ELIOT’S RESPONSE TO ARNOLD’S LITERARY THEORY
Different views on poetry
One recurrent critical observation by T. S. Eliot regarding Matthew Arnold deals with his concept of poetry and its function. With respect to his comments on Arnold, Eliot never reacts in a reserved way. In his essay “Matthew Arnold” he states that “Arnold was not a man of vast or exact scholarship, and he had neither walked in hell nor been rapt to heaven; but what he did know, of books and men, was in its way well-balanced and well-marshalled.” This comment reflects the ironic and sarcastic attitude towards Arnold, which is a recurring characteristic of Eliot. To understand his harsh critique on Arnold, it is as a first step indispensable to analyse their basic notions towards a concept of literary theory, especially of their poetry.
Fundamental for Arnold’s poetic theory and literary theory in general, is the orientation towards different European artists and works from different periods in history. His poetic concept includes assumptions and notions from artists such as Wordsworth, Keats, Goethe, Heine, Homer, Dante, Aristotle and many more. This variety and interest in different nations illustrates his intention to create a modern literary concept as universal as possible. This is, however, what makes an analysis of his literary theory a complex undertaking. Throughout this, his poetical concept always requires the permanent consideration of his historical and social background as well as his understanding of historical contexts, to which this exposition will refer later on.
Arnold employs various points of reference, which are necessary for valuable poetry. One essential aspect in his understanding of authentic poetry is the necessity of the articulation of those “feelings which subsist permanently in the race, and which are independent of time.” Arnold holds the view that each time possesses a certain quantity of valuable ideas, which have to be discovered. He considers these basic human sentiments as a guarantee for successful, everlasting literature.
In this context, Arnold praises the Greek writers who, according to him, performed poetry in its best way. Moreover, he perceives the ancient Greek world as a model for his present society. In the application of ancient literature to one’s personal life, Arnold assumes a possibility for the intellectual and cultural progress of the public. Thus, his notion of a literary theory is intimately related with his understanding of culture and hardly separable from it. In applying ancient Greek literature with its values, Arnold regards intellectual deliverance as a solution in order to overcome contemporary problems. In analogy to Aristotle’s term of poetry as high seriousness, Arnold reflects the view of poetry as “etwas Phi-losophischeres und Ernsthafteres als Geschichtsschreibung” which he sees fulfilled in the Greek writers. This concept of history, as inferior to poetry, already indicates Arnold’s special sense of historical relations. This high seriousness requires the grand style, which consists in enduring human qualities, in this case qualities the author supplies. To exemplify how a suitable artist must behave, Arnold refers to ancient authors like Homer, Milton or Dante whose works serve to his mind as a model for everlasting validity. The author’s sensibility depicts the condition of the grand style. Again, the author’s quality as a poet is highly interrelated with his moral attitude. Arnold observes these human qualities realized in an author such as Goethe. His understanding of morality is therefore another crucial aspect worth to be analysed. Sincerity, on the other hand, depicts the inner position of the author towards his work. In this respect, René Wellek takes into account that “the term ‘grand style,’ [as] Arnold admits, is ultimately ‘indefin-able’.”
Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” constitutes the basis for his conception of a literary theory in general. Accordingly, Arnold’s concept contrasts Eliot’s impersonal theory of poetry according to which the poet’s feelings and emotion are neglected. Eliot emphasizes the importance of the artistic process itself and regards the poet’s mind as a medium which works in a passive, subconscious manner. “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”. Eliot consequently accuses Arnold of “putting the em phasis upon the poet’s feelings, instead of upon the poetry.” The effect the poem produces is the important aspect for Eliot, which he himself applies in his poetic theory. His view of qualified poetry is thoroughly dependent on his conception of tradition. No poet should be analysed as an individual but as a part of a whole tradition of poets and ages of literature. The artist’s work reflects this whole tradition.
The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and new.8
Consequently, only the poem entails this tradition, not the poet himself. Thus, his concept of tradition, which consists in the depersonalization of the poet, contradicts Arnold’s neo-classicist universality. Instead of observing literary tradition in a chronological way, Arnold isolates singular ages, mainly the ancient Greek era, and subsequently overlooks the historical context. Eliot affirms, that a poet “can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly upon one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period.” Nevertheless, this is exactly what Arnold does. One must still bear in mind that Eliot too gives preference to the literature of the Middle Ages.
In the second part of his essay, Eliot exemplifies the significance of emotions during the writing process. To him, poetry is an “escape from emotion” which reveals Eliot’s anti-romantic position. Arnold‘s theory of imaginative reason already marks the transition from the former Romantic concept of emotionality towards a more critical observation of life. It represents “a union of intellect and emotion, of imagination and reason [...]” in order to overcome society’s problems. Therefore, it already marks the gradual development towards the modern view of the 20th century.
Despite all these analogies and rather slight differences in their poetic theories, the reader still gets the impression of a certain rivalry or love-hate relationship between them, which is provoked by Eliot. On the one hand, his essay on Arnold is abundant in sarcastic remarks, but on the other hand, he appreciates his achievements, although these concessions are mostly of a weak nature. It seems to the reader as if Eliot considers himself superior to his Victorian antecedent whose “poetry had little technical interest.” This arrogant and self-centred way of reducing Arnold’s poetic achievements is not at all a special case. Even when he gives the impression to honour what Arnold writes, he manages to ridicule him as “something more than an agreeable Professor of Poetry.”
It often appears that Eliot intentionally tries to stand out from his predecessor. Nevertheless, he cannot deny that several of his own theories found on Arnold’s conceptions. In this context, Krieger argues in his article that the attentive reader will perceive the similarity of Eliot’s unity of sensibility as a product of Arnold’s unity of the senses of conduct, beauty and knowledge.These sentiments are nonetheless the basis for Arnold’s disinterestedness, which constitutes the starting point for Eliot’s impersonal theory.
Moreover, Arnold formed Eliot’s notion of the objective correlative, which, as he argues in “Hamlet”,is compulsory to provoke genuine emotions. This idea conveys a relation between outside circumstances and the emotions aroused by a written piece of art. With the negative example of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Eliot tries to exemplify that the “artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion”.16 Eliot criticizes the absent equilibrium of emotions, which are conveyed through Arnold’s vague conception of impressions, and the given facts, which he considers surpassed in the play. Hence, the poet is dependent and has to stick to a coherent balance. Likewise, Arnold requires the separation of ideas from practice. In the end, the poet finds himself therefore in a relationship of dependence. Krieger tries to exemplify this complex relation and asserts, that “the poet is to give us the verbal equivalent of the emotional equivalent of the beliefs he borrows from his intellectual environment.”
Subsequently, he remains objective and procures the claimed disinterestedness.
There is another theory elaborated by Arnold, which, to his mind, serves as basic orientation for the public to procure literary quality. The so-called touchstone-method consists of eleven chosen segments of the works from famous historical personalities, such as Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. He considers these short passages “of the very highest poetical quality.”
This method of judging poetry and the occurring problems and contradictions that his theory involve will be analysed in the paper further on.