Among Eliot’s staunchest and nimblest readers, Christopher Ricks was unrelenting in his 1978 attack on Eliot’s late essay, “What is Minor Poetry?” I offer first a series of quotations from Ricks’ piece, published in Ploughshares:
Eliot is probably the only important critic who has bent himself to—or on—the distinction between major and minor, and yet even this master of elusiveness found himself out-eluded. For his essay “What is Minor Poetry?” is a series of such remarkable fallings-back by his critical intelligence as to leave one wondering whether Old Possum did not have some lower-lying outcome in view all along.
‘Major’ and ‘minor’ are of no use to any seriously intended literary criticism. No-one has ever been able to suggest what interesting questions might depend on or from them. The only question which they spur is the one which pseudo-criticism is most deft at ignoring: ‘So what?’.
Like themes, another grim smug word or let us say term, ‘minor’ has the advantage of announcing a training, an insider’s-eye-view, while also having the advantage of entailing no thought or knowledge whatsoever.
In true literary criticism, there is a continuity, at once natural and imaginatively challenging, between the words which the artist was moved to choose and the words which the critic is moved to choose…Has any writer (real writer, not aspiring pedagogue) ever found necessary the words ‘major’ or ‘minor’—except for satire or banter?
[they] are not only words which a human being does not naturally utter, but are also not words which you can naturally utter of a human being. You may, if it makes you feel better, decide that Philip Larkin is or is not a minor poet, but you would be suspected of affectation if you were to call him a minor man or a major person. Even Dickens would resist the appellation, a major man. In true literary criticism, the words (with all their precise descriptive and evaluative strength and delicacy) which are of real service in the apprehension of literature are words which are uttered naturally in the apprehending of human beings. Irony is something about people, and not just about poems. People too are ambiguous, and mature, and can have a tough reasonableness beneath their slight lyric grace. The genuine critical intelligence delights in the opportunities and perils which this offers, apprehending the ways in which a poem is and is not like a human being. The slackly technical terminology (a terminology, not a language) of the pseudo-critic takes refuge in exactly those words which, by separating the values to be sought or deplored in literature from those to be sought or deplored in people, create the easy evacuated world of aesthetic or literary or within-these-four-walls values.
No poem evinces majority, and no minor poem embodies minority
What could be handier and emptier than noun-less adjectives? Well, comparatives of which there is no non-comparative form, no superlative and no positive. ‘Major’ and ‘minor’ float free (no price to be paid), permitting no challenge of definition, or discrimination, from the positive or superlative forms which ordinarily attend upon comparatives in our language.
A nimble reader of Ricks might notice that he has relied on a distinction that merits further questions, if not immediate doubts: that between true and false. But the distinction is pertinent not only to Ricks’ sense, implicitly defended throughout the criticism, that there is true and false criticism, as there is true and false art, and true and false attitudes–all without their needing to be a single unified Truth or True–but it is also a sensitive extension of the language in Eliot’s own criticism, a movement along the words that Eliot was moved to choose.
Within the first several paragraphs of his essay, Ricks reaches (admitting it to be a stretch, as well as a reach) to defend Eliot:
For it looks to me as if Eliot has engaged in a characteristic detour the better to pounce; the final impression left—or rather stamped—by the essay is one which he was slyly tracking all along: that distinctions between major and minor may well be footling rigmarole, and that what matters much more—not only than the distinction but even than the one between the great poet and the great poet—is that between the genuine and the rest. For Eliot had, after all, been moved to one of his genuine critical aphorisms when he once said that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.
I arrived at Ricks’ essay by chance, wanting to find Eliot’s “What is Minor Poetry?”–led there in turn by a hunch that Eliot, in his early essays on the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, was long invested (and for deep reasons) in what it meant to be a major or minor poet. As it ends up, though the description of a “major” author finds its way into the essay on John Ford, and though elsewhere, I am near certain, though it is not at hand, he deploys the term “minor” also, it seems that I imported those “terms” to Eliot’s work, which turns, instead, upon a recurrent appeal to “greatness.” That word, and its cognates, appears frequently throughout the essays.
