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University of Toronto Quarterly 75.4 (2006) 990-993

The Reviews of T.S. Eliot
Thomas Dilworth
University Professor, University of Windsor
Jewel Spears Brooker, editor. T.S. Eliot The Contemporary Reviews; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004

I wonder why a book such as this exists, to say nothing of a series of such books, for this is one in a series. After more than half a century of criticism of Eliot, we don't expect to learn much about the poetry, plays, or criticism from the initial responses. Of course, some may wish to use this as a reference book, which it is, but only if interested in what is now cultural history. A few may wish to read selectively, just for fun.

The editor of the collection is herself selective: space limitation precludes comprehensiveness. One of the foremost Eliot scholars, Jewel Spears Brooker includes British and American reviews – by my count 263 – and lists many not reprinted. Those reproduced have been edited to exclude lengthy quotations, summaries, and redundancies. In her introduction she combines publication history with a clear, objective overview of the reviews, hinting at her own devotion to Eliot only in her references to certain reviews that 'complicated his authority' (authority?) and others that 'were especially heartening' (xiv).

But then many readers either love or hate Eliot: the reviews show that this has always been true. Eliot's early promoters in the guise of reviewers were his friends Conrad Aiken and Ezra Pound, who differed in how they saw his work: for Aiken it was 'Anglo-American, personal, subjective, psychological, Expressionist'; for Pound it was 'European, impersonal, objective, realistic ... Cubistic, avante-garde' (xvi). Many other reviewers understood the early poetry by analogy with painting, which was in the vanguard of the modernist revolution. 'The best of sixty or more' reviews of The Waste Land 'considered for this collection' are by Edmund Wilson and Conrad Aiken, who wrote the first significant literary criticism on Eliot. They were joined in 1925 by I.A. Richards and in 1928 by F.R. Leavis. Eliot's essays on religion and culture published in the 1930s were generally reviewed negatively. In 1932 Henry Hazlitt in the Nation distinguished between three aspects of Eliot: the poet, the critic, and the culture philosopher, [End Page 990] a distinction later repeated by others, including E.M. Forster and W.H. Auden. Few liked the culture philosopher. In 1936 the first Collected Poems was published including 'Journey of the Magi,' 'Marina,' and 'Burnt Norton.' The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, among the best of them by Cyril Connolly. Response to Eliot's dramatic writing was mixed, generally positive for Murder in the Cathedral, crediting him with reviving poetic drama after three hundred years of dormancy (I.M. Parsons in the Spectator); largely negative for The Family Reunion, whose characters are inadequately motivated (Philip Horton in the Kenyon Review); varying for The Cocktail Party; largely negative for The Confidential Clerk. William Carlos Williams campaigned against Eliot's early poetry, especially The Waste Land, but applauds The Cocktail Party, as coming 'down to his audience with humility.' There is cumulative near-unanimity of praise for the Four Quartets, though Delmore Schwartz in the Nation dissents, disliking their 'poetry of direct statement.'

The three major influences on modern and contemporary poetry are Hopkins, Eliot, and Williams with Stein a distant fourth, strongly influencing Language poets. Of these three, the most pervasive is Eliot, and not just for poets but also for Joyce in Finnegans Wake, for Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, for Beckett, for Pinter and many others. He comes the closest to being for subsequent writers what Milton was for the Romantics. This influence is owing almost entirely to The Waste Land, the best literary work of early modernism – a claim often mistakenly made for Ulysses, which is great but also aesthetically greatly flawed. (If the reader does not regard 'Oxen of the Sun' as an aesthetic catastrophe, then we are in profound disagreement.) The Waste Land and the other early poems are Eliot...


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