T.S. Eliot wrote influential essays in New Criticism, a literary theory movement that if I understand correctly tried to revive formalism and focus on close reading and the text itself, as a response to the literary criticism of the early 20th century, which had a greater focus on external resources to help in the interpretation of the text. However, T.S. Eliot is better known for his poetry. What effect did his work in the development of New Criticism have on his poetry?

  • 2
    Many of Eliot's works require close reading to understand. Just look at some of the questions and answers about his poetry on this site =) Aug 13, 2017 at 16:37
  • 1
    Respectfully, I disagree, since a focus on textual analysis does not imply that the text need be complex. New Criticism would support close reading of any text, opaque or transparent. I think New Criticism was partially a reaction to romantic critics’ obsession with artists as individuals to be studied, and New Criticism aimed at being a more pure literary science in a way. Feb 21 at 3:54
  • @PeterElbert: Let me disagree with your comment. While close reading can often yield useful and interesting results when applied to transparent texts, there are some texts (like many of T.S. Eliot's later poems) which are relatively opaque and incomprehensible unless they are examined using close reading. If you're the author of such texts, why would you write them if you didn't know your readers would read them closely?
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 21 at 17:58
  • That’s a misleading and specious connection between New Criticism and what would be better called modernism, a period of works exhibiting complexity, allusivity, textuality, esotericism, experimentality and obliqueness. New Criticism is not “a philosophy of reading texts deeply”; taking deep dives into the significance of a word or symbol in a text goes back as long as literary analysis does. New Criticism was about textual purity, not textual complexity and studied many Romantic authors since its exponents were contemporaries of modernist writers. I might be wrong but I think so. Mar 7 at 22:40
  • It is an interesting question why modernism happened in history when it did, but it did not follow on the heels of New Criticism. I actually think it predates it. Some have argued modernists (such as Eliot) had entered a brave new world after World War I and were seeking new innovations to match shake-ups in social structures, living environments and technologies. I personally think it was a natural follow-up to preceding stylistic periods, if writing can be seen as a history of ideas, an extension of literary techniques such as realism as well as symbolism. Mar 7 at 22:45

1 Answer 1


T.S Eliot’s creative output may not necessarily have been influenced by his critical beliefs. Whereas his poetry was seemingly influenced by a number of poets in the English tradition with a kind of musical whimsicality and pathos-laden emotion, such as Tennyson, his criticism arguably focused on poets who were of a different character, epic-religious poets such as Milton for example.

Criticism and artistic creativity do not always overlap. As is quoted in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, “Aesthetics is to artists what ornithology is to birds.” Similarly, some critics have named “the authorial fallacy” the (inaccurate) notion that authors have authoritative knowledge over their own work; by contrast, artistic work can be such a highly subconscious process that artists may be blind to or unaware of apparent mechanisms or patterns behind what they themselves do, and which critics may be better positioned to establish.

My guess is that actually Eliot’s criticism and his poetry occupied relatively separate compartments of his mind, something like the difference between being an athlete vs. a coach.

In fact, it’s slightly hard to imagine how New Criticism could inspire any particular literary style, since it’s a relatively dry theory advocating how texts should be discussed and analysed, and not favouring any particular style over any other.

  • 1
    You're saying that Eliot's criticism did not affect his poetry, right? But I think this needs an argument, not just a guess! Eliot wrote a whole book on the relation of poetry to criticism (The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1935) so it would be interesting (and surprising!) to see an argument that his ideas did not apply to his own case. Feb 22 at 8:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.