Eliot’s faith.

For an illustration of this point, it is possible to turn to a section of the Dry Salvages which has a particularly religious orientation in its language and imagery. Eliot writes the entirety of the short section IV in the form a prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary. He begins:

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,

Pray for all those who are in ships, those

Whose business has to do with fish, and

Those concerned with every lawful traffic

And those who conduct them.

(CPP, 135)

While it is possible to read this section of the poem in a strictly theological vein and therefore to perceive it and the poem as a whole as a Christian poem, implying a limited purview and perhaps a limited reading audience as well, such a reading is unnecessary and rather facile. It comes close to being dishonest, in fact, in the ability of such a reading to entirely evade the universally human impulses that run throughout this section and the entirety of the poem from it comes. There really is, after all, a shrine dedicated to Our Lady which stands on a promontory near the Dry Salvages, the rocky islands off the Massachusetts coast from which Eliot took the name and imagery of his poem. And many sailors have died after leaving from the nearby port, passing by the Dry Salvages and the nearby shrine of the Virgin Mary. In the face of great danger, it is a universally human impulse to turn to a higher power for help and for comfort, one reflected in the very presence of that statue Eliot refers to in this poem.

The religious references in Eliot’s poetry are not confined to Christian images and ideas, a point worth emphasizing as it highlights Eliot’s ability to draw the universal and cohesive out of the particular and individual. The Waste Land, for example, combines imagery and allusions taken from Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Commenting on the combination of words and ideas taken from the Buddha and St. Augustine in section III (“The Fire Sermon”) of the Waste Land in the notes appended to the poem in its first publication as a book, Eliot wrote, “The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident” (CPP, 53). Section V (“What the Thunder Said”), meanwhile, draws heavily upon the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad, a Hindu text, for its content and imagery (CPP, 54).

Eliot’s use of Eastern religious ideas and imagery did not end with his conversion to Christianity. Even in the Dry Salvages, with its overtly Christian themes and images of Our Lady and the Incarnation, Eliot refers to the Hindu god Krishna in section III, which begins, “I Sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant” (CPP, 133). The rest of the section consists of a meditation which combines the words of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita with a contemplation of the various dangers that will be faced by the sailors as they head out to sea and the application of this allegory of dangers at sea to human  life more generally. At last, Eliot concludes the section by turning again to Krishna. He cites the message of Krishna’s words to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita in a manner that emphasizes its universality:

So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna

On the field of battle.

Not fare well,

But fare forward, voyagers.

(CPP, 135)

Eliot has not inculcated a single religious ideology in the Four Quartets; he has, instead, articulated a vision of life which is wide enough to take into its purview the whole fabric of human experience. Eliot’s later poetry, then, is no more propaganda for Christianity than his earlier poetry was propaganda for disillusionment. Rather, each set of poems is a reflection his internal state at that moment, together forming themselves into a whole, an experience into which he invites the reader to share, not an ideology which he attempts to force the reader to adopt.

The latter is, in fact, an impossibility for the truly great poet as it is the peculiar ability and responsibility of the great poet to be able to create a unity of experience through the exploration of a variety of otherwise apparently unrelated events. In his 1919 essay on Hamlet, the same essay in which he coined the term “objective correlative,” Eliot wrote of the peculiar ability of the poet to bring together a variety of phenomena into a cohesive unity:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the type-writer or the smell of the cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

The poet makes sense of the world of experience in his ability to discover the ways in which various sense impressions may form a unified view of the world as a whole. There is nothing that the poet is allowed to explain away or to relegate to an inferior status. For the poet, all phenomena of experience are of equal and of the utmost importance. Whether it is the philosophy of Spinoza or the smell of the food cooking on the stove, these sense impression must be treated in the manner in which they are received by the sense, as of equal relevance, and that relevance must be found and integrated into the relevance of all other experiences.

In his 1920 essay on “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,” written half a decade before Eliot himself made an attempt at writing a poetic drama and a decade and a half before he would finish one, Eliot asserts, “Permanent literature is always a presentation of thought, or a presentation of feeling by a statement of events in human action or objects in the external world.” It is, therefore, the phenomena of experience and sense that must be worked up into this poetic whole. The ideologue attempts to explain contemporary phenomena through his ideology. Any given event is to be attributed to the factors highlighted by the ideologue as the source of all such events. The poet, however, works in the opposite direction. He begins with the phenomena and seeks a means by which they may be mutually fitted together.

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