Since the age of 16 or 17, when I discovered the criticism of T.S. Eliot for myself, I’ve met with respected voices discouraging me from its allurements as well respected voices encouraging me to see it’s greatness. Among the critics and readers who have mattered most to me, Empson, Davie, Ricks, and Hill, there is a common belief in Eliot’s greatness as a critic, his indispensable questions and extraordinary perceptiveness, which has never precluded dissent from many of his judgments on literature, politics, or religion.
What I could not articulate, and what I think must have been obvious to Eliot’s admirers, is what his criticism does so very well: not the passing of judgment, the rating of authors, or the disparaging of sacred cows, but an assessment of just why poetry is so difficult to write, and why the difficulty of writing poetry, and the occasional achievement against the difficulty, is to be appreciated as commensurate with difficulties encountered elsewhere in life, from which literature is distinct but not separate. Eliot’s criticism makes it easier to appreciate the achievement of poetry because he is so attuned to how difficult it is for poets to bring anything into tune, and how variously they do so.
Everywhere in Eliot’s criticism, there is a return to the prospect of unity, of form, of completion; this is what gave birth to the limited formal-verbal analysis of the New Critics, but it is in fact something Eliot shares with much greater, less academic readers, whose ideologies and histories are so different from his own: they perceive in poetry a possibility of reconciliation and union, the occasional restitution or institution of it, and also the measure of its actual political, spiritual, or historical impossibility. Hence there is in Eliot the desire to work against the dissociation of sensibility; to recover a European culture (where “Europe” is a lost whole); to renew the metaphysical promise of poetry; to accommodate rhetoric and authenticity. Even readers with opposed political and religious judgments can appreciate the recurrent motives of the criticism, the eloquence by which they are articulated, and the breadth of their application.
The lesson of the criticism is, again and again, that it is difficult to harmonize, to perceive harmony, or to adequately represent and give rise to what it is like to exist in discord with the world: that literature can help us do or understand all of these, as only art can, and that criticism can in turn help us find harmony with the literature that does so. To some, such a statement might appear sentimental, but it is a stringent demand on art that it does so, and it is found in critics from across the ideological range.
Eliot is trying to appreciate when poets succeed, and when they do not, in terms of how they achieve a genuine harmonizing of parts and whole, of poem and world, of self and other, and also in terms of how they reveal the failures to harmonize. Hence, if I were to choose a single moment as representative of Eliot’s criticism, it would be the following:
I have always felt that I have never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness—of universal human weakness—than the last great speech of Othello…[quotes the play]…What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavoring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself. Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, but adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatizing himself against his environment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself. I do not believe any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.
Without the word appearing, this is a passage very much about “rhetoric,” a recurrent term of Eliot’s criticism, sometimes maligned and at other times respected:
In any case, we may take our chose: we may apply the term ‘rhetoric’ to the type of dramatic speech which I have instanced, and then we must admit that it covers good as well as bad. Or we may choose to except this type of speech from rhetoric. In that case we must say that rhetoric is any adornment or inflation of speech which is not done for particular effect but for a general impressiveness. And in this case, too, we cannot allow the term to cover all bad writing. (“‘Rhetoric’ and Poetic Drama”)
Certainly Elizabethan bombast can be traced to Seneca; Elizabethans themselves ridiculed the Senecan imitation. But if we reflect, not on the more grotesque exaggerations, but on the dramatic poetry of the first half of the period, as a whole, we see that Seneca had as much to do with its merits and its progress as with its faults and its delays. Certainly it is all ‘rhetorical’, but if it had not been rhetorical, would it have been anything? Certainly it is a relief to turn back to the austere, close language of Everyman, the simplicity of the mysteries; but if new influences had not entered, old orders decayed, would the language not have left some of its greatest resources unexplored. Without bombast, we should not have had King Lear. The art of dramatic language, we must remember, is as near to oratory as to ordinary speech or to other poetry. (“Seneca in Elizabethan Translation”)
Othello’s speech is full of bombast, and is very much intended to create an effect of general impressiveness. Eliot appreciates that its power, though, lies not in the rhetoric but in the placement of the rhetoric; Othello speaks to no audience but himself, his isolation total, and his effort at impressing himself with a unified sense of who he is flares out as a measure of his dissolution. The need for general impressiveness is real, and great literature can make much of it, without having recourse to its effects.
