The Development of Taste in Poetry
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834 ] The Development of Taste in Poetry1 Relativity of poetic taste to individual personality was stressed last night by T. S. Eliot. . . . He described three general periods of poetic feeling shading from an adolescent to a mature appreciation of poetry (DC). Taste in poetry must not be an objective thing, but rather must have relation to one’s own personality . . . Mr. Eliot traced the development of taste in the individual, drawing upon personal experience for his material. He termed his choice in poetry at the age of twelve, the first stage in the development of taste, as “martial and sanguinary.” “Horatius at the Bridge,” and “Paul Jones’ Sea Fight” delighted him (CDB).2 In discussing his feeling toward poetry during what he termed his second stage of development, Eliot declared: “Being able to get an intense emotion from poetry is like just becoming aware of your existence” (CDB). For poetry that moves an individual is good for that person. Moreover, he declared that a person’s attitude toward poems altered like an individual’s feelings toward people. What one liked in his youth, he said, might not appeal to him in more mature years (OT).3 The blunting of sensibilities upon growing into adulthood is not necessary , he contended. In the third stage of developing his poetical taste, he recalls vividly experiencing Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” His feeling was that it “had been there all the time,” which led to his distinction between major and minor poetry. “Minor poetry is that which we enjoy only when in a certain mood; great poetry is always capable of subduing our passing moods to its own permanence, solidity, and universality” (CDB). After progressing to a mature appreciation of poetry, which involves the whole personality and character, Eliot declared that one’s taste is, as man himself, never perfect. He termed his own taste as capricious and limited, stating that he had never been able to appreciate Goethe or some of Wordsworth (CDB). “You can not expect to attain perfect taste in literature any more than you can expect to become a perfect man or woman,” Eliot said (OT).4 For at this point has our development been merely a development of taste, that is, an approximation to a discerning, appreciative enjoyment of all the poetry worth reading, in its proper kind and degree. Such an [ 835 The Development of Taste in Poetry ambition is a phantom, the pursuit of which we may leave to those whose aim in life is to be “cultivated” or “cultured” – I do not know which is the right word to use. Such people treat art as a luxury, and commonly end by becoming themselves luxury articles. The ideal is unattainable, and I think is in some sense even undesirable. Eliot declared that the great necessity for a taste in poetry is sincerity: “I should not preclude myself to enjoy any poem because I have been presented with convincing evidence from the outside that the poem is enjoyable ,” said Eliot. “Neither should I make up my mind not to enjoy a poem because I have been informed by critics that it is beneath my contempt. I should have the courage to know what I like and then go on liking it” (OT). “I do not affirm that what I like in poetry is good. If one is sincere he will not enjoy a thing because he is told it is great. He must be true to his own feelings. Self-knowledge is the most important factor in knowing what we really feel” (CDB). “If you don’t like Goethe’s poems, whereas you do like something that many critics hold to be not as good, you have nothing to apologize for in your taste for poetry!” Eliot said frankly that he doubted if he would enjoy Goethe, while he laughingly related that he would rather read an elementary book on algebra or a detective story than pursue other “accepted” works in the literary realm (OT ).5 Notes 1. TSE first delivered this lecture in Royce Hall at the University of California at Los Angeles on 6 Jan 1933, as reported in “Poetical Taste Fits Individual, Declares Eliot / Discrimination Varies at Different Ages, He Says,” California Daily Bruin, 10 (9 Jan 1933, 1), abbreviated (CDB). The reconstructed narrative is based on the following additional newspaper accounts and on transcriptions by his brother (HWE) from the original text: “Sincerity Basis of Taste in Poetry, Critic Asserts,” Oakland Tribune (12 Jan 1933...