The Personalist Project

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post questioning T.S. Eliot's "impersonal theory of poetry", according to which a good poem should contain "no trace" of the subjectivity and individuality of the poet who wrote it. Thanks to a reader, I have since found an essay by John Henry Newman that confirms and improves my thinking. "Literature," Newman writes,

… is essentially a personal work, it is … the expression of that one person's ideas and feelings, — ideas and feelings personal to himself, though others may have parallel and similar ones, — proper to himself in the same sense as his voice, his air, his countenance, his carriage, and his action, are personal. In other words, Literature expresses, not objective truth, as it is called, but subjective; not things, but thoughts.

Thinking of literature as the expression of thoughts preserves the personal element in literature and shows why Eliot's fear that this element will degrade literature into a mere form of self-expression is unfounded. Eliot thinks that poetry must live up to certain objective standards, standards of the past, standards of truth, beauty, morals, and so on. Therefore he strongly opposes the idea that a real poet must be true only to himself, to his "inner voice". This, he thinks, would mean that the poet is immune to criticism and can do whatever he pleases.

But thoughts, though belonging to self, are not only about that self. They have both a subject and an object. They reflect one person's perspective on a given reality. Hence, they are personal and at the same time open to criticsm. The same is true of feelings and emotions. There are a thousand different ways of responding to a sad event. But the "meteness" of each is measured by the event itself.  "Sound" emotional responses must be appropriate as well as authentic.

But there is more. The personal element is not only compatible with, but actually serves the objective element. Think of it this way: My view of a landscape, no matter how perfect my eyesight, is essentially limited. My knowledge of it is improved by moving around and taking it in from different angles and locations. Similarly, my grasp of an idea is enriched by looking at that idea from another point of view. My understanding of an experience is deepened by feeling myself into another person going through it. This is the sort of thing good literature makes possible. It gives us not only facts, but also another person's "take" on, and response to, those facts.

Moreover, if a writer excels in his craft, and if he is deep as a person, he will, in expressing his own thoughts and emotions, inevitably reach something which is common to all persons. "He expresses," Newman writes, "what all feel, but all cannot say." The works of such writers, like Shakespeare and Virgil, become part of the classical canon of a nation, or of an even wider culture. [T]hey have a catholic and ecumenical character, … what they express is common to the whole race of man, and they alone are able to express it."

Such writers, then, are true to themselves but by no means stuck in themselves. They are describe reality and speak for all humanity, not by sacrificing their personalities, as Eliot would have it, but rather by faithfully and vividly expressing it.

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