The Limits of T.S. Eliot’s Critical Theory of Reading

Myles Teasley

Myles Teasley (class of 2014) is from Inglewood, California, just south of Los Angeles. His academic interests include writing, literature, and the social sciences; he hopes to major in Political Science with a concentration in Middle East Studies. He hopes to work on Capitol Hill and study abroad in the Middle East before graduation. His extracurricular activities include two years on the Student Government Association, serving on the Academic Policy and Bylaws Committee, as well as being active with Admissions Office programs, and repeated attempts to start a Men’s Club Volleyball Team. Other interests include creative writing, music, beaches, and going to the movies. Myles’ work comes from Professor Suzanne Churchill’s English 220: Literary Analysis.

T.S. Eliot’s influential essays on literary criticism are as notable as the body of poetry that the writer produced. These essays provide a methodology for the analysis of his own and similar poetry.  ((I would like to acknowledge the help of my peer reviewers and Professor Suzanne Churchill.))  His emphasis on literary tradition and his insistence on removing the poem from its socioeconomic and historical contexts are critically important examples of his literary-critical ideas. I’ll admit, these ideas may help us appreciate the many illusions to the Western literary tradition offered in a poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Even when isolated from its socioeconomic and historical contexts, the poem creates its own world and can be appreciated as a dramatization of its main character’s own isolation. The many allusions to the Western tradition suggest its relationship to the canon. However, Eliot’s emphasis on tradition and de-contextualization are inadequate for understanding the work of a poet like Langston Hughes, one of Eliot’s contemporaries. To truly understand a poem like Hughes’ “Situation,” one needs no extensive knowledge of the Western tradition in literature. Rather, an understanding of the socioeconomic and historical contexts of the poem’s production prove critical for full appreciation.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot argues that the writer’s and readers’ knowledge of the Western tradition shape both the poem in creation and its ability to be understood by the audience. While certain knowledge of the Western tradition may help a reader to appreciate Eliot’s work, this need not be a requirement for robustly reading poems that differ from his own in terms of structure and content. Eliot first challenges the idea that tradition is typically underplayed in British writing. As he puts this: “We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors. . . .[yet] 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. . .assert their immorality most vigorously.1 Here, Eliot first defines tradition as the broad spectrum of literary history that influenced the writer. He believes that the individual elements of poetry for which the poet is most commonly praised are actually mere extensions of the poets who came before him. Thus, for Eliot, this aversion to tradition is, in effect, hypocritical.

Eliot goes on to narrow his requirement by including only the “whole of literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole Literature of his own country.”2 He advocates a broad understanding of a rich, but limited, historical tradition. One could argue that such advocacy constitutes de facto interpretive context, but a distinction may easily be drawn. Situating poetry within an awareness of its literary antecedents, where new poems are merely a continuation of that tradition, is not the same thing as situating the work within the social, political, historical, and even aesthetic contexts of its production. Eliot confirms this notion, stating “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.” To Eliot, what happens to the poet is “a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable,” that is to say, the continuity of tradition.

Eliot sacrifices the notion of individual inspiration, which he would come to consider simply another layer of mortar atop an already solid foundation. Eliot is aware of the wide spectrum of tradition which came before. In fact, the very introduction to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” contains an excerpt from Dante Aligheri’s fourteenth-century epic poem The Divine Comedy.3 Specifically, “Dante’s Eliot1-300x233 The Limits of T.S. Eliot's Critical Theory of Reading Inferno” contains even more references to the Western literary tradition than any one reader would be expected to recognize. Even before the reader begins to read the first stanza, Eliot includes two references: one to Dante’s “Inferno,” the other to Homer’s The Odyssey. Allusions continue as the speaker observes: “In the room the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo.”4 The invocation of Michelangelo by women hints at their attraction to the artist, but it takes an awareness of the aesthetic beauty and sexual resonance of Michelangelo’s work to appreciate the reference in full. I shall skip over the allusions to everything from the Biblical Lazarus to Shakespeare’s Hamlet because such allusions may be more obvious. However, one must ask whether or not an extensive knowledge of the Western tradition would be required if such references weren’t offered. In other words, Eliot’s traditionalist requirement seems a local rather than a global event.

In “The Frontiers of Criticism,” Eliot articulates a critical philosophy that argues against the contextual analysis of poetry as a necessary condition to understanding and appreciation.  That is to say, he believes that to understand a poem, one should ignore everything considered “extraneous:” the writer’s autobiography, his or her historical moment, as well as the social, economic, cultural, and historical contexts of production.  Eliot worries: “[A] knowledge of the springs which released a poem is not necessarily a help toward understanding the poem: too much information about the origins of a poem may even break contact with it”5 This sensibility may work for understanding a poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” But then again, the theory fails for those poems which differ from Eliot’s own in terms of content and style.