“Rhetoric,” in Eliot’s criticism, becomes a censure when it applies to a poet who is more interested in the audience than the subject matter. But in saying so, it becomes also a mark of a poet’s dilemma, the need to establish some concord between the work and the reader; the need for an audience at all. The French poets who are most frequently admired in his criticism, Racine and Baudelaire, are similarly clustered together at times, for the good reason that they possess a heightened awareness of how rhetoric might feature—as inseparable from the need, even desperation, to have another, to be admired and attended to by another, and to go to lengths to take their attention by the claim to impressiveness, by insisting on oneself, through sentimentality or portentousness—a need that might be fully justified or redeemed.
In Eliot’s criticism, rhetoric is an attending to be attended to; it is at one with the desire, not for harmony, but to be harmonized with. But the aim of poetry, Eliot implies, is the attending itself; rhetoric is appreciated when it follows from that: “Corneille and Racine do not attain their triumphs by magnificence of this sort; they have concentration also, and, in the midst of their phrases, an undisturbed attention to the human soul as they knew it.”
But language looks out: it asks to be attended to, and it is by virtue of establishing concord and unity among diverse selves that rhetoric, the courtier’s art, has continued value today. What is disparaged as rhetoric might be, in fact, a concomitant of the medium itself. In an early piece of criticism, “What Devil has Got Into John Ransom?,” Geoffrey Hill acknowledges as much. It is a superb statement on rhetoric, clarifying Eliot’s obsession without submitting to it:
One could argue that there is argue that there is a characteristic poetic crisis where rhetoric is ontologically determined (which is tolerable, even desirable) and where ontology is rhetorically fixed (which is intolerable, but possibly unavoidable).
Hill takes “rhetoric” in a somewhat different sense from Eliot; after all, it is here presented as an element of all poetry, with the distinction not being between rhetoric and non-rhetoric, but instead between rhetoric is determined by the beings and Being to which the poet attends and rhetoric determining the beings and Being to which the poet attends. But Eliot grants in his essay on rhetoric and poetic drama that his own distinction might not hold; he leaves room for a critic like Hill to improve on what he (Eliot) knows to be a tangled matter. Hill does so by granting that language has an inherent rhetorical dimension, an inherent tendency to seek approval and recognition, to compromise with the understanding of others; and that this harmonizing with audience must be resisted, if not outright denied, if the poem is to succeed in properly attending to, and maybe harmonizing with, the world’s other dimensions.
Hill has long dissented from the critical praise for the late Eliot; in this essay, he approves Raymond Williams’ suggestion that “it is part of the real complexity of this extraordinary man [Eliot] that he could repeatedly and genuinely mistake…compromise for communication.” Hill’s earlier words on rhetoric, in distinction to Eliot’s own, suggests that it is Hill’s belief that the rhetorical is always an aspect of language that leads him to expect for poets to possess a vigilance against all language accordingly; whereas it is Eliot’s sense that rhetoric is a psychological attitude towards an audience, that may as it were, supervene upon language, be felt within language, depending on the organization and circumstance of the utterance, that permits him to write the later poetry that Hill faults. For Hill, Four Quartets does not adequately guard against rhetorical complaisance, in the sense that it does not fix its attention upon the specificity of the world, but instead leaves itself open to a reader’s whims; it is popular for all of the wrong reasons. For Eliot’s defenders, it does not insist upon itself, and its humility before readers is itself a part and parcel of a hopes for a language that can assume and effect a commonality without despairing that to do so means failing to attend to the world.