Book Review

The Prose Eliot

Over the past two months, I have been undergoing one of the more significant reading experiences of my life, the perusal of T. S.  Eliot’s complete prose from the first twenty-one years of his writing career. Eliot died in 1965, so these pages constitute a major recognition, after fifty years, of his contribution. The general editor is Ronald Schuchard, and anyone familiar with his edition of Eliot’s Clark lectures of 1926 (The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, 1993) will be unsurprised at the extraordinary fullness with which these two large volumes are annotated.[1] The general editorial introduction to the volumes tells us that the notes are intended to “enhance and clarify” Eliot’s “highly referential prose.” The magnitude of this editorial task was enormous, since at the beginning of the present century more than 700 pieces of the prose were uncollected, nor were there any critical editions of works published in his lifetime, the Clark lectures being the exception. In response to anyone who might question the need for such a comprehensive project, the editors quote Eliot himself on the importance of reading everything a major author has written: “To understand Baudelaire you must read the whole of Baudelaire.” On the safe assumption that 100 years after “Prufrock” appeared, Eliot qualifies as a major author, we may profitably address ourselves to these early volumes of prose.

Volume l is divided into three sections: Juvenilia and Undergraduate Writings; Graduate Essays and Ph.D. thesis; Early Journalism: Reviews and Essays. Volume II, an especially rich trove, consists of essays and reviews from Eliot’s great period of journalism (1919–1926). His first collection of them, The Sacred Wood (1920), has been disassembled, the individual items put in the order they appeared. Each volume has thirty pages or so of introduction that provide a capsule version of Eliot’s life and writings during the period. Without question, the most forbidding section for the common reader to navigate is the one containing Eliot’s graduate essays at Harvard and Oxford, and his Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy. As a once hopeful student of philosophy, I was unable to call up enough resources to find them of much interest, and I think that even an academic philosopher would need to have very specialized inclinations to follow the pages devoted to the arguments and concerns of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thinkers such as Bergson, Josiah Royce, Bernard Bosanquet, Bertrand Russell, and above all F. H. Bradley, Eliot’s favorite philosopher-writer and the subject of his Ph.D. thesis. How alive for the contemporary student of philosophy are the concerns they deal with—post-Hegelian idealism, questions of immediate experience, the nature of relations, objects, and truth—I can’t say but would imagine not very alive except historically. In an address Eliot gave to the Harvard Philosophical Club in 1914, “The Relationship Between Politics and Metaphysics,” he affects some humorous detachment from such issues, as he observes “Mr. Bertrand Russell directing with passionate enthusiasm his unearthly ballet of bloodless alphabets,” or “Professor Bosanquet . . . the prophet who has put off his shoes and talks with the Absolute in a burning bush,” or “Professor Royce [to whom] we owe the resuscitation of Christianity by the method of last aid to the dead.”

The first and most useful attempt to connect Eliot the philosopher with his behavior as critic and poet, was made decades ago by Hugh Kenner in the chapter “Bradley” in The Invisible Poet[2] Some letters of Eliot’s, written after his four-year immersion in philosophy and not available to Kenner, suggest that he had had enough of it. In one he explains “I took a piece of fairly technical philosophy for my thesis and my relativisim made me see so many sides to questions that I became hopelessly involved, and wrote a thesis perfectly unintelligible to anyone but myself.” In another he declares that all philosophizing is a perversion of reality, and that any philosopher as his private system develops and approaches completeness will become “equally preposterous—to anyone but its author.” Looking back on his Ph.D. thesis forty-six years later, he found himself “unable to think in the termi­nology of this essay, indeed, I do not pretend to understand it.” The Possum may be on display here, but I also think the poet-critic of later years was speaking accurately about his early preoccupation. He admired Bradley’s masterwork, Appearance and Reality, because it had “no positive results,” and what the editors call “the sauce of skepticism” seems to have been the truest thing he took away from his engagement with philosophy.

Having found modern philosophy to be a “logomachy,” as he called it some years later in a letter to his mother, he decided to reject the fellowship Harvard offered him; instead he put English roots down by marrying Vivien Haigh-Wood in June of 1915. He did some teaching at London’s Highgate School where, among the usual academic subjects, he also “taught” baseball. (One would like to have observed this.) In the next couple of years he gave a series of lectures to adults in English and French literature; while with the assistance of Bertrand Russell, who very much took Eliot under his wing, he made reviewing connections with philosophical, social, and religious journals, along with the less specialized New Statesman. Of the eighty items he published between 1915 and 1918 the majority appeared in The Egoist, a magazine and small avant-garde press that also brought out his first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917. After that he published most prominently in Middleton Murry’s Athenaeum, then in 1919 began to write for the Times Literary Supplement.

