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Narrow and Liberal Directions of Classicism : A Comparative Discussion Between Alexander Pope and T.S. Eliot


This article primarily focused on the different mode of adaptation of classicism in English literature in eighteenth and twentieth century. Classicism is treated as the refined taste of perfection in the field of literature, arts, fine arts, visual arts and any other branches of creation. Often it acted as the touchstone to judge the purity of art. In the history of English literature several litterateur had invoked the classical scholars to add credibility of writing. Even literary movements also took place in this regard, most notable among these is the neo-classicism of eighteenth century under the leadership of Alexander Pope, though it was started in the late seventeenth century by John Dryden. In the modern time of twentieth century, T.S. Eliot also claimed himself to be a classicist. However, there is vast difference between the critical and literary theories between Pope and Eliot. While Pope had distorted and shortened the applicability of classicism in narrow personal satisfaction, Eliot offered a broad and universal appeal in a pure impersonal mode. The compositions of two of those pioneer poets thus affected by their different notions. Pope’s confinement within his period and Eliot’s focus on the upcoming future is also discussed in the article with textual annotations.

Keywords: Classical, Nature, Past, Time, Tradition.

The first half of eighteenth century is a remarkable period for Britain both in political and literary perspective. In 1701 the Act of Settlement was published in favour of House of Hanover and after the death of Queen Anne in 1714 the succession was effected. The political rivalry between Whig and Troy party was formidable and it affected literature so immensely that the literary exponents of this time joined any of the groups. Consequently politics became the most prominent subject matter and specially satire was the way of attacking the political opponents. This type of mode of composition was introduced by John Dryden but it was flourished in the hand of Alexander Pope(1688-1744), the polestar of English literature in eighteenth century. However, it’s to be noted that from the late seventeenth century, the scope of poetic imagination was being decreased in literature. It was strengthened in the eighteenth century where poetry became the summation of some didactic values being freed from imagination. Alexander Pope is the forerunner of this type of attitude who thought that man is the only subject of discussion by man and literature is nothing but the reiteration of old one. Here pope discarded the ‘external’ nature from the aura of poetry , however his conception of ‘nature’ was different from the renaissance or romantic idea. He also eliminated the poet’s liberty of imagination and free composition of verse. Pope instructed to follow the ancient scholars of past for literary compositions. In this regard the period is called Neo-Classical age as it clearly imitated the classical period. Classicism is the concept of top most perfection of artistic taste and excellence. Basically it’s treated as the first class regulation of arts for all time periods. Several times it denotes the reign of King Augustus of Rome (27 BC-14 AD) when the excellence of arts reached the peak of glory having the scholars like Virgil, Horace, Ovid. The term ‘Augustan Age’ was coined in this sense by Oliver Goldsmith who found parallel attributes between Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Dr. Samuel Johnson and classics like Virgil, Cicero, Horace. Apart from these the scholarly doctrines of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Homer, Dante are also treated as classical as the model to be followed by the successive generations. However the litterateur of eighteenth century treated themselves the disciple and devotees of those classical scholars and imitated them in literary compositions. Interestingly they were obsessed to copy or translate the classics rather than creating their own achievements. It was not necessary to go beyond the Latin poetry that appeared as the chief hindrance of original composition from the soul of the poet. Interestingly Latin was adopted from Greek, French was influenced by Latin and this French oriented Latin was introduced in English during the Restoration and Post-Restoration period. So the Latin that came in English was ‘twice removed from reality’ in the sense of Plato’s theory of mimesis. As a result the vividness of real life and its reflection was very little here.

An important similarity between the classical and neo classical poets is that both were expert in satire. But the decency and moderation of classical satires were fine that was primarily intended to show politely the decadence of society. They tried to offer a remedy for the degradation and corruption of civilization in order to return its purity. So in their didactic messages slight tone of irony and mockery was added to enhance the credibility. But they never used it as to tool of personal attacks to satisfy the quench of revenge. Personal interest in literature was out of question of this time. But the scenario of eighteenth century was totally different, they mimicked the style of classics but their intention was different. There was no sort of decency, intellectual irony but full of coarseness, vulgarity, personal revenge, hatred. Through the satires of Pope and others no social reformation was done but it became critical, however the personal intentions of the poets were satisfied. Actually courtesy and gentle humour was absent in Pope that degraded the value of original classical literature. However, the trend of this time tried to offer rules and common sense of the classics but often it became artificial and superfluous unable to touch human heart. Actually the poets were not conscious in subject matter but rules, method and moderation that were mere copy of the ancients. The most interesting point of this neo-classicism is that the poets only followed the primitive provisions banishing their own liberty. Unlike other literary ages or movements, the individual choice, message, observation, suggestion of the poets are not reflected in their composition. In every genre of literature there was model convention of classics like Seneca for tragedy, Plautus for comedy, Horace for criticism, Virgil for epic, Juvenal for satire etc. Imitation of their rules and methods are the souls of eighteenth century literature. The problem was that they were not concerned with the future of literature for the upcoming modern age and treated the ancients as the best. Basically the essence of classical literature is not reflected in the neo-classical compositions; here only the regulation and forms are mimicked that’s why often it’s called pseudo-classicism. This slavish literature discarded the applicability of poetic message.

