Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot.

Author:Kirsch, Adam

Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot became prominent poets, literary critics, and social commentators of the literary universe of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Eliot mocked Arnold in his poetry before he became a critical expert. Since around the 1960s, however, Eliot has not received a favorable response from critics because his achievements in royalism, classicism, and Anglo-Catholicism... (see full summary)


As early as his first published book of poetry, Prufrock and Other Observations, T. S. Eliot made a habit of mocking Matthew Arnold. "Cousin Nancy," a humorous poem about the rebellious, cigarette-smoking "Nancy Ellicott," contrasts her "modern" behavior with the staid bookshelves in her family's home: "Upon the glazen shelves kept watch / Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith, / The army of unalterable law." Here, Arnold is on the receiving end of a gentle joke; he is an old fogey, and Eliot mocks his books as a teenager today might mock his parents' vinyl albums.

But "Cousin Nancy" was written before Tom Eliot of St. Louis became T. S. Eliot, critical czar. To assume that role, Eliot had to do more than just make fun of Arnold; he had to dethrone him. For Arnold, despite the contumely to which Eliot subjected him, was to the nineteenth century almost precisely what Eliot became to the twentieth: the poet, literary critic, social commentator, and man of letters who sat at the center of the Anglo-Saxon literary universe. In thousands of homes across the English-speaking world, it is now Eliot himself who "keeps watch," his donnish portrait glaring out from the cover of his Complete Poems and Plays. Arnold, thanks in no small part to Eliot, is relegated to the back stacks.

Over the last few decades, however, Eliot himself has begun to fall from favor. The publication of Anthony Julius's T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form was only the latest blow to his reputation. There is a widespread sense that Eliot is deeply, even fatally, flawed as a man and a poet; that his achievement, resting as it does on the pillars of "Royalism, Classicism, and Anglo-Catholicism," represents everything a democratic society cannot tolerate. And this critique has been able to gather strength because it is, in some sense, true: at the root of Eliot's poetry there is a morally troubling element. But it is not so simple as "racism" or "elitism," words that today carry as much charge, and as little definite meaning, as "heresy" or "Trotskyism" did in their times.

Where Eliot's deficiency really lies, and how future poets can learn from it, can be seen most effectively by digging up the remains of the man he buried. For when we see Eliot side by side with Arnold, the large areas of similarity--similarities that Eliot himself was anxious to obscure--bring out their crucial differences, in temperament and philosophy. And (so does time heal all wounds) the comparison may well lead us to give preference to Arnold, if not as a poet, then at least as a model for future writers.

So frequently does Eliot disparage Arnold that it is easy to overlook how much he owes him. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, where he discusses Arnold at greatest length, Eliot uses a favorite technique, one he also employs to devastating effect with Milton and Tennyson: he damns with the faintest of praise. Thus he writes, with a tone of sweet reasonableness, "Arnold was not a man of vast or exact scholarship, and he had neither walked in hell nor been rapt to heaven; but what he did know, of books and men, was in its way well-marshalled." That "in its way" has the sound of a knife being twisted.

Later in the book, even this pretense of fairness is dropped, and Eliot lets loose the famous insults that have helped to define Arnold for generations: "In philosophy and theology he was an undergraduate; in religion a Philistine." His poetry is "the best fruit which can issue from the promise shown by the prize-poem." "He had no real serenity, only an impeccable demeanor." In a book full of discussions of past poets and critics, no one else receives so much acid from Eliot's pen.

It may be with some surprise, then, that readers familiar with Arnold turn to the introduction to Eliot's book. When we find Eliot maintaining that "every serious critic of poetry is a serious moralist as well," we may think of the rifles of Arnold's most famous books--Culture and Anarchy, Literature and Dogma. When Eliot writes that

it is sometimes thought that criticism flourishes most at times when

creative vigor is in deficit ... [rather,] you may say that the development

of criticism is a symptom of the development, or change, of poetry ...

we may be reminded of Arnold's 1865 essay "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time":

It is the business of the critical power . . . to make an intellectual

situation of which the creative power can profitably avail itself. It tends

to establish an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by

comparison with that which it displaces; to make the best ideas

prevail. Presently these new ideas reach society.., and there is a stir

and growth everywhere;...

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