Frank Kermode

  • The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry by T.S. Eliot, edited by Ronald Schuchard
    Faber, 343 pp, £25.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 571 14230 3

Eliot’s Clark Lectures ‘On the Metaphysical Poetry of the 17th Century with Special Reference to Donne, Crashaw and Cowley’ were commissioned in 1925 and delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1926. Since then they have been famous for not being available. Eliot intended to make them into a book called The School of Donne, which would be far longer, partly because – on the face of it unexpectedly, given his title – he wanted to write a lot more about Dante. On Dante, as he remarked in a preface, the whole of his argument depended. But this book was itself to be merely part of a larger project, a trilogy of which the other volumes would deal with the Elizabethan drama (on which he had already written a good deal) and the Sons of Ben. The whole would be known as The Disintegration of the Intellect, a title suggesting an almost Spenglerian ambition, and a scope beyond the usual range of literary criticism as he himself claimed to understand it.

Eliot never did enlarge the Donne book, though in 1929 he wrote a long essay on Dante, by now much more important to him, the model of the great poet. The other members of the trilogy lost their original titles and became The Outline of Royalism and The Principles of Modern Heresy, but they, too, remained unwritten, at any rate in the promised form. By 1931 he had come to think that the occasion for a book on Donne had passed or been seized by others; but lacking time to write brand new lectures, he gave a reduced and somewhat altered version of the old ones as the three Turnbull Lectures at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1933.

At that time his main reason for being in America was to give the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, duly published as The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. In a year that would have seemed laborious even to a writer not suffering from marital disaster and general ill-health, Eliot added to his Harvard commitment the University of Virginia lectures called After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, a topic that interested him more than his Harvard theme. These three lectures became a book, published at once but never subsequently reprinted. It is hardly surprising that he chose to meet his obligation at Baltimore by potting the old Clark series. The Turnbull Lectures, entitled The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, are here printed for the first time. This was worth doing because they contain some lively new material about himself, especially in the last lecture.

To be a Turnbull lecturer you were supposed to have achieved distinction as a poet, and it is interesting to overhear Eliot instructing his audience on a topic he often meditated, the difference between great poets and non-great poets:

There is no reason why one should not try to write great poetry, except that great poetry is not written in that way: I mean that if one cares enough about poetry, ‘greatness’ is not the aim or the criterion. The aim is not to emulate Shakespeare or Homer or Dante or anybody else; for if and so far as one is a poet these criteria and ambitions are nonsense. Poetry is in this respect like science: the aim of the true poet is not to be a ‘great poet’, but to make a contribution to poetry: merely to say the true thing at one’s time, to say the thing to be said in the circumstances, in the right way ... Greatness is not a state that poets really seek; greatness is a matter, so far as we are concerned, of chance, of what happens afterwards when we are dead; and that depends upon a great many things outside of ourselves.

He concludes that ‘the important poets will be those who have taught the people speech,’ alluding for the first time to the line of Mallarmé to be remembered years later in ‘Little Gidding’, ‘to purify the dialect of the tribe’. This act of purification – no less than ‘a perpetual return to the real’ – is to be achieved by devoted technical effort on the part of poets; and Eliot does not forget that when he insists that literary criticism has to do with the study of technique, and is only secondarily involved with sociology or psychology or anything else. This principle he tries but, perhaps inevitably, fails fully to honour in his treatment of Donne in these Clark Lectures; there are a few, but too few, instances of close literary criticism, nose to text, brisk, dogmatic, arguable and fun. Nevertheless, he insists that the lectures are works of literary criticism, not meant to be anything else, and certainly not professing scholarship; but of course he cannot draw the line firmly, especially since he is persuaded that the decline of poetry is a symptom or consequence of a more general intellectual and cultural collapse that was increasingly preoccupying him.

In 1961, when all intention of publishing The School of Donne had vanished, he resigned the title to A. Alvarez, who used it for a book published in that year. The lectures, celebrated but largely unread, remained in two typescript copies, a top copy in King’s and a carbon in the Houghton Library at Harvard. Now they appear in a scrupulously edited text. The editor conjectures that they will ‘have as much impact on our revaluation of [Eliot’s] critical mind as did the facsimile edition of The Waste Land (1971) on our comprehension of his poetic mind’.

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