Eliots Classicist Criticism

Eliot's classicism is more pronounced in his literary criticism than it is in his poetry. In fact, in 'The Function of Criticism' (1923), Eliot states that criticism is necessarily classicist. Criticism presupposes the existence of agreed principles and standards, he argues, whereas the romantic faith in individual judgement and expression is opposed to the very idea of such principles (1980: 31). The Criterion, the influential journal Eliot edited from 1922 to 1939, was intended to be a critical organ that expressed 'the modern tendency' of classicism. At the end of a 1926 editorial, 'The Idea of a Literary Review', Eliot provided a short reading list of books that illustrated this tendency: it included works by Maurras and Babbitt alongside Hulme's posthumous Speculations (1924), a collection of his essays edited by Criterion contributor Herbert Read (1926: 5).

But Eliot's literary criticism is not only classicist in attitude; the arguments themselves advance classicist values. One of the most important of these is his argument that 'in the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in' (1980: 288). This famous phrase makes its first appearance in 'The Metaphysical Poets' (1921), a review of an anthology of seventeenth-century verse, which was returning to critical favour at this time. Eliot had begun to develop the idea in 1917 (in 'Reflections on Contemporary Poetry'), but the argument was worked out more fully in 'The Metaphysical Poets' and two other articles from 1921, 'Andrew Marvell' and 'John Dryden' (published together as Homage to John Dryden in 1924), and subsequently in the Clark Lectures, delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1926 and in the Turnbull Lectures, delivered at Johns Hopkins in 1933.

Eliot's claim in 'The Metaphysical Poets' is that the dramatists of the sixteenth century (such as George Chapman, Thomas Middleton, John Webster and Cyril Tourneur) and their successors, the poets of the seventeenth century (such as John Donne, George Herbert and Henry King) had a sensibility that could 'devour any kind of experience' and transform it into art. But some time in the seventeenth century, Eliot argues, a dissociation of feeling and thought takes place 'from which we have never recovered'. Thus, by the nineteenth century, poets like Tennyson and Browning 'do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose', whereas 'a thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility' (1980: 287—88). Eliot does, however, think that a unification of sensibility was achieved in the poetry of certain nineteenth-century French poets, the symbolists Tristan Corbière (1845—1875), Laforgue and Baudelaire: he compares the latter to Racine, whom, as we know from Hulme's 'Romanticism and Classicism', is for the Action Française the embodiment of literary classicism (1980: 290).

'The Metaphysical Poets' at first appears to be making a solely literary argument. But on closer inspection, the essay hints at a non-literary reason for the change in style it describes. First, Eliot locates the dissociation of sensibility at the historical moment of the English Civil War and the fall of the monarchy: he specifically notes that he is interested in 'the poets of the seventeenth century (up to the Revolution)' (1980: 285). Second, Eliot argues that the anti-royalist Milton 'aggravated' the dissociation. Finally, Eliot chooses quotations from Chapman and Baudelaire that portray humankind as a small part of a greater universal scheme, that is, they embody a classicist world view, while a quotation from Browning locates human value in the individual self. Thus, Maurras's account of classicism is transferred from French to English literary history, with the Civil War replacing the French Revolution as the hinge-point between classicism and romanticism, and Milton replacing the arch-romantic Rousseau (Asher 1995: 46-48; Menand 1987: 148-50).

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