In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the meaning of one of T. S. Eliot’s most famous statements about poetry
‘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.’ This statement from T. S. Eliot is one of his most famous critical pronouncements, but what Eliot meant by ‘escape from personality’ in particular has often been misinterpreted. Let’s take a closer look at the essay in which Eliot’s statement appears.
‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ was first published in 1919 in the literary magazine The Egoist. It was published in two parts, in the September and December issues, and in some respects might be regarded as the closest thing Eliot wrote to what we might call a ‘manifesto’ of his views on poetry. He would go on to write many more lectures and essays on poetry and poets (including a book with that very title, On Poetry and Poets), but this 1919 essay remains his most important and influential essay about poetic impersonality and the relationship between the poet and poetic tradition.
After a detailed discussion of the importance of poetic tradition – the modern poet draws upon the canon of poetry, remoulding it and ‘making it new’ (as Eliot’s friend and associate Ezra Pound said) through his or her own contribution to literature – Eliot’s essay goes on to champion poetic impersonality over personality. That is, the poet’s own personality does not matter, as it’s the poetry that s/he produces that is important. Famously, he observes: ‘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.’ He goes on to qualify this statement: ‘But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.’
This is more or less a direct riposte to William Wordsworth’s statement (in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads in 1800) that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. But Eliot the modernist had no time for the idea that poetry was a turning loose or release of emotion. He was what T. E. Hulme had earlier categorised as a ‘classicist’, holding to a classical rather than romantic view of poetry. This is in keeping with his earlier argument about the importance of tradition: the poet’s personality does not matter, only how their work responds to, and fits into, the poetic tradition. In Eliot’s work – and we can see this as soon as we realise just how much of his most famous poem, The Waste Land, is about a shoring up or preserving of literary tradition, even civilisation itself, on the brink of ruin – the tradition is everything and the individual poet is merely one part of a much larger whole.
But Eliot’s argument is a little more complicated than it first appears. It’s often assumed that Eliot is saying that, because poetic personality doesn’t matter, the poet’s self doesn’t matter either: poetry is impersonal in that it could come from anyone, if only they read the right books and set to work. But as the critic C. K. Stead argued in his brilliant The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot (Continuum Impacts), Eliot’s talk of escape from personality is not actually a call to escape from the self but a call to escape further into the self.
Most people make the mistake if eliding personality with the self, as though these two things are one and the same. But by ‘self’, Eliot has in mind something akin to a spiritual medium (Eliot even uses this word ‘medium’ to describe the poet), who is receptive to the right influences and able to synthesise them so that they are put together into ‘new combinations’. The poet is not as passive as this may suggest, because they still have to do something with the influences (from other poets) which they receive, but they are not as forthright as the alternative would suggest, either: they are not asserting or overlaying their personality onto their work, but working with the influences that come their way to produce new ways of expressing human emotions.
This interpretation of Eliot’s statement also helps to explain how the two sides of his argument – that for the primacy of poetic tradition and the importance of poetic impersonality – complement each other, so that they are, effectively, part of the same argument.
For Eliot, the more mature the poet, the more his mind is able to synthesise various influences and emotions to produce something varied and complex. These influences and emotions are worked into great poetry by the self: it is inaccurate to view Eliot’s essay as a critical rejection of ‘self’ altogether. If anything, he is arguing that great poetry is forged in the deeper self, rather than the surface ‘personality’ of the poet. Poetry may not be a ‘turning loose of emotion’, but it is only the poet’s own raw emotion that they are escaping. And the poet seeks to escape their own undiluted emotions in order that they may better recreate authentic emotions in their work.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.