Eliot is one of the greatest literary critics of England from the point of view of the bulk and quality of his critical writings. His five hundred and odd essays occasionally published as reviews and articles had a far-reaching influence on literary criticism in the country. His criticism was revolutionary which inverted the critical tradition of the whole English speaking work. John Hayward says:
“I cannot think of a critic who has been more widely read and discussed in his own life-time; and not only in English, but in almost every language, except Russian.”
As a critic Eliot has his faults. At times he assumes a hanging-judge attitude and his statements savor of a verdict. Often his criticism is marred by personal and religious prejudices blocking an honest and impartial estimate. Moreover, he does not judge all by the same standards. There is didacticism in his later essays and with the passing of time his critical faculties were increasingly exercised on social problems. Critics have also found fault with his style as too full of doubts, reservations and qualifications.
Still, such faults do not detract Eliot’s greatness as a critic. His criticism has revolutionized the great writers of the past three centuries. His recognition of the greatness of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century resulted in the Metaphysical revival of the 20th century. The credit for the renewal of interest in the Jacobean dramatists goes to Eliot. He has restored Dryden and other Augustan poets to their due place. His essay on Dante aroused curiosity for the latter middle ages. The novelty of his statements, hidden in sharp phrases, startles and arrests attention. According to Eliot, the end of criticism is to bring readjustment between the old and the new. He says:
“From time to time it is desirable, that some critic shall appear to review the past of our literature, and set the poets and the poems in a new order.”
Such critics are rare, for they must possess, besides ability for judgment, powerful liberty of mind to identify and interpret its own values and category of admiration for their generation. John Hayward says:
“Matthew Arnold was such a critic as were Coleridge and Johnson and Dryden before him; and such, in our own day, is Eliot himself.”
Eliot’s criticism offers both reassessment and reaction to earlier writers. He called himself “a classicist in literature”. His vital contribution is the reaction against romanticism and humanism which brought a classical revival in art and criticism. He rejected the romantic view of the individual’s perfectibility, stressed the doctrine of the original sin and exposed the futility of the romantic faith in the “Inner Voice”. Instead of following his ‘inner voice’, a critic must follow objective standards and must conform to tradition. A sense of tradition, respect for order and authority is central to Eliot’s classicism. He sought to correct the excesses of “the abstract and intellectual” school of criticism represented by Arnold. He sought to raise criticism to the level of science. In his objectivity and logical attitude, Eliot most closely resembles Aristotle. A. G. George says:
“Eliot’s theory of the impersonality of poetry is the greatest theory on the nature of the process after Wordsworth’s romantic conception of poetry.”
Poetry was an expression of the emotions and personality for romantics. Wordsworth said that poetry was an overflow of powerful emotions and its origin is in “Emotions recollected in tranquility”. Eliot rejects this view and says that poetry is not an expression of emotion and personality but an escape from them. The poet is only a catalytic agent that fuses varied emotions into new wholes. He distinguishes between the emotions of the poet and the artistic emotion, and points out that the function of criticism is to turn attention from the poet to his poetry.
Eliot’s views on the nature of poetic process are equally revolutionary. According to him, poetry is not inspiration, it is organization. The poet’s mind is like a vessel in which are stored numerous feelings, emotions and experiences. The poetic process fuses these distinct experiences and emotions into new wholes. In “The Metaphysical Poets”, he writes:
“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary”.
Perfect poetry results when instead of ‘dissociation of sensibility’ there is ‘unification of sensibility’. The emotional and the rational, the creative and the critical, faculties must work in harmony to produce great work of art. Critics stressed that the aim of poetry is to give pleasure or to teach morally. However, for Eliot the greatness of a poem is tested by the order and unity it imposes on the chaotic and disparate experiences of the poet. Wimsatt and Brooks are right in saying:
“Hardly since the 17th century had critical writing in English so resolutely transposed poetic theory from the axis of pleasure versus pain to that of unity versus multiplicity.”
Eliot devised numerous critical concepts that gained wide currency and has a broad influence on criticism. ‘Objective co-relative’, ‘Dissociation of sensibility’, ‘Unification of sensibility’ are few of Eliot clichés hotly debated by critics. His dynamic theory of tradition, of impersonality of poetry, his assertion on ‘a highly developed sense of fact’ tended to impart to literary criticism catholicity and rationalism.
To conclude, Eliot’s influence as a critic has been wide, constant, fruitful and inspiring. He has corrected and educated the taste of his readers and brought about a rethinking regarding the function of poetry and the nature of the poet process. He gave a new direction and new tools of criticism. It is in the re-consideration and revival of English poetry of the past. George Watson writes:
“Eliot made English criticism look different, but not in a simple sense. He offered it a new range of rhetorical possibilities, confirmed it in its increasing contempt for historical processes, and yet reshaped its notion of period by a handful of brilliant institutions.”
His comments on the nature of Poetic Drama and the relation between poetry and drama have done much to bring about a revival of Poetic Drama in the modern age. Even if he had written no poetry, he would have made his mark as a distinguished and subtle critic.