In Seeing Through Everything (1977), I sought to describe Eliot’s prevailing style as a critic in these early pieces, by appropriating some words from Kenner about the famous passage in “Gerontion” that begins, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” Kenner remarked of it, “No other Eliot poem exploits the ambiguity of dissolving key-words to this degree. There is no up nor down, no ground on which declaration may stand.” As a lively prose example of such “dissolvent” activity, I quoted from a review of 1919, “The Education of Taste,” in which Eliot set forth the following sentences about the critic’s attempt to find the right language to describe a literary work:

To communicate impressions is difficult; to communicate a co-ordinated system of impressions is more difficult; to theorize demands vast ingenuity, and to avoid theorizing requires vast honesty. . . . Also, there is the generality, which is usually a substitute for both impressions and theory.

This is only one of many examples from Eliot’s prose, the effect of which is to dissolve key words to the point where “There is no up nor down, no ground on which declaration may stand.” As with Bradley’s philosophic writings, which issued in no “positive” results, something similar may be claimed for his own practice as a critic, especially in this early phase where his style was, in the editors’ words, “elegant, ironic, authoritative.” Who but this poet-critic, it might be supposed, would have something definitive to say about verse technique and the proper way for a critic to proceed in relation to it? Yet when Eliot wrote a brief preface to a second edition of The Sacred Wood, he was characteristically skeptical, some might well say evasive. He first took the afflatus out of poetry by calling it a “superior amusement,” then quickly adding that although it wasn’t a “true definition,” “if you call it anything else you are likely to call it something still more false.” He next disposed of Matthew Arnold’s definition of poetry as a “criticism of life” as too frigid a definition for someone who has had a new experience of poetry. After dissociating it from morals, politics, religion, psychology, and history, he came to what looks to be a conclusion:

Hence, in criticizing poetry, we are right if we begin, with what sensibility and what knowledge of other poetry we possess, with poetry as excellent words in excellent arrangement and excellent metre. That is what is called the technique of verse.

Are we finally approaching the nub of things? Not at all, since

We observe that we cannot define even the technique of verse; we cannot say at what point “technique” begins or where it ends; and if we add to it a “technique of feeling,” that glib phrase will carry us but little farther. We can only say that a poem, in some sense, has its own life . . . that the feeling, or emotion, or vision resulting from the poem is something different from the feeling or emotion or vision in the mind of the poet.

The doctrine of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” here reasserts itself, but not in such a way as to clear anything up. If the end of things is to declare, “a poem, in some sense, has its own life,” then the activity of reading, listening, “realizing” the life of an individual poem is ongoing, never-resting. After all, the next time we read it, its “life” may have declared itself in a different manner. So, the preface ends, “We cannot stop at any point.”


In an autobiographical note in 1925 for the Harvard class of 1910, Quindecennial Report, Eliot listed his publications as follows: Prufrock, 1917; The Sacred Wood, 1920; Ara Vos Prec, 1920; The Waste Land, 1922; John Dryden, 1925; Literature and Export Trade, 1925. His assiduous bibliographer, Donald Gallup, must have queried him about the final item, since Eliot replied, in one of the useful notes provided by the editors, “I cannot recall how Literature and Export Trade got into the Class List. It must have been either a small leg-pull of my own, or a confusion on the part of somebody else,” and he assures Gallup that no such work by his hand is in existence. Leg-pull or not, Eliot’s critical writings are full of such mischief (later on he was fond of playing practical jokes on his colleagues at Faber and Faber) and is central to the life of his prose.[3] In his review of these volumes (The New Criterion, Dec. 2014), Denis Donoghue singled out some sentences with a particular “aphoristic flourish.” Here follow some different ones from those chosen by Mr. Donoghue. In reviewing an anthology, The New Poetry, Eliot notes at the end of a paragraph, “Rupert Brooke is not absent.” Soon afterward he concocted a number of fatuous letters presumably written by readers troubled by something Eliot had written; for example, Helen B. Trundlett, from Batton, Kent, who while finding “occasional coarse­ness” in Brooke’s early poem, calls it “dross” that “was purged away (if I may be permitted that word) in the fire of the Great Ordeal which is proving the well-spring of a Renaissance of English poetry.” Of an obscure practitioner of vers libre, Eliot writes, “One is annoyed with him for not having rewritten the small book before printing it.” (Evidently it’s always a good idea to rewrite your book.) In a 1917 review of the anthology Wheels, he calls Sacheverell Sitwell the most important poet in the volume; then, with an allusion to Matthew Arnold’s characterization of Shelley as “a beautiful, and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain,” Eliot calls Sitwell “a beautiful but ineffectual aeroplane, beating its propeller vainly in a tree.” About Evelyn Waugh’s brother Alec, Eliot opines, “Mr Waugh is said to be very young, and to have written a novel. That is a bad beginning, but something might be made of him.” The poet Lancelot Hogben possesses “a simple sincerity . . . which would stand the author in good stead if he would read the right things and work hard.” Sometimes the insolence gets out of hand: “Because we have never learned to criticize Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth (poets of assured though modest merit), Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth punish us from their graves with the annual scourge of the Georgian Anthology.” A good hit at the now-forgotten Georgians perhaps, but that intolerably sniffy parenthesis (“poets of assured though modest merit”) has to be condemned. There is an even sillier hit about how Marlowe’s Mephistopheles renders Milton’s Satan superfluous.[4]

