"We reason of these things with later reason": Plain Sense and the Poetics of Relief in Eliot and Stevens
This essay concerns the temporal dynamics of imagination in Eliot and Stevens’ later poetry and critical prose. Focussing on the Eliot of Four Quartets and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism and the Stevens of The Auroras of Autumn and The Rock, the essay will explore each poet’s mature interest in—and suspicion of—epiphanic modes of experience. Like Benjamin’s figure of the Angel of History ‘blown backward through time’, there is a strikingly retrospective quality to both Eliot and Stevens’ meditations on imaginative revelation. The Quartets and Auroras have on occasion been read as instancing a narrowing, retreat or diminution from the lucid brightness of each poet’s uniqueness of vision. I wish to suggest that the moments of retractio that characterise the appearance of Stevens’ ‘necessary angel’ and the ‘waste sad time / stretching before and after’ of Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ share a commitment to an anti-creative plainness as a vital element of the continuous turning of the imagination. For Stevens, unable to escape living ‘in a world of the imagination, … reality and contact with it are the great blessings.’ A related impulse towards divestiture manifests in the ascetic and bathetic elements of Eliot’s late poetry.
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