Should Students Read T.S. Eliot?

Dear Autodidact:

Question for you. T. S Eliot is one of my favorite poets. ( I have read and re-read many of his poems) Most friends of mine aren’t as enthusiastic about him. I’ve often heard people say that he “killed poetry” with his “Modernist” style. This is also the view of a number of conservative professors I know (none is  a literary scholar, though) Do you think there’s any truth to this claim? I tend to read poetry for its meaning, not its style (so Eliot’s style doesn’t bother me much)

A Catholic College Student

Dear Catholic College Student,

The question of Eliot’s significance has been addressed to me frequently, sometimes by myself.  Let me begin with an entirely personal perspective.  I was strongly drawn to Eliot in my teens, and I would find it difficult to calculate his impact on my own formation.  As an atheist, I found myself reciting “Ash Wednesday” which I had memorized.  I admired, without ever quite loving, “The Wasteland”—which I have no interest in these days—and read the “Four Quartets” assiduously.

Eliot’s essays interested me not at all in those days, and I only began looking at them seriously when I had already drawn my own conclusions about such things many decades earlier.  I probably should have read them in my 20’s instead of waiting until my 60’s, but I have never had much use for literary criticism or literary intellectuals, even when I agreed with them.  

As for the harmful effect of Eliot’s approach to versification, I am afraid I agree with your professor.  He and Pound, while capable of writing correct English verse, chose—partly under the influence of Laforgues but also, I suspect, inspired by the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists (of whom Eliot was so fond) and perhaps Browning—to chop up their lines into rhetorical fragments that still sound like English verse.  I don’t suppose one can really blame young poets for following their nose or for the baneful influence they had on later generations of the tin-eared academic proseurs who win grants.  Probably a far worse influence was the absolutely detestable William Carlos Williams, whose line of succession leads to Charles Olson and the now forgotten (one hopes” “Black Mountain School.”

My advice is to read the best things that please your palate, refine your sensibility, and elevate your character, and leave all the pontifications to small college professors who could not write a limerick to save their lives.   There is much to blame in Eliot’s writing, and much to love.  Take the cash—the present enjoyment—and let the credit—all the theorizing and law-giving of small-minded academics—go.

Having said you are right to stick to a poet you like, I should add that your distinction between meaning and style is almost entirely wrong-headed and subversive of any appreciation for poetry.  Poetry is not, as Aristotle famously observed, simply the putting of ideas or stories into verse.  

The philosopher used Empedocles’ philosophical verse as an example, and there I think he was wrong.  There is real poetry in Empedocles.  But for Aristotle, it was the logos that mattered, the interplay between plot and character that leads to an alteration in the balance of mind and character.  So for him, Homer and Sophocles are exemplary poets.  What would he have said about Sappho and Pindar?  (I have an idea, but I’m not saying.)

Aristotle was correct in saying that poetry was not merely metrical prose, but perhaps he was wrong—at least in the Poetics—to slight the rhythm and music of verse or treat them as mere ornaments.  His great student Aristoxenus, by contrast, devoted his life to studying music.  What lines of Eliot do I most remember?  Perhaps the first passage would be:

Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,

Lilac and brown hair;

What, precisely, does this mean?

Or perhaps

I do not know much about gods, but I think the river 

Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed, and intractable

Until you can hear the music (and I am definitely not speaking about being struck by brilliant “imagery”) in these lines or in 

Loveliest of trees the cherry now

Is hung with blooms along the bough.

Or Pound’s:

Petals on a wet black bough

Or Shakespeare’s

Bare ruined choirs where no birds sing

You will know nothing of poetry.  I deliberately picked very familiar lines, because music is one of the qualities of verse that makes them memorable.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Ken Rosenberger says:

    Interesting, and I think true, your statement on meaning and style. I’ve been rereading “Absalom, Absalom,” and I’m convinced once again that with Faulkner’s more difficult books I do best by reading for the rhythm and music of the prose, and letting the meaning seep in howsoever it will. And it does eventually. Even with something a little more linear, shall we say, like “The Town” or “The Mansion,” you never want to rush through the dialogue of someone like V.K. Raitliff. You always want to make sure you’re getting that full Dixie Cannonball effect.