Dear Vishvesh: I have only just skimmed the article after printing it, and
it looks wonderful! Thanks so much! Diana
m: Vishvesh Obla <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To: "T. S. Eliot Discussion forum." <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Eliot's creative process
Date: Mon, 27 Nov 2006 07:36:26 -0800
Perhaps this essay might clarify what I mean by it.
I am also pasting it here.
D. H. Lawrence and the Ethical Approach to Literary Criticism
F. R. LEAVIS, in his D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, calls Lawrence, ‘an
incomparable literary critic’, (1) and this opinion seems to be gaining
ground in the academic world, at least if we can judge by the number of
American Literature courses on which Studies in Classic American Literature
is standard critical reading. Certainly if we compare Lawrence’s work with
that of most other critics, we cannot but agree with Leavis, for the simple
reason that Lawrence is one of the few critics who have realised that a work
of art is something of direct relevance to life, and not merely an
interesting machine which can be taken to pieces for the purposes of study.
As Lawrence himself says, ‘We judge a work of art by its effect on our
sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else. All the critical
twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudo-scientific classifying
and analysing of books in an
imitation—botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon.’
(2) Lawrence, we must realise from the start, is in a class of his own above
practically all academic criticism, and the last thing a critic of his
criticism must do is to suggest that his whole contribution is null and
void. Yet I must confess to finding Lawrence’s critical works
unsatisfactory, and, moreover, unsatisfactory in a way which can tell us a
great deal about not only Lawrence’s work as a whole, but also the problem
of the relation of literary criticism to moral evaluation.
In defining Lawrence’s critical virtues, Leavis points to the
central issue in assessing Lawrence’s work: ‘he has an unfailingly sure
sense of the difference between that which makes for life and that which
makes against it; of the difference between health and that which tends away
from health.’(3) Leavis is, of course, quite right. We need only turn to
Lawrence’s comments on Mann’s Death in Venice for confirmation:
It is absolutely, almost intentionally, unwholesome. The man is sick,
body and soul. He portrays himself as he is, with wonderful skill and art,
portrays his sickness. And since any genuine portrait is valuable, this book
has its place. It portrays one man, one atmosphere, one sick vision. It
claims to do no more. And we have to allow it. But we know it is unwholesome
— it does not strike me as being morbid for all that, it is too well done —
and we give it its place as such. (4)
Nor is this an isolated example in Lawrence’s criticism; Dostoievsky
(indeed the Russians as a whole), Poe, Melville, Blake, Goethe, Whitman —
the list includes almost everyone Lawrence wrote about — all are either sick
or obscene or in some way failures in living. For the moment, the justice of
this criticism does not concern us, merely the attitude to literature which
produces it. This attitude I propose to call the ethical approach to
literature. Clearly, we cannot use the term ‘ethical’ in quite its normal
sense, for Lawrence has very little time for moral systems instructing us in
how to love our neighbours, and, indeed, in Morality and the Novel (5)
produces a definition of morality which is far from what I mean by the
ethical approach to literature. The sense in which I wish to use the term is
that of ‘pertaining to the perfection (or fulfilment) of man’. The ethical
approach to literature therefore assumes that it is the purpose of
literature to lead man to
perfection or fulfilment, to help man to be ‘alive, to be man alive, to be
whole man alive’ (6) That Lawrence is an ethical critic in this sense is
quite obvious, for his main concern is, as Leavis says, with discriminating
between that literature which leads to health or perfection in life, and
that which leads away from such perfection.
