- T. S. Eliot:From Undergraduate to Literary Lion
Readers of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot will surely discover unpublished or previously uncollected essays that will enlarge their understanding of Eliot’s poetry and criticism. Volumes 1 and 2 of the forthcoming edition of eight digital volumes are now available through the academic database Project Muse, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Volume 1 (1905–1918) alone contains twenty-six previously unpublished essays and nearly one hundred pieces published in periodicals but never before collected. Volume 2 contains most of the essays—including “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “Hamlet,” and “The Metaphysical Poets”—that secured Eliot’s fame as a critic. Now we can read these works in the context of the 130 essays, reviews, and letters to periodicals that he wrote in 1919–26. These two volumes print Eliot’s unpublished works, such as his Harvard University essays and the essay that the author said had left a “gap” in his studies of Elizabethan dramatists: “A Neglected Aspect of Chapman.” They appear for the first time in corrected, fully annotated texts. These volumes may well transform our understanding of Eliot’s intellectual and religious development. [End Page 381]
Volume 1: The Apprentice Years, 1905–1918
Eliot’s academic papers from his years at Harvard are a revelation of the continuity and maturity of his thought. His seminar papers on Immanuel Kant, from the time when Eliot was a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, reject Kant’s or any philosopher’s attempt to ground an approach to reality upon terms such as “the-thing-in-itself,” which dissolve “upon analysis into a term with relations” (49). If every term is dependent on a chain of related terms, then, as Eliot writes much later in “East Coker” (1940), every attempt in “Trying to learn to use words … Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.”2 In an Oxford University seminar paper of 1914, he argued that the “token that a philosophy is true is, I think, the fact that it brings us to the exact point from which we started” (“The validity of artificial distinctions,” 191), which he later echoes in “Little Gidding” (1942): “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started” (part 5, lines 27–28). The disjunction between the thing and the idea about it liberates his thinking as a student, though later, in “The Hollow Men,” the speaker laments: “Between the idea / And the reality … Falls the Shadow” (part 5, lines 5–9).
The introduction by Jewel Spears Brooker expertly describes how Eliot negotiated his way through the currents of idealism and realism at Harvard, and weathered the powerful influence of Harvard philosophers such as William James, Josiah Royce, and the visiting professor who became a mentor, Bertrand Russell. The Harvard papers show Eliot finding his way within the maze of philosophical ambiguity. His criterion for the validity of a line of reasoning is whether it makes a position “more consistent, and give[s] it more meaning for us” (“Report on the Ethics of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason” 50). He worries, however, that if experience is inherently illusive, how can we make a start on understanding it? On the basis of individual experience, we cannot. But he argues in his paper on agnosticism in a manner more like that of an editorial writer than a young student:
It is only in a social life that we do become conscious of a body of experience, that is to say, of experience in which are found persistence and order. Experience is in relation to practical interest, and this interest is a much more stable and definable thing in the experience of the group than in the...