All the above zingers but one are from The Egoist, 1917, and speak to a small, knowing audience; when Eliot began to write for the Athenaeum and then the TLS, he became not less clever but more searching in his formulations. In the Athenaeum between July and September, 1919, appeared “‘Rhetoric’ and Poetic Drama,” “Marlowe,” “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Swinburne as Critic,” and “Hamlet.” In November of the same year appeared the first of his “leaders” for the TLS, the great essay on Ben Jonson. In 1921, along with a nervous breakdown, he published three of his most valuable essays, on Dryden, the Metaphysical Poets, and Marvell. At the same time he wrote a series of outspoken and entertaining letters for the Dial, in New York, and he began, with the inception of his magazine the Criterion in 1922 to produce, from time to time, a commentary on whatever currently engaged his attention. He had a penchant for striking off agreeable portraits of important figures, as in this London Letter of 1921 apropos of Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, Shaw’s lengthy five-part sequence of plays. Eliot calls him an insular Diderot, and Methuselah “a delightful farrago of . . . conversation about economics, politics, biology, dramatic and art criticism”:

Mr Shaw has never cajoled the public; it is no fault of his that he has been taken for a joker, a cleverer Oscar Wilde, when his intention was always austerely serious. It is his seriousness which has made him unpopular, which made Oscar Wilde appear, in comparison, dull enough to be a safe and respectable playwright. But Shaw has perhaps suffered in a more vital way from the public denseness; a more appreciative audience might have prevented him from being satisfied with an epigram instead of a demonstration. On the other hand Mr Shaw himself has hardly understood his own seriousness, or known where it might lead him: he is somehow amazingly innocent. The explanation is that Mr Shaw never was really interested in life. Had he been more curious about the actual and abiding human being, he might have been less clever and less surprising. He was interested in the comparatively transient things, in anything that can or should be changed; but he was not interested in, was rather impatient of, the things which have always been and always will be the same.

The almost friendly passage needs to be reread in order to detect just how much is going on under its bland façade. To this reader, discovering it for the first time and fresh from having taught a couple of Shaw’s plays, it is satisfying to see Eliot dealing with a “modern” temperament as opposed to his own would-be classical one, and to find that the result is an original thought.

By way of suggesting the quality of Eliot’s reviewing, without adduc­ing yet once more the most famous essays, consider the following piece on a writer you may not have been reading recently, the early seventeenth-century playwright and pamphleteer, Thomas Dekker. (In his great Oxford survey of the period, Douglas Bush calls him the best of its journalists.) Eliot had been given, for a TLS review of about 1,200 words, Dekker’s The Plague Pamphlets, a selection edited by the scholar F. P. Wilson. In an opening paragraph, Eliot compares Dekker’s contribution to the literature of plague with Defoe’s more well-known Journal of the Plague Year and with Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” He notes that Dekker’s pamphlets seem to have been written hurriedly and are not equal in interest to two other of Dekker’s satirical tracts, and as a prose writer, Eliot places him considerably below Thomas Nashe (whom we also haven’t been reading recently). All this in the opening paragraph. He then proceeds to distinguish Dekker’s method from those of Defoe and Poe, both of whose narratives “gain their effect by structure and by their rates of speed.” By contrast, Dekker has no movement whatever, the pamphlets being merely a collection of vague anecdotes and passages “of the purple meditation in which his age indulged itself.” There is further commentary on Defoe’s achievement; then the third paragraph places Dekker in distant relationship to Boccaccio and the fabliaux writers. Eliot picks out Dekker’s most interesting pamphlet, The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinarie, mentions the dramatist Middleton as a comparable comic writer, and tells us the names of the gallants, “as we might expect, Signors Shuttlecocke, Ginglespurre, Stramazon and Kickshow.” Even Dekker’s more “pathetical” tales are lighter than Defoe’s: “They belong to a more reckless and a tougher world.” Eliot then produces a fine paragraph from Dekker’s The Wonderfull Yeare, about a bride taken ill of the plague at the altar, and quotes some of Dekker’s sentences: “Nor was his divination true, she was a wife, yet continued a mayd; he was a husband and a widower; yet never knew his wife: she was his owne, yet he had her not: she had him, yet never enjoyed him.” The tale concludes with the moral “that he lost her, before she had time to be an ill wife, and she left him, ere he was able to be a bad husband.” For Eliot, this marks the difference between Dekker and Defoe, and he suggests that the sentiment of the whole passage “might fill a tragedy by Fletcher and Ford.” He finds another tale “like a more scurrilous Merry Wives” and the whole tone of the pamphlets impresses us with “a world before puritanism.” A marvelous concluding paragraph of Dekker’s (too long to quote here) reminds Eliot of the Elizabethan dramatists and of Donne “in his more rhetorical and less theological moods.”

