Text: B. R. McElderry, Jr., “T. S. Eliot on Poe,” Poe Newsletter­, April 1969, Vol. II, No. 2, 2:32-33


[page 32, column 1:]

T. S. Eliot on Poe

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 middle-class 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 directest, the least pedantic, the least pedagogical of the critics writing in his time in either America or England. It is a pity that Professor Campbell fails to analyse Poe’s peculiar originality as a poet. He perceives the relation of Poe to Byron, Moore and the Romantic movement in general, but misses observing that Poe is both the reductio ad absurdum and the artistic perfection of this movement.

After discussing Hawthorne, Eliot returns to general comment:

Hawthorne, Poe and Whitman are all pathetic creatures; they are none of them so great as they might have been. But the lack of intelligent literary society is not responsible for their shortcomings; it is much more certainly responsible for some of their merits. The originality, if not the full mental capability, of these men was brought out, forced out, by the starved environment. The originality gives them a distinction which some heavier-weight authors do not obtain.

Poe’s “Ulalume,” Eliot goes on to say, appears “more creative” and “more distinguished” than Shelley’s “The Witch of Atlas.”

In this early review Eliot makes no mention of Poe’s French influence, nor had Killis Campbell. There is something of condescension toward Poe, yet there is appreciation for Poe’s critical independence and his originality. 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. In 1926, Eliot’s “Note Sur Mallarmé et Poe” (4) first registered an interest in Poe’s French influence. 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. Both Mallarmé and Poe are “metaphysical” poets, and like Donne, indulge in speculation without belief. They are properly distinguished from truly philosophical poets like Dante and Lucretius. Mallarmé and Poe are also distinct from the type of poet properly described as l ’halluciné. When we read the poetry of Rimbaud or Blake, we enter a different world; with Mallarmé and Poe we have a heightened sense of a familiar world. Along with the element of incantation is the aim of giving a purer sense to the words employed. This element of incantation is of course not imputed to Donne, the other “metaphysical” poet referred to.

In 1927 Eliot reviewed Hervey Allen’s Israfel (5). This biography, he thought, mingles important and trivial details with little sense of proportion; worse, it strives to be “creative” by presenting conjectured scenes as if they were actual ones. The real and important Poe remains inscrutable. Eliot considers that after the death of Byron, only Poe and Heine inherited the spirit of English Romanticism; they, along with Baudelaire, influenced in turn by Poe, seem more “modern” than their contemporaries. One aspect of Poe’s work needing more attention is his criticism; echoing the judgment of Campbell’s chapter, Eliot announces that Poe was “not only an heroically courageous critic . . . . but a critic of the first rank.”

In 1943, 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.” Though much of Poe’s writing now seems “old-fashioned to the point of absurdity,” there are “a dozen poems and more than a dozen tales” which, once read, are never forgotten. Poe belongs neither to American nor to European tradition. “He is a European who [page 33:] knew Europe only in imagination.” Poe’s critical essays, particularly “The Philosophy of Composition,” stamp Poe as an intellectual: “no poetry of feeling is further from sensuality or even sensuousness. He lives in a world of dreams, shadows, and regrets for a lost, unpossessed and unattainable love.” Poe’s poetry was original: “That is to say, his vision of life, though limited, was peculiar and coherent and his idiom unmistakable.” In this short essay the pattern of “From Poe to Valéry” clearly emerges: the importance of Poe as critic; the intellectual “originality” which kept Poe from being just an imitative Romantic; and the influence of Poe on the European tradition which included Baudelaire and Heine. As we have seen, an earlier note linked Poe with Mallarmé; Valéry, who died in 1945, was a natural addition.

In April, 1948, Eliot was invited to deliver a lecture at the University of Aix. The essay published in December, “Edgar Poe et la France,” is presumably a revision and translation of that lecture (7). In turn, this essay was an early draft of “From Poe to Valéry,” Eliot’s best-known pronouncement on Poe. The French text differs from the English essay chiefly in rearrangement of ideas. A few incidental remarks dropped from the French text are of interest. In paragraph thirty, for example, Eliot insists that despite the theorizing of Mallarmé, “subject” will retain importance in the poetry of the future; as proof, he says, he can turn from Mallarmé to the pages of Victor Hugo. Again, in paragraph thirty-four, Eliot alludes to Wordsworth and Coleridge as representing for him “the central current” of poetry from the end of the eighteenth century. Yet much fine poetry in many languages has been written outside “the central current”; Poe and Baudelaire are examples.

Eliot’s “American Literature and the American Language” (8), delivered as a lecture in 1953, alludes briefly to Poe’s French influence and to his comparatively minor influence on American and English poetry. And he remarks that the dream world of Poe’s poetry was probably conditioned, more than we realize, by the actual world of the Baltimore and Richmond he knew.

