Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

T. S. Eliot and the Essay: From the Sacred Wood to Four Quartets

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

T. S. Eliot and the Essay: From the Sacred Wood to Four Quartets

Article excerpt

T. S. Eliot and the Essay: From the Sacred Wood to Four Quartets. By G. Douglas Atkins. (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010, Pp. vii, 147. $49.95.)

Towards the end of this short study of T. S. Eliot and the essay form, G. Douglas Atkins recalls an occasion when teaching Eliot's Four Quartets to undergraduates: "They simply did not understand what all the fuss was about. 'Incarnation? You mean reincarnationif" (111). In fairness to these confused students, it is not always clear what Atkins himself means when he employs specifically Christian concepts such as "Incarnation" in reference to Eliot, which he does liberally throughout this book. More a series of overlapping essays than a coherent argument, Atkins' work is concerned to establish and elaborate the ways Eliot's use of the essay form reflects his abiding theological and aesthetic values. Not least, he argues that the essay form is really a genre predicated upon irony, seeking as it does to access ultimate meaning through that which is small and familiar. Its master practitioners, according to Atkins, have a basic appreciation for mediation, indirectness, even a certain kind of impurity. This is important, because in making the case for Eliot not only as an essayist but also as an essayistic thinker, Atkins is eager to rebut the image of the poet as rigid, pedantic, even puritanical. It is unfortunate that in doing so, Atkins displays an almost obsessive need to contradict the work of the critic Gordon Good, whose comments on Eliot clearly irritate him. The book suffers from this constant reference to Good's ostensible misreadings and misrepresentations.

Having cited Eliot's prose writings as evidence of his particular subtlety of mind, Atkins further argues that the essay form is an "Incarnational art, embodying truth" (ix), and in his exercise of it, Eliot specifically displays his sensibility as an Anglo-Catholic Christian. It is at this point, however, that Atkins' word choice becomes problematic and confused. He repeatedly invokes the Incarnation as though it were a generic and not a specific concept, and when he does define it, he does so unsatisfactorily. …

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