Donald Davie has proposed that Eliot's Quartets are in some sense a work of self-parody, with 'The Dry Salvages' in structure and style parodistic of the quartets that preceded it. This proposal took off from an idea of Hugh Kenner's, and any theory with two such exceptionally able sponsors needs treating with respect. The element of likelihood in this one derives from the way it locates Eliot's work within that 'Age of Criticism' which Modernism helped to inaugurate. A modernistic poem will interrogate itself: hence the continual ironic critique within Eliot's verse of the 'shabby equipment always deteriorating'. But if a poem is to be successful there must be a limit to the amount of self-consciousness it can safely contain. The Cretan tells us that 'All Cretans are liars': is he lying or telling the truth? The nature of language itself prevents us from communicating certain general propositions about ourselves to other people. So, if a poem works it's likely to be about something other than the self saying it. Because the Quartets do work, all Eliot's gestures of self-awareness are in the end less important than what in part they serve as a nervously courteous smoke-screen for: the burden of naked and extreme experience which these poems have to express. This is what gives them their peculiar, surprising weight and permanently distinguishes their tenuousness from vacuity.
LRB 7 May 1981 | PDF Download