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From the NS archive: Mr Eliot's poems

20 February 1926: Only those unfortunate persons who are incapable of reading poetry can resist TS Eliot’s rhythms.

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In this review of a collected volume of TS Eliot's poems, the Cambridge scholar and critic Ivor Armstrong Richards (1893-1979) makes the case for New Criticism. The formalist literary movement emphasised the practice of close reading in order to fully understand the function of a poem, leaving the hard graft rather up to the reader. “The truth is that very much of the best poetry is necessarily ambiguous in its immediate effect. Even the most careful and responsive reader must re-read and do hard work before the poem forms itself clearly and unambiguously in his mind,” he writes. Richards uses this critical framework to argue against contemporary criticisms of Eliot's work, ultimately concluding: “Only those unfortunate persons who are incapable of reading poetry can resist Mr Eliot’s rhythms.”

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We too readily forget that, unless something is very wrong with our civilisation, we should be producing three equal poets at least for every poet of high rank in our great-great-grandfathers' day.  Something must indeed be wrong; and since Mr Eliot is one of the very few poets that current conditions have not overcome, the difficulties which he has faced and the cognate difficulties which his readers encounter, repay study. 

Mr Eliot's poetry has occasioned an unusual amount of irritated or enthusiastic bewilderment. The bewilderment has several sources. The most formidable is the unobtrusiveness, in some cases the absence, of any coherent intellectual thread upon which the items of the poem are strung. A reader of Gerontion, of Preludes or of The Waste Land may, if he will, after repeated readings, introduce such a thread. Another reader after much effort may fail to contrive one. But in either case energy will have been misapplied. For the items are united by the accord, contrast, and interaction of their emotional effects, not by an intellectual scheme that analysis must work out. The only intellectual activity required takes place in the realisation of the separate items. We can, of course, make a "rationalisation" of the whole experience, as we can of any experience. If we do we are adding something which does not belong to the poem. Such a logical scheme is, at best, a scaffolding which vanishes when the poem is constructed. But we have so built into our nervous systems a demand for intellectual coherence, even in poetry, that we find a difficulty in doing without it.

This point may be misunderstood, for the charge most usually brought against Mr Eliot's poetry is that it is over-intellectualised. One reason for this is his use of allusion. A reader who in one short poem picks up allusions to: The Aspern Papers, Othello, A Toccata of Galuppi's, Marston, The Phoenix and the Turtle, Antony and Cleopatra (twice), The Extasie, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and Ruskin feels that his wits are being unusually well-exercised. He may easily leap to the conclusion that the basis of the poem is in wit also. But this would be a mistake.

These things come in, not that the reader may be ingenious or admire the writer's erudition (this last accusation has tempted several critics to disgrace themselves) but for the sake of the emotional aura which they bring. Allusion in Mr Eliot's hands is a technical device for compression. The Waste Land is the equivalent in content to an epic. Without this device twelve books would have been needed. But these allusions and the notes in which some of them are elucidated have made many a petulant reader turn down his thumb at once.

This objection is connected with another, that of obscurity. To quote a recent pronouncement upon The Waste Land from Mr. Middleton Murry: "The reader is compelled, in the mere effort to understand, to adopt an attitude of intellectual suspicion, which makes impossible the communication of feeling. The work offends against the most elementary canon of good writing: that the immediate effect should be unambiguous." Consider first this "canon". What would happen, if we pressed it, to Shakespeare's greatest Sonnets or to Hamlet? The truth is that very much of the best poetry is necessarily ambiguous in its immediate effect. Even the most careful and responsive reader must re-read and do hard work before the poem forms itself clearly and unambiguously in his mind. An original poem, as much as a new branch of mathematics, compels the mind which receives it to grow, and this takes time. Any one who upon reflection asserts the contrary for his own case must be either a demi-god or dishonest; probably Mr. Murry was in haste. His remarks show that he has failed in his attempt to read the poem, and they reveal, in part, the reason for his failure, namely, his own over-intellectual approach. To read it successfully he would have to discontinue his present self mystifications.

The critical question in all cases is whether the poem is worth the trouble it entails. For The Waste Land this is considerable. There is Miss Weston's From Ritual to Romance to read, and its "astral" trimmings to be discarded  they have nothing to do with Mr Eliot's poem. There is Canto XXVI of the Purgatorio to be studied  the relevance of the close of that Canto to the whole of Mr Eliot's work must be insisted upon. It illuminates his persistent concern with sex, the problem of our generation as religion was the problem of the last. There is the central position of Tiresias in the poem to be puzzled out  the cryptic form of the note which Mr Eliot writes on this point is just a little tiresome. It is a way of underlining the fact that the poem is concerned with many aspects of the one fact of sex, a hint that is perhaps neither indispensable nor entirely successful.

