- The Criticism of Poetry. To the Editor of the TLS
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238 ] The Criticism of Poetry To the Editor of the TLS Times Literary Supplement, 953 (22 Apr 1920) 256 Sir, – Your reviewer of last week handled my Essay on the Criticism of Poetry with more courteous clemency than this defective composition deserved.1 My essay contains much matter that should be erased and much that should be reformed; it is incoherent and inexact. I should therefore not affect amazement at learning that the view of criticism detailed in the first paragraph of your reviewer’s article is supposed to be the opposite of mine, or at hearing given as my opinion that “a poet ought not to know what he is doing,butshouldjustdoit.”2 Icanonlyapologizetothereviewer for the obscurity which has induced him to this interpretation. I must say, however, that your reviewer’s notions of criticism are not much more satisfactory to me than my own. I suppose that it will be admitted that, with one or two exceptions in remote antiquity, all the best criticism of poetry is the criticism of poets; and I am not prepared to concede that the criticism of Dryden, or of Coleridge, or even Matthew Arnold has “the intellectual incoherence” which the reviewer says is the “innocent defect of art” and apparently the inevitable vice of criticism written by poets.3 The reviewer’s use of the word “philosopher” seems to point not to Aristotle so much as to such persons as Hegel and Croce.4 I am not sure that your reviewer distinguishes the mind which endeavours to generalize its impressions of literary beauty from the mind which endeavours to support a theory of aesthetics by examples drawn from the arts. Schopenhauer, I seem to remember, admired the Apollo Belvedere because the head – the spiritual residence – appeared to strive to detach itself from the body.5 In general, philosophers (or professors of philosophy) are as ignorant of poetry as of mathematics; and the fact that they have read much poetry is no more assurance of competence in criticizing poetry than their ability to reckon in shillings and pence is of their competence to criticize mathematicians.6 It would be helpful if your critic would elucidate his use of the term “philosophy.” My chief reason for writing this letter is my desire that the problems of critical principles should be more pondered and discussed, [ 239 The Criticism of Poetry and that both critics and readers should apply themselves to consider the nature of criticism. I am, Sir, your humble servant, T. S. Eliot Notes 1. Arthur Clutton-Brock was the author of “The Criticism of Poetry” (TLS, 15 Apr 1920, 236), an unsigned review of a special issue of Chapbook (II.9), which contained TSE’s “A Brief Treatise on the Criticism of Poetry” (202). TSE characterized Clutton-Brock as a “disciple” of William Morris in his 1917 Extension course (1.591); he told Mary Hutchinson, in a letter of 25 Aug 1918, that he had met him “once or twice” in person (L1 281). 2. TSE responds to Clutton-Brock’s claims that “in poetry as in the other arts, there is still a vicious estrangement between art and conscious intelligence, still the notion, held often by poets themselves, that a poet ought not to know what he is doing, but should just do it; that poetry is to be admired and enjoyed, but never reasoned about.” “Mr. Eliot,” he concludes, “really holds this view.” 3. Clutton-Brock writes: “We believe that our criticism of poetry lacks principle just because there is a common belief that poetry cannot usefully be made the subject matter of philosophy, that criticism of it must be left to poets . . . and that it must have the intellectual incoherence which is not the necessary property but the innocent defect of art. The artist, not aiming at intellectual coherence, can do without it; but the critic cannot.” 4. Benedetto Croce was influenced by the idealist philosophy of Hegel. In a 1916 review of Clutton-Brock’s treatise, The Ultimate Belief, TSE referred to him as “a student of Croce” (1.436). 5. Arthur Schopenhauer admires the Apollo Belvedere – a marble copy of a Hellenistic Greek bronze statue that was discovered in the fifteenth century and displayed for a time in the Vatican’s Belvedere Court – in Book III of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung [The World as Will and Representation] (1818), where he generalizes about the power of human intelligence by drawing upon his impression that “the head of...