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Eliot on Poe
B. R. McElderry, Jr.
University of Southern California
The background of T. S. Eliot’s well-known essay “From Poe to Valéry” (1949) is more complex than is generally realized. Since certain pungent remarks on Poe in that essay are so frequently quoted, often out of context, it may be worthwhile to review some of the shifts in Eliot’s critical position on Poe preceding the 1949 essay. It will be well, however, to look at the later essay first. “From Poe to Valéry” is typical of Eliot in many ways. Just after receiving the Nobel Prize, he delivered it as a lecture at the Library of Congress in November, 1948; in the next twelve months it appeared in print three times (1). Based on the well-known interest in Poe taken by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry, the essay contrives an emphasis relevant to the contemporary scene, just as Eliot had previously made John Donne and the metaphysical poets relevant to twentieth-century poetry. The apologetic tone so frequent in Eliot’s writing is at once apparent. He is not attempting, he says, a “judicial estimate” of Poe, though parts of the essay, especially paragraphs one and four, do constitute an estimate, judicial or otherwise. Examined in detail, Eliot writes, Poe’s work seems to show nothing but “slipshod writing,” “puerile thinking,” and “haphazard experiments.” Poe’s diction is sometimes inexact, as in “my most immemorial year” and “a stately raven.” Yet Poe’s work as a whole is “a mass of unique shape and impressive size.” The “ordinary cultivated reader” (Eliot himself, of course) recalls a few short poems “which enchanted him for a time when he was a boy, and which do somehow stick in the memory.” Such a reader also recalls the tales, and notes their influence on detective and science fiction. But the impact of Poe on three French poets — Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Valéry — has been much more profound. What did they see in Poe that such a reader as Eliot missed? Baudelaire, Eliot thinks, found in Poe the type of le poéte maudit, “the rebel against society and against middleclass morality.” Mallarmé found in Poe’s technique stimulation because of its very contrast to traditional French verse. Valéry found Poe’s theory of poetry emphatic of the poem as an end in itself, prophetic of la poésie pure; prophetic, too, of the intense interest in the poetic process so characteristic of the French symbolists. This essay of 1949, however, as indicated, was preceded by several little known comments on Poe. The first of these is a review of the second volume of The Cambridge History of American Literature in 1919 (2); the essay has never been reprinted because Eliot later professed to be “horrified” by some of his comments on American literature (3). After objecting to the miscellaneous character of the Cambridge History, Eliot writes: The three important men in the book are Poe, Whitman and Hawthorne. Professor [Killis] Campbell, writing on Poe makes his article turn on Poe’s genuine and unappreciated merits as a critic. It is not a point of vast importance, as most of the writers whom Poe criticized are embalmed only in their coffins and in Poe’s abuse; but Poe’s intellectual abilities should not be [column 2:] overlooked; and he was the
Eliot’s “Note Sur Mallarmé et Poe” (4) first registered an interest in Poe’s French influence. it is much more certainly responsible for some of their merits. Eliot considers that after the death of Byron. . mingles important and trivial details with little sense of proportion. Eliot returns to general comment: Hawthorne. After discussing Hawthorne. This element of incantation is of course not imputed to Donne. In 1926. once read. This biography. Along with the element of incantation is the aim of giving a purer sense to the words employed.” Poe’s critical essays. with Mallarmé and Poe we have a heightened sense of a familiar world. . There is something of condescension toward Poe. if not the full mental capability. of these men was brought out.” In 1943. One aspect of Poe’s work needing more attention is his criticism. Eliot announces that Poe was “not only an heroically courageous critic . He perceives the relation of Poe to Byron. In 1927 Eliot reviewed Hervey Allen’s Israfel (5). When we read the poetry of Rimbaud or Blake. Poe belongs neither to American nor to European tradition.” In this early review Eliot makes no mention of Poe’s French influence. Eliot’s “A Dream Within a Dream” (6) offered a brief estimate of Poe’s achievement: “no American author has counted for more in European literature than Edgar Poe. they are none of them so great as they might have been. echoing the judgment of Campbell’s chapter. but a critic of the first rank. . worse. It is a pity that Professor Campbell fails to analyse Poe’s peculiar originality as a poet. “He is a European who [page 33:] knew Europe only in imagination. They are properly distinguished from truly philosophical poets like Dante and Lucretius.” there are “a dozen poems and more than a dozen tales” which. along with Baudelaire. forced out. Poe and Whitman are all pathetic creatures. they. we enter a different world. are never forgotten. the