Steven Matthews, T.S. Eliot and Early Modern Literature


Steven Matthews. T.S. Eliot and Early Modern Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. vii, 222p. ISBN 9780199574773. £50.00 (hardcover).

Steven Matthews’s book offers a comprehensive account of one of the most important critical issues in the work—poetic, critical and theatrical—of T. S. Eliot: his relationship to and absorption of an inheritance from the literature of what he called the “Elizabethan” or “Renaissance” period, of what Matthews, in the correct scholarly style of today (or perhaps of almost-yesterday) calls the “Early Modern”—the period from 1580 to 1630. Because this is so significant a relationship in Eliot, it is also highly significant in the subsequent history of literature in English, because Eliot has been so important to that literature as both poet and critic. Whether Eliot actually “invented” the Early Modern for modernity, as has often been thought by critics, is therefore an issue at the heart of the book.

Matthews considers such relevant elements of the relationship as the following: Eliot’s development of “dramatic lyricism” from early modern literature, and especially from his engagement with the work of John Donne; his translation of “Metaphysical” sensibility and conceit into a revolutionary modern, or modernist, idiom; and the cultural critique consistently, if not always effectively, implied by it. Grounded in a great deal of contextual material that uncovers Eliot’s impressively extensive reading not only in early modern literature itself but in contemporary critiques of it, and taking stock of Eliot’s immersion in the literary politics of his time, Matthews’s book will advance knowledge of his topic and prove a valuable resource for academics and postgraduate students of modern literature.

Matthews strikingly proposes that “The Assignation,” a short story by Poe, had great impact on Eliot as a child and that he discovered in it quotations from the early modern poet Henry King and playwright George Chapman that remained important to him all his life. Not only this, though, but also that what these quotations suggested to him was “the interplay between present freshness and immediacy in poetry, and the dependency of such moments upon earlier versions of the words presented” (4). This, Matthews says, “goes to the heart of his poetry” (4). Eliot’s early discovery of the significant value of what his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” calls the “historical sense” may certainly account for the allure, invitation and testamentary witness which the concept evokes from him in that piece and—variously and under other forms too—in the rest of his work. Frequently in some sense concerned with being haunted, Eliot’s poetry is haunted by literature; and his criticism tells us why this must be so. Matthews’s treatment of allusion in Eliot is responsive to this and, he claims, is to be distinguished from the approach taken by other critics.

Whether this is exactly so or not, Matthews’s readings of Eliot’s criticism and poetry are spiritedly parti-pris and take stock of a wide variety of response to it. The book is scholarly in resourceful, disciplined ways, as well as both strenuous and exacting. If one misses anything of Eliot’s own feline stealth of argument and wit, this is not necessarily to disparage the work of a scholar (which Eliot was not), but I do wish Matthews would refrain from using the word “across” so frequently and with what seems to me a wholly personal connotation.

Neil Corcoran

University of Liverpool