For what it's worth -- William Empson, my nominee for the greatest crtic
of the 20th c, put considerable emphasis on biography. (And this is
irrelevant to my immediate concerns, but I might mention that Empson
_never_ proposed that ambiguity, in and of itself, was a literary
virtue.) And there is an elementary level where the priority of
biography is quite obvious: Suppose someone writing on the Odyssey
focuses on the failure of Odysseus to fly home by American Airlines. One
need only point out the simple biogrpahical fact that the poet of the
Odyssey died before the Wright brothers were born. A realistic example.
For several decades (beginning with C.S. Lewis's book) there was a
concentrateed effort by a number of Milton scholars to slavage him for
orthodoxy, particularly in respect to the Arianism recognized in his
work by a number of scholars. In the '90s William Hunter, one of the
advocates of Milton's orthodox Trinitarianism, published a work claiming
that Milton's prose manuscript, _Christian Doctrine_, which was clearly
Arian, (discovered & published in the early 19th-c) was not in fact
Milton's, and a controversy erupted that still rages in some quarters.
Resolution of this biographical dispute would not wholly settle the
interpretive question, but would clearly have great weight. (I assume
Milton wrote CD and that PL as well is Arian.) Turning to Eliot, the
weight of testimony that, in the mid 1920s, he BECAME a Christian seems
decisvie on the question of Gerontion and TWL: they are non-Christian,
and the biographical evidecne in this case is strong enough to make it
not worth debating the point.
An interesting question as to biographcical relevance is raised by the
lines in 4Q on the "quiet voiaced elders" having deceived him; old age
wasn't what they had claimed. But Eliot was only in his early 50s when
he wwrote those lines. We should probably ignore that biographical fact
in respondign to the lines, but if we do they force us to shift
considerably our view of the Persona who speaks in the poem; he is no
longer closely related to Eliot himself but is in fact a fictive
Persona, of greater age, speaking. A third and most likely perspective
is that James Kinkaid was quite correct several decades ago in his
article in Criticzl Inauiry, "Coherent Readers, Incoherent Texts." All
texts are incoherent in and of themselves, with coherence imposed on
them by the reader.
Another famous text where biographical evidence, if available, would
profoundly affect interpretation of te texts: the Letters of Abelard and
Heloise. There are scholars who argue that those Abelard wrote them all,
without even consulting Heloise. It's possible; he was a man of
brilliant and not whooly disciplined imaginative pwoers. Yet another
example. Eliot was prbably influenced by biographical knowledge of
Shelley when he expressed dislike of Epipsychidion (sp?). That is, he
linked the poem to Shelley's private sexual history, and disapproved of
the poem because it reflected that history.
If we admit that the date of the Odyseey constrains possible
interpretations, we are on a slippery slope and it is not wholly clear
where to draw the line between legitiamte and foolish appeals to
Terry Traynor wrote:
> You said:
> >Eliot himself made many statements within and without
> >his work to support my view that he over-thought everything.
> Is it safe to assume that you are exaggerating when you say
> "everything"? If all the poems he wrote were "over-thought," they
> might still be interesting, but none of them would qualify as the
> literary masterpieces they are.
> >He was a genius intellectually and artistically and a mess
> >as a human being for most of his life.
> If his poems are works of artistic genius, what difference does it
> make if most of his life was a mess or not? We read his poems; we
> don't live his life or interact with him personally.
> Please note: I'm not contesting the idea that learning about a poet's
> life can sometimes help us make sense of difficult parts of the poems.
> My point is that for the purposes of literary criticism and
> appreciation, biography is just a tool to illuminate the poems. Saying
> that Eliot "over-thought everything" and spent most of his life as "a
> mess" does nothing to illuminate the poems.
> >What is your contention? That Eliot was a well-rounded,
> >sexually and emotionally fulfilled and free person?
> Diana, your sarcasm allows no middle ground: Anyone who doesn't
> believe that Eliot was "a mess as a human being for most of his life"
> must be foolish enough to believe that he escaped the human condition
> altogether (because no human is ever "emotionally free"). I wish you
> would refrain from sarcasm. Its only purpose is to belittle the
> person you're addressing. It also lands you in the very dichotomous
> position you repeatedly scorn.