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November 17, 1957 - Image 15

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Michigan Daily, 1957-11-17
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/

TI

S. ELIOT

'On Poetry and Poets' Sums Up a Life of Trenchant Criticism

ON POETRY AND POETS. By
T. S. Eliot. New York, 1957:
Farrar, Straus and Cudahy.
308 pp. $4.50.

'by wide reading and a seductive

,]
.

By R. C. GREGORY
T S. ELIOT is a good minor poet
and a generally good, usually
interesting, frequently infuriating,
critic. As a man-of-letters Eliot is
great. Allowing an Eliot manner
of approach to an essay on the
man, a quotation from his essay
~Milton I" will justify the heresy
of such an introduction:
There is a large class of per-
sons, including some who ap-
pear in print as critics, who
regard any censure upon a
'great' poet as a breach of the
peace, as an act of wanton
iconoclasm, or even hoodlum-
ism. The derogatory criticism
that I have to make upon
(Eliot) is not intended for
such persons.. m d f
The citation which accompanied
the award of his Nobel Prize em-
phasized that Eliot's contribution
lay more in the effects he has pro-
duced in literature -- through
younger writers - than in any
self-achieved work. This is not
to award Eliot a second - class
citizenship in the land of letters
but rather to remind that he fails
to meet his own standards for
poetic greatness, three in number:
Tennyson is a great poet, for
reasons that are perfectly
clear. He has three qualities
which are seldom found to-
gether except in the greatest
poets: abundance, variety, and
complete competence.

1:

prose style.- Re-reading an Eliot:
essay with which one disagrees--
on Marvell, for example, or Pound-
-is an instructive exercise, for
one never ceases to wonder at how
Eliot can so insult the reader and
yet so 'captivate, charm, and in-
struct him. The answer must be
that Eliot does possess the right
equipment and capacity for great-
ness in criticism, one of the func-
tions of which is always to shock'
complacency at least a little bit.
Selected Essays, published several
years ago, constitutes er solid claim
to a place in the literary history
of this century's first half.:
O1N POETRY AND POETS has
sixteen essays, seven of which
are on poetry in a wide sense;
the remainder are on poets. Per-
haps no other living critics would
make a collection which opens
with Virgil and closes with Yeats
contain andessay each on Sir John.
Davies and Rudyard Kipling. No
doubt the Davies essay and the
one on Kipling were lying around
the study, had never appeared in
book format, and the arrange-
ment has chronological order to
commend it, if nothing else.
Eliot has always worked the
graveyards of English literature
for corpses to resurrect with a
deliberately minor yet tasteful
episcopal flourish. The Ph.D. ten-
dency that he abhors he prac-
tices, which is not to mention the
distinction he makes in the Kip-
ling essay between "verse" and
"poetry," nor the weekly apolo-
getic, vague excuse he offers for
doing so,
NOR IS IT really criticism of the
first order to write: "Crabbe
is a poet who has to be read in
large chunks, if at all; so if you
find him dull you must just glance

