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The Sacred Wood Paperback – April 1, 1997
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About the Author
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888. He came to England in 1914 and published his first book of poems in 1917. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Eliot died in 1965.
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Though Eliot was one of the foremost critics of the twentieth century, his critical output was most often piecemeal, usually taking the form of essays that were published in a single book such as The Sacred Wood. In this collection of essays, there are only two or perhaps three that are much read today. The remainder deals with lesser known lights of the Elizabethan and the decades following. The essays that are of interest today are the ones that are found anthologized for undergraduate and graduate students of literature. These essays include the following: "Tradition and the Individual Talent," "Hamlet and his Problems," and possibly "Rhetoric and Poetic Drama."
In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot takes to task the Romantic holdovers from the nineteenth century who insisted on placing the thoughts and emotions of the poet directly into the poem. The proper place of the poet is to remain "outside" the poem. This tricky placement of the poet was accomplished by separating the world view of the poet (taken from and largely equivalent to the collective psyche of all humanity) from the individuating traits of the poet which belong only to him and have no connection to common humanity. Eliot uses the analogy of chemistry and physics by comparing the poet to a catalyst which alters and transmits a common lumping of universal human experience into a unique autotelic work of art called a poem. The result is a poem that bears common traits with that universal human experience but has nothing to do with the individual poet. Further, Eliot scorns the Romantic attitude which in turn scorns tradition itself. Tradition, for Eliot, is necessary for a poet to be able to appreciate how the perception of the past may be altered by a changing perception of the present. Thus, Eliot's warning that past and present are linked in a diachronic bear hug brings to mind Orwell's similar slogan from 1984.
In "Hamlet and his Problem," introduces a term that would soon become a literary staple of the New Critical lexicon: the objective correlative. He terms it as "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events...be the formula of that particular emotion" with the result that the author need not bluntly state or show that object or thing or situation for an emotion to be roused in the reader/audience. Rather the writer need do no more than present the image of that object or thing or situation for the desired emotion to be so roused. As a side note, Eliot is one of the few critics who denigrate Hamlet, calling it an "artistic failure," in that Shakespeare is too blunt in forcing emotions to arise in the audience merely due to Hamlet's over the top violent reactions and over-reactions to his interactions with Claudius, Ophelia, and Gertrude among others. The Sacred Wood then is one of the earliest attempts by a noted critic to counter the Romantic placing of the poet over the poem. In the decades to come, Eliot and the rest of the soon to be current New Critics found that their placing of the poem over the poet would be discarded as no more than some archaic footnote.