Alexander Pope was the leading personality of English neo-classicism and keen observation on his compositions clarifies the essence of this movement. Due to physical deformity his life and education was slightly different from others that is apparent in his literary career also. In such a typical and unique style he wrote that it was tough for others to surpass him on this method. Pope basically revolted against emotion and imagination of renaissance or Elizabethan literature. He offered a polished, refined reincarnation of classical ethos full of reason. In the initial period of his career a slight glimpse of imagination is apparent in ‘Pastorals’ (1709), ‘Windsor Forest’ (1713). But in ‘An Essay on Criticism’ (1711) Pope took the role of moderator or literary administrator rather than poet who instructed that following the mode and regulation of the ancients could offer only best poetry. He thought that Homer was equal to ‘nature’ and there was no necessity of learning more than Homer on nature. In his ‘Essay on Criticism’, Pope used capital alphabets for nature to indicate that it’s an omnipotent law beyond human capabilities. A poet can’t achieve this excellence of moderation by his individual effort as this seemed to be the power of Almighty available only in the primitive era. He treated nature a strength capable to hold ‘life force’ and ‘beauty’ as the controller of art. So nature is here an invincible force that can’t be subdued or ignored. Here Pope showed the inferiority of individual existence of a poets in the administration of nature. He or she is just like a electronic doll who can’t do anything except the instruction of master (nature). Pope suggested as:
‘First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame
By her just Standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang’d and Universal Light…’( Harmon, 2003,p.211)

Nature is here ‘divinely bright’ whom no human being can challenge. Pope’s notion of nature, ancientness and reason got mingled into that regulation of ‘standard judgement’ that every poet should maintain. It turned literature in to a lifeless mere structure without any appeal to life, it only offered the ‘skeleton’ , not flesh and organ. Pope’s conception of nature was totally different from Elizabethan or Romantic perceptions. Nature does not mean to Pope the external surrounding of the universe that acted as background of literature in all ages. Nature is omnipotent here also but it appears only as a set of dry regulation, not as a pivotal of life, air, mountain, scenery, wondering, loosing, imagination. Pope clearly banished this side of nature and cut the liberty of the poets to melt their poetic wings. His conception is attested through his suggestions in the poem:
‘Those RULES of old discover'd, not devis'd,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodis'd;
Nature, like liberty, is but restrain'd
By the same laws which first herself ordain'd.’ (Harmon ,2003,p.211)

The earlier mentioned ‘nature methodized’ is the essence of Pope’s neo-classicism. Here the capital rules exaggerated its value and Pope thought that those rules were not imaginary but discovered by the primitive scholars of classical era. Through ‘nature methodized’ Pope indicated controlling of excitement and imagination , emotional ornamentation and appealing from composition. The poet should work keeping a balance with the natural law. Poetry should be based on fact and method not upon the whimsical desires of the poet. Pope’s ‘nature methodized’ is basically an echo of classical scholar Horace’s ‘decorum’. However, Pope suggested to study the ancients in order to gain better judgement and reasoning, the glories and excellences of a particular age. Homer was the epitome of classical perfection to Pope and so prescribed in the poem, ‘Be Homer’s Works your Study, and Delight /Read them by Day, and meditate by Night…’ (Harmon 212). Here Pope’s idea of ‘nature’ and ‘ancients’ got juxtaposed where Homer possessed the divine power of nature as the model for later generations. He made the reference of another classical scholar Maro or Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro) and his devotion to rules who treated Homer as equivalent of Nature. Pope’s praising soul remarked as:
‘But when t’examine ev’ry Part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same:
…Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem;
To copy Nature is to copy Them.’ (Harmon , 2003, p.212-13)

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is one of the most important exponents of modern literature of twentieth century. Not only literature but modern criticism is highly enriched by him. The literature, social studies, humanistic approach, criticism of the last century is partially depended upon Eliot. His ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), The Waste Land (1922), "The Hollow Men" (1925), "Ash Wednesday" (1930), and Four Quartets (1943) are treated as the masterpieces of modernistic movement. The world literature is upgraded by his plays specially ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ (1935), ‘The Cocktail Party’ (1949). Moreover without Eliot twentieth century literature is tasteless and accepting his immense contribution he was awarded the most prestigious ‘Nobel Prize’ in 1948.

