T. S. Eliot’s writings on the Metaphysical poets presents the modern poet as at odds with two poets from the baroque era, Milton and Dryden. These two figures do not just differ from the modern poet but they in fact compliment one another. Milton is a Puritan writing under Cromwell, while Dryden is a royalist “man of the world” writing under the Restoration monarchs. Not that these facts should be seen as causes producing the work of either writer, as far as Eliot is concerned. But Eliot considers these historical contexts to be highly emblematic of the faults into which the respective writers fall.
The Puritan is too visionary; in other words, his epic plots and grand visions appear as entirely prior to language. It’s clear in reading Milton that he thought up all of Paradise Lost in his head first, and then ex post facto sat down to dictate it. The whole schema seems insufficiently to have passed through the crucible of the act of composition, to have been insufficiently submitted to language’s transformational forces, and this because Milton feared that the overarching schema of his epic might be destroyed by the full heat of the creative process. Not that Eliot considered Milton to be entirely useless as a poet – far from it, in fact. Rather, Eliot thought that Milton was too imaginative, letting his vision run loose in flights of fancy, while his language, powerful though it was, struggled to keep up. Because he is not firmly rooted in language, Eliot considers Milton insufficiently traditional. For Eliot there is an all important difference between true abstraction (which lifts an artwork into the Tradition, along with those of Shakespeare, Homer and the artists of Lascaux Cave) and mere fantasy (which consigns an artwork to the scrap heap of literary history, along with Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, and their science fiction-writing progeny).
Not that Eliot necessarily consciously thought this, but it’s hard for me right now not to think of the highly fragmentary Waste Land as a kind of rebuttal to Milton, what Paradise Lost might have looked like if Milton’s own ego, or self-image, as a visionary prophet, hadn’t been so bound up with the poem and he had surrended himself more fully to the depersonalizing power of language. It’s hard not to see Eliot’s reference, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, to a mock-heroic and tedious Lazarus as an offhand allusion to Milton.
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
. . .
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”
The courtier Dryden, on the other hand, rather than conceiving other-worldly visions and then attempting after the fact to put them into words, writes poetry meant to please the ear and flatter a king. Quite simply, the writer has a political or social goal and an intended effect in mind before he ever starts to write. Strategic ends, along with the ego intimately attached to them, are what the poet is unwilling to sacrifice in the act of composition. Here, the poet, again, does not allow his mind to enter fully into the crucible of language. The metamorphic power of language is always held in check, with the result that Dryden poetry never becomes sufficiently abstract. Rather than excessively visionary, like Milton’s, Dryden’s verse is excessively worldly, suitable for specific situations. Again, not that Eliot had this in mind at all, but it’s hard for me right now not to recall the fatuous Polonius in “Prufrock” as an allusion to Dryden.
I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
In sharp contrast to both these writers, Eliot, you will recall, insists that poetry must be utterly without ego: “The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, and continual extinction of personality.” Which will serve, perversely, as a transition to the poet/critic Oscar Wilde.