One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all…Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays
The familiarity of Tradition and the Individual Talent breeds not so much contempt as staleness. Eliot’s ‘Impersonal theory of poetry’, in which so much was invested by the New Criticism, now seems a known quantity, thoroughly absorbed and largely superseded, and his verse, so readily assumed to vindicate and be vindicated by this aesthetic, has tended, over recent years, to be greeted with a similar weary recognition. Anything so firmly lodged within the canon, it is supposed, can only represent an orthodoxy against which to rebel. I wish to dispel this complacency by stressing what is ‘perverse’ in Eliot’s early poetry, in particular Poems 1920.
For over fifty years, the collection was subject to a virtual conspiracy of silence concerning its violently repudiatory sexuality. Eliot’s ‘persistent concern with sex, the problem of our generation’ (Richards 1926:292) was readily granted a representative and even heroically diagnostic status; Randall Jarrell’s tribute, for instance, is entitled ‘T. S. Eliot as International Hero’ (Schwartz: