The problem of criticism—and the study of criticism—is what to say about, how to reflect on and make sense of, those moments of imaginative encounter that shock us into a more intense awareness of experience. We ask that critics direct us towards those moments; clear away what might stand between them and us (sometimes historical knowledge; sometimes facts about a text and language; sometimes our own misdirected or numbed attention); elucidate and analyze what is occasioning those moments; set them aside other similar, but distinct, instances, to refine our sense of their power and quality; and offer language and principles for describing the nature and meaning of the shocks, so that we can better explain those and other moments to ourselves and others.
Like any practice, criticism is a skill dependent on and strengthened by training as well as dispositions inherited from experiences and qualities that have no direct relationship with the skill itself; and training itself depends on the inheritance of techniques and principles from those who have come before us. The training we prefer depends on our dispositions; we are drawn to a way of training, and a lineage of practices, by our own sense of what we can and should do; but those in turn are shaped by, and give shape to, how we are trained.
Whether I like it or not, T.S. Eliot matters a great deal to the sort of criticism I practice and teach—not only because I, like many readers, find something enticing in Eliot’s approach to literature, but because the critics who most immediately appeal to me owe much to Eliot. Even in reaction, he has set the terms of many debates; and even in the search for alternative exemplars, they are alternatives to Eliot.
Eliot offers, in addition to many inspired and inspiring insights into particular works, a recurrent sense that literature depends on an author’s emotion but is itself a matter of feeling, even as he circles on to the idea that feeling is not the same as thinking, but is nonetheless a function of the intelligence. He asks that we recognize the shocks of imaginative encounter as shocks with, and of, feeling, and he asks also that we recognize feeling as a transfiguration of emotions by way of tacit moral judgments—judgments of what is right and good. The shocks, for Eliot, are shocks of moral feeling; or felt moral judgments. The word “moral” does not require scrupulous definition, but serves to limit “judgment” from its broadest scope in claims of identity or norms of the natural world. The word “moral” should be taken as opening out to considerations of virtue, of goodness, of the circumstances of action, experiences of wellbeing and flourishing, the demands of dwelling in the world, and the consequences of how we act and what we believe; it is an enormous range, since feeling for what someone is doing and how someone is living (where, in what circumstances, in what knowledge) has so any occasions.
The second animating principle of Eliot’s criticism is that an author’s individual emotions and experiences are transfigured into moral feeling by means of language—even as language is concomitantly transfigured through small and subtle dislocations from habitual ways of speaking and writing. It is not ideas or thinking about life that generates the work and power of literature, but instead a sense for how language can be manipulated and arranged in response to an initial set of emotions or experiences, in order to generate the currents of moral feeling. The author is, on Eliot’s telling, a technician or chemist—and this is the inheritance that mattered most to the New Critics—in the service of renewing, restoring, and perhaps discovering, feeling that is broadly moral, in response to, and illuminating, the good things of human life. This is what Eliot means by separating the author’s personality from the work; it is not that the personality does not matter, but that it is used, as language is used, for something that would not, in the absence of the work, exist. This is the root of Eliot’s infamous criticism of Hamlet, which rests on Eliot’s feeling that the play is not only something only partially digested, but that it an attempt at digesting what is likely not digestible by art; Eliot gives too short shrift that this is a valid source of enduring artistic success, drawing us towards something beyond what we can represent.
How those feelings depend on and are occasioned by history, religion, politics—this is where many disagree with Eliot—but in the principles I’ve described, Eliot’s influence extends far. They are principles that seem to have worked their way deep into the minds of some of the most influential critical traditions: not the traditions that proliferate readings of texts, but that interpret in order to better grasp, or dispute, the shocks of moral feeling that animate works, and that recognize that our apprehension of those shocks is inseparable from our apprehension and comprehension of the language in which they are figured, and the life that constitutes their significance. But influence is one thing. As Eliot knew, the surest evidence of a remarkable and original intelligence—whether critical or creative—is not that it influences those who come after or who think and live in its wake, but that it reaches back, making new sense of what comes before it, so that earlier intelligences are made to seem, in the light of this latest instance, more themselves and also more powerful and subtle than they previously had. This is the thrust of “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” There, the subject is art; in terms of criticism, it could be said that Eliot helps us better read Arnold, even as he disparages him, as well as Coleridge and Johnson, and not in those moments when he speaks of them directly, but because of how he helps us see what critical principles might be latent in their thought (they might not have had to draw them out).
