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  • "Intensity by association":T. S. Eliot's Passionate Allusions1

I. Introduction

Allusions in modernist writing are often designed to tell us more about the voice that sounds them than about the literary texts they invoke. This remains true whether we theorize the structural relation between an allusion and what it alludes to as "intentional" authorial intervention, unintentional echo (in which "the internal properties of one text call to mind the internal properties of an earlier text"), or intertextuality.2 In fact, much modernist allusion is more properly dramatic than structural (in these senses), and this is nowhere more the case than in the early and middle work of T. S. Eliot. F. O. Matthiessen, a young professor and Eliot's regular companion during Eliot's 1932-33 year at Harvard, describes Eliot's allusive procedures as elements of the way Eliot dramatizes "the movement of thought in a living mind."3 However, because of this dramatic function, the aims of Eliot's allusions are often conflicted, torn between clarifying the reader's understanding and preserving a deliberate obscurity that is not (as student readers sometimes assume) accidental or perverse, but essential.4 As instances of reading memory, dramatic allusions suggest complexes of association whose significance and charge lie by implication beyond their speaker's conscious awareness, and the more occluded the awareness, the more intensely charged the utterance.5 Their unfathomability, that is to say, is part of their raison d'être. [End Page 709]

II. Allusion in Poetry: I. A. Richards and Eliot's American Lectures

Eliot's own account of the dramatizing power of allusion is made explicit in the fascinating but still unpublished remarks he made in 1933 about Joyce's Ulysses (these are adduced in the last section of this essay). To understand his remarks against their critical and historical background, it is useful to preface them with an account of the intense critical dialogue Eliot maintained with I. A. Richards from 1924.6 Eight years later, Eliot eagerly awaited Richards's presence in the audience of his 1932-33 Norton lectures and then hoped that Richards's "criticism" would prove beneficial as he revised the lectures for publication upon his return to England in the summer of 1933. In the event, Richards's absence disappointed on both counts. As Eliot testified with "much regret," Richards turned out to be in England "while [Eliot] was preparing these lectures for delivery in America" and away for the summer in America "while [Eliot] was preparing them for publication in England" (July-September 1933).7

Richards, it is now surprising to learn, was unimpressed with the then-growing critical vogue of literary allusion as it was generally understood. In one of the chapters of his landmark Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), "The Allusiveness of Modern Poetry,"8 Richards dwells upon what he calls the "unworthy motives" of this fashion. "[T]here are some," he suggests, "to whom a familiarity with literature occasions a sense of superiority over others which is trivial and mean. The pleasure of recognition is a thing of slight value" (PLC, 217). Richards sharpens this judgment when he admonishes that "to turn the capacity of recognising recondite references into a shibboleth by which culture may be estimated is a perversion to which scholarly persons are too much addicted." "This snobbishness," he continues, bears no little responsibility for the current "distaste and neglect of poetry" (PLC, 217-8), and the same misconceptions form a "trap for the writer almost as effective as for the academic critic. [They] may encourage and disguise laziness," and when they become a habit, "it is a disease" (PLC, 218). And yet, Richards admits, "these dangers form no ground for denying to allusion," when properly used, "a fit and justifiable place in poetry" (PLC, 218).

What might that "justifiable place" be, though, if not in the play of erudition? About this, Richards's chapter is less than helpful,9 but he clarified his views in an essay on Eliot's poetry appended to the second (1926) English edition of Principles—an essay modified from "notes" that Richards read out loud to Eliot himself at Cambridge in 1926 and then...


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