The essay on Mann is a classic of ethical criticism. Mann’s skill
and accuracy, his undoubted greatness as an artist must take second place to
the fact that as a man he is imperfect. The book has a place, Lawrence
grants — but it rapidly becomes obvious that its place is as a warning to
its readers not to go the way of the author. At the end of the essay, we are
told that Mann is old, but we are young, and it is quite clear that the
young must follow a different path. It should already seem strange that one
of the great works of this century can be so lightly dismissed by Lawrence,
but there is something even stranger implied in the essay. It is not that
Lawrence does not see the greatness of Death of Venice, but that that
greatness is negated by the sickness of the author. Already there is
evolving the doctrine which governs Lawrence’s analyses of the Americans:
the greatness of a work of art is not dependent upon its author, but
manifests itself despite the
author’s sickness of soul. In Studies in Classic American Literature, this
doctrine is formulated quite explicitly:
The artist usually sets out — or used to — to point a moral and adorn a
tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly
opposing morals, the artist’s and the tale’s. Never trust the artist. Trust
the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the
artist who created it. (7)
This is the only logical conclusion to Lawrence’s ethical approach. Being
a critic of great sensitivity, he cannot fail to notice that many of the
works which show evidence of sickness are also great works of art, and in
order to account for this, he must assume two sources for the work, the sick
artist, who can be ignored, and the pure artistic impulse, which is what the
critic must really deal with. Only the tale tells the truth; the artist is a
‘liar’, and his part of the work a ‘subterfuge’ (8) attempting to conceal
the truth which threatens to expose his sickness.
In one sense, this idea is perfectly correct, and the criticism
Lawrence writes is therefore an accurate picture of the works he gives his
attention to. There is, after all, something rather ghastly in Poe, and
something deathly in Mann. But we cannot help feeling that there is a
difference between Poe’s and Mann’s sickness as expressed in their greatest
works, and the mental sickness of the average psychiatrist’s case — and that
this difference is ignored by Lawrence. We can perhaps understand why
Lawrence fails to see the difference if we look again at the Mann essay.
Notice, in particular, that Lawrence makes a direct transition from saying
that the work of art is unwholesome to saying that the man who wrote it is
also unwholesome. Notice also how the significance of the book is restricted
by that same transition; because the book is unwholesome, the author is
unwholesome, and because not all men are unwholesome, the book can only
apply to the author, can only
portray ‘one man, one atmosphere, one sick vision’. We are here dealing
with very dangerous half-truths. We cannot deny that Mann’s book is a
portrait of Mann himself, but does that mean that it is nothing more than a
case-history of an illness. For Lawrence, the answer is clearly yes; Mann is
a ‘scientist’ in the same way as Poe because he too is sick, and therefore
can only portray the dissolution of his own soul. (9) Yet Lawrence also
stumbles across the reason why the answer must be no, when he says that
Death in Venice is ‘almost intentionally unwholesome’ (my italics). Mann’s
work is not a case-history because the sickness which it undoubtedly
contains has been understood by Mann, and turned into art. The sickness in
the work is intentional, and is therefore completely different from the
psychiatrically treatable sickness which takes control of the patient, and
whose essence quite possibly is that the patient does not understand it.
We have, in fact, come up against a central flaw in ethical
criticism. It assumes that the purpose of art is the same as its own
purpose, i.e. to lead the reader to some sort of fulfilment, yet there exist
works of art which manifestly do not share this purpose, yet which strike us
as being great works for all that. The ethical critic deals with this
problem by simply saying that all art shares that purpose, but some artists
do not, and must therefore be disregarded. That is all very well when the
artists we are going to disregard are Benjamin Franklins or John
Galsworthys, but we cannot simply read Mann and Dostoievsky and Melville in
the same way. We must allow that the contribution of the artist to his own
work might occasionally be of more value than that of the critic who has
come to save him from his errors. Lawrence himself is a prime example. There
can now be little doubt that he was a ‘sick’ artist, even if not clinically
ill. His relationship with his
mother was not ‘healthy’, and he never pretended that it was; his bouts of
what seemed to his friends to be insanity are hardly evidence of perfection;
and his relationship with Fried a seems to have been far from stable, and
far from what he himself regarded as ideal. Moreover, in his finest works,
there is a good deal that is not ‘life and health’, and that which does fit
into the ethical framework seems more often than not to be the work of the
teller, not the tale. One thinks in particular of Birkin’s problems in Women
in Love, and his attraction to the obviously ailing Gerald. Is the sickness,
whether ultimately overcome or not, merely a warning, and if so, why spend
so long describing it? Are we, in other words, being led along the paths of
fulfilment by Birkin’s example, or are we witnessing a tragedy in which
Birkin’s ‘success’ is a relatively minor element, making the pain of
sickness only slightly more bearable? Certainly, Lawrence’s essays, where we
the teller, are far ‘healthier’ than his fiction, where the tale is often
almost demonic. F. R. Leavis, who follows Lawrence’s ethical approach, in
its basics at any rate, has seen this problem, but neatly avoids it. ‘There
is,’ he says, ‘no profound emotional disorder in Lawrence, no obdurate major
disharmony’.’(10) He realises full well that Lawrence’s works can hardly be
held up as moral exemplars if Lawrence himself was sick, and therefore he
simply asserts that Lawrence was not sick — his evidence, we suspect, being
not biographical, but literary, i.e. the repeated proclamations of health
and life in Lawrence’s work. We cannot help comparing Lawrence’s attitude to
moral and mental health with that of Walt Whitman, whom he so much admired.
Whitman, proclaiming himself ‘thirtyseven years old in perfect health’, (11)
setting himself up as the perfect American of the future, was, as we know, a
sad and lonely homosexual, unrecognised by the literary world, and
disappointed in his love-affairs.
In fact, Lawrence stands condemned out of his own mouth. In response
to psychological analyses of Sons and Lovers he wrote:
You know I think these ‘complexes’ are vicious half-statements of the
Freudians: sort of can’t see wood for trees. When you’ve said
Mutter-complex, you’ve said nothing — no more than if you called hysteria a
nervous disease. Hysteria isn’t nerves, a complex is not simply a sex —
relation: far from it. — My poor book: it was, as art, a fairly complete
truth: so they carve a half lie out of it, and say ‘Voilà’. Swine! (12)
I hardly think that what Lawrence is objecting to here is the
specifically Freudian interpretation, but rather the failure to preserve the
distinction between psychology and art. The psychologist, he says, reduces
the work of art to something less than itself. Lawrence does not deny that
he suffered from a ‘mother-complex’, but asserts that the truth about that
complex could only be told in a work of art; the complex is not simply a
scientifically observable phenomenon, but is an experience; the sex-relation
becomes far more than that because it is experienced by a spiritually aware
person. Its significance is neither more nor less than that of Sons and
Lovers, in which Lawrence has come to terms with it and expressed it as art.
We can imagine Thomas Mann making exactly the same point in reply to
Lawrence’s comments on his work. Lawrence’s psychology is not Freudian, but
its methods are the same, and Mann would be bound to object that to call
Death in Venice a sick book
is simply to say nothing, to reduce the work of art to the level of the
raw materials from which it started. Lawrence, unfortunately, has one law
for himself, and another law for other writers.
Clearly, in order to go beyond Lawrence, it is necessary to discover
the nature of the relationship between art and the imperfect human condition
from which it arises. As good a starting point as any is Lawrence’s
definition of the artist: ‘an artist is never, in being an artist, an
idealist. The artist lives and sees and knows direct from the life-mystery
itself. He sees the creative uncompassable mystery in all its nakedness of
impulse and gesture.’ (13) The life-mystery is the absolute which art seeks
to embody, and seeks to put the reader in contact with; the idealist is one
who has no contact with the life-mystery, but rather thinks only in ideas,
which are merely his own creations; ideas are relative, while the
life-mystery is absolute. This antithesis is familiar from the whole body of
Lawrence’s work, and, if we wanted examples, we could say that Cipriano, in
The Plumed Serpent, is a man in contact with the life-mystery, while Gerald,
in Women in Love, is an
idealist. However, the antithesis is actually made too absolute by
Lawrence, for the idealist and artist are not two opposites, but only
different forms of the same phenomenon. If we accepted Lawrence’s
antithesis, we should eventually be led to say, as Lawrence himself does,
that animals are more closely in touch with the life-mystery than men are.