Eliot’s literature was partly romantic for French symbolic influences upon him. But his critical views was classic in nature as he declared in preface of ‘For Lancelot Andrews’ (1928) that ‘I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics’. From his doctrines the concept of new Criticism was originated. His view on classicism and ancients are different partly from the neo-classicism of the eighteenth century leaded by Alexander Pope. Pope was not conscious about the future of literature I upcoming time. But Eliot was a forerunner of modernism and he witnessed the devastative consequence of the World War. It provoked him to be conscious for the future of humanism and he took critical essays as his way of expressing his messages in this regard. He attempted to restructure the society as well as literature suitable and appropriate for the modern life. Something new was really needed to maintain the balance of civilization. Among several critical essays of Eliot ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’ and ‘What is a classic?’ is highly suggestive that showed the author’s position and his instinct qualities different from others. ‘Tradition and Individual talent’ was first published in Egotist (1919) and later in ‘The Sacred wood’ (1920) where the critical notions of Eliot is summarized that kept its still relevant after hundred years of publication. Eliot broke conventional conception of tradition that was merely treated in censure sense because people judge a poet or artist based on his individual talent. This type of concept is purely uncritical as no one can create any perfect achievement without he base of previous one. The glimpse of past influence is vested upon successive generations that is not visible generally. Eliot remarked as:
‘Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall 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’. (Rainey,2005,p. 152)

In this regard Eliot’s tremendous poem ‘Four Quartets’ (1943) is superb where the poet indicated man’s relation with time, eternity and the universe. The first part of the poem is ‘Burnt Norton’ shows the inter relation between past, present and future. The poet thought that past and present are connected with future and future too is pinned on present indicating that the flow of time is ever growing that can’t be divided in this way. Eliot said:
‘Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.’ (Sarker,2008,p.126)

But Eliot us unlike the neo-classicist Pope as he warned against the mere slavish imitation of the past creators. This type of tradition is not acceptable. His idea was broad that couldn’t be inherited but earned through hard working. Everybody should work a lot in order to learn the essence of the ancestors. But they should not follow everything blindly as they should earn the capacity to discriminate good from bad. It was the accessibility of Eliot’s tradition where through historical study one can realize what are the necessary thing of past for the present and future. Actually there is an active tradition from the classical days of homer to present time where both the present and past are being updated simultaneously. This sense of historical progress would allow us to learn the relation between ancient mode of literature, culture, art and its present incarnation. Any artist should show his individual talent with positive connection with historical excellence. Here Eliot’s opinion is dynamic that is not stable but changeable as while the past guides the present the present also modifies the past. If an individual artist creates something new it will modify the entire tradition of this particular form of art. In this way Eliot offered liberty of creation to individual artist to contribute his own perfection in the flow of creation. But he should do it after having full knowledge of the past and do according to the necessity of tradition. He significantly remarked as:
The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. (Rainey,2005,p.153)

Eliot also said in ‘Dry Salvage’ section of ‘Four Quartets’ :
‘The past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations,
Time the destroyer is time the preserver.’ (Sarker,2008,p.143)

Eliot praised Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare who should be followed by us. But several times Eliot suggested not to take the entire history necessarily. A good artist only takes the potential sides of history only. With critical mind he should realize what is trend and what is not for which he should be impersonal towards his treatment of past as Eliot observed, ‘he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period.’ (Rainey,2005,p.153)

His another essay ‘What is a Classic?’ is also remarkable that actually was his presidential address to Virgil society in 1944. He thought that maturity of language was a trademark of classism that was attached with developed mind and manner. In order to achieve so a person should respect the ancestors of art just like his parents and grandparents. But here the tradition is not station but dynamic that offers the space of further development. Tradition is a broad conception where a poet may keep the balance between the bygone days and the necessities of present days. Eliot praised Virgil wholeheartedly as true classical man and also acknowledged the contribution of John Milton for the enrichment of English language in spite his lack of quality of a true classicist. Most importantly Eliot thought that the classical maturity of manner and language was not truly apparent in the poetry of Alexander Pope, the forerunner of neo-classicism. He opined that Pop’s attempt to bring classicism was a narrow one lack of consciousness, sensibility or cognition. He found provincial or regional tendency in neo-classicism of eighteenth century where universal appeal was deserved from true classicism. He found it in the works of Virgil as Virgil was conscious about the historical tradition of other counties in a broad and impartial eyes. It showed his maturity of mind in broader sense as Eliot remarked:
Maturity of mind: this needs history, and the consciousness of history. Consciousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history than the history of the poet’s own people: we need this in order to see our own place in history. (Eliot, n.d. p.19)

