Changing the past; a mission for the present
I was reminded of something TS Eliot said in the collection of essays entitled The Sacred Wood.
In discussing modern literature, Eliot wonders why we place so much value on the writer’s difference to the past, on his individuality, on the ways in which he least resembles anything that has gone before. Because, Eliot argues “we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”
Eliot continues by elaborating his conception of “historical sense“, the knowledge which “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”
The important part of Eliot’s thesis is his assertion that what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.
When Chaucer presented The Canterbury Tales, the canon of English Literature consisted of everything that had gone before, up to and including The Canterbury Tales. With the knowledge that we are missing out a few generations, let us now step forward to the time of Shakespeare. The canon of English literature before and after Shakespeare was different. Before Shakespeare the canon looked one way, after Shakespeare it looked quite different. But the difference is not down to the individuality of Shakespeare alone, because Shakespeare is unthinkable without Chaucer. In fact Shakespeare is unthinkable without all of his predecessors.
This shift is repeated in every generation. By the time that TS Eliot himself arrives during the course of the twentieth century, the shape of the canon is changed again. But again it is not down to Eliot alone. The way we view the past before Eliot is different to our understanding of the past by the addition of the work of Eliot, because Eliot brings his understanding of Chaucer and Shakespeare and all the others with him. Eliot is as unthinkable without Shakespeare as Shakespeare was without Chaucer.
The existing canon of literature at any one time forms an ideal order among the individual works, which is modified by the introduction of a new work of art among them. The canon is complete before the new work is published; but after publication of the new, the whole existing order is changed, if only slightly. Everything is readjusted. All the relations, proportions and values of each work toward all of the other works is altered.
And it is in this way that the past is absolutely changed by the present.
Eliot reminds us that some one once said: “‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”
“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.“