For the last 45 years - ever since Matthiessen's book in 1935 - the steady flow of critical lucubration on T.S. Eliot has gone on unabated. Not particularly contentious - at any rate since the early days, not particularly progressive - it does not seem to be getting anywhere, it has settled down into a decorously repetitive exercise, rather like chewing the cud. The eagle who by the age of 40 no longer wished to stretch his wings soon established himself as a classic to be accepted rather than to be called in question. There were several reasons for this. The most powerful impact of his work both in poetry and criticism was all early. Those who had been affronted and dismayed by the land-mines scattered around The Waste Land and The Sacred Wood soon found themselves writing 'Ah, how true' in the margins of the work of the middle period - so that its real power and originality were often obscured. And there was a long final stretch in which Eliot's creative powers quietly free-wheeled to a standstill. The early absorption of his work into the academic curriculum created a body of received opinion, and another considerable public has been assured by those who like the piety more than the poetry. The stratagems of the imagist method have long ago been absorbed into ordinary reading habits; the quotations and allusions have all been identified and accepted without remark. So it is a little difficult to see what is left for criticism to do.
LRB 6 March 1980 | PDF Download