The Sacred Wood

by Anthony Domestico

Published in 1920, The Sacred Wood solidified T.S. Eliot’s status as one of the preeminent critical voices of his generation.  Containing the canonical “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as well as essays on Ben Johnson, Swinburne, and others, the collection shows Eliot working through a number of his most pressing critical interests: the necessary and inviolable bond between past and present literary achievement; the need for criticism that carefully attends to the integrity of a work of art, its essential relation of part to whole; and the concepts of poetic impersonality and the objective correlative.

The central essay in The Sacred Wood is “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”  Most fascinating in an initial reading of this essay is Eliot’s circling, complex definition of literary tradition.  It is not, he claims, a dead collection of writings by dead poets, “a lump, an indiscriminate bolus”; neither is it a body of work from which a few personal favorites can be chosen as exemplars of excellence.[1]  Instead, it is a complete order, an organic body in which each part (individual poem) relates to and derives its significance from its place in the whole (tradition).

This celebration of order and overarching structure may seem odd coming from the creator of The Waste Land (1922) and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), works defined by their fragmented nature and their rapid shifts in tone and form.   It is a theme, however, that runs throughout The Sacred Wood.  In his 1928 introduction to the work, Eliot declares that the collection’s main focus “is the problem of the integrity of poetry” (viii), its orderly, unified nature.  In “Dante,” an essay dealing with the seeming inability of modern poets to create philosophical poetry on the order of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Eliot writes that “the artistic emotion presented by any episode of the Comedy is dependent upon the whole” (167).   In summing up the Italian poet’s unparalleled achievement, Eliot writes, “It is one of the greatest merits of Dante’s poem that the vision is so nearly complete; it is evidence of this greatness that the significance of any single passage, of any of the passages that are selected as ‘poetry,’ is incomplete unless we ourselves apprehend the whole” (170).   In Dante, Eliot argues, there is complete interpenetration of part and whole, detail and structure.  In “The Perfect Critic,” Eliot attacks what he calls “impressionistic criticism,” the criticism of those who cannot relate their momentary, transient aesthetic experiences to the entire work of art.  The task of the critic, Eliot writes in his introduction, is “to see literature steadily and to see it whole” (xv).

Eliot’s confidence in his own ability to see literature steadily and to see it whole is impressive.  In “Hamlet and His Problems,” for instance, Eliot declares Shakespeare’s most celebrated play a “failure” (99), a work whose flawed portrayal of motivation ultimately prevents it from being a convincing work of dramatic art: “The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the motivation; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is an excess of the facts as they appear” (101).  In an essay on William Blake, Eliot playfully describes the visionary schemata created in Jerusalem and The Four Zoas: “We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy … that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house” (156).   In the first essay of the collection, “The Perfect Critic,” Eliot claims that “[Matthew] Arnold—it will be conceded—was rather a propagandist for criticism than a critic, a popularizer rather than a creator of ideas” (1).  By the time The Sacred Wood appeared in 1920, Eliot had already published Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) to much acclaim; two years later in 1922, he would publish The Waste Land and found the Criterion, establishing himself as the voice of English modernism.  The Sacred Wood sees Eliot already comfortable as an imposing arbiter of taste, an authority willing to make sweeping aesthetic claims and to speak disparagingly of idols if necessary.

Throughout the collection, Eliot virulently criticizes the unthinking, reflexive privileging of what is supposedly new and unique.  In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot writes, “One of the facts that might come to light … is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else … We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed” (48).  Critics have described modernism as a movement that defined itself as a self-conscious break from the past; Eliot instead argues for the co-temporality of past and present.

The poet, Eliot writes in this same essay, must have an “historical sense,” the “feeling that the whole of the literature from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”   There is an absolute disdain for the idea of artistic progress: Eliot writes that “art never improves” (51), that tradition (described problematically as “the mind of Europe” and “the mind of his own country”) does in fact change, but that “this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsman.”  This attitude seems to leave little room for the avant-garde or for the confidence that revolutionary changes are possible in art. What of Ezra Pound’s declaration that poets must make it new? What of Virginia Woolf’s contention that around December 1910 human character changed?

In his preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood, Eliot claims that the collection’s chief value resides in its status “as a document of its time” (vii), as the essays represent “a transition between the period immediately before the war and the period since.”  To a certain extent, this is true: it is fascinating to see Eliot work through his interests in poetic impersonality and the poet’s relation to tradition, interests that would prove so important to modernist achievement in the 1920s.

Just as valuable, however, is the sense that, in The Sacred Wood, we see a critic growing into his voice, marshaling his myriad half-formed thoughts into arresting phrases and memorable aesthetic judgments.  Take, for instance, his self-assured comparison of Dante and Shakespeare: “Shakespeare takes a character apparently controlled by a simple emotion, and analyses the character and the emotion itself. The emotion is split up into constituents—and perhaps destroyed in the process. The mind of Shakespeare was one of the most critical that has ever existed. Dante, on the other hand, does not analyse the emotion so much as he exhibits its relation to other emotions” (168).  Or his description of Swinburne: “[Language and object] are identified in the verse of Swinburne solely because the object has ceased to exist, because the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning, because language, uprooted, has adapted itself to an independent life of atmospheric nourishment” (149).  This stands not only as a beautiful evocation of Swinburne’s foregrounding of the materially of language, but also as a summation of what Eliot, Pound, and other modernists tried to achieve in their own work.


  1. ↑ T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (New York: Methuen, 1980), p. 51. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.