Letter: T. S. Eliot's influence on 'modern poetry'

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The Independent Online
Sir: Bryan Appleyard ('Hijack of the Great Poet', 18 August) makes a number of misleading statements about modernism and T. S. Eliot's place in it. Modernism was reacting against Victorianism rather than Romanticism. The anti-biographical 'anti-Romantic' critical movement - presumably the American New Criticism - arose after Eliot and in response to him, though not with his sanction, for he disparaged what he referred to as 'the lemon- squeezer school of criticism', his own critical approach being biographical (where necessary) and unanalytic.

The suggestion that a critical method was 'invented' to rival the sciences in rigour is far too glib. The first professor of English in England was appointed by University College London as long ago as 1826; such pseudo-scientific rigour as existed in the Twenties was philological and it was in reaction to this pedantry, as well as to the phenomenon of Eliot, that the critics of the Twenties wrote.

F. R. Leavis's critical interests evolved from those of the early Eliot and from a recognition that Eliot's poetry required an attention to language very different from that of the annotator of a text. The criticism, that is, arose out of a response to the poetry; Appleyard's word 'invented', with its suggestion of factitious manufacture, is quite unjustified. His reference to the disagreement between Leavis and C. P. Snow - in 1962, when the modernist battle had long been fought] - as an attempt to 'defeat' scientific 'rigour' is bizarre.

A scientist working as such can be open to criticism only from others of his own discipline. Part of what Leavis was contending for was that it was fallacious to believe that direct comparison could be made between scientific and literary-critical thinking.

As for 'difficulty', Eliot's own words in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism seem apposite to Appleyard's article and the subject matter of the forthcoming film which prompted it: 'The difficulty of poetry (and modern poetry is supposed to be difficult) may be due to one of several reasons. First, there may be personal causes which make it impossible for a poet to express himself in any but an obscure way; while this may be regrettable, we should be glad, I think, that the man has been able to express himself at all.'

Yours faithfully,



18 August