Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot

Image: the cover of The Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. The background is a black and white photo of Eliot that shows his silhouette from the waste up as he sits with his arms on a table. The title is in large white text.
I've recently taken a personal interest in T.S. Eliot. I studied Prufrock and The Waste Land in one of my classes last semester, and that got me interested in Eliot. Over the summer I read The Four Quartets, which is now one of my all-time favorite literary works and which has taken up much of my study this semester. I'm hoping to read his plays throughout the course of next year. When I went to talk to one of my professors, an Eliot scholar, about Eliot's poems, he gave me a copy of The Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. On a recent plane ride I finally had time to finish this excellent collection of Eliot's prose writings. 

I will admit that I was a little worried about reading prose written by a well-known poet, but luckily Eliot's prose writing is as virtuosic as his poetry. His essays are both easily enjoyable and incredibly beautiful, and I found myself noting passages for both their insight and their beauty. This collection is helpfully split up into three types of essay, essays in generalization, appreciations of individual authors, and social and religious criticism, which are categories that Eliot described when looking back on his writing. This makes it easy to read the kind of essay you feel like reading at the moment while skipping things you might not be interested in, and makes the essays flow together nicely.

I found the essays in generalization to be the most interesting, as they dealt with criticism, theory, aesthetics, poetics, and the use of poetry and criticism. His essay on "Verse Libre" was a short but thorough look at the misconceptions surrounding supposedly "free verse" poetry, and what makes poems without a strict meter or rhyme scheme good. Easy to read, and with lovely quotable passages like "Freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation," this essay should be assigned reading for poetry students everywhere. His essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" should likewise be required reading. In this essay, Eliot argues that modern writers can only be evaluated in light of their relation to the past, and that classics are made by how they fit into and change our perception of the course of tradition. Eliot's essays on criticism are equally useful, stressing that critics focus on the facts of the content and structure of a piece rather than writing florid essays about how a work made them feel. "When we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts." With a brilliant mind and a way with words, Eliot is an excellent essayist on the subject of literature.

While I loved his essays of generalization, I found the section on individual authors slightly less helpful, though not any less well-written. Because I had not read many of the authors he was writing on, I couldn't really appreciate the essays as well as I would have liked. On the other hand, his essay on a few poets made me eager to add them to my to-read list, and his praise of Joyce made me want to quit being such a chicken and pick up his books already. For those who may be more well-read than I, this section of the essays may be more useful.

While I found this collection as a whole to be very informative and eye-opening, there were a few essays that I did not enjoy, and a few points about which I disagreed with Eliot. His emphasis on Latin being the most universal language to Westerners was a bit weird, and had a little too much classical studies bias for me to really buy into it completely. His essays on religion and culture were, at least to me, disappointing. He talked about Christianity as if it were a threatened minority, when of course Christians are both the majority of the population and of governments. His fears of the secularization of society and the adaptable nature of anything other than Christian morality seemed very close-minded to me, which was surprising to see in a man whose ideas are otherwise so expansive and cutting-edge. Since he was a convert to Anglicanism, I guess I can understand his need to do what he saw as defending Christianity, but I feel that he went too far and came off as close-minded. Luckily for us, his poems, even those that are overtly religious like The Four Quartets, lack that pedantic dogmatism and remain focused on the personal contemplative mysteries of his religion, and are therefore enjoyable by all.

Overall, I would say that Eliot's essays are absolutely incredible. Even when I don't agree with his subject matter or think that his logic follows, the writing is always superb. His insights into literature, especially in the essays at the beginning of this collection, were enlightening and enthralling. If you at all interested in Eliot, who was an influential critic and cultural icon of his day as well as an incredible poet and playwright, I would highly recommend this collection.

Rating: 4 stars
Recommendations: If you're a literature geek like me, these might be the essays for you. I especially recommend the essays of generalization at the beginning of the book.


  1. You know, I haven't read much by Eliot, apart from the Wasteland, which I studied in school. What would you recommend?

  2. Sam:

    For his poems, I always recommend The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to start, and then The Waste Land (which you've already read) and The Four Quartets, which is pretty much my favorite poem ever. Prufrock is beautiful, but not as complex as the others. Still, it has some awesomely heartbreaking lines in it, and it's a joy to read. The Four Quartets are also stunningly beautiful, but they have more complex philosophical thought, so they stand up to prolonged reading, which I like. Luckily, they are also beautiful even if you don't have time to study them. Though they aren't read nearly as often as Prufrock or The Waste Land, the Four Quartets are often considered Eliot's magnum opus, and are probably his most mature work. It was reading The Four Quartets that got me so interested in Eliot.

    For his essays, I really liked Tradition and the Individual Talent. It's relatively short, but full of goodness, and pretty characteristic of his writing style. It's also probably the most widely read of his essays. His essay on Verse Libre is also very good, and also short. If you want something longer, his The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism is a classic, but much more difficult to read.

    For his plays, I don't know. I haven't read any of them yet (except Sweeney Agonistes, which is unfinished and very strange) but stay tuned, because I'm planning on reading them this semester.

    If you read any more Eliot, you'll have to tell me how it goes. I've been studying him all semester, and will be continuing to do so next year, so I'd love to talk to someone about him!