T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry (Part 6)

This fitting together of the pieces of experience is, of course, only one of innumerable possible means by which to explain experience as a whole. This is why “there is no competition,” as Eliot wrote in East Coker, among poets. There is no poet who can ultimately outdo the others in such a way as to remove their ability to write new poetry. Although they work with the same set of experiences, the variety of means by which these experiences can be explored, discussed, and unified with other experiences is the inexhaustible source of all poetry. In the same essay, Eliot continues, “The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world; a world which the author’s mind has subjected to a process of sophistication.” More recently, Arthur Danto has articulated a similar notion, writing in his 1981 book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, that “it may just be one of the main offices of art less to represent the world than to represent it in such a way as to cause us to view it with a certain attitude and with a special vision.” Each poet, then, lends to his readers a certain lens through which to view the world of experience and through which to understand its phenomena collectively. In so doing, he grants the reader a vision of the world which may be ultimately incorrect and which the reader may ultimately reject or abandon, but which yet provides some special insight.

Eliot concludes his 1950 Harvard lectures on Poetry and Drama with a statement that grants a great deal of insight into his thought on poetry:

It is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther.

Poetry, like all art, then, provides for the reader a “credible order” by which the many and various phenomena of life can be made sense of, the disparate united into a cohesive whole. In so doing, poetry is able to grant the reader the ability to perceive that reality, in spite of its often chaotic and random appearance, has some underlying unity by which it is bound together. This insight, in turn, provides the terms by which one may make peace with the world. In this case, “world’ includes both the world internal to and external to the reader, including even in the internal worlds of others. The reader is able to establish a peace within and with himself through a greater understanding of the internal worlds of another, namely, the poet, who stands, by extension, for the internal worlds of innumerable others. The isolation of subjective existence does not weigh so heavily upon one who is able to peer, however haltingly, into the internal world of another and there to partake of a shared experience.

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.

T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry (Part 4)

According to Eliot, it is through this search for understanding and clarity on the part of the poet that the reader is able to attain greater understanding and clarity for himself. In his 1919 essay on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Eliot coined the term “objective correlative” to describe this ability. There, he writes,

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

By “objective correlative,” then, Eliot refers to a set of imagery or allusions used by the poet to express his emotions which are “immediately” evocative of the same emotion within the reader. As such, the objective correlative establishes a bridge between consciousnesses which allows the poet and the reader to, in some sense, share in a common experience.

Eliot’s notion of an objective correlative bears a great deal of resemblance to the earlier attempts of Richard Wagner and other nineteenth century theorists of art to create a cohesive theory of music and poetry. In his Opera and Drama, Wagner similarly describes the desire to impart feeling. There, he claims

the most perfect Unity of artistic Form as that in which a widest conjuncture of the phenomena of Human Life—as Content—can impart itself to the Feeling in so completely intelligible an Expression, that in all its ‘moments’ this Content shall completely stir, and alike completely satisfy, the Feeling.

The poet, then, is able to unify the disparate phenomena of life and to share his cohesive vision of reality through the objective correlative, uniting his own experience with that of the reader. Thereby, the chasm of misunderstanding and inarticulation between self and other is overcome, however momentarily.

In the Dry Salvages (1941), the third of the Four Quartets, Eliot introduces another term to describe these moments of crossing the chasm between self and other. There, Eliot writes,

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

Here the impossible union

Of spheres of existence is actual.

(CPP, 136)

The crossing of the chasm is again, as in East Coker, only partial and tentative. It is, after all, a “hint half guessed” and a “gift half understood.” It is never fully articulated and so never fully understood. Yet it is an “Incarnation,” a moment in which there is “communion,” to use again the term used by Eliot in East Coker. There is the possibility, at least, of a “union / Of spheres of existence” in which both poet and reader temporarily emerge from the prison of subjectivity and are able to share in a commonality of experience and perhaps even a mutuality of consciousness, to cross the chasm for a moment.

In a 1929 essay on Dante, Eliot asserted that “it is a test . . . that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” As poetry speaks first through the feelings, it is a mark of the excellence of a given poetic piece that it is not necessary to understand it on an intellectual and factual basis for it to work upon one’s consciousness. Describing his own initial experience of the Divine Comedy, Eliot explains that “the impression was new, and of, I believe, the objective ‘poetic emotion.’” While he later pursued a greater understanding of Dante’s historical and cultural setting and the various allusions to them which run throughout Dante’s poetry, none of this was necessary to the initial effect of the poetry. Instead, there was an “objective correlative,” an aspect of the poetry by which the poet was able to move the reader and speak directly to and through the feelings of the reader.

It is the ability of poetry to raise experience from the level of the particular to the level of the universal that is central to its ability to momentarily united the otherwise divided “spheres of existence” in which each individual lives. “The business of the poet is not to find new emotions,” Eliot writes in his 1919 essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, “but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.” It is the “bad poet,” he writes, who seeks for “novelty” in the discovery of subject matter, as the only viable and worthwhile subjects are those aspects of one’s being which are universal aspects of human nature.