That word has, these days, been poisoned; but even before the poisoning occurred, I knew a great many who would have thought it little better than “major” and “minor” as a word for the critic. Ricks, however, in the essay on the foolish posturing of “major” and “minor,” comes in for the defense of the word–as one that is a genuine part of life, and not a critical “term” at all; that it is a genuine part of life, we need no reminding now, but that it is a defensible and even vital challenge for critics and non-critics to consider what the word entails and means might be something that merits some reminding, most of all now when it is too easy to consider it a word that has been captured and left for dead. Here is Ricks:
Greatness is a word which challenges the critical mind as it challenges the creative mind. It, the word itself, is alive both within works that animate a traditional body of beliefs about greatness, and in works of a different kind of exploration which ask what it really is to be great. We have a noun, and not just an adjective; a word which can be unself-consciously used of people as well as of art-work; a word which can still be heard on the unaffected lips of people who unprofessionalizedly care about art; and a word which does not have the neat imperialism of symbiosis; ‘major’ and ‘minor’ carve up worthwhile poetry between them, whereas ‘great’ asks only that we recognize, and think about, the way in which the literature which is not great is just that: not great.
Yet people are embarrassed, and not only in the arts, by the acknowledgement both that there is indeed such a thing as greatness (whereas ‘major’ and ‘minor’ strangely end up as more egalitarian—a technicality, or a caucus race with prizes for everyone), and by the acknowledgement that it asks intelligence and imagination to be able to advance our understanding—and even if only as critics—of exactly what greatness in any particular incarnation can consist of and effect.
I don’t find Eliot’s essays on the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists to be stirring, intelligent, and perpetually surprising because they are about greatness; greatness is not itself, to me, inherently interesting. But it is an element of thought that demands the application of other thoughts, in novel combinations and pressures, if it is to be handled and weighed at all; such an application gives life to Eliot’s essays.
At the center of his essays, perhaps unsurprisingly, is an investigation into the “genuine” and “genuineness”; it is not an investigation by way of analysis (not a philosophical account of what it means to be genuine), but an investigation by way of criticism–the criticism of art leading to something like the discovery of life.
In the case of Eliot, the “something like” is not needed: the essays discern what is genuinely great in the dramatists by discerning what is genuinely alive in them, and in so doing, they must discern, and articulate principles that take hold of, what makes life genuine–what makes a person, an instant, a feeling really ‘real’ (another word that appears frequently in the essays).
Eliot does not advance any notion of what a real life is, or ought to be; he does not try to define (which is, he says elsewhere, the highest creative act). Instead, he is keen to describe the moments in which life emerges, breaking through inherited conventions of thought and feeling; when those occur, Eliot tells us, there is a unifying recognition of moral choice and conflict; an apprehension, a taking hold of, it, with feeling, thought, and word.
The genuine life is an event, which may be brief or may last a lifetime; it is not to be confused with “authenticity” or “sincerity.”
Where there is a ‘real’ character in a work of drama (or a novel), we find that sudden starting into moral consciousness; when there is a sense of personality in an author, we find that all (many?) of the works of that author are a part of the process by which that moral consciousness evolves into itself, taking hold of experience, and informed by it; and that, for Eliot, is the characteristic mark of greatness.
But rather than explicate further, I will offer now a gallery of passages from the essays, evidence for what I’ve suggested, and for a great deal more, no doubt:
There are a few of the Elizabethan dramatists, notably Marlowe and Ben Jonson, who always return to our minds with the reality of personal acquaintance. (“Thomas Heywood”)
The sensibility is merely that of ordinary people in ordinary life–which is the reason, perhaps, why Heywood is misleadingly called a ‘realist.’ Behind the motions of his personages, the shadows of the human world, there is no reality of moral synthesis; to inform the verse there is no vision, none of the artist’s power to give undefinable unity to the most various material. In the work of nearly all of those of his contemporaries who are as well-known as he is there is at least some inchoate pattern; there is, as it would often be called, “personality. Of those of Heywood’s plays which are worth reading, each is worth reading for itself, but none throws any illumination upon any other.” (“Thomas Heywood”)
One has seen plays in our time which are just the sort of thing that Heywood would have written had he been our contemporary. It is usual for inferior authors at any time to accept whatever morality is current, because they are interested not to analyse the ethics but to exploit the sentiment…the capital distinction is that between representation of human actions which have only a moral reality and representation of such as have only sentimental reality; and beside this, any distinction between ‘healthy’ and ‘morbid’ sentiment is trivial. (“Thomas Heywood”)
