On the eve of another face-freezing snowstorm, we literarians on the East Coast have nothing better to do than argue the merits of a rye versus bourbon Manhattan (trying one of each, probably, to know which tastes better), and revel in the lovely letters of T.S. Eliot, particularly a passage in which he modestly compares himself to Shakespeare (the nerve!!). No, really, though: it’s an interesting little passage where Eliot talks about how critics seem incapable of getting anything right about poetry and by extension his own poems. It reminded me of the arguments we used to have back in good old Wilson High School about all of this *stuff* we interpreted in the books we read, and whether the authors had intended any of it, or whether we were projecting all kinds of nonsense onto books like OF MICE AND MEN or JULIUS CAESAR or BEOWULF, giving their authors much more credit than they really deserved. I was in the camp of “everything means something!!!” which is of course ludicrous. And, in turns out, Eliot gives us a nice little moment where he admits that a lot of the stuff in his poetry is meaningless or just sounded good, proving our high school English teachers wrong, when they so nobly insisted that there was meaning in what we read and criticized. Meaning, yes, but perhaps not in the way the authors intended.
To this end, Eliot, in his Selected Letters, page 108 on “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca”:
“My own frivolous opinion is that Shakespeare may have held in private life very different views from what we extract from his extremely varied published works; that there is no clue in his writings to the way in which he would have voted in the last or would vote in the next election; and that we are completely in the dark as to his attitude about prayer-book revision. I admit that my own experience, as a minor poet, may have jaundiced my outlook; that I am used to having cosmic significances, which I never suspected, extracted from my own work (such as it is) by enthusiastic persons at a distance; and to being informed that something which I meant seriously is vers de societe ; and to having my biography invariably ignored in what I did write from personal experience; so that in consequence I am inclined to believe that people are mistaken about Shakespeare just in proportion to the relative superiority to myself.”
Huh. I mean, that’s interesting. He’s admitting some personal biography in his art, while denying other attributions of personal biography to his art, subtly reinforcing his earlier admitted apprentice work “Tradition and Individual Talent” whereby he rejects any meaning in the artist’s biography. I find myself siding with young Tom Stearns as he pushes himself aside and insists that the world just the art by its decorative value, nevermind the signature hiding near the frame. Link to Eliot’s letters if you, too, are curious about the Bard of St. Louis.