The Achievement of T. S. Eliot

F. O. Matthiessen
THE achievement of The Achievement (now as when the first edition appeared in 1935) is that Professor Matthiessen directs the reader firmly and intelligently to the only source for those who would “understand” Mr. Eliot’s poetry: that is. to the poems of T. S. Eliot. If the primary function of literary criticism is this sort of direction (not the substitution of commentary for the fact), then the estimations that Mr. Matthiessen has written “the authoritative introduction to Eliot” stand unchallenged.
The edition is “revised and enlarged.” The revisions reveal no substantial change in the critic’s evaluations; the enlargement consists of two essays on Eliot’s “Plays ” and “The Quartets.” The lack of revision betrays no deafness by Mr. Matthiessen to recent condemnations and glorifications of Eliot’s stature. He announces his “growing divergence from his [Eliot’s] view of life,” but the original six essays “are still meant to stand as a whole, as an estimate ... of Eliot’s poetic method.”
The added chapters are probably the least admirable. Perhaps the “contemplative depth” of Eliot’s recent works obscures the criticism. To anyone who has not been able to attain any great measure of understanding of “The Quartets,” Mr. Matthiessen’s contention that the new difficulty is one of thought rather than of form is barely instructive, and in a degree far inferior to the guidance which the 1935 edition offered to the earlier Eliot.
With the essays placed side by side, it might be suggested that here the excellence of the annotation varies conversely with the virtue of the subject matter. In any case. Mr. Matthiessen sends the reader to both the earlier and the more recent Eliot with the admonition to read him as a poet, for better or for worse, and only incidentally for politics or religion.