Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism

By Jewel Spears Brooker | Go to book overview

The Structure of Eliot's "G0erontion"
An Interpretation Based on Bradley's Doctrine of the Systematic Nature of Truth

One poem like this is enough; it purges the language. --Hugh Kenner1

The notion that a reader must qualify for the experience of reading a poem is repugnant to many literary critics. The greater artists, it is argued, utilize common ground that is universal. One does not need to have read philosophy or to carry a reader's guide in order to appreciate, say, "Ode on Melancholy" or David Copperfield or even King Lear. The knowledge one must bring to such masterpieces is not acquired in the library of any university, but in the laboratory of human existence.

But is the common person's access to art an acceptable measure of value in art? Many of the best modern writers have insisted that it is not. The major theoretician of the symbolist movement, Stéphane Mallarmé, held in utter contempt the idea that a reader's credentials properly consist of his birth certificate and his ABC reading book. This famous elitist argued that reading a poem requires as much preparation and discipline as writing one. James Joyce assumed that readers of Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake would, and should, spend years preparing themselves to become partners in the actualization of those difficult novels. T. S. Eliot once remarked that a prospective reader of one of his poems should be willing to put in at least as much preliminary study as a barrister puts in before arguing a case in court. To these and other artists, readers are collaborators in art and should honor this role by preparing assiduously for the task.

One of the poems that has suffered most from readers' refusal to

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1
Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot ( New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959), 135.

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