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Books: A Poet’s Shoptalk

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ON POETRY & POETS (308 pp.)—T. S. Eliof—Farrar, Straus & Cudahy ($4.50).

When Poet T. S. Eliot married his secretary early this year, the news brought with it a shock of recognition: the austere genius was, after all, like unto other men. This touch of human bondage also animates Eliot’s best poetry, and again appears in this book, in which Eliot shows that he is like other men. too, in his predilection for shoptalk. In these pieces, which range in time from 1926 to the present and in subject matter from Virgil to Kipling, the poet-critic is talking shop about the poet’s trade. But, Eliot being Eliot, there is also an underlying concern with the larger meaning of art.

Eliot has always operated on the principle that the critic should erect his personal tastes into law, and in this book he lays down a kind of Justinian Code of poetic greatness. According to Eliot, the greatest poets, and specifically Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, have “Abundance, Amplitude and Unity.” By abundance. Eliot means that (unlike T. S. Eliot) “they all wrote a good deal.” By amplitude, he means that “each had a very wide range of interest, sympathy and understanding.” As for unity, “it is Life itself, the World seen from a particular point of view.”

The Function of Art. Says Eliot: “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.” Insofar as Eliot has always derived his theories from his practice, this is his ex post facto description of the Four Quartets, a poetic bridge between the realms of the material and the spiritual.

Eliot at 68 is more nearly the “aged eagle” that he posed as even in his undergraduate days; his talons are usually retracted. Ironically, he has the least patience with certain literary tendencies which he helped foster. Of the “New Criticism,” which he egged on with such devices as the elaborate notes to The Waste Land (since dismissed by him as “bogus scholarship”), he writes: “The method is to take a well-known poem . . . analyze it stanza by stanza and line by line, and extract, squeeze, tease, press every drop of meaning out of it. It might be called the lemon-squeezer school of criticism.”

Without benefit of lemon-squeezer, longtime Critic Eliot (The Sacred Wood, After Strange Gods) distills the essential similarities of two works centuries apart, Paradise Lost and Finnegans Wake: “Two books by great blind musicians, each writing a language of his own based upon English.” Only once does he commit one of those calculated critical indiscretions of his Young Turk days when he dubbed Hamlet a “failure.” Immersed in recent years in the poetic drama, Eliot permits himself the absurdity of suggesting that the early verse plays of Yeats “are probably more permanent literature than the plays of Shaw.”

Loss of Disciples. Eliot today is less a power within the poetic shop than he once was. There was a time when a memo from his pen would set fellow writers leafing through the pages of Dante, Donne and the minor Elizabethan playwrights. There was scarcely a fledgling poet who did not echo the world-weary, dying-fall tone of The Waste Land. Always lyric even in despair, Poet Eliot has been deserted for the bravura emotionality of Dylan Thomas, or, at the other extreme, a cool neutral concern with ‘form for form’s sake. If Eliot has lost writing disciples, he has gained a fresh reading audience through his plays and religious poetry. He has perhaps become more widely known and read at the moment when he wields the least overt influence on his fellow poets.

It is not a matter over which T. S. Eliot is likely to fret. The tribute he pays to Yeats is equally apt for him: “Unlike many writers, he cared more for poetry than for his own reputation as a poet or his picture of himself as a poet. Art was greater than the artist.”

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