16 June 2005

Merely This And Nothing More?

      WARNING:   LITERATURE GEEK ALERT:   Received via email this link to a 35+ year-old article on Tom Eliot's estimations of Edgar Allan Poe, and considering some of my -- admittedly tentative-- thinking on the matter over the past several years, I'm struggling with this conclusion:

Eliot's views of Poe are to be found in the scattered sources described above, sometimes with surface inconsistencies that need close comparison and attention to context. From these various comments it is evident that Eliot never really "liked" Poe, and felt superior to him in much the same way that Emerson and Henry James did. Eliot's interest in the French Symbolist poets, however, came as early as 1908, and their debt to Poe was inescapable (9).   Gradually Eliot worked out an intellectually acceptable explanation.   French views helped him to see Poe as an earlier colleague in his own attack on American— and English — provincialism.   Students of Poe, however, would have been better served if Eliot had summed up in one systematic essay his experience with Poe (10), so as to show his progress from the "horrifying" opinions of 1919 to his final judgments.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear....   Typical, isn't it, how much literary critics want to be able to pin down one poet's thinking on another, and how they long for the synoptic statement that does not exist.   (And, of course, depending solely on the prosaic statements rather than the poetic ones.)   True, Poe was never going to be of much use for Eliot in most ways, particularly for the longer works.   It seems to me, however, that Eliot does borrow from some of Poe's rhythms and melodic sensibilities in the lighter works, like "The Hippopotamus" and -- most evidently-- in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.   Compare, for example, the peculiarities of repetition and rhyme in "Macavity: The Mystery Cat" and Poe's "The Raven," and note that Eliot borrows-- but does not adhere to-- Poe's sestet structure.   I suspect Eliot had an appreciation for some of Poe's rhythmical sensibilities, especially in so far as they contrived dimensions of layered and highly-musical verbal play, a kind of play also to be found in poems of Lewis Carroll and even Kipling.   But of those three, only Carroll would be truly useful for Eliot's major works, and so only (really) in Four Quartets.   For Eliot, though, tinkering in his poetic workshop, I suspect Poe was more useful than one tends to think, even if more in the sense of a wordsmith puttering about with sounds and rhythms than with a capital-P poet diving fine language.   I don't much doubt that Eliot "never really 'liked' Poe," but I suspect he borrowed from him more than one tends to expect, particularly in terms of Poe's play with forms of poetic echo.   I've thought for some years that there was something to this tendinous connection, but I'm not sure what to do with it.   Hmmm, yet another ort of thought to deal with....

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