Preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism
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[ 413 Preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, by T. S. Eliot London: Methuen, 1928. Pp. xix + 171; Preface, vii-x.1 I had intended, when the time came to prepare a second edition of this book, to revise some of the essays. I have found the task impossible, and perhaps even undesirable. For I discovered that what had happened in my own mind, in eight years, was not so much a change or reversal of opinions, as an expansion or development of interests. There are, it is true, faults of style which I regret; and especially I detect frequently a stiffness and an assumption of pontifical solemnity which may be tiresome to many readers. But these, like the other faults of the book, are too well diffused throughout to be amended. I should have to write another book. Indeed so much has happened, so many important books of critical theory and practice have appeared in these eight years, that the chief value remaining to this volume, if any, is as a document of its time: and that is another reason for altering nothing. The essays were written between the years1917and1920;2 theyrepresentthereforeatransitionbetweentheperiod immediately before the war and the period since. Most of them were written during the brief and brilliant life of the Athenaeum under Mr. Middle­ ton Murry; some of them directly at Mr. Murry’s suggestion. Those were years in which we were struggling to revive old communications and to create new ones; and I believe that both Mr. Murry and myself are a little more certain of our directions than we were then. It is an artificial simplification, and to be taken only with caution, when I say that the problem appearing in these essays, which gives them what coherence they have, is the problem of the integrity of poetry, with the repeated assertion that when we are considering poetry we must consider it primarily as poetry and not another thing. At that time I was much stimulated and much helped by the critical writings of Remy de Gourmont. I acknowledge that influence, and am grateful for it; and I by no means disown it by having passed on to another problem not touched upon in this book: that of the relation of poetry to the spiritual and social life of its time and of other times. This book is logically as well as chronologically the beginning; I do not, on the whole, repudiate it; so I beg the reader who 1928 414 ] has the benevolence to read it as something more than a mere collection of essays and reviews, to have the patience to consider it as an introduction to a larger and more difficult subject. Poetry is a superior amusement: I do not mean an amusement for superior people. I call it an amusement, an amusement pour distraire les honnêtes gens,3 not because that is a true definition, but because if you call it anything else you are likely to call it something still more false. If we think of the nature of amusement, then poetry is not amusing; but if we think of anything else that poetry may seem to be, we are led into far greater difficulties. Our definition of the use of one kind of poetry may not exhaust its uses, and will probably not apply to some other kind; or if our definition applies to all poetry, it becomes so general as to be meaningless. It will not do to talk of “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” which is only one poet’s account of his recollection of his own methods;4 or to call it a “criticism of life,” than which no phrase can sound more frigid to anyone who has felt the full surprise and elevation of a new experience of poetry.5 And certainly poetry is not the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equivalent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words. And certainly poetry is something over and above, and something quite different from, a collection of psychological data about the minds of poets, or about the history of an epoch; for we could not take it even as that unless we had already assigned to it a value merely as poetry. Hence, in criticizing poetry, we are right if we begin, with what sensibility and what knowledge of other poetry we possess, with poetry as...