Eliot finds a moral ambivalence in Chapman’s work – especially in his two plays about a French courtier, murdered in 1579, Louis de Bussy d’Amboise – which, Eliot says, is not typically Elizabethan, but is an original point of view not unlike Dostoevsky’s preference for redemption over punishment. As such, in Eliot’s view, it presages the moral quagmire that we are in (and were in, in 1924) thanks to the decline of religion.
I took in the gist of Eliot’s argument, but that’s about it, being completely unfamiliar with Chapman. I once looked into Chapman’s Homer, but was not inspired enough to write a line about it, much less a sonnet.
But there are plenty of juicy asides in the essay, including a nice little riff on the fashion of psychoanalytic literary criticism.
I do not want to adventure into a scientific field in which I have no competence, and which is already overrun by amateurs. Psychology is a legitimate field of investigation, but its shortcomings always seem to me to have been most manifest when it has been applied to literature. I will only touch upon one dilemma. Either the author [meaning, not the critic, but the author of the work the critic is writing about] is in some sense a psychoanalyst himself, in which case the work of criticism is merely to interpret the author’s analysis of his characters, or he is not: in which case the author himself is the subject of analysis. Now I have no objection to the psychologist finding if he can, an explanation in his own terms of the mind of Dostoevsky or if the mind of Chapman. But I question the legitimacy of applying psychology to a fictional character: apply it to the author, if you like, but not to his world – once you are in it.
There is a propensity today for readers and book reviewers of the New York Times Book Review ilk – I won’t go so far as to say literary critics – to analyze fictional characters and their actions according to their pet theories of human motivation. (These days those theories are just as likely to be political, feminist or racial, as psychological.) Today’s average reader overlays his world onto the world of the author, and his ultimate judgement on the success or failure of the book is based on how well the plot fits his own points of view.
Eliot would be aghast.