Thursday, September 26, 2013

T. S. Eliot, Prufrock and critics

I have recently read several critical essays that discuss Eliot. Edmund Wilson in his essay "The Historical Interpretation of Literature" for example; he begins by describing what he will not be discussing in his essay, and he uses T. S. Eliot as his example:

"To begin with, it will be worth while to say something about the kind of criticism which seems to be furthest removed from this. There is a kind of comparative criticism which tends to be non-historical. The essays of T. S. Eliot, which have had such an immense influence in our time, are, for example fundamentally non-historical. Eliot sees, or tries to see, the whole of literature, so far as he is acquainted with it, spread out before him under the aspect of eternity. He then compares the work of different periods and countries, and tries to draw from it general conclusions about what literature ought to be. He understands, of course, that our point of view in connection with literature changes, and he has what seems to me a very sound conception of the whole body of writing of the past as something to which new works are continually being added, and which is not thereby merely increased in bulk but modified as a whole – so that Sophocles is no longer precisely what he was for Aristotle, or Shakespeare what he was for Ben Jonson or for Dryden or for Dr. Johnson, on account of all the later literature that has intervened between them and us. Yet at every point of this continual accretion, the whole field may be surveyed, as it were, spread out before the critic. The critic tries to see it as God might; he calls the books to a Day of Judgment. And, looking at things in this way, he may arrive at interesting and valuable conclusions which could hardly be reached by approaching them in any other way. Eliot was able to see, for example – what I believe had never been noticed before – that the French Symbolist poetry of the nineteenth century had certain fundamental resemblances to the English poetry of the age of Donne. Another kind of critic would draw certain historical conclusions from these purely esthetic findings, as the Russian D. S. Mirsky did; but Eliot does not draw them.”

These seem impressive achievements, to “have a very sound conception of the whole body of writing of the past” and to draw the connection esthetically between the French Symbolists and the metaphysical poetry of the nineteenth century. But perhaps at the same time, in the manner of our lowering our estimation of the skills of a magician once we learn how his trick was performed, is not our admiration of Eliot’s most famous poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock lessened by learning the “self-distrustful attitudes of Prufrock owe their definition largely to Laforgue, and there the technical debt shows itself; it shows itself in the ironical transitions, and also in the handling of the verse”?

The previous quote is from F. R. Leavis New Bearings in English Poetry, 1932. Leavis would disagree with my suggestion that Eliot’s having been influenced by Laforgue lessens the Prufrock achievement. He goes on to say that this Laforgue influence “has been made too much of by some critics: French moves so differently from English that to learn from French verse an English poet must be strongly original. And to learn as Mr. Eliot leant in general from Laforgue is to be original to the point of genius. Already in the collection of 1917 he is himself as only a major poet can be.”

Leavis seems more generous than Northrop Frye who in 1963 (T. S. Eliot) writes “Prufrock and Other Observations also appeared in 1917, showing the influence of Laforgue, most markedly in the lunar symbolism and the use of ironic dialogue.”

Which brings us to the “overwhelming question” why did Eliot who wrote this poem in 1915 present himself as an old man? He was only 37 or 38 at the time. The answer may be that the idea of an old man who had measured out his life with coffee spoons allowed him to present a dramatis persona as he thought Laforgue might, if Laforgue wrote in English.

Harold Bloom’s view, based on his A Map of Misreading might say that T. S. Eliot has nothing to be ashamed of and his readers ought not to think less of him for having been influenced by Laforgue. Every poet is influenced by some preceding poet – as far as we know – at least in modern times.   I think here of Edward Fitzgerald and his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, except in Fitzgerald’s case he never again did anything that measured up to his Rubaiyat whereas the critics I’ve read think despite its fame Prufrock doesn’t measure up to “The Wasteland” and “The Four Quartets.” 

Fitzgerald as well as Eliot might have balked at my comparison.  “Fitzgerald never claimed to be a poet.  ‘I have not,’ he confessed, ‘the strong inward call, nor cruel-sweet pangs of parturition, that prove the birth of anything bigger than a mouse.’”  But like Eliot he was also a critic: “. . . he thought himself a good judge of poetry and art.  As such, he did not ‘care for’ In Memoriam, classed The Ring and the Book ‘among the absurdist books ever written by a gifted Man’, and called it ‘a national Absurdity’ to devote a whole room in the National Gallery to pictures by Turner.  With such self-confidence in criticism, he became a bold improver of other people’s poetry.  He ‘distilled many pretty little poems out of long ones’ written by his friend Bernard Barton (1849), and having ‘sunk, reduced, altered, and replaced’ what he found unsatisfactory in Six Dramas of Calderon (1853), he applied similar treatment to the work of three Persian poets Jami, Attar, and Omar Khayyam (1856-9), and to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (1865).”

In the above (from page 101 of Victorian Poetry, Drama, and Miscellaneous Prose 1832-1890 by Paul Turner) Fitzgerald sounds as bold as Ezra Pound, another irascible improver of other people’s poetry, judge of what is good and bad in poetry but perhaps not as perceptive about his own poetry’s worth.  Pound did claim to be a poet, but there are not many today who would agree with him – although G. K. Chesterton called Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, “a great poem.” [page 134 of New Bearings]  Leavis seems to agree with him, but he would add that pound never wrote anything else as good.  He call’s “Mr Pound’s [Cantos his] Ring and the Book.

No comments: