I think this is a very fine account of the issue of how we read.  I think it is
not really a matter, however, of explaining/away.  That seems to me
(usually at least) a red herring to disconnect the complex relationship you
describe and insist on an idealized reading as if "impersonal" were not
simply an opinion--and one of a very young critic needing to make his way,
who later said quite different things--but a universal truth about poetry.

Date sent:              Sat, 28 Sep 2002 16:42:19 -0000
Send reply to:          "T. S. Eliot Discussion forum." <[log in to unmask]>
From:                   Marsden Steven J <[log in to unmask]>
Subject:                Re: Using biography
To:                     [log in to unmask]

> Nancy:
> > But it does matter, for
> > example, that "on Margate sands/ I can connect nothing with nothing"
> > was written when he had just been to Margate and was having a
> > breakdown.


> In terms of the poem, how does it matter?

If we didn't know it, it wouldn't matter at all.

It's all a matter of how we read.  If we read with reference to biography,
with whatever method in mind (psychoanalytic or simple
connect-the-events), it matters a great deal.  The life of the poet
becomes a text read in conjunction with the text of the poem, and we
naturally make connections between the two.

There are ways of reading in which biography is "out of bounds"--many
sorts of scriptural exegesis discount the particular lives and drives of
the prophets (there's a doctrine of impersonal inspiration by tradition,
rather like Eliot's, and the texts are authorized by their place in the
canon or a similarity of voice between it and others).  The lives of the
saints, on the other hand, are important authorizing adjunct texts to
their writings--because the symptoms of their spiritual authority are held
to show up in their actions, their bodies, etc..

One might argue that Eliot, by taking on a prophetic voice and invoking
traditions of spiritual writing, is leaving himself open to either
hagiographical scrutiny  or the devil's-advocate deflation that goes with
it. No one expects Eliot's corpse to be incorrupt, but some retain that
idea of the life authorizing the work.

Myself, I think reading with biography is valuable to help complicate the
object of study and widens what we can learn (we learn something about the
complexities and contradictions of the human condition, and not just about
a work of art) but certainly dangerous to use the external facts of
biography to explain /away/ the value of the work.