The universality of the feelings and experiences expressed through poetry and the possibility of the “union / Of spheres of existence” does not, however, imply a loss of individuality. On the contrary, that loss of individuality, says Eliot, is the danger run by the poet who attempts to separate himself from others and strike out in some altogether novel direction. “Underneath the convention there is the stratum of truth permanent in human nature,” Eliot writes in his 1927 essay on “Thomas Middleton.” Commenting on Eliot’s thought on the place of the individual in a given tradition of art and thought, Northrop Frye notes that “humility” is, according to Eliot, “a prerequisite of originality. The self-expression that springs from pride is more egocentric, but less individual, for the only self that can get expressed in this way is one just like everyone else.” The irony of the individualist is that he loses his individuality in his attempt at originality. Speaking of readers in his 1935 essay on “Religion and Literature,” Eliot notes that

There may be too many publishers; there are certainly too many books published; and the journals ever incite the reader to ‘keep up’ with what is being published. Individualistic democracy has come to high tide: and it is more difficult today to be an individual than it ever was before.

The same holds true, Eliot believed, for the poet as well. In a constant attempt to stay with or get ahead of the current trends, the poet often also loses what it is that makes his voice unique in the first place.

In contrast to this loss of individuality through obsession with novelty, it is through the “union / Of spheres of existence” that true individuality is realized by both poet and reader. In his lectures on the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Eliot explains that

What a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time, a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning — or without forgetting, merely changing.

That the “spheres of existence” of the poet and of the reader are momentarily crossed and perhaps even unified does not imply, then, that either necessarily swallows up the other. There is no destruction and therefore no loss. Instead, there is the opposite; there is new creation. According to James Olney,

We are the poem as we read it, as the words, the images, and the rhythms pervade and become our being; the poem stands for us, and not for us a moment since or a moment hence but now as the images lie in the mind’s and penetrate the mind’s ear, as the subtle rhythms go below the conscious mind to recreate for us the same new-born self that they express. As that self is the poet’s and not the poet’s, so it is ours and not ours; perhaps it is most properly to be called the self of the poem—requiring both poet and reader, as they require it, to come into united being.

The “union / Of Spheres of existence” through the poem, then, produces a third entity which unites poetry and reader. It does not submerge the selfhood of either, but instead unites them in a new sphere of commonality. The isolation of subjectivity is overcome and undone without the undoing of the self.

An absolute identification of the feelings and experiences of the poet and reader, then, is not necessary to an establishment of this sphere of commonality. It is enough that the reader accurately understands and is able to sympathize with the poet’s experience. In the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Eliot continues,

When the doctrine, theory, belief, or ‘view of life’ presented in a poem is one which the mind of the reader can accept as coherent, mature, and founded on the facts of experience, it interposes no obstacle to the reader’s enjoyment, whether it be one that he accept or deny, approve or deprecate.

Even in those instances in which the thoughts and experiences of the poet differ substantively from those of the reader, then, a certain commonality can be established by good poets and sensitive readers. Just as the reader need not submerge or erase his experience to replace it with that of the poet, the reader also does not need to adopt the viewpoint of the poet to accept it as one plausible outlook on the world. It is enough for the reader to grow in his appreciation for and understanding of the poet’s outlook.

Simultaneously, Eliot’s theory of poetry avoids the opposite extreme of reducing all understanding to subjective interpretation. Eliot’s thought, then, runs contrary to the poststructuralist attempt to remove the authority of the author entirely and so to claim for the text an independent status in which no interpretation can be considered to be of greater value or truth than another. As Paul Thom, writing specifically of the performing arts, notes of these attempts, “What they are advocating is not interpretation at all, because it falls foul of a requirement on all interpretation . . . , namely, that the interpreter must judge the datum to be a correct characterization of the object of interpretation.” Though Eliot spoke of “the independence of the poem when it has been written and dismissed by the poet,” as in his introduction to a collection of essays by the French poet Paul Valéry, he was not advocating an utter abandonment of the belief in a definite meaning for a text, a meaning attached in some way to the author’s intent. Eliot, after all, was not shy about calling the opinions of one commentator on the Waste Land “nonsense” in his 1931 essay “Thoughts After Lambeth.” Just as the experiences and ideas of the poet can neither erase nor replace those of the reader, the same is true of the experiences and ideas of the reader. The reader’s experiences and ideas cannot be read back into the text in such a manner as to efface the element of the poet’s personality and being which has been imprinted into it. A poem, after all, arises out of and therefore continues to reflect the poet’s experience.

Eliot’s reference to the “union / Of spheres of existence” as an “incarnation” in the Dry Salvages is once again the key to understanding his theory of poetry. Eliot, of course, borrows the term and its implications from the Christian belief that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. As the formula of the Council of Chalcedon, the church council of 451 which decided the terminology to be applied by orthodox Christians in describing the event, puts it, “the distinction of [the divine and human] natures” of Christ was “in no way annulled by the union” of his divinity and humanity in the incarnation. Eliot’s application of the orthodox Christian belief in the incarnation to his conception of poetry, then, yields a similar notion. As the poet’s experience becomes, in a sense, incarnate within the mind of the reader it does not swallow up or destroy the reader’s experience nor does the reader’s experience swallow or destroy that of the poet. Instead, the two enter into an engagement on equal terms, each suffusing without annihilating the other.