Reading, and thinking about what I read, has become a matter of a sustaining routine for me; it’s something I’m committed to doing, a practice or discipline, that I care about because of what it brings me to think about. It is not difficult, in other words, to say why I do criticism. But I can’t but ask myself why I am drawn to taking the time to work out what other critics are doing, or what I and those I admire have taken from them. The answer seems to be an extension of the first; I must once have had some disposition to seek out, and then want to think more about, these shocks of feeling—even in the form of comic books when I was young—and as that disposition encountered the surge of formal training, in school and in reading, it took on a new shape and movement, and was threatened at times with a loss in the surge, at times, like all trained habits, with void repetition; the sustaining routine of criticism is refreshed by reflection on what has given it shape and momentum. This is not a matter of agreeing with Eliot, or of imbibing his neo-Classical, neo-Puritan (an occasionally monstrous combination) fervor for order and authority; it is about reading with feeling for his own recognition of the feelings in works of literature, and appreciating his sensibility for the alterations of language that permit those feelings to come into their own.
Having made an attempt at isolating, or extracting, two of Eliot’s guiding principles, one concerning feeling as a function of moral judgment (and vice-versa), the other concerning the intellectual activity of a writer, I run the risk of suggesting that they can live apart from their instantiations in Eliot’s thoughts on particular works and authors. In fact, they elude and resist any easy extracting, since they emerge from that more local critical engagement; this is, I think, a source of their occasional vagueness, some would say laxness: they are elaborated from specific critical encounters but their elaboration is not extended to full articulation or theory; they do not even seem, as Coleridge’s critical principles sometimes seem, dependent on more extensive philosophical forays. Often, Eliot’s finest perceptions seem to dissolve or lose cogency at the edges, or even in the middle, as if his instinct is flying too far ahead of his articulation; at those moments of critical enthusiasm, Eliot is liable to seem not just wrong but inauthentically performative, but I do not think they are displays of bogus sensibility or acumen so much as incompletely (and so, imperfectly) registered sensations. In revealing the loose fringes of his thought, they allow us to take hold of it; less thoroughly elaborated, they are also more salient; and further elaboration might have weakened their hearts or fatally diluted their essences. The phenomenon is especially clear in Eliot’s essays on Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists:
In Every Man in his Humour there is a neat, a very neat, comedy of humours. In discovering and proclaiming in this play the new genre Jonson was simply recognition, unconsciously, the route which opened out in the proper direction for his instincts. His character are and remain, like Marlowe’s, simplified characters; but the simplification does not consist in the dominance of a particular humour or monomania. That is a very superficial account of it. The simplification consists largely in the reduction of detail, in seizing of aspects relative to the relief of an emotion an impulse which remains the same for that character, in making the character conform to a particular setting. This stripping is essential to the art, to which is also essential a flat distortion in the drawing; it is an art of caricature, of great caricature, like Marlowe’s. It is a great caricature, which is beautiful; and a great humour, which is serious. (“Ben Jonson”)
