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12/28/08
 
In his essays on literary criticism, Eliot expressed a variety of views on "impersonality" in poetry. I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the things he said in various essays written at different points in his life to be a fuller understanding of "Eliot's impersonality".
 
The quote most often cited is from an early essay by TSE, "Traditional and the Individual Talent", written in 1919, reprinted in "Selected Essays". The quote is (p 21):
 
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"Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emot1on; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."
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This statement makes it seem like TSE's position is clear: a (great) poet simply does NOT put his/her own personality and emotions into their art. However, in 1940, TSE expressed a much different view when talking about the poetry of Yeats (From the essay "Yeats", reprinted in "On Poetry and Poets", p254-255). 
 
Regarding the early poems of Yeats, Eliot wrote:
 
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"But the best, and the best known of them, have this limitation: that they are as satisfactory in isolation, as 'anthology pieces', as they are in the context of his other poems of the same period. 
 
I am obviously using the term 'anthology piece' in a rather special sense. In any anthology, you find some poems which give you complete satisfaction and delight in themselves, such that you are hardly curious who wrote them, hardly want to look further into the work of that poet. There are others, not necessarily so perfect or complete, which make you irresistibly curious to know more of that poet through his other work. Naturally, this distinction applies only to short poems, those in which a man has been able to put only a part of his mind, if it is a mind of any size. With some such you feel at once that the man who wrote them must have had a great deal more to say, in different contexts, of equal interest. Now among all the poems in Yeats' earlier volumes I find only in a line here or there, that sense of a unique personality which makes one sit up in excitement and eagerness to learn more about the author's mind and feelings. The intensity of Yeats' own emotional experience hardly appears. We have sufficient evidence of the intensity of experience of his youth, but it is from the retrospections in some of his later work that we have our evidence. 
 
I have, in early essays, extolled what I called impersonality in art, and it may seem that, in giving as a reason for the superiority of Yeats' later work the greater expression of personality in it, I am contradicting myself. It may be that I expressed myself badly, or that I had only an adolescent grasp of that idea - as I can never bear to re-read my own prose writings, I am willing to leave the point unsettled - but I think now, at least, that the truth of the matter is as follows. There are two forms of impersonality: that which is natural to the mere skilful craftsman, and that which is more achieved by the maturing artist. The first is that of what I have called the 'anthology piece" . . .  The second impersonality is that of the poet who, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth, retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general symbol. And the strange thing is that Yeats, having been a great craftsman in the first kind, became a great poet in the second. 
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It seems clear to me that TSE, at age 52 (rather than 31 when he wrote "Tradition"), has a more mature view of the role of personal experience and personal emotion in art. It is not, TSE is saying in 1940, that the poet fails to express their own experiences and personality but rather that they take an "intense and personal experience" and use them to "express a general truth". 
 
That notion is also stated in a 1927 essay, "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca" ("Selected Essays" - p137)
 
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"What every poet starts from is his own emotions. And when we get down to these, there is not much to choose between Shakespeare and Dante. Dante's railings, his personal spleen - sometimes thinly disguised under Old Testamental prophetic denunciations - his nostalgia, his bitter regrets for past happiness-or for what seems happiness when it is past-and his brave attempts to fabricate something permanent and holy out of his personal animal feelings - as in the Vita Nuova -can all be matched out of Shakespeare. Shakespeare, too, was occupied with the struggle - which alone constitutes life for a poet - to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, something universal and impersonal. The rage of Dante against Florence, or Pistoia, or what not, the deep surge of Shakespeare's general cynicism and disillusionment, are merely gigantic attempts to metamorphose private failures and disappointments."
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Here again TSE states that "What every poet starts from is his own emotions". The great poet takes those personal experiences and, in an action "which alone constitutes life for a poet" takes these private experiences and "transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, something universal and impersonal". In fact, TSE says, the great passages of great art, such as Dante's rage against Florence and Shakespeare's 'general cynicism and disillusionment' are all "merely gigantic attempts to metamorphose private failures and disappointments".
 
 
[As an aside, in light of the recent List discussion on "Dans Le Restaurant", it is worth noting the TSE line: "Dante's railings, his personal spleen - sometimes thinly disguised under Old Testamental prophetic denunciations ... his brave attempts to fabricate something permanent and holy out of his personal animal feelings - as in the Vita Nuova. . ."]
 
 
TSE gave lots of clues about his own poetry in his literary criticisms. In "The Frontiers of Criticism" (1923) from "On Poetry and Poets"- p106, he explains how his literary criticism arises from his own self-examination of how he writes his own works:
 
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"The best of my literary criticism - apart from a few notorious phrases which have had a truly embarrassing success in the world - consists of essays on poets and poetic dramatists who had influenced me. It is a by-product of my private poetry-workshop; or a prolongation of the thinking that went into the formation of my own verse. In retrospect, I see that I wrote best about poets whose work had influenced my own, and with whose poetry I had become thoroughly familiar, long before I desired to write about them, or had found the occasion to do so. 
My criticism has this in common with that of Ezra Pound, that its merits and its limitations can be fully appreciated only when it is considered in relation to the poetry I have written myself."
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Furthermore, for readers who think TSE never put his own personality or personal experiences into his poetry (based on the "Tradition" essay), TSE has an interesting passage in "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca" (1927), p127, in which, as he talks about places where he did NOT use personal experience in his poetry, also directly states that there are other times where he _DOES_ use personal experience:
 
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"My own frivolous opinion is that Shakespeare may have held in private life very different views from what we extract from his extremely varied published works; that there is no clue in his writings to the way in which he would have voted in the last or would vote in the next election; and that we are completely in the dark as to his attitude about prayer-book revision. I admit that my own experience, as a minor poet, may have jaundiced my outlook; that I am used to having cosmic significances, which I never suspected, extracted from my work (such as it is) by enthusiastic persons at a distance; and to being informed that something which I meant seriously is _vers de société_; and to having my personal biography reconstructed from passages which I got out of books, or which I invented out of nothing because they sounded well; and to having my biography invariably ignored in what I _did_ write from personal experience; so that in consequence I am inclined to believe that people are mistaken about Shakespeare just in proportion to the relative superiority of Shakespeare to myself. "
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Finally, I know I have sometimes referred to several TSE poems as a group (such as "Dans", "Little Gidding", and "Prufrock") when trying to discuss "patterns" in TSE's writings. I know some on the list think it is wrong to look at multiple poems, taken together, for the purpose of extracting deeper meaning than can be obtained by looking at each poem as a stand-alone work. Here's something TSE had to say about "patterns" when discussing Shakespeare in the essay "Dante" (1929) Selected essays - p 245:
 
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"We do not understand Shakespeare from a single reading, and certainly not from a single play. There is a relation between the various plays of Shakespeare, taken in order; and it is a work of years to venture even one individual interpretation of the pattern in Shakespeare's carpet."
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I think it takes looking at TSE's poems as a lifetime of work to begin to see the patterns in TSE's carpet.
 
Sorry for the long and somewhat rambling post, but I find these passages interesting and I thought they might stimulate some good discussion on the list.
 
-- Tom --
 
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