other “metaphysical” poet referred to. indulge in speculation without belief. nor had Killis Campbell. The real and important Poe remains inscrutable.” Eliot goes on to say. by the starved environment. To assert that Poe was “more distinguished” than Shelley was in 1919 a useful maneuver in Eliot’s own war on the taste of his time. the least pedantic.” Though much of Poe’s writing now seems “old-fashioned to the point of absurdity. The originality. he thought. only Poe and Heine inherited the spirit of English Romanticism. yet there is appreciation for Poe’s critical independence and his originality. Poe’s “Ulalume. influenced in turn by Poe. but misses observing that Poe is both the reductio ad absurdum and the artistic perfection of this movement. Beginning with the customary tone of apology — others are far more qualified than he to write of Mallarmé — Eliot states that he wishes only to define a type of poet. But the lack of intelligent literary society is not responsible for their shortcomings. the least pedagogical of the critics writing in his time in either America or England. Moore and the Romantic movement in general. it strives to be “creative” by presenting conjectured scenes as if they were actual ones. .directest. Mallarmé and Poe are also distinct from the type of poet properly described as l ’halluciné. The originality gives them a distinction which some heavier-weight authors do not obtain. Both Mallarmé and Poe are “metaphysical” poets. and like Donne. appears “more creative” and “more distinguished” than Shelley’s “The Witch of Atlas. seem more “modern” than their contemporaries.
” Poe’s poetry was original: “That is to say. Eliot says” (pp. more than we realize. The French text differs from the English essay chiefly in rearrangement of ideas. In paragraph thirty. was peculiar and coherent and his idiom unmistakable. . “Edgar Poe et la France. He lives in a world of dreams. Eliot’s interest in the French Symbolist poets. Poe and Baudelaire are examples. he can turn from Mallarmé to the pages of Victor Hugo. S. who died in 1945. 1948. Gradually Eliot worked out an intellectually acceptable explanation. and the influence of Poe on the European tradition which included Baudelaire and Heine. Chiari’s text includes some twenty references to Eliot.” The term “movement” is specifically defined as “a continuity of admiration. T. 5-6). shadows. he says. as proof. sometimes with surface inconsistencies that need close comparison and attention to context. would have been better served if Eliot had summed up in one systematic essay his experience with Poe (10). his vision of life. 1956). alludes briefly to Poe’s French influence and to his comparatively minor influence on American and English poetry. for example. As we have seen. came as early as 1908. Eliot was invited to deliver a lecture at the University of Aix. Eliot insists that despite the theorizing of Mallarmé. all duly reverent: “I cannot do better than to quote what Mr.” stamp Poe as an intellectual: “no poetry of feeling is further from sensuality or even sensuousness. and regrets for a lost. in paragraph thirty-four. Again. Students of Poe.” is presumably a revision and translation of that lecture (7). is “the most important ‘movement ’ in the world of poetry since that of Wordsworth and Coleridge. he adds. So far as I can determine. And he remarks that the dream world of Poe’s poetry was probably conditioned. though limited.” Eliot’s best-known pronouncement on Poe. Eliot’s “American Literature and the American Language” (8). “subject” will retain importance in the poetry of the future. Eliot’s “last word” on Poe appears in his “Foreword” to Joseph Chiari’s Symbolisme from Poe to Mallarmé (London. Eliot. and felt superior to him in much the same way that Emerson and Henry James did. A few incidental remarks dropped from the French text are of interest. and their debt to Poe was inescapable (9). French views helped him to see Poe as an earlier colleague in his own attack on American [column 2:] — and English — provincialism. In April. so as to show his progress from the “horrifying” opinions of 1919 to his final judgments. From these various comments it is evident that Eliot never really “liked” Poe. however. this essay was an early draft of “From Poe to Valéry. In turn. welcomes Chiari’s book as the first in English on Mallarmé.particularly “The Philosophy of Composition. and repeats several of the comments first expressed in the note of 1926.” Eliot’s views of Poe are to be found in the scattered sources described above. Eliot alludes to Wordsworth and Coleridge as representing for him “the central current” of poetry from the end of the eighteenth century. however. Yet much fine poetry in many languages has been written outside “the central current”. an earlier note linked Poe with Mallarmé. Valéry. delivered as a lecture in 1953. was a natural addition. the intellectual “originality” which kept Poe from being just an imitative Romantic. The essay published in December. naturally. The Symbolist movement.” In this short essay the pattern of “From Poe to Valéry” clearly emerges: the importance of Poe as critic. unpossessed and unattainable love. by the actual world of the Baltimore and Richmond he knew.