Eliot’s fears come in response to attempts by some critics to derive understandings of a Wordsworth poem by placing it in the context of Wordsworth’s own personal history at the time of the poem’s creation. Eliot is critical of what he would call “unnecessary contextualization” because he feels such an approach misdirects the reader. Perhaps such biographical resonance would be misplaced in a poem like “Prufrock” since the speaker’s entire world is established intratextually. When you read that poem, you need neither the origins of its production nor authorial history to enter the world of the speaker. Not only is certain of its imagery dreary, sleazy, and disturbing (the evening is compared to “a patient etherised upon a table” as the speaker walks “half-deserted streets. . ./of restless nights in cheap hotels/and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells”) but one must ask what kind of emotional state catalyzes such descriptions. The speaker’s observations create an entire world which is only enhanced by continued reading (and likely not by extratextual references).

Notice, for instance, the yellow fog, rubbing its way through the window panes, intent on blinding all senses, physical and mental. We are told of “October,” the gateway month to winter, the season of lifelessness and death.6 Prufrock repeats, as if trying to convince himself (as much as the implied reader) “there will be time, there will be time/to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” (Eliot, “Love Song,” 4.)) The fact that the speaker is nearly chanting, anxiously acknowledging the superficiality of humanity, illustrates his sense of isolation in this “etherised” environment. Moreover, the speaker’s abundant imagery provides a window into Prufrock’s world, an invented place: “We must not confuse knowledge–factual information about a poet’s period, the conditions of the society in which he lived, the ideas current in his time implicit in his writings, the state of the languages in his period–with understanding his poetry.”7 But what might be the limits of Eliot’s stance? And how are those limits the result of a certain privileging of Western aesthetic ideas and ideology?

Langston Hughes’s poetry makes scant reference–implicit or explicit–to the Western literary tradition, but instead urges readers to turn “outside” the text, allowing the poem to become a product of its time and social conditions. Hughes was situated within the Harlem Renaissance, a time of cultural revival for African-Americans. Using Harlem’s gritty socioeconomics for inspiration, many Eliot1-300x233 The Limits of T.S. Eliot's Critical Theory of Readingartists of the Harlem Renaissance deployed their artistic and literary talents as vital political statements. It is doubtful that a poem like “Situation” can be fully appreciated without some knowledge of the context of its production: “When I rolled three 7’s/in a row/i was scared to walk out/with the dough”8  The poem’s seventeen words contain no allusions to the Western aesthetic tradition. They neither speak of “great works,” nor hold within them some immortal link to poetry’s past. Unlike Prufrock, Hughes’ narrator is best understood by what I term “situated analysis” of the text. That is, one must literally situate the poem within its socioeconomic and historical context in order to understand the work. The poem’s overall image is fairly straightforward, and certainly could be gleaned from the text alone. Without sociocultural context, a reader could discern that the narrator is rolling dice, but without situational context, could a reader adequately comprehend the speaker’s fear to “walk out/with the dough”? Recall Eliot’s claim that “When the poem has been made, something new has happened, something that cannot be wholly explained by anything that went before.” (Eliot, “Frontiers,” 14.)) Yet, can a reader experience the full impact of the speaker’s fear without also holding a deep understanding of urban life? of American racism?  Without situating one’s analysis within (or even against) the context of white privilege as a lived event for blacks, can the political force of the poem by felt? Situated, the speaker’s “luck” simply means that the speaker now possesses “dough” that everyone else wants, and there is nothing to stop others from taking it from him. Situated analysis helps us to glimpse a part of the African-American psyche of the early twentieth century whereby distinctions between “good luck” and “bad luck” blur. The speaker’s good luck makes him a target, not a winner, a victim in a social game understood as a lived event outside the confines of the text itself.

Langston Hughes’ poetry makes scant reference–implicit or explicit–to the Western literary tradition, but instead urges readers to turn outside the text, allowing the poem to become a product of its time and social conditions.

Ultimately, Eliot’s critical advice provides methods for understanding and interpreting his own poetry, as he would like it to be interpreted and valued.  His principles aren’t adequate for interpreting work which relies of extra-textual contexts for its full meaning. In the case of Hughes’ “Situation,” extra-textual knowledge enhances rather than spoils its message. Within the frame of certain Modernist precepts, Eliot’s interpretive anchor holds, a reminder that context and situation can matter most.


Eliot, T.S. “The Frontiers of Criticism.” The Sewanee Review 64 (1956), 525-543.

Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land and Other Writings. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

Hughes, Langston. “Situation.” Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage, 1987.

  1. T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Waste Land and Other Writings. (New York: Modern Library, 2002):100. []
  2. Eliot, “Tradition,” 100. []
  3. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” The Waste Land and Other Writings. (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 3. []
  4. Eliot, “Love Song,” 4. []
  5. T.S. Eliot, “The Frontiers of Criticism,” The Sewanee Review 64 no. 4 (1956): 13. []
  6. Eliot, “Love Song,” 4. []
  7. Eliot, “Function,” 14. []
  8. Langston Hughes, “Situation,” Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, (New York: Vintage, 1987), 235. []