on 13 July 2011
This is the best single volume collection of essays by T. S. Eliot, and a superb introduction and anthology of his literary/intellectual/cultural passions and pursuits.
Understandably, he is still mostly known only for his poems - well, at least in schools, where he's taught in literature courses; usually and only the poems The Waste Land, and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock (the latter being my favourite of his poems, transcending in quality and feeling his most famous, The Waste Land, not simply because it is far more accessible, but it is more from the heart, rather than the head, and there are more rewards to be gained by the marvellous riches of the metaphors and similes used).
The collection is the third and final revised edition whose contents only Eliot himself selected and it is most highly recommended to you, whether you dip in and out of the Sections and individual essays according to your particular interests, or read them all from cover to cover without changing course. If you are passionate about pre-20th century poetry, literature in general (especially English for the last two clauses here), criticism thereof, or the humanities in general, you will find much to engage and stimulate your mind and love for literature.
While all of his essays demand your undivided attention as a close reader, because every sentence of his matters, rest assured that such dedication is more than rewarded by the learning, pleasure and insight you will gain from reading them. And, as with all truly great critics, his individual studies of writers compel you with passion and enthusiasm to read their works to which he refers.
For those interested in the specific content itself, the following goes into greater detail: This anthology is divided into seven sections: The first has two polemics, one on 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', the other - 'The Function of Criticism' (published in 1923) - was and remained for many decades a milestone in literary criticism, being regarded as of the first really modernist perspectives/approaches to it (though I feel the 19th century talented critic, poet and novelist Matthew Arnold's criticism deserves much more recognition for being a strong advocate of modernist literature). It radically differentiates itself from the Edwardian and Victorian literary criticism (save the caveat of Arnold's work!).
Section II comprises essays on Euripides, Dramatic Poetry, Rhetoric and Poetic Drama, and a wonderful one on `Seneca in Elizabethan Translation'.
Section III is one of the two largest (the other being VII), consisting of several essays. Devoted to Elizabethan poets and dramatists, you will find beautifully written articles on Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, and `Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca'.
Section IV is represented by a standalone essay, and deservedly so: on Dante. The greater part is, rightly, devoted to the Divine Comedy, and it is a truly marvellous, deeply researched and stimulating series of reflections, arguments and contextualisation (both culturally- and historically-situated).
He also signposts the significance of Dante's earlier poem, written in his youth, The Vita Nuova, clearly showing you how 'some of [its] method and design, and explicitly the intentions, of the Divine Comedy are shown [...] help[ing] particularly towards understanding of the Comedy'. Inevitably, too, you want to rush to read or re-read Dante's great poems. As with Eliot's earlier essay on the functions of criticism, at the time of the publication of `Dante' in 1929, it was also regarded as a landmark in Dante studies.
Section V is devoted to poets, and all the pieces are marvellous: compelling, insightful and appreciative. He writes superbly on the Metaphysical Poets, besides individual ones on Swinburne, Tennyson (devoted to his major poem, In Memoriam', while considering his others, Eliot argues that it is this one in which Tennyson finds `full expression' and is `unique' in his oeuvre). And he is brilliant on Blake, Marvell and - most especially - Dryden: if you were ever put off by reading Dryden in the past, as I was, or are otherwise unfamiliar with his work, I assure you this essay will drive you with gusto to his poetry.
Section VI is an odd mix and is the only one that doesn't seem to cohere as a group; essays on Lancelot Andrews and John Bramhall are, to my mind, not of much merit, and, worse, there's a tiresome 25 pages of reflection on the 1930 Report of the Lambeth Conference, famous at the time, about the issues within, state of and future considerations of the Church of England: unless you're a devoted theologian, or an absolute C. of E. enthusiast, its history and all, I just can't see how it would interest any one at all. But then Eliot redeems himself wonderfully well, by two stimulating essays: one on `Religion and Literature', and a somewhat intellectually intimidating one - frankly, I think it the most such of all his essays herein - on Pascal's Pensees (and apologies to purists for the absence of the accent).
Most satisfying of them all, you arrive at Section VII, where you're drawn into excellent criticism on Baudelaire, The Humanism of Irving Babbitt, Second Thoughts about Humanism, and on the critics Arnold and Pater, besides two other essays, and an absolutely fantastic one on the multi-layered, complex relationship - both literary- and friendship-wise - on Wilkie Collins and Dickens.