There is another type of ethics, that of the satirist. In Shakespeare’s work it is represented most nearly by Timon and Troilus but in a mind with such prodigious capacity of development as Shakespeare’s, the snarling vein could not endure. (“Thomas Heywood”)
But it is easy to understand why he is not better known or more popular. It is difficult to imagine his ‘personality’…If we write about Middleton’s plays, we must write about Middleton’s plays, and not about Middleton’s personality…Between the tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare, and certainly between the tragedies and comedies of Jonson, we can establish a relation; we can see, for Shakespeare or Jonson, that each had in the end a personal point of view which can be called neither comic nor tragic. But with Middleton we can establish no such relation. He remains merely a name, a voice, the author of certain plays, which are all of them great plays. He has no point of view, is neither sentimental nor cynical; he is neither resigned, nor disillusioned, nor romantic; he has no message. He is merely the name which associates six or seven great plays. (“Thomas Middleton”)
Our conventions are not the same as those which Middleton assumed for his play. But the possibility of that frightful discovery of morality remains permanent. (“Thomas Middleton”)
The wickedness of the personages in Women Beware Women is conventional wickedness of the stage of the time; yet slowly the exasperation of Bianca, the wife who married beneath her, beneath the ambitions to which she was entitled, emerges from the negative; slowly the real human passions emerge from the mesh of interest in which they begin. (“Thomas Middleton”)
The immediate appeal of Jonson is to the mind; his emotional tone is not in the single verse, but in the design of the whole. But not many people are capable for discovering for themselves the beauty which is only found after labour… (“Ben Jonson”)
When we say that Jonson requires study, we do not mean study of his classical scholarship or of seventeenth-century manners. We mean intelligent saturation in his work as a whole; we mean that, in order to enjoy him at all, we must get to the centre of his work and his temperament, and that we must see him unbiased by time, as a contemporary. And to see him as a contemporary does not so much require the power of putting ourselves into seventeenth-century London as it requires the power of setting Jonson in our London. (“Ben Jonson”)
The standard set by Shakespeare is that of continuous development from first to last, a development in which the choice both of theme and of dramatic and verse technique in each play seems to be determined increasingly by Shakespeare’s state of feeling, by the particular stage of his emotional maturity at the time. What is ‘the whole man’ is not simply his greatest or maturest achievement, but the whole pattern formed by the sequence of plays; so that we may say confidently that the full meaning of any one of his plays is not in itself alone, but in that play in the order in which it was written, in its relation to all of Shakespeare’s other plays, earlier and later: we must know all of Shakespeare’s work in order to know any of it. No other dramatist of the time approaches anywhere near to this perfection of pattern, of pattern superficial and profound; but the measure in which dramatists and poets approximate to this unity in a lifetime’s work, is one of the measures of major poetry and drama…Even without an oeuvre, some dramatists can effect a satisfying unity and significance of pattern in single plays, a unity springing from the depth and coherence of a number of emotions and feelings, and not only from dramatic and poetic skill. The Maid’s Tragedy , or A King and No King, is better constructed, and has as many poetic lines, as The Changeling, but is far inferior in the degree of inner necessity in the feeling: something more profound and more complex than what is ordinarily called ‘sincerity.‘ (“John Ford”)
A ‘living’ character is not necessarily ‘true to life’. It is a person whom we can see and hear, whether he be true or false to human nature as we know it. What the creator of character needs is not so much knowledge of motives as keen sensibility; the dramatist need not understand people, but he must be exceptionally aware of them. This awareness was not given to Massinger. He inherits the traditions of conduct, female chastity, hymeneal sanctity, the fashion of honour, without either criticizing or informing them from his own experience. (“Philip Massinger”)
What may be considered corrupt or decadent in the morals of Massinger is not an alteration or diminution in morals; it is simply the disappearance of all the personal and real emotions which this morality supported and into which it introduced a kind of order. As soon as the emotions disappear the morality which ordered it appears hideous. Puritanism itself became repulsive only when it appeared as the survival of a restraint after the feelings which it restrained had gone. When Massinger’s ladies resist temptation they do not appear to undergo any important emotion; they merely know what is expected of them; they manifest themselves as lubricious prudes. Any age has its conventions; and any age might appear absurd when its conventions get into the hands of a man like Massinger–a man, we mean, of so exceptionally superior a literary talent as Massinger’s, and so paltry an imagination. The Elizabethan morality was an important convention; important because it was not consciously of one social class alone, because it provided a framework for emotions to which all classes could respond….Fletcher and Massinger rendered it ridiculous; not by not believing in it, but because they were men of great talents who could not vivify it; because they could not fit into it passionate, complete human characters. (“Philip Massinger”)
