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Book Review: T. S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination

Cécile Varry, Université de Paris

Jewel Spears Brooker, T. S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018)

As Jewel Spears Brooker (Eckerd College, FL) notes in the introduction to this book, ‘we are in the dawn of a renaissance in Eliot studies’ (p. 3). This renaissance is due in no small part to the wealth of new material that Brooker herself has contributed to making publicly available as co-editor of two volumes of the Collected Prose[1], in addition to the on-going publication of Eliot’s letters (edited by John Haffenden) and the critical edition of the Poems (edited by Ricks & McCue, 2015). T. S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination is an excellent example of the new impulse in Eliot criticism, and has already earned a great deal of praise from Eliot scholars. It is the culmination of many years of reading, teaching and research, expanding on themes that Brooker had already started delineating in her now classic work Mastery and Escape: T. S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism (1994). Her new book draws on canonical texts, for which she proposes original interpretations, as well as on less familiar materials. The structure reflects the ambition of Brooker’s critical enterprise. It sets out to trace both a dialectical movement and a biographical movement, without imposing one upon the other, or being unfaithful to the complex dynamics of individual poems. For a study of such scope and ambition, it is impressively consistent in its clarity, concision, and depth of analysis.

Eliot, from the beginning of his poetic career, was haunted by contradictions: as Brooker points out, ‘[t]he hallmark of T. S. Eliot’s early poems is the dramatization of painful psychological and social conflicts’ (p. 1). This troublesome sense of dissociation is ubiquitous in Eliot’s works. There is a permanent and acute awareness of the gap between thought and feeling, mind and body, subject and object, idealism and realism, desire and detachment, time and the timeless, what has been and what might have been. Brooker’s first chapters focus on Eliot’s longing to bridge these gaps, initially with the tools of philosophy, then with poetry, and his painful awareness of his own failure to ‘cope with his divided self’ (p. 5). Eliot’s commentators, too, have been haunted by the ghost of dualism. It is traditional to speak of ‘two Eliots’: one concerned with preserving fragments, the other with restoring wholes. The division can be drawn chronologically (pre-conversion Eliot vs. post-conversion Eliot) or follow the divide between poetry and prose (Eliot the poet vs. Eliot the critic).

Brooker’s contention is that with Eliot, ‘contradictions are best understood dialectically’ (p. 1). The dialectical imagination means that contradictions have to be acknowledged in order to be transcended into new images: its dynamic ‘involves both the preservation and transcendence of opposites’ (p. 127). While remaining conscious of the division between the ‘two Eliots’, Brooker sides with the more nuanced critical position that sorts Eliot’s oeuvre ‘into three blocks, each defined by a signature masterpiece —“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” The Waste Land, and Four Quartets’ (p. 2). But she describes these ‘blocks’ dialectically, as three stages. The first stage is marked by disjunction: Eliot’s early poems (1909 to 1911) focus on the ‘either/or’ of binaries, a dissociation ending not in resolution, but in self-mockery. Eliot’s graduate work in philosophy was instrumental in allowing him to move to a second phase (1918 to mid-1920s), which, this time, centres on the ‘both/and’ of ambivalence. Finally, the third stage (1920s to early 1940s), ushered in by his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, is a phase of unification, where binaries are transcended into ‘a pattern that is “new in every moment”[2]’ (p. 3). This overarching pattern, Brooker argues, is a reflection of Eliot’s dialectical imagination, manifesting itself on different levels: from the broader perspective of his development as a thinker (taking up, then letting go of, philosophical masters such as Bergson, Bradley and Frazer), to the narrower perspective of individual poems and images, where contradictions are introduced both as impasses and as ways to move forward.

As a French scholar, I was delighted to be asked to review a book that laid emphasis on triadic structures and explored the productivity of seemingly irreconcilable paradoxes. In France, literature students and critics are trained to think dialectics, eat dialectics, and breathe dialectics. I remember being introduced to the rules of essay writing with a reference to Hegel’s flower analogy from the preface to The Phenomenology of Mind. Three parts, always: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – bud, blossom and fruit. In the beginning, there is the bud. Then the blossom comes and negates the bud, and the fruit, in turn, negates both bud and blossom; and yet all three are necessary stages in a movement towards unity, where contradictions are transcended into an organic whole. The crowning image of Eliot’s dialectics, according to Jewel Spears Brooker, is also to do with botany – albeit of a more mystical kind: the union of the fire and the rose in Little Gidding (1942).

The dialectic of this image can be hard to grasp at first. The flaming rose does not belong to logic or philosophy: it is ‘easy to visualise […], but impossible to describe or even to comprehend as a reality apart from the image’ (p. 183). The fire and the rose, Brooker notes, are images that Eliot had been using separately for years, and because of this they have accumulated different (sometimes contradictory) meanings, and have their own inner dialectics. In the image of a rose with ‘tongues of flame […] in-folded’[3], the contradictions of St Augustine’s fire (with his emphasis on Original Sin) and Julian of Norwich’s rose (with her emphasis on the motherly nature of Christ), reason and love, intellect and feeling, are both maintained and transcended to create something new. Duality is asserted, but it is contained and overcome in a new image. Brooker argues that this image represents the culmination of Eliot’s dialectical imagination because ‘it collects and transcends the voices that sound throughout Eliot’s œuvre, which vanish and return “renewed, transfigured, in another pattern”[4]’ (p. 183). The rose of flames is the final image of Brooker’s book, and the culmination of her argument.

What is striking in such passages is the way Brooker integrates complex philosophical and theological analyses into a deeply sympathetic, emotionally intelligent study. She excels in guiding us along Eliot’s intellectual and creative trajectory, using dialectics to draw a portrait of the conflicted mind of a poet who ‘abandons nothing en route[5] (p. 17). Her exploration of Bradley’s influence on Eliot is particularly helpful, and certainly the clearest I have had the pleasure of reading so far. I was also impressed by her thorough typology of Eliot’s borrowings in The Waste Land, analysed through the lens of his debt to the social sciences, where she draws distinctions between ‘survivals’ (fragments of the past that have been transmitted like anthropological ‘facts’), allusions (interpretations of past materials that have been filtered through the mind of the modern speaker), and translations (which occupy a half-way space between the two) (pp. 65-73). Yet Brooker’s work has virtues other than the purely analytical. I was struck by the emotional complexity of her exploration of Dante’s Vita Nuova and Julian of Norwich’s comforting theodicy, and by her close attention to Gauguin’s Yellow Christ, which Eliot brought back to Harvard from Paris in 1911, and which Brooker takes upon herself to save from the critics’ prolonged silence (pp. 17-19), giving it pride of place as the frontispiece of her book. T. S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination will no doubt become a standard point of reference in the Eliotic critical canon. But it is also a labour of love; and as such, it provides an excellent introduction to a poet who spent so much of his life pondering the union of thought and feeling.


[1] Brooker co-edited the first volume (published in 2014) and is currently working on volume 8.

[2] East Coker II.35.

[3] Little Gidding V.42-46.

[4] Little Gidding III.16.

[5] The Collected Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vol. 2, ed. by Anthony Cuda & Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), p. 107.


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