Friday, September 22, 2017

Something I Read #21 – C.K. Stead

C.K. Stead on Eliot, literature, and morality:

Yeats in his maturity returned to a position comparable with that of Blake, in the sense that his poetry seems to have behind it a 'philosophy'; but Yeats prevents any simple test of his poems according to what they 'mean' by the assumption of a series of dramatic masks. Eliot is more radical even than Yeats in his refusal to consider poetry as a discursive medium. He insists, for example, that the activities of poet and philosopher are 'better performed inside two skulls than one', that 'neither Shakespeare nor Dante did any real thinking – that was not their job'.

Yet Eliot came with astonishing dexterity and quickness to perceive what Wilde never, and Yeats in his criticism only slowly, perceived: that the refusal to accept the moralist's role which the Victorians imposed on their poets need not imply a rejection of all commerce between morals and literature. Popular morals are generalized statements which have no place in literature; urgent, argumentative morals compel the poet to debase his work to rhetoric. But a true mimesis, a faithful reflection of experience, implies subtle distinctions between particulars which need never be forced, but simply exist in the work. The aesthetic concern, in short, could be elevated to a higher kind of morals. This, I believe, is Eliot's particular achievement. So we find him writing as early as 1922:

The character of the serious stage, when he is not simply an ordinary person, is confected of abstract qualities, as loyalty, greed, and so on, to which we are supposed to respond with the proper abstract emotions. But the myth is not composed of abstract qualities; it is a point of view, travsmuted to importance; it is made by the transformation of the actual by the imaginatice genius.

The modern dramatist, and probably the modern audience, is terrified of the myth. The myth is imagination and it is also criticism, and the two are one. [. . .]

The most profound moral quality of literature does not proceed from the author's 'conscious moral judgments', for these judgments are of the surface mind, of the 'personality'. Yet 'all first rate poetry is occupied with morality'. How, then, is the poet to achieve this moral quality? Eliot's answer is quite simple: by a total conscious preoccupation with _technique_.

The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot (132-33). Quotations from Eliot from "The Romantic Englishman" and "The Lesson of Baudelaire".