T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry
Great literary figures like John Dryden, Dr. Johnson, William Wordsworth, and Matthew Arnold have expressed their views on the poetic process involved while writing poetry. T.S. Eliot joins this line of literary dictators. Their opinions are based on the experience of the writers while going through the composition of their creations. Such critical analysis of one’s own creations is called Workshop Criticism.
The important features of T. S. Eliot’s theory of poetry are considering the poet as a medium, sensibility, emotion and the place of thought in poetry. When Eliot started writing, the world of poetry was dominated by the Georgian poets who had a wide audience that was not in favour of serious poetry. Eliot resisted such poetry just as Wordsworth rose against the School of Alexander Pope. Eliot desired poetry to be esoteric and observes in his essay “Metaphysical Poets”, “Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity and this variety and complexity playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning” (Selected Essay 289).
Eliot believed in Unification of Sensibility, i.e. the fusion of thought and feeling. He also advocated a synthesis of creative and critical faculties. Eliot wrote esoteric poetry by exploiting all the probable usages of words as his medium. If the words in English seemed inadequate to convey his meaning, he did not hesitate to use words from other language. Such usage would be out of place in exoteric poetry like that of the Georgian poets. Eliot was thus an innovator in rising against the contemporary mode of writing. He was at the same time a traditionalist as he willingly received the best in tradition, i.e. thought and culture.
In his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot observes that tradition includes the entire literature from the Homeric past to the living present. A knowledge of tradition will enable the writer to acquire Historical Sense, i.e. a knowledge of the past, a knowledge of the present and an awareness of the likely influence of the present on the future. When a great work of art is produced, tradition is slightly rearranged and modified neglecting the thought and culture exposed in tradition.
The poet creates in the white heat of his mind’s eye and rectifies the errors at his convenience. A poet must make use of his critical sense to formulate the right pattern. He may have to revise or refine some parts of the work but he cannot afford to neglect this duty.
Eliot believes that the best way to express emotion in art is through an objective correlative. He has explained it in his essay “Hamlet and his Problems” that an objective correlative is “a set of objects, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that emotion such that when the external facts which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked”. (The Sacred Wood) Eliot insists that the artist should escape from personal emotion. This art emotion equivalent is the thought in poetry.
He was an ardent admirer and follower of the classical norms. He was opposed to romantic subjectivity. He expects the artist to depersonalize his emotion by self-effacement, through an objective correlative. The romantic writers lacked self-control but an important quality of classical poetry is self discipline. He avers that the distinction between the romantic and the classic is “that between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, and the orderly and the chaotic. Thus Eliot’s theory of poetry, his poetic process, includes sensations, feelings, emotion, thought and experience He considers sensibility as a receptiveness. The poet’s role is to arrange all the dissonant ideas and establish an “internal equilibrium” for creating art emotion.
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