Posts Tagged ‘On poetry and poets’

Developing taste and critical judgment

August 2, 2008

For the past couple of days, I have been reading T S Eliot’s On poetry and poets, and am enjoying it a lot; I have finished the later sections dealing with the poets, and am reading the poetry part now. The essays are very enjoyable and are full of quotable lines, paragraphs and sections. I particularly liked the following paragraph in the essay titled Goethe as the sage:

In the development of taste and critical judgment in literature — a part or an aspect of the total process of coming to maturity — there are, according to my own experience, three important phases. In adolescence, I was swept with enthusiasm for one author after another, to whichever responded to the instinctive needs at my stage of development. At this enthusiastic stage the critical faculty is hardly awake, for there is no comparison of one author with another, no full awareness of the basis of the relationship between oneself and the author in whose work one is engrossed. Not only is there but little awareness of rank: there is no true understanding of greatness. This is a standard inaccessible to the immature mind: at that stage, there are only the writers by whom one in carried away and thsoe who leave one cold. As one’s reading is extended , and one becomes acquainted with an increasing variety of the best writers of prose and verse, at the same time acquiring greater experience of the world and stronger powers of reflection, one’s taste becomes more comprehensive, one’s passion calmer and one’s understanding more profound. At this stage, we begin to develop that critical ability, that power of self-criticism, without which the poet will do no more than repeat himself to the end of his life. Yet, though we may at this stage enjoy, understand and appreciate an indefinite variety of artistic and philosophic genius, there will remain obstinate cases of authors of high  rank whom we continue to find antipathetic. So the third stage of development — of maturation so far as that process can be represented by the history of our reading and study — is that at which we begin to enquire into the reasons for our failure to enjoy what has been found delighful by men, perhaps many generations of men, as well qualified or better qualified for appreciation than ourselves. In trying to understand why one has failed to appreciate rightly a particular author, one is seekign for light, not only about that author, but about oneself. The study of authors whose work one fails to enjoy can thus be a very valuable exercise, though it is one to which common sense imposes limits: for nobody has the time to study the work of all the great authors in whose work he takes no pleasure. This process of examination is not an effort to enjoy what one has failed to enjoy: it is an effort to understand that work, and to understand oneself in relation to it. The enjoyment will come, if it does come, only as a consequence of the understanding.

There is also at least one essay (the first one in the book), which I found quite revealing in a very personal way: it brought to me the significance of the fact that the only poetry that I am able to enjoy at its fullest are those written in Tamil (barring some religious poetry in Kannada and some simple verses in English) — a fact, which I never bothered to think about, leave alone its implications, till I read the piece.