It is possible that what distinguishes poetic drama from prosaic drama is a kind of doubleness in the action, as if it took place on two planes at once. In this it is different from allegory, in which the abstraction is something conceived, not something differently felt, and from symbolism (as in the plays of Maeterlinck) in which the tangible world is deliberately diminished–both symbolism and allegory being operations of the conscious planning mind. In poetic drama a certain apparent irrelevance may be the symptom of this doubleness; or the drama has an under-pattern, less manifest than the theatrical one. We sometimes feel, in following the words and behavior of some of the characters of Dostoevsky, that they are living at once on the plane that we know and on some other plane of reality from which we are shut out; their behavior does not seem crazy, but rather in conformity with the laws of some world that we cannot perceive. More fitfully, and with less power, this doubleness appears here and there in the work of Chapman…In the work of genius of a lower order, such as that of the author of The Revenger’s Tragedy, the characters themselves hardly attain this double reality; we are aware rather of the author, operating perhaps not quite consciously through them, and making use of them to express something of which he may not be quite conscious….It is not by writing quotable ‘poetic’ passages, but by giving us the sense of something behind, more real than any of his personages and their action, that Marston established himself among the writers of genius. (“John Marston”)
It might be surprising to find Eliot, famous for his idealizing impersonality in art, placing such emphasis on it throughout the essays. But it is within the confines of traditions and conventions that Eliot thinks personality must emerge; impersonality is not a surrendering of self to what we are given, but is instead an overcoming of the self we assume and have assumed for us.
Another way of reading Eliot’s essays on the Elizabethans and Jacobeans–another way of understanding what he writes about when he writes about the “genuine”–would be to say that he wants to understand what it means to express oneself, wherein that expression is an extension of whatever existed before in a form and direction that is new, and other, but that possesses nonetheless the patterned harmony of selfhood.
To clarify what I think Eliot might be getting at, I would turn to Geoffrey Hill’s late essay, “A Postscript on Modernist Poetics.” Hill is attempting to work out what self-expression in poetry means, to rescue it from the personality implied by a confessional mode of poetry, or personal mode of poetry, that he dislikes, but without denying that the meeting between poetry and a reader must be human contact–perhaps not far from the human contact that Ricks finds essential to true criticism:
If I am not denying, or decrying, human contact between ‘the’ poem and the reader, then the contact has to be resestablished in some radical, or reverse, order. Karl Rahner’s ‘The Theology of the Symbol’ is useful in this respect (one might as well be matter-of-fact about it: the alien strangeness of the poem does not involve questions of awe, or the reader having to feel inferior, or anything like that). Rahner’s ‘first statement’ is that ‘all beings are by their nature symbolic, because they necessarily ‘express’ themselves in order to attain their own nature.’ And, further, ‘Being expresses itself, because it must realize itself through a plurality in unity.’ It has to be said that Rahner’s ‘self-expression’ is not quite what self-expression is taught to be in various creative-writing classes; it is more self-subsistent than they suggest; I am not sure that what is now known as the ‘confessional’ element is vital to it, which may seem a strange thing to say since Rahner was a priest of the Roman Catholic church. But confessionalism is not exhibitionism, and the so called ‘confessional’ movement in post-modern art and literature is mainly a mating display clumsily performed. What we are talking about has altogether more reserve: ‘A being,’ says Rahner, ‘comes to itself by means of “expression”, in so far as it comes to itself at all.” ‘The’ poem in this sense, but perhaps only in this sense, is one of us. It is one of us because its formal distinctions need to be set and kept. But the great poem comes to itself more entirely than we do and withdraws into itself more effectively than we do.
Hill arrives at the word “great” along a path that would not feel entirely foreign to alien: the arrival at oneself, the arrival at oneself, the moment of the genuine. If that is the great poem, then the great poet is perhaps one whose works together come entirely and effectively to themselves, whose works taken and seeming to work together discover or becomes something genuine. For Eliot, evidently, to read the poets was to undergo such a discovery for himself; to write the criticism that he did was to express his encounter with self-expression, and to make sense of the discovery of the genuine he made–that perhaps being a criterion for criticism of the highest order.