In conclusion it may be remarked that though both of the poets Pope and Eliot was serious regarding the significance of past in present literature but their treatment were different. Eliot’s classical appeal was broader than the slender neo-classicism of Pope and his time. Pope’s theory denied the individual existence of the creator but Eliot provoked the artists to add their credibility in the flow of tradition. Actually Eliot’s conception of time is ever flowing that is not found in case of Pope. Eliot’s classicism was universal whereas Pope’s classicism was a way of satisfying own desires. Satire was a peculiar form of poetry in the classical period that was found in eighteenth century also. Horace who belonged to the time of Augustus was a scholar on this branch who playfully with the help of gentle, mild, light hearted humour criticized the social follies of his time. He was intended to rectify the degradation of society not to attack it personally. Pope copied the medium of satire but his intention was totally personal where he mercilessly attacked his own opponents. Social reformation was very little in his writings. ‘Dunciad’ (1728-1743) is notable in this regard where he tried to make his literary competitors ludicrous. He placed Lewis Theobald and Colley Cibber on the throne of ignorance. Pope’s satire was basically like ‘acid burning’ that he implied upon Joseph Addison in ‘Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot’ (1734) where his attack was merciless. Personal revenge and hatred did not take so ‘blood thirsty’ form earlier than Pope in English literature where he distorted the great value of classical satire. Eliot also showed the decadence of modern life but he is not a satirist in true sense. In a very gentle and vivid pictorial way he presented the corruption of twentieth century where his personal desires are never revealed that is also related with his notion of ‘tradition’. In his analysis of ‘The Waste Land,’ B.C. Southam asserts:
Eliot’s immediate Waste Land is the world, as he saw it, after the First World War. The ‘waste’ is not, however, that of the war’s devastation and bloodshed, but the emotional and spiritual sterility of Western man, the ‘waste’ of our civilization. Eliot does not regard this as a single moment in history, particular to the West in the twentieth century, and the poem is organized to present an inclusive, comparative vision; a perspective of history in which (by succinct allusions and references) twentieth-century forms of belief and disbelief, of culture and of life, are kept in a continuous and critical relationship with those of the past. (Southam,1968,p. 94)

In the observation of Southam, the analytical corner on past of T.S. Eliot is emphasized where the degradation of the poem is not an extinct occurrence but the extreme out blast of several situations of past. Eliot was capable to present so because he was totally impartial to his view on past, present and future. Unlike Alexander Pope, Eliot in ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’ thought that poem and poet are different matter where the mind of the poet should act the role of chemical jar that would be neutral on chemical reactions. He suggested the poets to be impersonal saying, ‘The feeling, or emotion, or vision, resulting from the poem is something different from the feeling or emotion or vision in mind of the poet’. The poet should be authentic creator depersonalizing his own emotions. The emotion of the poem and the poet might be different even such subjects might be captured in poems which the poet himself didn’t feel. Here Eliot criticized the romantic subjectivism of William Wordsworth who thought that poetry is created through the tranquil mind of the poet. Eliot augmented against this hat poetry is not the property of poet’s mind but its created by the keen observation of the poet on peculiar subject. However, he remarked that this impersonality may be achieved by a poet when he became well acknowledged about the trend of tradition. Then he will be a part of enrichment of tradition, Eliot’s observation is remarkable in this regard, ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion’. On the other hand Pope revolted against the Elizabethan renaissance but loaded his own intentional voice in his poetry. His artificially created classicism only offered a lifeless suffocated taste. Matthew Arnold remarkably opined in this regard that, ‘The difference between genuine poetry and the poetry of Dryden and pope and their school is briefly this: their poetry is conceived and composed in their wits , while genuine poetry is of the soul’. However the triumph of T.S. Eliot is that he reached to universalism and eternal glory surpassing the barriers of political boundary and time. (Super,1973,p. 202)


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Kishalaya Podder, Research Scholar (M.Phil), Department of English, University of Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal, India. E-Mail :