Monday, September 30, 2013

Eliot and Milton

T. S. Eliot, widely considered one of Modernism's most important poets, is famous for his works such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Wasteland. He published many very influential critical essays, at least two of which directly deal with Milton.

In the first, "A Note on Milton's Verse," he claims that what Milton did well he did better than any other writer, but that "the marks against him are both more numerous and more significant than the marks to his credit." Some of these marks against Milton include his strenuous adherence to traditional language and his verbose inefficiency. Many blame Eliot and his disciples for removing Milton from the forefront of literary thought and replacing him with Donne and the metaphysical poets.

Although Eliot would later revisit the subject and give Milton some credit he had denied him,
(particularly his ability to create visual imagery through language) it could be said the the damage had been done. Eliot certainly didn't feel that Milton shouldn't be studied, but he felt that he was a poor example to aspiring poets. I personally feel from my educational experience that Milton has been snubbed-- I've certainly been assigned to read more Donne than I have Milton.

The big question for me is this: what do we do with the literary tradition that's been handed us? Do we have a responsibility to discover and revive texts that have not been necessarily popular? Or do we trust Eliot's canonization, considering the scope of his knowledge and the weight of his influence?

Eliot, T. S. Essays on Poetry and Poets. London: Faber and Faber, 1957. Print.
In this collection, Eliot's essays have been renamed simply "Milton I" and "Milton II"


  1. I think we need people to consider greatness that has been overlooked: for example, Maya Angelou's reclaiming of Zora Neale Hurston's work.

    That being said, everyone's going to have their opinions. Decide where you fall, expect some resistance. I, for one, fall more on Eliot's side of the argument. Verbose inefficiency seems a good description for what I've been annoyed with.

  2. I feel like part of the preference for Donne over Milton (especially in modern culture) is based on Milton's grounding within the classical tradition. Reading Milton takes a considerable amount of background info and a thorough understanding of classical figures, structures, and language, whereas Donne embraces a more approachable style. In short, I think we study Donne more because Milton has a steeper learning curve.

  3. Much of the differences between Eliot and Milton I feel stem from the culture of education in each era. We also have to remember the genres can hardly be compared. You would not use the same rubric for a haiku as you would a biology textbook. Paradise lost is an epic. Other poetry of Milton's is highly structured, whereas, Herbert's, Donne's, and Eliot's are not. Does that mean the quality is bad? I don't think so. Just different.

  4. Greg, I agree and disagree with you. I disagree because Eliot's poetry is also heavily steeped in classical tradition and among some of the most complex reading in the language. He strongly endorsed intellectuality in poetry, despite the difficulties it gave the reader. But I agree that it is very possible that the comparative ease of teaching Donne instead of Milton helped Eliot's beliefs stick in an academic environment.