Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Dry Salvages: T. S. Eliot in Wordsworthian Waters

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Dry Salvages: T. S. Eliot in Wordsworthian Waters

Article excerpt

Wordsworth frequently serves as a seamark in T. S. Eliot's tireless charting of his own place in literary history. He is singled out as the chief representative of the last great turning point in poetry previous to the revolution of modernism, and provides, in that role, the most visible marker of a parallel course--though one set at a marked distance for being itself the object of critical reaction. (1) True to his famous precept that the significance of the living poet lies in the "appreciation of his relation to the dead," Eliot finds in Wordsworth a figure who maximizes both "contrast and comparison." (2) Wordsworth embodies an ideal of the poet as innovator and philosopher, yet the consolations he offers to a writer like Matthew Arnold are suspiciously anodyne, (3) and he is conspicuous among the revenants who punish from the grave through "the annual scourge of the Georgian Anthology." (4) Making it new entailed ringing out the old, and Eliot nimbly reprises Pounds tactical mockery of the "stupid" Romantic, (5) when he scoffs at Wordsworth's incessant "droning on the still sad music of infirmity," or assures a Welsh literary society that to enjoy the whole of The Prelude warrants a "very good mark." (6) The Prelude is tagged, nonetheless, as a work of the "first rank," and hailed as a poem that contributes signally to a fuller understanding of later literature. (7) Eliot marked out the ground of his long-standing differences with it when he accused Arnold of assuming that the poet's experience of the Lake District was a fair sample of "nature." (8)

Such remarks, though they mainly predate the Four Quartets, played their part in its reception. One reviewer, while allowing that the four poems were not in the least Wordsworthian, insisted that they were the "best poetry of their kind" since The Prelude, explaining that they too were a study in the "growth of a poet's mind." (9) This last notion was taken up by Helen Gardner--again in relation to The Prelude--in a seminal piece of 1949, (10) by which time Wordsworth figured as a precursor of Eliot as a religious poet also. In a review of the first three quartets in Theology, he is linked to Eliot by Muriel Bradbrook through his concern with "the flash of insight" into eternity. (11) And Auden, in a retrospect written shortly after Eliots death, attributes the inspiration of both poets to the power of "a few intensely visionary experiences, which probably occurred quite early in life." (12)

Sparing though he was with the epithet great (denied to Donne, Coleridge, Laforgue, even to Herbert), (13) Eliot applied the term to Wordsworth liberally and without prevarication. In The Use of Poetry (1933), the volume in which he most fully engaged with the romantics, his last word on the poet occurs as an afterthought in a discussion of Shelley, and is pitched somewhere between homage and an appeal for critique: "there is something integral about such greatness, and something significant in his place in the pattern of history, with which we have to reckon." This send-off was later to form the conclusion to a piece headed "Wordsworth" when republished at the start of 1941. (14) The Dry Salvages appeared in February of the same year, and there is surely no poem by Eliot that comes closer to offering a reckoning with the poetic realm constituted by The Prelude than this quartet. While it shares with the other three a general concern with personal history in relation to place, and similarly combines philosophical reflection with a record of religious feeling, its engagement with the landscape of childhood and of adolescence is especially explicit. It has been seen as the work, moreover, in which Eliot makes his nearest approach to romanticism, one critic notoriously detecting a fundamental betrayal of the founding principles of modernism in both its style and content, a reversion to "something presymbolist and old-fashioned." (15)

There is reason to suppose, indeed, that Wordsworth was especially on Eliots mind when he composed The Dry Salvages. …

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