Scribner's Magazine

Book Reviews by Eli Siegel 1931-1934

From Scribner's, February 1933

Selected Essays: 1917-1932, by T.S. Eliot. Harcourt, Brace. $3.50.
John Dryden, by T.S. Eliot. Holliday. $1.50.

I cannot say much for the critical work of the contemporaneously renowned Mr. T. S. Eliot. I see his critical equipment as annoyingly inadequate. I don't think, generally, he is fair to literary beauty; and this, really, is disabling. Mr. Eliot is not learned. He has a most successful show of learning. He knows how to use his bibliographical resources with the most cunning economy. He can make one perception do triple-work if need be. His mind, as I observe it, is proudly cold, pompously bleak, like a dowager of 1850 England, a dowager gone sour.

Mr. Eliot sees poetry as something like tile-setting or necklace making. As a writer of verse, he has made it his business to be a mightily adroit syllable-adjuster, vowel-and-consonant-regimenter. He looks on literature generally as if it were a big, spiritual job, to be gone at with charts and blue-prints. He has made an aesthetics out of timidity. He has constructed critical
theories out of personal incompletenesses.

And therefore, it is to be looked for that he (page 279 of the Essays) scold Blake, while going through the customary contemporary encomiums of that accurate, wild man. It is to be expected that he miss the essence of Swinburne in the much-praised essay on that poet of gorgeous blurs and profound confusions. It is not to be wondered at that Mr. Eliot should sneer at Hazlitt, who put blood, play, shouts and discerning animality in his criticism. It is to be taken for granted that again and again Mr. Eliot should not see poetry where it really is, just because this poetry doesn't pleasantly correspond with Mr. Eliot's ritualistic mind. It is to be expected that Mr. Eliot see no poetry in Carl Sandburg, for Mr. Sandburg's real poetry doesn't have those sacerdotal primnesses that our critic now affects; that Mr. Eliot should be at war with Mr. Mencken, for the Maryland warrior, though no longer the attention-compelling belletristic battler of once, deals with literature as belonging to the world of football-stadiums, crowded five-and-tens and a shriek every second; and that Eliot see G.B. Shaw as being literarily not so much, for Mr. E. is not interested in literature for itself and since, it seems, some of Shaw's ideas give him a bad time, he cannot see the permanent speedy, agile beauty of the prose beyond these ideas.

It all comes to this: In the business of being comfortable in the midst of universal swirls, mental fallings of bricks, disgusts that spread over a continent, United States youth got hold of a bum steer. For Mr. Eliot came along promising order, a controlled, sedate inward procedure. He promised that china would no longer fall, bulls go wild, and vulgar, alien males, armed with cutlery, pursue of a quiet, Sunday morning, their running, screaming wives. So American youth was allured and much of it fell. Eliot became an intellectual potentate, for he promised peace. And now, we have intimations from the last of the incessantly blossoming and rampageous generations that it is a false peace; one that comes out of crippled perceptions and well-behaved, impressive weakness.— And every new generation, in the high-time of its newness, is right about one thing, anyway.

Eli Siegel.

Reviews by Eli Siegel from Scribner's Magazines 1931-1934. Copyright 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 Charles Scribner's Sons; copyrights renewed. Reprinted with the permission of Charles Scribner's Sons.

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arrowSelected Essays
: 1917-1932 by T.S. Eliot

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