A life played out in poetry

The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot
May 5, 1995

In an article he published in 1923, T. S. Eliot asserted that "a critic must have a very highly developed sense of fact". The essays gathered in The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot employ factual information judiciously, though they are not afraid of interpretation. In "Eliot as a product of America", Eric Sigg offers new details about Eliot's earliest years in St Louis, and discusses suggestively the place of that environment, cultural and physical, in Eliot's poetry. In his opening essay on "The Life of the Poet", James Olney points to the limitations in the usefulness of biographical facts in criticism, and argues cogently for a need to recognise that what is really at issue is "a life played out in the poetry".

The knowledge of some factual context is important for all readers of Eliot, and the Companion usefully includes a brief chronology of his life and works, a genealogical map of his literary relatives, and a select booklist. However, it is not altogether clear what kind of reader the book is aimed at. Although it advertises itself as being "designed to enhance the enjoyment and advance the understanding of Eliot's work among both new readers and those already familiar with it", the chronology lacks sufficient detail to further the knowledge of anyone who researches Eliot's life and work, and the booklist is vague as to its selection criteria beyond listing "the most significant publications". For any reader new to Eliot, several of the essays assume a substantial degree of prior knowledge, not just of Eliot's work, but of Eliot criticism.

The first seven essays address general themes throughout Eliot's work, such as the relationship between religion and literature, and their place in society. Peter Dale Scott discusses Eliot's social criticism, and although he does not hesitate to identify and condemn those aspects of what he terms Eliot's "cultural politics" which have always made critics uneasy, he rather discounts them as real problems for Eliot studies in his conclusion. In his clear and informative assessment of Eliot's philosophy, Richard Shusterman associates the rejection of interpretation with the influence of Bertrand Russell's "logical atomism" during Eliot's early years in England. Five essays concentrate on specific poems and on the drama, arranged in chronological order. Harriet Davidson is sensitive to the difficulties that firsttime readers of The Waste Land encounter and she gives a good account of the sources of the poem's plurality. In his elucidation of some of the verbal complexities of Four Quartets, A. David Moody delineates the interplay of instrumental poetic voices, and offers a new insight into a poem which critics have often seen as an attempt to "mean what is beyond words". The final five essays offer perspectives for reading Eliot. James Longenbach suggests ways of thinking about Eliot's allusiveness beyond hunting out sources, and Charles Altieri discusses Eliot's impact on subsequent poets. His concept of impact is an interesting reworking of the always problematic concept of influence.

This collection is least informative in its eclectic approach to context. There is little attempt to site Eliot in relation to modernist contemporaries such as D. H. Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, and although several essays discuss the importance of a sense of history - often conceptualised as "tradition" - in Eliot's work, few of them engage with the historical specificities of Eliot's age. Nonetheless, it does offer some very suggestive readings, and, as a collection of essays on aspects of Eliot's work, this Companion stands up well alongside recent anthologies such as The Placing of T. S. Eliot, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, and T. S. Eliot: The Modernist in History, edited by Ronald Bush.

Dominic Rowland is a part-time tutor in English, University College London, and a part-time lecturer in creative, cultural, and social studies, Thames Valley University.

The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot

Editor - A. David Moody
ISBN - 0 521 42080 6 and 421 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £11.95
Pages - 259

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