The usual opinion remains the just judgment: The Changeling is Middleton’s greatest play. The morality of the convention seems to us absurd. To many intelligent readers this play has only an historical interest, and serves only to illustrate the moral taboos of the Elizabethans. The heroine is a young woman who, in order to dispose of a fiancé to whom she is indifferent, so that she may marry the man she loves, accepts the offer of an adventurer to murder the affianced, at the price (as she finds in due course) of becoming the murderer’s mistress. Such a plot is, to a modern mind, absurd; and the consequent tragedy seems a fuss about nothing. But The Changeling is not merely contingent for its effect upon our acceptance of Elizabethan good form or convention; it is, in fact, no more dependent upon the convention of its epoch than a play like A Doll’s House. Underneath the convention there is the stratum of truth permanent in human nature. The tragedy of The Changeling is an eternal tragedy, as permanent as Oedipus or Antony and Cleopatra; it is the tragedy of the not naturally bad but irresponsible and undeveloped nature, caught in the consequences of its own action. In every age and in every civilization there are instances of the same things: the unmoral nature, suddenly trapped in the inexorable toil of morality—of morality not made by man but by Nature—and forced to take the consequences of an act which it had planned light-heartedly. Beatrice is not a moral creature; she becomes moral only by becoming damned. 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…What constitutes the essence of the tragedy is something which has not been sufficiently remarked; it is the habituation of Beatrice to her sin; it becomes no longer merely sin but custom. (“Thomas Middleton”)
It has been said that Shakespeare lacks unity; it might, I think, be said equally well that Shakespeare chiefly IS the unity, that unifies so far as they could be unified all the tendencies of a time that certainly lacked unity. Unity, in Shakespeare, but not universality; no one can be universal; Shakespeare would not have found much in common with his contemporary St. Theresa. What influence the work of Seneca and Machiavelli and Montaigne seems to be to exert in common on that time, and most conspicuously through Shakespeare, is an influence toward a kind of self-consciousness that is new; the self-consciousness and self-dramatization of the Shakespearean hero, of whom Hamlet is only one. (“Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca”)
As in the passage from A Woman Killed with Kindness quoted above, the verse, which nowhere bursts into a flame of poetry, is yet economical and tidy, and formed to extract all the dramatic value possible from the situation. And it is by his refinement of sentiment, by his sympathetic delicacy in these two plays that Heywood deserves, and well deserves, to be remembered; for here he has accomplished what none of his contemporaries succeeded in accomplishing.
Yet we must concede that the interest is always sentimental and never ethical. 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 explore the sentiment…For a Corneille or a Racine, the centre of interest in the situation would have been the moral conflict leading up to the fall…The capital distinction is that between representation of human actions which have moral reality and representation of such as have only sentimental reality. (“Thomas Heywood”)
The cynicism, the loathing and disgust of humanity, expressed consummately in The Revenger’s Tragedy are immature in the respect that they exceed the object. Their objective equivalents are characters practicing the grossest vices; characters which seem merely to be spectres projected from the poet’s inner world of nightmare, some horror beyond words. So the play is a document on humanity chiefly because it is a document on one human being, Tourneur; its motive is truly the death motive, for it is the loathing and horror of life itself. To have realized this motive so well is a triumph; for the hatred of life is an important phase—even, if you like, a mystical experience—in life itself.