and pass by. But it is worth while
to know of his existenee, in case
he might be to your liking, and
also because that will tell you
something about the people who
like him." What will it tell?-that
they, too, are dull?
Nor is it real modesty for T. S.
Eliot to say, to members of the
British Academy, "I am aware
that my only claim upon your
attention, in speaking of Milton
or of any other great poet, is by
appeal to your curiosity, in the
hope that you may care to know
what a contemporary writer of
verse thinko of one of his prede-
cessors." The first portion of the
remark only seems modest, the
last portion is clearly something
else, for it requires more of a man
than an accident of history to
claim Milton as his predecessor.
Nor is it quite"'in keeping for a
man who claims as values classi-
cism, royalism, and catholicism, to
say of Byron, "..Byron .. would
seem the most nearly remote from
the sympathies of every living
critic: it would be interesting,
therefore, if we could have half a
dozen essays about him, to see
what agreement could be reached.
The present article-is an attempt
to start the ball rolling." The com-
mon reader, perhaps, is expected.
to sense the difference in an Eliot
"essay" and an Eliot "article,"
since poetry and verse are dif-
ferent, but whatever is the com-
mon reader to do with that meta-
phor of the rolling ball?
THERE IS ALSO the peculiar
Eliot attempt at forthright
,honesty: "Milton I," in which
Milton was finally expulsed from
whatever paradise he had been
accorded, is followed by "Milton
II," in which Milton is restored
to qualified glory. "Milton I" ap-
peared in 1936, "Milton II" in 1947.
In the earlier essay Milton was
cxpulsed, in part, because::
There is more-of Milton's in-
fluence in the badness of the
bad verse of the eighteenth
century than of anybody's
-else: he certainly did more
harm than Dryden and Pope,
and perhaps a good deal of
the obloquy which has fallen
on these two poets, especially
the latter, because of their in-
fluence ought to be transferred
to Milton.... Milton's poetry
could only be an influence for

the worse, upon any poet
whatever.
In eleven years something re-
Jnarkable happened and some
changes are made. Leaning heavily
upon Doctor Johnson's crutch,
Eliot re-enters and says:
The errors (about Milton) of
our own time have been recti-
fied by vigorous hands, and
the prejudices opposed by
commanding voices. . . . In
short, it now seems to me that
poets are sufficiently liberated
from Milton's reputation, to
approach the study of his-
work without danger, and with
profit to their poetry and. to
the English language.
Now few would claim that public
recantation requires no sense of
honesty, but few 'public recanta-
tions were ever so adroitly com-
mitted on a superficial level nor.
so little made on a real level. Eliot
really does little better by Milton
than the Kremlin encyclopedia
editors did for the late, and now
officially unlamented, Joseph
Stalin except that he prints both
his versions without instructions
for destruction of the earlier one.
WHAT IS more nearly the truth
is this, that after Eliot had
revived Donne and others as
proved useful, even necessary, by
casting Milton out, he permitted
a "purged" Milton to return. Mil-
ton hadn't changed, the litera-
ture of the eighteenth century
hadn't changed, nor Donne. Fun-
damental estimates fairly current
among the common readers of the
English language hadn't changed
either; Eliot, however, had grown
older,
Perhaps Eliot had looked again
at things two of his wisest friends
had occasion to say. NVs. Woolf
once quoted Dr. Johnson: ". . . I
rejoice to concur with the com-
mon reader; for by the common
sense- of readers, uncorrupted by
literary prejudices, after all the'
refinements of subtilty and the
dogmatism of learning, must be
finally decided all claim to poetical
honours."
THE SECOND wise friend, Sir
Desmond MacCarthy, once
wrote:
It seems to me a dubious bar-
gain to lose a Keats to gain a
Pound, to surrender a Cole-
ridge to find a Flint, to ex-
change a Milton even for an

Eliot. But must it be with us
always either this poet or
that? Does not the'same read-
er often respond both to Pope
and Blake? Surely we are all
gifted with a happy natural
inconsistency of tastes? In-
deed, we are-if only we let,
ourselves alone. We can ad-
mire poets equally who have
hardly once excellence in com- -
mon, until we apply to both
the same Aesthetic. But the
moment we start to think we
know what is the essence of
poetry we are driven to reject
much we could otherwise ad-
mire.
There is,. of course, much that
will be rejected in this book of
essays; as a book it does little to
show anything new about' Eliot,
excepting a movement toward
finishing things up: Eliot was
born, after all, in 1888.
Clearly the most interesting
essay of the lot is "The Frontiers
of Criticism," originally delivered
as a lecture at the University of
Minnesota in 1956. Eliot passes
out praise on thestate of, criticism
in general, if to no critic in par-
ticular, saying that criticism has
improved during the last thirty
years. He qualifies this tepid
praise by saying that criticism has
been too brilliant-perhaps.
F "THE FRONTIERS -of Criti-
cism" is the most interesting
essay, two others are more use-
ful: "Poetry and Drama" and "The
Three Voices of Poetry" but each
has been printed as a little book
and had periodical publication as
well. The first named should be
read, I think, in connection with
Eliot's plays and the second would
serve admirably as an introduction
to his Collected Poems.
Indeed, On Poetry and Poets is
almost all introduction. One can
say that Eliot is publishing late
the kind of work that one expects
from a young poet. There is no
doubt that it isan important book
still, for there is so little of Eliot's
writing all told. Selected Essays,
the poems and the plays may well
be indispensable; On Poetry and
Poets is a luxury.

