Just another WordPress.com weblog

T.S. Eliot on The Social Function of Poetry

Without the poet’s unique gift of combining an exceptional sensibility with an exceptional power over words, our ability, not merely to express, but even to feel any but the crudest emotions, will degenerate.

- T. S. Eliot, The Social Function of Poetry -


Pleasure
The essential social function of poetry is first the most obvious function – to give pleasure.  A poem must perform this function if it is to perform any.  What kind of pleasure?  Eliot writes, “I can only answer, the kind of pleasure that poetry gives.”

Sensibility
Eliot starts with pleasure but moves beyond this first function.  “For if it were only pleasure, the pleasure itself could not be of the highest kind.”  While there are various types of poetry, one general function is the communication of some new experience of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility.  Concerning our individual experience of pleasure and refined sensibility, Eliot writes, “We all understand I think, both the kind of pleasure which poetry can give, and the kind of difference, beyond pleasure, which it makes to our lives.  Without producing these two effects it simply is not poetry.”

Language
Eliot moves beyond the individual’s experience of poetry to speak about the broad social function.  “The duty of the poet, as poet, is only indirectly to his people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve.”  In this function the poet impacts his people and society even if few know his name.  This social  impact of poetry comes in that it “makes a difference to the speech, to the sensibility, to the lives of all the members of society, to all the members of the community.”  This influence is indirect and diffused.

Exceptional Language and Exceptional Sensibility
There is much to consider from such an argument.  One detail worthy of attention – especially in terms of religious experience and faith – is what Eliot calls “sensibility.”  Both directly and indirectly the poet aids her people in the ability to express, understand,  and consequently be able to feel their emotions.  Poetry is especially concerned with using the common language of the people – the language, structure, rhythm, sound, and idiom common to all classes – to express emotions and feelings.  The poet has a unique function in his society, but he is not mad or just eccentric.  The poet not only has feelings but feelings that can be shared, and he “discovers new variations of sensibility which can be appropriated by others.”  The poet has a social function in that by “expressing what other people feel he is also changing the feeling by making it more conscious; he is making people more aware of what they feel already, and therefore teaching them something about themselves.”

Without the poet’s unique gift of combining an exceptional sensibility with an exceptional power over words, our ability, not merely to express, but even to feel any but the crudest emotions, will degenerate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.