The Revenger’s Tragedy, then, is in this respect quite different from any play by any minor Elizabethan; it can, in this respect, be compared only to Hamlet. Perhaps, however, its quality would be better marked by contrasting it with a later work of cynicism and loathing, Gulliver’s Travels. No two compositions could be more dissimilar. Tourneur’s ‘suffering, cynicism and despair,’ to use Collins’s words, are static; they might be prior to experience, or be the fruit of but little; Swift’s is the progressive cynicism of the mature and disappointed man of the world. As an objective comment on the world, Swift’s is by far the more terrible. For Swift had himself enough pettiness, as well as enough sin of pride, and lust of dominion, to be able to expose and condemn mankind by its universal pettiness and pride and vanity and ambition; and his poetry, as well as his prose, attests that he hated the very smell of the human animal. We may think as we read Swift, ‘how loathsome human beings are’; in reading Tourneur we can only think ‘how terrible to loathe human beings so much as that.’ (“Cyril Tourneur”—who likely did not write the play; Middleton did)
Ford, nevertheless, depended upon Shakespeare; but it would be truer to say that Shakespeare is nearer to Stendhal and Flaubert than he is to Ford. There is a very important distinction to be made at this point. Stendhal and Flaubert, and to them might be added Balzac, are analysts of the individual soul as it is found in a particular phase of society; and in their work is found as much sociology as individual psychology. Indeed, the two are aspects of one thing; and the greater French novelists, from Stendhal to Proust, chronicle the rise, the regime, and the decay of the upper bourgeoisie in France. In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and even in the comedy of Congreve and Wycherley, there is almost no analysis of the particular society of the times, except in so far as it records the rise of the City families, and their ambition to ally themselves with needy peerages and to acquire country estates. Even that rise of the City … is treated lightly as a foible of the age, and not as a symptom of social decay and change….We feel that they believed in their own age, in a way in which no nineteenth- or twentieth-century writer of the greatest seriousness has been able to believe in his age. And accepting their age, they were in a position to concentrate their attention, to their respective abilities, upon the common characteristics of humanity in all ages, rather than upon the differences. We can partly criticize their age through our study of them, but they did not criticize it themselves. (“John Ford”)
A dramatist who so skilfully welds together parts which have no reason for being together, who fabricates plays so well knit and so remote from unity, we should expect to exhibit the same synthetic cunning in character. Mr. Cruickshank, Coleridge, and Leslie Stephen are pretty well agreed that Massinger is no master of characterization. You can, in fact, put together heterogeneous parts to form a lively play; but a character, to be living, must be conceived from some emotional unity. A character is not to be composed of scattered observations of human nature, but of parts which are felt together. Hence it is that although Massinger’s failure to draw a moving character is no greater than his failure to 121make a whole play, and probably springs from the same defective sensitiveness, yet the failure in character is more conspicuous and more disastrous. 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. In the earlier drama these conventions are merely a framework, or an alloy necessary for working the metal; the metal itself consisted of unique emotions resulting inevitably from the circumstances, resulting or inhering as inevitably as the properties of a chemical compound. Middleton’s heroine, for instance, in The Changeling, exclaims in the well-known words—
Why, ’tis impossible thou canst be so wicked,
To shelter such a cunning cruelty
To make his death the murderer of my honour!
The word “honour” in such a situation is out of date, but the emotion of Beatrice at that moment, given the conditions, is as permanent and substantial as anything in human nature. The emotion of Othello in Act V. is the emotion of a man who discovers that the worst part of his own soul has been exploited by some one more clever than he; it is this emotion carried by the writer to a very high degree of intensity. Even in so late and so decayed a drama as that of Ford, the framework of emotions and morals of the time is only the vehicle for statements of feeling which are unique and imperishable: Ford’s and Ford’s only.
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. (“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, especially in the two Bussy D’Ambois plays….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…The quotations are intended to exhibit the exceptional consistency of texture of this play, and its difference of tone, not only from that of Marston’s other plays, but from that of any other Elizabethan dramatist. In spite of the tumultuousness of the action, and the ferocity and horror of certain parts of the play, there is an underlying serenity; and as we familiarize ourselves with the play we perceive a pattern behind the pattern into which the characters deliberately involve themselves; the kind of pattern which we perceive in our own lives only at rare moments of inattention and detachment, drowsing in sunlight. It is the pattern drawn by what the ancient world called Fate; subtilized by Christianity into mazes of delicate theology; and reduced again by the modern world into crudities of psychological or economic necessity. (“John Marston”)
Perhaps one reason that Eliot is so challenging and upsetting a critic is that his own criticism, uniquely among critics, does something similar to what Eliot claims Marston’s plays effect: it implies a pattern behind the pattern, a set of principles behind the principles, to which Eliot is adhering even when he is arriving at critical judgments according to standards articulated and explicated on the page.