We should, of course, be right; no animal ever distorted that mystery with
its ideas. A bird, we could say, is actually a part of the life-mystery, a
direct emanation from it, and its song is an outpouring of that mystery. But
— and it is an important but — the bird could never see or know the
life-mystery, no matter how much it lived in it, and the bird’s song would
not be art, no matter whence it emanated. In order to see and know the
mystery, it is essential to be separated from it to some degree, just as one
must be separate from an object in order to see it. There is only perception
and knowledge where there is
consciousness, and there is only consciousness where there are ideas.
Granted, these ideas may not be what we ordinarily regard as concepts;
granted they may be a form of blood-consciousness, as Lawrence would call
it; nonetheless, they are ideas, and are quite distinct from that which they
are ideas of.
This sounds, I admit, very much like playing with words, but it
actually has very serious consequences. If separation is necessary for
perception, it follows that even Lawrence’s archetypal artist must be
separate from the life-mystery, and that his separation and that of the
idealist differ only in degree. The work of art is, after all, one form of
the idea, albeit a relatively non-conceptual form. But if this is so, it
means that every artist is, to some extent, as sick as Mann or Poe, that
every artist, in order to know what ‘makes for life and health’ must first
of all become separate from life and health. In fact, this is the theme of
Mann and Poe: they make this necessary sickness their subject — so it is
little wonder that Lawrence could not understand them.
Is it, then, we must ask ourselves, possible to separate that part
of a work which is the product of the writer’s necessary sickness from that
part which is the direct perception of the absolute? The answer is no, for
the absolute can be seen only from the position of relativity established by
the sickness, just as we must view an object partially because we must be
separate from it. To take Lawrence himself as an example: he wishes, let us
say, to show the life-mystery at work in the male-female relationship. If he
had been a perfectly healthy Italian peasant-boy, he would have lived from
that mystery and loved a woman in that mystery, but never written books
about it. As it is, only because he has experienced great suffering in his
early sexual relations, and has thereby been made conscious of those
relations can he write about the life-mystery as it manifests itself between
man and woman. And everything he writes will be from the standpoint of a man
suffered from a possessive mother and over-spiritual first-love. Right to
the end of his life, he will insist on the aspects of love which
counter-balance his early suffering, i.e. on physicality and freedom. The
true picture of the artist, in other words, is not Lawrence’s one of the
perfectly fulfilled man, but rather Yeats’ of the artist as a man pursuing
an ideal which is the opposite of his true state, and which he is able to
perceive only because it is not his true state.
If this is the case, then the ethical approach to literature begins
to seem totally inadequate. How can literature be an attempt to lead man to
fulfilment when its very existence is based upon unfulfilment? How can the
critic presume to rescue the tale from the teller, the absolute truth of the
life-mystery from the relativity of the sick artist, when the absolute can
only be approached through such relativity? Indeed, how can the critic say
that the artist should be concerned with pursuing any absolute life-mystery
when that mystery is always necessarily relative to the artist? Lawrence, it
may be, found his means of _expression in the pursuit of an absolute state
which would solve all his problems; that, as Yeats would say, was his mask,
just as Wordsworth’s mask was that of the simple shepherd in the Lakes, or
Yeats’ own mask was that of the perfect courtier inter alia. Yet there are
other artists, equally great, who have found their means of _expression in
tragic acceptance of their sickness. They are simply two sides of the same
coin: the one seeks an absolute, the other accepts the relative, but both
are expressing their lives in a condition of relativity and partiality.
Lawrence’s lack of interest in tragedy is not accidental; it is the
inevitable consequence of his refusal to accept anything less than the
absolute fulfilment. Yet, paradoxically, his own best work is most nearly
tragic, while his worst is filled with exhortations to seek the absolute.
