T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays [New Edition] (NY: Harcourt Brace & World 1964)

See also ..
‘Ulysses, Order and Myth’ - given in RICORSO Criticism > “Major Authors” > T. S. Eliot, as infra.
  • The Dial, LXXV (Nov. 1923), pp.480-83; rep. in Mark Shorer, Josephine Miles & Gordon McKenzie, eds., Criticism: The Foundation of Modern Literary Judgment (1948) [q.pp.];
  • Seon Givens, ed., James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism (1948, 1963), pp.198-202;
  • Robert Deming, ed., James Joyce: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970 [Vol. 1], pp.268-71.
Current page links —

unity of the soul - infra.
art is impersonal - infra.
disociation of sensibility - infra.
objective correlative - infra.

Note: the bulk of these quotations were copied by the editor in the late 1960s while studying English for an MA degree at the Univeristy of California in Santa Barbara, and transposed to digital media during the 1990s. At the time of first meeting them, the concept that held most interest was ‘the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul’ in its relation to the idea of poetry as the expression of emotion which Eliot mentions only to put by. The connection between his idea of impersonality in this essay and the impersonality of Flaubert and James Joyce also held much interest. It is worth adding that the most eminent critic teaching at Santa Barbara during the period in question was Hugh Kenner, the brilliant - if sometimes wrong-headed (at least in an Irish context) - student of Flaubert, Eliot, Joyce, and Pound. [BS]

T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, in ibid.,
He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe - the mind of his own country - a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind - is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsman. That this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement. Perhaps not even an improvement from the point of view of the psychologist or not to the extent which we imagine; perhaps only in the end based upon a complication in economics and machinery. But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past's awareness of itself cannot show. [...]

What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career. [...]

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at [6] the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. [...] it is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science.

[...] the conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.

[...] the more perfect the artist, the more completely [7] separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its materials.
  The experience, you will notice, the elements which enter the presence of the transforming catalyst, are of two kinds: emotions and feelings. The effect of a work of art upon the person who enjoys it is an experience different in kind from any experience not of art. It may be formed out of one emotion, or may be a combination of several; and various feelings, inhering for the writer in particular words or phrases or images, may be added to compose the final result. [...] The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remains there until all the particles which can unite to for a new compound are present together.

If you compare several representative passages of the greatest poetry you see how great is the variety of types of combination, and also how completely any semi-ethical criterion of “sublimity” misses the mark. For it is not the “greatness,” the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts. The episode of Paolo and Francesca employs a definite emotion, but the intensity of the poetry is something quite different from whatever intensity in the supposed experience it may give the impression of. It is no more intense, furthermore, than Canto XXVI, the voyage of Ulysses, which has not the direct dependence upon an emotion. Great variety is possible in the process of transmutation of emotion: the murder of Agamemnon, or the agony of Othello, gives an artistic effect apparently closer to a possible original than the scenes from Dante. [8]

In the Agamemnon, the artistic emotion approximates to the emotion of an actual spectator; in Othello to the emotion of the protagonist himself. But the difference between art and the event is always absolute; the combination which is the murder of Agamemnon is probably as complex as that which is the voyage of Ulysses. In either case there has been a fusion of elements. The ode of Keats contains a number of feelings which have nothing particular to do with the nightingale, but which the nightingale, partly, perhaps, because of its attractive name, and partly because of its reputation, served to bring together.
 The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.[...; 9]


The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he had never experience will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. Consequently, we must believe that “emotion recollected in tranquillity” is an inexact formula. For it is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquillity. It is a concentration, a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation. The experiences are not “recollected”, and they finally unite in an atmosphere is “tranquil” only in that it is a passive attending upon the event.

[...] the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal”. Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only [10] those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

[...] This essay proposes to halt at the frontier of metaphysics or mysticism, and confine itself to such practical conclusions as can be applied by the responsible person interested in poetry. [...] There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is an expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of hat is dead, but of what is already living. (pp.8-11; end.)


‘The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.’ (p.9.)

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“Four Elizabethan Dramatists”
‘The art of the Elizabethans is an impure art’ (p.96.)

‘The Elizabethans are in fact a part of the movement of progress or deterioration which has culminated in Sir Arthur Pinero, and in the present regime of Europe.’ (Ibid., p.98.)

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“Hamlet and His Problems” (1919), in ibid., 121-26.
[...] Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not draf to light, contoemplate, or manipulate into art. And when we search for this feeling, we find it, as in the sonnets, very difficult to localize. You cannot point to it in the speeches; indeed, if you examine the two famous soliloquies you see the versification of Shakespeare, but a content which might be claimed by another, perhaps byt eh author of the Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois, Act V, sc. i. We find Shakespeare’s Hamlet not in the action, not in any quotations that we might select, so much as in an umistakable tone which is unmistakably not in the earlier play. [I.e., The Spanish Tragedy.]
 The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, [124] a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately invoked. if you examine any of Shakespeare’s more successful tragedies, you will find this exact equivalence; you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him. And it must be noticed that the very nature of the données of the problem precludes objective equivalence. To have heightened the criminality of Gertrude would have been to provide the formula for a totally different emotion in Hamlet; it is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.
 The “madness” of Hamlet lay to Shakespeare’s hand; in the earlier play a simple ruse, and to the end, we may presume, understood as a ruse by the audience. For Shakespeare it is less than madness and more than feigned. The levity of Hamlet, his repetition of phrase, his puns, are not part of a deliberate plan of dissimulation, but a form of emotional relief. In the [125] character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art. The intense ffeling, exstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility had known; it is doubtless a subject of study for pathologists. It often occurs in adolescence: the ordinary person puts these feelings to sleep, or trims down his feelings to fit the business world; the artist keeps them alive by his ability to intensify the world to his emotions. The Hamlet of Laforgue is an adolescent; the Hamlet of Shakespeare is not, he has not that explanation and excuse. We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know. We need a great many facts in his biography; and we should like to know whether, and when, and after or at the same time as what personal experience, he read Montaigne, II. xii, Apologie de Raimond Sebond. We should have, finally, to know something which is by hypothesis unknowable, for we assume it to be an experience which, in the manner indicated, exceeded the facts. We should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself. (pp.124-25.)

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“The Metaphysical Poets”, in ibid., pp.241-50
‘We may express the difference by the following theory: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinicelli, or Cino. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden.’

‘[...] The language went on and in some respects improved; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the Coy Mistress.’ (p.247.)

‘[...] in the second Hyperion, there are traces of a struggle toward unification of sensibility. But Keats and Shelley died, and Tennyson and Browning ruminated.’ (p.248.)

‘A philosophical theory which as entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in one sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved.’ (p.248.)

‘We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results.’ (p.148.)

‘Those who object to the “artificiality” [249] of Milton and Dryden sometimes tell us to “look into our hearts and write.” But that is not looking deep enough; Racine or Donne looked into a good deal more than the heart. One must look at the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tract.’

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[ For further quotations, see under James Joyce > Commentary [infra]
and W. B. Yeats > Commentary [infra].


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