When all this has been done by the reader, when the materials with which the words are to clothe themselves have been collected, the poem still remains to be read. And it is easy to fail in this undertaking. An “attitude of intellectual suspicion” must certainly be abandoned. But this is not difficult to those who still know how to give their feelings precedence to their thoughts, who can accept and unify an experience without trying to catch it in an intellectual net or to squeeze out a doctrine. One form of this attempt must be mentioned. Some, misled no doubt by its origin in a Mystery, have endeavoured to give the poem a symbolical reading. But its symbols are not mystical but emotional. They stand, that is, not for ineffable objects but for normal human experience. The poem, in fact, is radically naturalistic; only its compression makes it appear otherwise. And in this it probably comes nearer to the original Mystery which it perpetuates than transcendentalism does.

If it were desired to label in three words the most characteristic feature of Mr Eliot’s technique this might be done by calling his poetry a “music of ideas”. The ideas are of all kinds, abstract and concrete, general and particular, and, like the musician’s phrases, they are arranged, not that they may tell us something but that their effects in us may combine into a coherent whole of feeling and produce a peculiar liberation of the will. They are there to be responded to, not to be pondered or worked out.

This is, of course, a method used intermittently very much in poetry, and only an accentuation and isolation of one of its normal resources. The peculiarity and isolation of Mr Eliot’s later, more puzzling, work is his deliberate and almost exclusive employment of it. In the earlier poems this logical freedom only appears occasionally. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, for example, there is a patch at the beginning and another at the end, but the rest of the poem is quite straightforward. In Gerontion, the first long poem in this manner, the air of monologue, of a stream of associations, is a kind of disguise and the last two lines: “Tenants of the house, / Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season,” are almost an excuse. The close of A Cooking Egg is perhaps the passage in which the technique shows itself most clearly. The reader who appreciates the emotional relevance of the title has the key to the later poems in his hand. The Waste Land and The Hollow Men (the most beautiful of Mr Eliot’s poems, if we reserve a doubt as to the last section, astonishing though it is) are purely a “music of ideas,” and the pretence of a continuous thread of associations is dropped.

How this technique lends itself to misunderstandings we have seen. But many readers who have failed in the end to escape bewilderment have begun by finding on almost every line that Mr Eliot has written (if we except certain youthful poems on American topics) that personal stamp which is the hardest thing for the craftsman to imitate and perhaps the most certain sign that the experience, good or bad, rendered in the poem is authentic. Only those unfortunate persons who are incapable of reading poetry can resist Mr Eliot’s rhythms. The poem as a whole may elude us while every fragment, as a fragment, comes victoriously home. It is difficult to believe that this is Mr Eliot’s fault rather than his reader’s, because a parallel case of a poet who so constantly achieves the hardest part of his task and yet fails in the easier is not to be found. It is much more likely that we have been trying to put the fragments together on a wrong principle.

Another doubt has been expressed. Mr Eliot repeats himself in two ways. The nightingale, Cleopatra’s barge, the rats and the smoky candle-end recur and recur. Is this a sign of a poverty of inspiration? A more plausible explanation is that this repetition is in part a consequence of the technique above described, and in part something which many writers who are not accused of poverty also show. Shelley, with his rivers, towers and stars, Conrad, Hardy, Walt Whitman and Dostoevsky spring to mind. When a writer has found a theme or image which fixes a point of relative stability in the drift of experience, it is not to be expected that he will avoid it. Such themes are a means of orientation. And it is quite true that the central process in all Mr Eliot’s best poems is the same: the conjunction of feelings which, though superficially opposed  as squalor, for example, is opposed to grandeur yet tend as they develop to change places and even to unite. If they do not develop far enough the intention of the poet is missed.

Mr Eliot is neither sighing after vanished glories nor holding contemporary experience up to scorn. Both bitterness and desolation are superficial aspects of his poetry. There are those who think that he merely takes his readers into the Waste Land and leaves them there, that in his last poem he confesses his impotence to release the healing waters. The reply is that some readers find in his poetry not only a clearer, fuller realisation of their plight, the plight of a whole generation, than they find elsewhere, but also through the very energies set free in that realisation a return of the saving passion.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)