All this within 1,200 words, the allusions summoned up thick and fast even as Eliot hurries to get the copy to Bruce Richmond, obliging editor of the TLS. An editorial note has, “I hope to get the Dekker done in a week or so, but I want to re-read Defoe first.” This seems to me a vivid and impressive example of how the briefest of reviews can, in Eliot’s hands, strike off something valuable and something few reviewers, then and now, are capable of.

In June of 1927, Eliot was baptized and received into the Church of England. This collection of his prose stops at the end of 1926, but its strongest essay of that year is a September one on “The Right Reverend Father of God,” Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, whose writings had come to prevail for Eliot over the sermons of Donne. There is a long paragraph in the essay that, by way of admiring Andrewes’ preaching, compares his ideas about the Incarnation to the operations of a classical scholar, in particular (though without naming him) to Harold Joachim with whom Eliot read Aristotle at Oxford in1914:

Reading Andrewes on such a theme is like listening to a great Hellenist expounding a text of the Posterior Analytics: altering the punctuation, inserting or removing a comma or a semi-colon to make an obscure passage suddenly luminous, dwelling on a single word, comparing its use in its nearer and in its most remote contexts, purifying a disturbed or cryptic lecture-note into lucid profundity. To persons whose minds are habituated to feed on the vague jargon of our time, when we have a vocabulary for everything and exact ideas about nothing—when a word half-understood, torn from its place in some alien or half-formed science, as of psychology, conceals from both writer and reader the meaninglessness of a statement, when all dogma is in doubt except the dogmas of sciences of which we have read in the newspaper, when the language of theology itself, under the influence of an undisciplined mysticism of popular philosophy, tends to become a language of tergiversation—Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal.

But no, and Eliot concludes the long paragraph:

It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes takes a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. In this process the qualities which we have mentioned, of ordonnance and precision, are exercised.

It is a great peroration that, coming near the end of these 2,000 pages of prose, seems an appropriate way to end, even as it looks forward to a new beginning.


[1] THE COMPLETE PROSE OF T. S. ELIOT: The Critical Edition, ed. by Ronald Schuchard. Vol. I: Apprentice Years 1905–1918. Vol. 2, The Perfect Critic 1919–1926. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Online editions, $180.00. (For more information, go to

This is a good year for readers of Eliot. His English publisher, Faber & Faber, has commissioned a six-volume edition of the complete prose. It will not be textually annotated, but the indefatigable Archie Burnett will exercise his usual editorial scrupulousness. Also, to appear later this year in two volumes from Faber, The Poems of T. S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. A very full biography of Eliot, taking him up to The Waste Land, has recently appeared (Young Eliot, by Robert Crawford, Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Meanwhile, a fifth volume of Eliot’s letters, covering the years 1930–31, has just been brought out by Yale University Press. As it has in previous volumes, John Haffenden’s editorial genius is again on view. But volume 5 contains an added bonus, a twenty-page account of Valerie Eliot’s heroic labor over the decades in searching out the vast trove of correspondence. By quoting from her own letters about the project, Haffenden brings her alive in remarkable ways.


[2] Still the best book on Eliot. Among its many valuable aspects is a chapter on Eliot’s criticism that, among other things, introduced one to the many then-uncollected early reviews and brought out their often comic and satiric nature.


[3] My favorite leg-pull comes in a 1920 Athenaeum letter concerning William R. Polack, who had objected to some statements in Eliot’s essay on the dramatist Philip Massinger. It begins, “Mr William H. Polack’s perplexity is a spectacle before which it is impossible for me to remain passive,” and concludes with the following paragraph: “Mr Polack ‘feels that T.S.E. deplores the fact that Dickens was not an artist.’ I feel that Mr Polack’s feelings have run away with him. (So look’d he once when in an angry parle he smote . . .) But if Mr Polack is again mistaken, what then?” Eliot famously called Hamlet an artistic failure, but it provided him here with a first-rate bit of allusive teasing.

[4] This occurs in “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,” an essay Eliot excluded from his Selected Essays (1932). Was he a trifle embarrassed at trashing Milton?