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  • Dialectic and Impersonality in T. S. Eliot
  • Jewel Spears Brooker

The virtue, the marvel of Lucretius is the passionate act by which he annihilates himself in a system and unites himself with it, gaining something greater than himself.

T. S. Eliot, Introduction to Le Serpent par Paul Valéry (1924)

Verily, I say unto you, "Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."

Gospel According to John 12:24 (KJV)

1. Fragmentation and Wholeness in Eliot

Critics have long pointed out that the work of T. S. Eliot presents such striking polarities that he seems to be two different persons. This perception, firmly in place by the late 1920s, is based, first, on the discontinuity between his elegant prose and his jagged poetry and, second, on the about-face associated with his mid-life religious conversion. The suspicion of schizophrenia was strengthened by the "new style" of his post-conversion poetry and by his venture into social and religious criticism. In the 1930s, following the publication of The Use of Poetry and After Strange Gods, Paul Elmer More expressed frustration with the "cleft Eliot," and Henry Hazlitt claimed that there were at least three Eliots—a poet, a critic, and a philosopher—and that it was inconceivable that these could be the same person (More 1932; Hazlitt 1932). In the 1940s, W. H. Auden playfully made the same point in a piece for the New Yorker called "Port and Nuts with the Eliots," his plural referring to the notion that "T. S. Eliot is not a single figure, but a household" (Auden 1949). There are many versions of [End Page 129] the several Eliots, but all involve the fundamental perception of a critic who insists on wholeness, on classicism, on tradition, and a poet whose work is strikingly modern, avant-garde, fragmented.

The notion of the several Eliots includes the argument that he is of two minds about impersonality in art. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and other early essays, he argues that the greatest art is impersonal. In the same essays, sometimes in the same sentence, he maintains that the greatest art is personal. "Poetry is not . . . the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course, only those who have personality . . . know what it means to want to escape" (Eliot 1950: 10-11). The perception that Eliot's concept of impersonality seemed contradictory began early, with reviews of The Sacred Wood (1920). In March 1921, for example, Conrad Aiken outlined the ostensible contradiction between the statements about "impersonality" in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and those in "Massinger" (Aiken 1921). The charge of inconsistency was not mitigated by Eliot's comments on The Waste Land, which he variously described as impersonal and as "the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life" (Eliot 1971: 1).1

The best of Eliot's early critics dealt with the problem by using his prose, especially "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and the essays of the 1920s, to explain his poetry; thus they privileged wholeness over fragmentation and impersonality over personality. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, Edmund Wilson and Cleanth Brooks used Eliot's comments on the "mythical method" to associate the fragments in The Waste Land with an all-inclusive monomyth (Wilson 1922; Brooks 1937). In the 1940s, Joseph Frank used Eliot's concept of "simultaneity" in "Tradition" to argue that Eliot in The Waste Land and Joyce in Ulysses used "spatial form," meaning that all of the fragments are unified in a single moment in the mind of the reader (Frank 1945). In the 1950s, Grover C. Smith used the Tiresias note to The Waste Land to give the poem a unifying consciousness (Smith 1956). The publication in 1964 of Eliot's doctoral dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley, opened a new chapter in the discussion. Anne Bolgan's What the Thunder Really Said (1973), the first study to use the dissertation, summarized it and [End Page 130] placed its polarities in the context of early twentieth-century philosophy. Her study was followed...


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