The Personalist Project

In a book I have been reading on (John Henry) Newman and his Contemporaries, I came across the following thought-provoking quote by T.S. Eliot:

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. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

The quote is open to several interpretations. In the book on Newman, it is meant to corroborate John Keble's beautiful idea, that poetry is

a kind of medicine divinely bestowed upon man, which gives healing relief to mental emotion, yet without detriment to modest reserve, and while giving scope to enthusiasm yet rules it out with order and due control.

One can see in what sense, for Keble, poetry is "an escape from personality" and be grateful for it.

But Eliot seems to mean much more than that. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent", the influential essay from which the quote is taken, Eliot advocates and explains his so-called "Impersonal Theory of Poetry." The theory means to vindicate and reassert the role of tradition. It challenges, for instance, the tendency to value a poet especially for the ways in which he differs from those that precede him. Eliot argues that if we approach a poet without this prejudice, we will "often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously." This is a true insight, and an important corrective to the often fruitless search for originality.

But there are places in the essay where I think Eliot goes too far. In those places he doesn't just situate the individual in the tradition, but tends to sacrifice him to it. He wants his readers to conceive of the poet as a kind of chemical catalyst which is necessary to bring about a result, but which neither enters into, nor is altered by, the process:

The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality... It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science... When [oxygen and sulphur dioxide] are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum.

Am I not right to think that this view of the artist is depersonalizing in the negative sense of the term? There may be a subset of highly objective forms of poetry in which individuality has no place. But surely not all poetry is like that. And is it ever desirable for the poet to remain "inert, neutral, and unchanged" by what he has written?

In philosophy, the Summa Theologicae of St. Thomas Aquinas comes perhaps closest to what Eliot has in mind. It is as objective as can be. The text conveys what St. Thomas thinks, of course, but the man himself, his unique personality and experiences, are not expressed in it. Its peculiar strength lies precisely in its objectivity. Here one can speak of a deliberate extinction of personality; a conscious attempt to keep what is personal out of the text, in order that the Truth may speak for itself.

But even in philosophy this is not necessarily the best, or the only legitimate way of doing things. St. Augustine is a good example of the opposite approach. John Henry Newman also. The latter wrote from the heart, and to the heart. He thought that in fields like ethics, metaphysics, and religion, "egotism is true modesty"; that in those areas "each of us can speak only for himself, and for himself he has a right to speak." But this egotism does not interfere with the truth value of his writings. Truth remains central. Newman's personality doesn't get in the way. It facilitates communication.

Isn't something similar even more true of poetry? That often, if not most often, the subjectivity of the poet adds to the objective value of the poem?

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