T. S. Eliot and Reading the Psalms

I recently stumbled across an essay on Literary Criticism by T. S. Eliot.[1] A number of issues that Eliot explores in the paper resonate with how we might read the Psalms appropriately. I hope that looking at Eliot’s essay will bear fruit for our use of the Psalms today. I need to be clear from the outset that Eliot was specifically addressing Literary Criticism. In particular his eye was on poetry, which of course coheres with our interest in the Psalms. I think the parallel with our reading the Psalms today is fair, as Literary Criticism for Eliot essentially means reading correctly.

Eliot helpfully distinguishes between two aspects of literary criticism: enjoyment and understanding.[2] For Eliot both are essential for a legitimate reading of poem. Much of his essay revolves around how one, at the expense of the other is problematic. For example, this comes to the fore in his comments about life experiences that influence the poet. Eliot refers to some debate over the influence of Wordsworth’s love interests on the quality of his poetry. This includes the scholarly conjecture regarding how this might have impacted Wordsworth’s poetic output. Eliot is not convinced that such factors are an aid to engaging with Wordsworth’ work:

For myself, I can only say that a knowledge of the springs which released a poem is not necessarily a help towards understanding the poem: too much information about the origins of the poem may even break my contact with it.[3]

This is an example where understanding has been pursued, and attention has drifted from the poem to the poem’s life setting. This, in Eliot’s view, has a negative impact on enjoying the poem as a poem. This point seems to be echoed all too often in the twentieth century project of Form Criticism as applied to the Psalms. The endless identification of competing hypothetical Sitz im Leben tends to undermine a psalm’s, i.e. a poem’s, power as poetry rather than illuminating it.

Elsewhere in his essay, Eliot points to other ways in which understanding can eclipse enjoyment. One of these is the dissection of a text by examining its sources, so he argues that:

The explanation of poetry by examination of the process of its sources is not the method of all contemporary criticism by any means; but it is a method which responds to the desire of a good many readers that poetry should be explained to them in terms of something else.[4]

This point also resonates with another problem with Form Criticism. Eliot discusses a book of literary criticism which examines some well-known major poems, where the poems were analysed line by line with no reference to the author or their other work. He captures the negative impact this has on enjoying the poems:

For nearly all the poems in the volume were poems that I had known and loved for many years; and after reading the analyses, I found I was slow to recover my previous feeling about the poems. It was as if someone had taken a machine to pieces and it left me with the task of reassembling the parts. I suspect, in fact, that a good deal of the value of an interpretation is—that it should be my own interpretation.[5]

The point that we need to create our own interpretation is a vital one when it comes to the Psalms and indeed all Scripture. Scripture cannot be fed upon second hand—any more than poetry. However good they might be, a sermon, a blog or a commentary can only ever lead us to Scripture. If we only hear the three points, or the propositional truths of the passage, or tense and grammar, we have not experienced, or as Eliot would put it, enjoyed Scripture.

Elsewhere in his essay Eliot warns us of the potential danger of all types of critical reading:

For the tendency is so general, to believe that we understand a poem when we have identified its origins and traced the process to which the poet submitted his materials, that we may easily believe the converse—that any explanation of the poem is also an account of how it was written.[6]

Such an exploration of cause and effect is an inevitable part of understanding a poem, but only a part of the process. There is a real danger that the aspect of enjoyment which gives a poem its vitality is either forgotten or undermined. There is a danger that the attempt at understanding a poem can do violence to what a poem actually is. When the poems are the biblical Psalms what they are is poems, with all that normally means, and they also have a potential to transform. Enjoyment of the Psalms means seeing them poetically – marvelling at the language and metaphor, awakening to what they reveal and conceal about God, meditating on what they reveal about us. It also means being open to their work as Scripture which is entirely coherent and cogent with their poetic nature.

We conclude with some words of Eliot which encourage us about the vital connection we can have with the Psalms:

What matters is the experience which is the same for all human beings of different centuries and languages capable of enjoying poetry, the spark which can leap across 2,500 years.[7]

[1] T. S. Eliot, ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’, a 1956 lecture pp.111-31 in T. S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets, New York: Farrars, Straus and Giroux (1957).
[2] Passim, p.128.
[3] Passim p. 124.
[4] Passim, p.125.
[5] Passim, p.127.
[6] Passim, p.126.
[7] Passim, p.131.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks for all the materials you’ve been posting. I haven’t read a lot of them, but I’m definitely saving them for when I can get to them. I love the Psalms and think they’re very important, so anything that makes it easier to understand them is appreciated. Thanks for your labor of love.

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