Maybe it's appropriate that I've been doing all my thinking about T.S. Eliot on the train, from the windows of which I catch fleeting glimpses into other people's lives: a bent-over old man with a plastic shopping bag shouting angrily at a bent-over old woman; two kids in kelly green hoodies running down an alley, looking back over their shoulders; a laughing, shirtless, dreadlocked man seen through the open blind of his apartment window, a bottle of wine in his hand; other quick flashes of people living out their particular stories, in which I won't, in all probability, play even a walk-on role. Eliot was, after all, a great poet of urban alienation, of the strange mix of intimacy and distance created by life in the modern metropolis.
Except for my commute on the Metra, where I've been poking around Eliot's Selected Poems on my Kindle, I haven't had much time to devote to Eliot lately, but I do want to start getting him into my mind, since the impossibly glorious summer, free of teaching and (I hope) free of administrative chickenshit, lies just a few weeks in the future, and I'm hoping to bang out two chapters of the big, boring book I've been writing (now called Power and Poetics: A Social History of Aesthetic Autonomy in Poetry): one chapter on the rejection of Tennyson by poets coming of age in the 1890s, and another on Yeats and Eliot.
The interesting thing, for me, is how both Yeats and Eliot act out versions of Tennyson's old dilemma in radically different contexts. Tennyson really does have two distinct careers: one as a writer of somewhat cryptic, symbolic, ambiguous poems — poems like "The Kraken" or "The Eagle" or even "The Lady of Shalott" — poems that resist being converted to moral messages; and another career as the writer of poems like Enoch Arden or "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which told the bourgeoise reader what he wanted to hear about decency, self-sacrifice, and the keeping stiff of the upper lip. He had the dilemma because he inherited a tradition of aesthetic autonomy from one of the main strands of Romantic poetics (Keatsian negative capability, Coleridgean ideas of polysemous symbolism and organic form, etc.), but he wrote at a time when a certain kind of middle-class reader turned to poetry for a particular kind of self-affirming moral guidance. By the 1880s and 1890s, though, the public that had sought moral guidance in poetry was finding it elsewhere, and publishers were less interested in poetry relative to other genres than they had been. The public was rejecting poetry, and poets were rejecting the public right back, turning, with a new intensity, to aestheticism, to art for art's sake, and to an attitude that rejected poor old Tennyson as a stooge for the middlebrows. When Harold Nicholson tried to revive Tennyson's reputation in the 1920s, he did it by disowning the "Charge of the Light Brigade" side of Tennyson's poetics, and embracing the Tennyson canon to which we still cling — the side of the work that shies away from overt moralism.