Friday, 21 December 2001

T.S. Eliot: The Sacred Wood (1920)

Edition: University Paperbacks, 1960 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1022

The poetry of the past was extremely important to T.S. Eliot, and he wrote a fair amount of criticism. This is quite an early collection of essays, mainly about Elizabethan and Jacobean poetic drama. In most of them, the emphasis is on where earlier critics had gone wrong in their assessments of the significance and stature of the poets. While Eliot's writing is (unsurprisingly) insightful, this theme of re-examination and the tone in which it is carried out does make him seem very arrogant. (In the introduction to the second edition, he did say that some of his opinions had changed, without going into details about which, precisely.)

Generally, what Eliot has to say is interesting if rather academic. (Apart from anything else, there are untranslated quotations in at least three different languages.) He is particularly scathing about Gilbert Murray as a populariser of ancient literature - comparing a Greek actor speaking Euripides to an English one in his translation of Medea, he says that at least the original performer had the advantage of lines in his own language. With the concentration of the essays in general on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though, it is the essays on Marlowe and Jonson which are the most illuminating.

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