- T. S. Eliot and Early Modern Literature by Steven Matthews
T. S. Eliot’s poetry is notoriously porous, and his critical prose is saturated with references to early modern literature. The interplay between Eliot’s writing and “his favourite literary period” has long been a mainstay in scholarly assessments of his work, prompting one critic to purport memorably that Eliot “virtually invented the twentieth-century Shakespeare.” It is therefore extraordinary that Steven Matthews’s study is the first comprehensive critical work to delineate Eliot’s lifelong engagement with early modern literature, a milestone made all the more remarkable by Matthews’s use of contemporary source materials to reconstruct the early modern period of Eliot’s age.
Matthews’s introduction recapitulates Eliot’s education in the early modern period at Milton Academy and at Harvard before turning to his early modern “touchstones” (6), Bishop King’s “Exequy,” George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois, and John Donne’s “The Relique,” all of which Eliot returned to at pivotal points in his writing career. The chapters that follow offer a chronological examination of Eliot’s major works, which maps his continued recourse to early modern texts and their contexts on to his ever-evolving poetic. The first chapter usefully catalogs Eliot’s early modern source materials, namely the Mermaid, Everyman, and Temple Classics editions in his library, as well as the secondary texts referred to in review articles or recommended on the syllabus for his 1918–19 Southall tutorial course on Elizabethan literature. Matthews’s examination of these secondary works reveals motives behind Eliot’s sustained interest in the earlier period. For instance, in recovering John Addington Symonds’s argument in Shakespeare’s Predecessors in the English Drama that the stability of monarchy facilitated early modern literary productivity, Matthews provides an important context for Eliot’s historical claim in “The Metaphysical Poets” that the English Civil War effected a “disassociation of sensibility.” Chapter 2 continues with this approach, arguing first that critical works on John Donne by Edmund Gosse and Herbert J. C. Grierson acted as grinding stones for Eliot’s poetics of impersonality. Matthews then suggests that J. M. Robertson’s “disintegration” of the Shakespeare cannon into its ancient and modern sources in part underwrote the aesthetic of The Waste Land.
The book’s particularly compelling third chapter examines epigraphs that preside over “Portrait of a Lady,” the quatrains, and “Gerontion,” establishing tacit correspondences between Eliot’s texts and their early modern precursors. A draft of “Portrait of a Lady” in Eliot’s poetry notebook, for instance, bore an epigraph from John Webster’s The White Devil (“I have caught / an everlasting cold”), which was replaced, when the poem appeared in the little magazine Others in 1915, by lines from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (“Thou has committed— / Fornication: but that was in another country, / And besides, the wench is dead”). The original [End Page 1041] epigraph, taken from Flamineo’s death speech in The White Devil, amplifies the “atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb” in Eliot’s poem and resonates with the “talk of dying” in its concluding lines. The later epigraph, as Matthews demonstrates, inflects the poem’s early modern engagement toward analyses of the relationship between Eliot’s lady and his male protagonist. In addition to recovering the full contexts for Eliot’s poetry implied by the early modern epigraphs, Matthews charts an undercurrent of connectivity between poems bearing epigraphs derived from the same source text.
Chapter four argues that Eliot developed a “metaphysical poetic” (96) based on his study of seventeenth-century “wit-writing” (92) and on Chapman’s appeal for obscurity in poetic conceit, which informs a genetic reading of The Waste Land manuscript in chapter 5. At the center of Matthews’s analysis is “The Death of the Duchess,” a discarded sequence that references Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Matthews “constellate[s] around” this fragment numerous early modern texts that Eliot and his contemporaries associated with Webster’s play to identify “underlying conceits that shape the final poem” (97...