1948. 1953). 193. 219. I wrote to Mr. (6) Listener. 1935). 1919). Hawthorne was.” American Literature. This issue was devoted to Mallarmé. It was then privately printed by Harcourt. and was a realist. what no one else had — the firmness. and in The American Renaissance (New York. 1943). Randall Stewart (New York. trans. Presumably this was a BBC talk. his later opinions on Poe seem a natural development from those early comments. 1927). 524-526. Eliot: A Bibliography (New York. II (Autumn 1949). entry C 207. but neither Listener nor Gallup notes the exact date. Matthiessen in The Achievement of T. XXVII (November 1926). 7. shows that this essay was delivered as a lecture at the Library of Congress. entry D 46. ed. possibly with other scattered comments on American literature. 1949. 1949. p. also in The Literature of the United States. but they suggested that the 1919 review might be worth reprinting in full. upon which From Poe to Valéry is based. trans. Eliot. S. Walter Blair. (4) La Nouvelle Revue Francaise. pp. 1966). XXIX (February 25. 1962. pp. He replied. p. LXI (May 21. S. entry A 52. D 84. 205219. O. 1941). the true coldness. #12 (December 1948). and issued as a pamphlet by the Library of Congress. Gallup. 22. My quotations are from The Hudson Review. Gallup. He had also. T. Eliot had written: “Neither Emerson nor any of the others was a real observer of social life. The 1919 opinions do not seem to me so “horrifying” as they did to him. Ramon Fernandez. Henri Fluchère.” (3) In 1961 a brief sentence from Eliot’s 1919 review was quoted out of context by Clarence A. 243-244. gives the wrong volume number. 41. 1973-1992. says: “A translation of the lecture delivered at Aix in April. and Eliot’s brief note was no doubt requested. Gallup C 487. I. (7) La Table Ronde. 1965). pp. Theodore Hornberger. A notable passage regarding Hawthorne was quoted by F. Brown in “Walt Whitman and the New Poetry. and it appeared in Eric W. suggesting that he himself reprint it. that he was so “horrified” by the opinions in the excerpts I quoted that he had no desire to inspect the whole article in the files of the Athenaeum. Accordingly. 327-341. My note to this effect was rejected by the editors of American Literature. 27-42. XXXIII (March 1961). 1946). 982. (2) The Athenaeum (April 25. (5) Nation and Athenaeum. Eliot (New York. 1948.∞∞∞∞∞∞∞ NOTES (1) Donald Gallup. April 25. reprinted in The Hudson Revieva. the hard coldness of the genuine artist. Brace and Company. pp. 236-237 (Gallup. Carlson’s Recognition of Poe (University of Michigan Press. November 19.” . Gallup. The essay was included in Eliot’s To Criticize the Critics (New York. entry C 74).
Mallarmé. and Valéry with Poe nearly twenty years before Eliot did so. of course. (9) In a review of Peter Quennell’s Baudelaire and the Symbolists (Criterion.(8) Included in To Criticize the Critic (New York. pp. 43-60. Eliot dates his interest in the Symbolist poets from his reading of Arthur Symons ’ volume on the subject in 1908. January 1930. 357-359). it also appeared in book form (London. 1965). . which in its first paragraph linked Baudelaire. Huxley. simply dismissed the French estimates of Poe as wrong. IX. 1930). (10) It is notable that in no later essay does Eliot refer to any of his earlier pronouncements. 158-159. VII (September 27. Nor does he allude to Aldous Huxley’s influential “Vulgarity in Literature” (1930). 1933). Huxley’s essay appeared in The Saturday Review of Literature. and was included in Huxley’s Retrospect (New York. 1930).