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SURPRISE!-J. Fred Lawton looks pleasantly surprised after being shown a display containing the
first copy of "Varsity," written by Lawton and Dean Earl.V. Moore of the music school. The display
is in a local restaurant.

J

FRED

LAWTON

He's Part of a Fast-Disappearing Species

AS A CRITIC Eliot has what is
criticism's prime prerequisite,
a well-defined personal taste and
perfect confidence in it, supported

liiiTI

By LANE VANDERSLICE
Daily Staff. writer
CARICATURED by movies, sup-
posedly feared by f o o t b a l
coaches and rarely seen by stu-
dents, the "old grad" in his tradi-
tional form is rapidly becoming
the most recent kind of "vanishing
American."
For the alumnus who devotes
much of his time to his old school
is disappearing as the modern stu-
den, whose interests and affection
lie elsewhere, takes over.
But the University still has
alumni who devote time and effort
to it. Perhaps none of them ex-
emplify he traditional concept of
the "old gad" as-'well as does J.
Fred Lawton.
Although he is the man who
wrote the lyrics to "Varsity," and
many other Michigan songs, in
recent years he has needed more
and more of an introduction to
University students.
HEALTHY, active man whose
69 years would pass for 15 less
if it were not for a slight stoop
and his reminiscences, Lawton can
talk your arm off and make it a
painless operation.
Alive with memories of the Uni-
versity, he is a treasure house of
Michigan lore dating from both
before and after his attendance
here -- and can quote facts and
figures at the drop of a name or
date.
And probably the collection of

Now at Wid's .

-THE RATIONAL LOOK
in Cambridge Grey and Blue Blazers

DICKINSON

(Continued from Page 7)
tage. Emily Dickinson turned 'her
experiences of the concrete com-
monplaces of her contemporary
world into hard and clear aesthetic
images. ater theological uncer-
tainty was unorthodox, but ac-
cording to Whicher, it was directed
by the failure of the supposedly
ultimate source of truth to provide
the final unity of all things pro-
pounded by religion in - general-.
When God was not accessible, Miss
Dickinson, like Emerson, regarded
Nature as the -possible provider of
this absolute singularity or beauty.
NEXT to the theological tradi-
tion, rthe commonest unifying
factor in New England culture was
what Whicher calls "Yankee hu-
mor," or more generally, the new
American humor which was be-
ginning to grow out of the yet
heterogeneous soil of the still
young nation. Miss Dickinson's
poems are bound together by the
senses of humor and incongruity
which in her verse so often may
be equated. Vitality and imagina-
tion were a part of the cultured
New Englander's background,. and
the poet used these two elements
of fancy in even her serious writ-
ing. She was echoing.the literary
rambunctiousness of her country;
new things were being.. said
throughout America and Emily
Dickinson, isolated as she, was,
was formulating new ways to say
them.
The third of the literary: cur-
rents said to merge in Miss Dicki-
son, was Emersonian transcen.-