So far as I can determine, Eliot’s “last word” on Poe appears in his “Foreword” to Joseph Chiari’s Symbolisme from Poe to Mallarmé (London, 1956). Chiari’s text includes some twenty references to Eliot, all duly reverent: “I cannot do better than to quote what Mr. T. S. Eliot says” (pp. 5-6). Eliot, naturally, welcomes Chiari’s book as the first in English on Mallarmé, and repeats several of the comments first expressed in the note of 1926. The Symbolist movement, he adds, is “the most important ‘movement ’ in the world of poetry since that of Wordsworth and Coleridge.” The term “movement” is specifically defined as “a continuity of admiration.”

Eliot’s views of Poe are to be found in the scattered sources described above, sometimes with surface inconsistencies that need close comparison and attention to context. From these various comments it is evident that Eliot never really “liked” Poe, and felt superior to him in much the same way that Emerson and Henry James did. Eliot’s interest in the French Symbolist poets, however, came as early as 1908, and their debt to Poe was inescapable (9). Gradually Eliot worked out an intellectually acceptable explanation. French views helped him to see Poe as an earlier colleague in his own attack on American [column 2:] — and English — provincialism. Students of Poe, however, would have been better served if Eliot had summed up in one systematic essay his experience with Poe (10), so as to show his progress from the “horrifying” opinions of 1919 to his final judgments.  



(1)  Donald Gallup, T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (New York, 1953), entry A 52, shows that this essay was delivered as a lecture at the Library of Congress, November 19, 1948. It was then privately printed by Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949; reprinted in The Hudson Revieva, II (Autumn 1949), 327-341; and issued as a pamphlet by the Library of Congress, 1949. My quotations are from The Hudson Review. The essay was included in Eliot’s To Criticize the Critics (New York, 1965), pp. 27-42, and it appeared in Eric W. Carlson’s Recognition of Poe (University of Michigan Press, 1966), pp. 205-219.

(2)  The Athenaeum (April 25, 1919), pp. 236-237 (Gallup, entry C 74). A notable passage regarding Hawthorne was quoted by F. O. Matthiessen in The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (New York, 1935), p. 22, and in The American Renaissance (New York, 1941), p. 193; also in The Literature of the United States, ed. Walter Blair, Theodore Hornberger, Randall Stewart (New York, 1946), I, 982. Eliot had written: “Neither Emerson nor any of the others was a real observer of social life. Hawthorne was, and was a realist. He had also, what no one else had — the firmness, the true coldness, the hard coldness of the genuine artist.”

(3)  In 1961 a brief sentence from Eliot’s 1919 review was quoted out of context by Clarence A. Brown in “Walt Whitman and the New Poetry,” American Literature, XXXIII (March 1961), 41. My note to this effect was rejected by the editors of American Literature, but they suggested that the 1919 review might be worth reprinting in full. Accordingly, I wrote to Mr. Eliot, suggesting that he himself reprint it, possibly with other scattered comments on American literature. He replied, April 25, 1962, 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. The 1919 opinions do not seem to me so “horrifying” as they did to him; his later opinions on Poe seem a natural development from those early comments.

(4)  La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, XXVII (November 1926), 524-526; trans. Ramon Fernandez. Gallup, entry D 46, gives the wrong volume number. This issue was devoted to Mallarmé, and Eliot’s brief note was no doubt requested.

(5)  Nation and Athenaeum, LXI (May 21, 1927), 7, 219. Gallup, entry C 207.

(6)  Listener, XXIX (February 25, 1943), 243-244. Gallup C 487. Presumably this was a BBC talk, but neither Listener nor Gallup notes the exact date.

(7)  La Table Ronde, #12 (December 1948), pp. 1973-1992; trans. Henri Fluchère. Gallup, D 84, says: “A translation of the lecture delivered at Aix in April, 1948, upon which From Poe to Valéry is based.”

(8)  Included in To Criticize the Critic (New York, 1965), pp. 43-60.

(9)  In a review of Peter Quennell’s Baudelaire and the Symbolists (Criterion, IX, January 1930, 357-359), Eliot dates his interest in the Symbolist poets from his reading of Arthur Symons ’ volume on the subject in 1908.

(10)  It is notable that in no later essay does Eliot refer to any of his earlier pronouncements. Nor does he allude to Aldous Huxley’s influential “Vulgarity in Literature” (1930), which in its first paragraph linked Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry with Poe nearly twenty years before Eliot did so. Huxley, of course, simply dismissed the French estimates of Poe as wrong. Huxley’s essay appeared in The Saturday Review of Literature, VII (September 27, 1930), 158-159; it also appeared in book form (London, 1930), and was included in Huxley’s Retrospect (New York, 1933).


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]