The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) is a collection of lectures on the nature of the poetry of the previous two centuries, given by T S Eliot at Harvard University. Shown here is an extract from Eliot’s lecture on the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Who was T S Eliot?
T S Eliot was a poet and writer on literature, who wrote some of the most significant poetry of the 20th century (The Waste Land, 1922, The Four Quartets, 1943).
What was the context of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s critical reputation at the time?
At the beginning of the 20th century Shelley had a firm reputation as a major poet, but by 1930 this had changed dramatically. It was now felt that that 19th-century poetry had looked for the ‘poetic’, separating thought from emotion; the post-World War One society world required a more intellectual and realistic approach to literature, typified by Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). In 1932 W B Yeats wrote a largely negative essay describing Shelley as the idol of those who needed an alternative to organised religion, and Eliot’s criticism contributed to the lowering of Shelley’s reputation. Eliot later came to soften his views, attributing to Shelley ‘some of the greatest and most Dantesque lines in English’.
How does Eliot view Shelley?
T S Eliot was a major force in the restructuring of the critical views of English writers, and in his 1932 Harvard lecture on English literature stated that ‘I was intoxicated by Shelley’s poetry at the age of fifteen, and now find it almost unreadable’.
Eliot states that he finds Shelley’s ideas ‘repellent’, and that it is difficult to separate ‘Shelley from his ideas and beliefs’. He sees Shelley as didactic – pushing his views at the reader – but ultimately it is not the specific views so much as the ‘view of life’ which Eliot cannot accept, implying that he finds it not ‘coherent, mature, and founded on the facts of experience’ (p. 87).