facts and figures he likes to tell
most is the story of how he and
(now) music school Dean Earl
V. Moore wrote "Varsity."
Lawton tells it so well that it
seems a shame to let anyone but
him do so. Leaning forward on his
chair, his glasses slipped down on
his nose, his han emphasizing
details, he absorbs the listener
into his story.
It was October 3, 1911. Dean
Moore and Lawton met in front
of the Majestic Building in De-
troit. Lawton lived in Detroit,
having been graduated the year
before. "We talked for a while,"
Lawton said, "and then Earl said
Michigan needed a new song.
SO THEY DECIDED to write one,.
Having na place nearby where.
they could go, they got on a street-
car and rode to Lawton's house.
"While eve were riding, I tried to
think of some words. Then the
words came, and Lawton paused
and lowered his voice, 'Varsity,
we're for you-Here for you-to
cheer for you--we have no fear
for you-our Varsity.'
" 'Geez,' I said, 'there's four
rhymes.' Earl and I repeated them
to ourselves until we came to our
stop."
Then, according to Lawton, they
got off the trolley and "ran like
the devil" down to his house and
the piano. Dean Moore sat down
to play. "Evidently he had gotten
the meter on he trolley," Lawton
said, "because he played the mel-
ody once and it hasn't been
changed since.
"After we went through this, I
said to Earl that it was one of
the easiest songs we had ever
written. 'It isn't written yet,' he
said, 'we still need a first stanza.'"
Dean Moore told Lawton it
needed something about defense
and offense and loyalty.
ANDSO THE PRESENT first
stanza of 'Varsity' was the re-
-sult.. "Varsity-Down the field--
Never yield-Raise high our shield
-march on to victory for Michi-
gan .. ." But here they were stuck.
Finding the tag ". . . and the
Maize and 'Blue." took almost as.
much time as writing the rest of
it. But they did, and finally were.
done.
But they were not nearly done
with the playing of it. That F'ri-
day, Lawton came to Ann Arbor
for a pep meeting in the old Uni-
versity Hall. Pep rallies were not
the seemingly well-organized- af-
fairs that they are today, for Dean.
Moore had to climb up on a lad-
der to play the organ and the
janitor said everyone had to be
out by 9 p.m.
They cheered and sang, and
then "Varsity" was given its pre-
miere. It wasn't too long before

So after more cheering, "Var-
sity" was given an encore. When
the rally finally broke up, Lawton
"heard some of the crowd whis-
tling 'Varsity' as they walked
across campus. We had no idea,
or at least didn't have very great
hopes, that the song would ever
last," Lawton said.
SONGS during this time seem
to have been written at the
drop of the then-traditional fresh-
man beanie, and Lawton wrote as
many as anyone. He helped write
and was in the first four all-male
operas, before the Union became
associated with them. Students
could make small fortunes by
writing songs for these operas.
Lawton, for example, made $500
in royalties from one song, "My
Dear" dedicated to his wife, the
former Marjorie Newton. In those
days, $500 was nearly enough to
put Lawton through school for
a year.
Besides song writing, Lawton
was a member of the varsity foot-
ball team, The Daily, Sphinx and
Michtgamua and Trigon frater-
nity.
Lawton has devoted much of
his time since graduation to being
an alumnus. In one of the first
operas he did an imitation ofI
Fielding H. Yost which he still
does for alumni groups.
On the more serious side, he
edits the Detroit University of
Michigan Club newspaper and has
written enough poems and songs
for the University/'to fill a good-
sized book.
He and Dean Moore were honor-
ed last year by the Los Angeles
U-M Club for their contributions
to University tradition.
At this prograin, the University
Glee Club premiered his and Dean
Moore's latest composition, a sa-
lute to the Glee Club for its 100th
anniversary.
LAWTON emphasizes service to
the University, He says "a
student should feel himself en-
rolled for all his life in his Uni-
versity."
"There should be five stages in
a University man's life," Lawton
says. The first four-Freshman,
Sophomore, Junior and Senior-
should be where a University man
learns to appreciate and benefit
from his University, and the final
stage - alumnus -is where he
should give back to the University
part of what the University has
given him.
This "giving back" seems to
have shaped Lawton's life. What
has he gained from al this? One
of his remarks gives the answer
as well as it can be given. "If I
knew of anyone from here to Chi-
cago who has been as happy as I

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