However, Lawrence’s criticism has a far greater significance for us
than we have so far made clear, for it is, it seems to me, the product of
certain changes in the intellectual climate which took place at the end of
the last century. Looking back, we can fairly safely say that the dominant
figures in European thought in that period were Darwin, Marx and Freud, and
it is significant that the work of each exemplifies the same basic tendency
— a tendency we can call ‘relativisation’. Although it is a vast
over-simplification, there is nonetheless some truth in the statement that
prior to these three the intellect was conceived of as an independent organ
able to perceive an absolute reality called Truth. Its perception might be
more or less clear, more or less profound, but at least there existed
something to be perceived. What Darwin, Marx, and Freud did, to put it
simply, was to remove that absolute reality by destroying the idea of an
independent intellect. They made
it quite apparent that the intellect was dependent on the activities of
the unconscious mind, on its position in history and society, on various
animal instincts and drives, and so on. For the first time, it became
possible — almost obligatory — to see Shakespeare not as the divinely —
inspired bard, but as an Elizabethan bourgeois with an Oedipus complex and
an instinct for self-preservation. The absolute of truth began to seem
meaningless, and was replaced by absolutes derived from the governing parts
of man’s nature, by the absolute of psychic health or of social harmony.
What is significant for us in this is that an intellectual and aesthetic
absolute was replaced by non-intellectual absolutes, and, inevitably, these
absolutes did not apply to works of art, which are, after all, intellectual
works. Of course, it is equally true that some versions of the absolute of
truth do not apply to art, but at least art is concerned with truth in some
form, while health and social
harmony are nothing to do with it.
It is interesting to note this changing of absolutes taking place in
the work of Nietzsche, and it is doubly significant for us, since Lawrence
was deeply influenced by him, and, I suspect, learned a good deal of his
critical method from him. Look, for instance, at this passage from Beyond
Good and Evil:
Just as the act of being born plays no part in the procedure and
progress of heredity, so ‘being conscious is in no decisive sense the
opposite of the instinctive — most of a philosopher’s conscious thinking is
secretly directed and compelled into definite channels by his instincts. . .
. The falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a
judgement: it is here that our new language perhaps sounds strangest. The
question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving,
species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding; . . . (14)
That passage makes clear the assumptions that are unspoken in Lawrence’s
criticism. What a philosopher (we can easily substitute ‘artist’) puts
forward as true is actually the product of his instincts; therefore it is
not meaningful to call it true or otherwise; therefore we must replace the
test of truth by that of its usefulness to life. This is, in fact, a piece
of biological thinking applied to philosophy; the passage is full of the
language of biology, and it is quite obvious that ideas are being equated
with chance variations within a species, and are being seen as weapons in
the fight for the survival of the fittest. Perhaps the tone is too
biological for it to be an _expression of Lawrence’s attitude, but the
similarity to Lawrence becomes obvious if we replace the test of the
preservation of the species by that of the psychic health of the individual.
The point is that Nietzsche and Lawrence after him replace the absolute of
art by other absolutes which have
nothing to do with art, and then proceed to condemn art for not conforming
to their absolutes.
A curious feature of all criticism based on these ideas is that it
pays little or no attention to the works of art it is studying. If the work
of art is the _expression of something absolute, then it is vitally
important; but if it is at best merely an aid to health or the preservation
of the species, and at worst something entirely irrelevant to the true
absolutes, then it is of much less importance. Whereas once the work of art
was truth, it now becomes merely an example, a product of something else.
This is certainly how Lawrence treats the works he studies. Whitman,
Melville, Poe, and Hawthorne, for instance, are not seen as individuals
trying to find and express the truth of their existence, but are examples of
the disintegration of the white soul in America. Mann is an example of the
senility of Germany. What the writers actually have to say is of practically
no importance — it is all lies anyway! The same is true of psychological
criticism: what a writer says
is not the truth, but is the product of something which does not recognise
the test of truth, of a complex or a neurosis; a work of art is full not of
symbols and characters, but of mother-figures, phallic symbols, dream-images
and the like. And, of course, exactly the same is true of marxist criticism,
where once again the work becomes an example of something — this time of the
structure of society. Because the absolute has been made something beyond
those absolutes recognised by art, art necessarily becomes entirely
relative. Indeed, there does exist a book written quite seriously by an
American shortstory writer strongly influenced by Darwinism and its
intellectual offshoots which says that Shakespeare and Aeschylus have
nothing to say to us beyond a few touches of local colour, because their
time and place are so remote from ours that their art also must be
impossibly remote. (15) The conclusion seems absurd, but it is the
inevitable and logical consequence of robbing
art of its own absolute.
However, for all the absurdities that Darwinism, Freudianism, and
Marxism have led to in literary criticism, we cannot simply ignore them and
hope they will go away. We cannot now regard the intellect as a totally
independent perceiver of the truth, yet we must restore to art its own
absolute. In order to do this, we must return to the point Lawrence himself
makes apropos of Sons and Lovers, which is that the work of art is in some
way fuller and truer than the conditions which determine its production.
Something, in other words, happens in the creation of a work of art which
allows it to rise above the neurosis or social situation which is a dominant
factor in the life of the artist. That something is quite simply that the
conditions of its production are expressed, and are thereby made the objects
of a special kind of knowledge. From that point on, we are moving in the
realm of truth rather than of health or social harmony or whatever, and
therefore the work of art
must obey quite different laws and pass quite other tests than those which
apply to the life from which it has sprung. We ask of the work of art only
that it illuminate us as to the nature of being a living person, and not
that it be an example of perfect psychic well-being. But at the same time,
we do not simply return to pre-Darwinian days and assert that the work of
art will be a reflection of an absolute truth. It will inevitably be the
_expression of a truth relative to the conditions of its production, but
those conditions are themselves manifestations of the conditions under which
men must live at all times, and are therefore a form of being-human. There
can never be an absolute truth of human experience because, by definition,
each man must experience his own life uniquely. The absolute must, as it
were, accept the fact that it can only manifest itself through the relative;
the absolute truth about human existence is always relative.
It is this paradox which allowed critics such as Lawrence to
separate the relative from the absolute, dismiss the latter, and set up
absolutes for the former. In Lawrence, there is, in fact, a disastrous
confusion between ‘perfection of the life’ and ‘perfection of the work’;
they are made to conform to the same absolute. The result is criticism which
does more than probably anyone else’s to prepare us to see the manifestation
of the absolute in the relative, but which is all too often incapable of
taking that final step for us.
(1) F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, in
association with Chatto and Windus, 1964), p. 325.
(2) D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix, ed. Edward D. McDonald (London, Heinemann,
1936), p. 539.
(3) Leavis, loc. cit.
(4) Phoenix, p. 312.
(5) ibid., pp. 527-32.
(6) Why the Novel Matters, in Phoenix, p. 587.
(7) D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (London, Mercury
Books, 1965), p. 2.
(8) Lawrence, loc. cit.
(9) ‘Poe is rather a scientist than an artist. He is reducing his own self
as a scientist reduces a salt in a crucible. It is an almost chemical
analysis of the soul and consciousness. Whereas in true art there is always
the double rhythm of creating and destroying.’ Studies in Classic American
Literature, p. 61. As a distinction between the scientist who analyses
objective fact and the artist who creates a form for an inner state,
Lawrence’s theory is probably correct. But he fails to see how the
analytical method can itself be art, because he will not allow it any value
at all. It must, for him, be sickness and nothing else.
(10) Leavis, p. 27.
(11) Song of Myself, section I.
(12) Letter to Barbara Low, 16 Sept. 1916. The Collected Letters of D. H.
Lawrence, ed. Harry T. Moore, 2 vols. (London, Heinemann, 1962), p. 475.
(13) The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of Studies in Classic
American Literature, ed. Armin Arnold (Arundel, Centaur Press Ltd., 1962),
(14) Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of
the Future, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1973),
(15) Hamlin Garland makes these assertions in his Crumbling Idols (Chicago,
Stone and Kimball, 1894). Garland is, admittedly, a minor figure, but he is
by no means inconsiderable, and merely takes to extremes ideas which were
quite common at that time.
cr mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Could you please elaborate how you relate
my quotes to the notion of "ethical criticism"?
Vishvesh Obla <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Thank You very much for those quotes. It gives a perspective when one
looks at what one called 'ethical criticism'.
cr mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Two passages from Peter Ackroyd's 'T.S. Eliot: A Life' :
The only advantage of illness, as far as Eliot was concerned, was that
it released him from the general round of works and days -- it was, he
used to say, his body's way of telling him to stop -- and during periods
of ill health such as this one he seemed better able to write. The
relationship between illness and creativity interested him, and he often
emphasized it in his prose writings. In the conclusion to The Use of
Poetry and the Use of Criticism, he had suggested that some forms of
'debility', ill health and anaemia may produce an efflux of poetry', and
referred to the same phenomenon in his introduction to Pascal's
PENSÉES, in which he declared that certain kinds of ill health may
favour not only 'religious illumination' but also 'artistic and literary
composition'. This was part of his belief that poetic composition was
not an activity that could be consciously controlled, that it had its
roots far down in the unconscious. The metaphors which he employs
to describe this process are curiously disagreeable, however. He talks
of the 'dark embryo' which gradually takes on the form of a poem, of
'dark psychic material' with which the poet struggles; it is a 'burden'
to be relieved or a 'demon' to be exorcised. This suggestion of a
compulsive activity with which he wants as little to do as possible is
confirmed by his description of poetry as a 'secretion' (he quotes
Houseman favourably on this), an 'evacuation' and even a 'defecation'.
The impression given is of some sticky, viscous, unpleasant material
which has to do with the satisfaction of obscure and uncontrollable
personal needs. Perhaps Eliot's attitude is an aspect of his puritanism:
the pleasure involved in the 'sudden relief' of producing the poem is
itself considered by him to be suspect. Disgust with the body may be
formulated as a disgust with the sheer materiality of words
(the 'secretion'): hence the need to economize with them, to formalize
them, to cut them down.
But it was not until August 1942, after a year's delay, that he set
to work on the poem ('Little Gidding') again. It was by far the most
laboriously produced of the sequence: there are some five drafts,
and thirteen separate typescripts, extant. Some of it had come
quickly; Eliot knew the verse was right, and left it alone. But the rest
needed more attention. He composed a short preliminary scheme for
the entire poem, as well as prose drafts for certain difficult passages.
(For 'The Dry Salvages' he had even written out lists of rhyming words
to assist him.) Like his pleasure in reading dictionaries or solving
crosswords, this seemed to be the kind of soothing conscious activity
which allowed the unconscious faculties an easier passage forward.
Having constructed a working model, as it were, he left his conscious
mind to one side and relied upon his ear -- what he described as the
interdependence of rhythm and diction, or the recognition of meaning
when it is embodied in cadence. In fact what he called the 'auditory
imagination' was always his most powerful faculty, the most subtle
and complex instrument at his disposal which he deserted at his peril.
When in Four Quartets he was concerned to state or develop a theme,
he frequently relapsed into flatness or banality. But in almost all
instances he recovered himself in the process of revision, took out
the passages which were rhythmically inert or altered words and
images which did not sustain the underlying cadence and structure.
This was material just randomly come by. But it suggests how one
could go along and study Eliot's creative process as a complex mix of
the operations of the conscious and the unconscious faculties.
What intrigued me, however, was how poetry came to Eliot --
sometimes as a collocation of images, as in The Waste Land,
which connected in terms of their symbolic/metaphoric meanings --
at other times as biblical invocations as in Ash-Wednesday --
and much later, as in the Quartets, as direct philosophic utterances.
Of course, I'm only touching the tip of the poetic iceberg :)
Well, I must hasten to acquaint myself with what Donoghue has to
say on this.
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