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Eliot in his critical essay "The Social Function of Poetry" aims to highlight the function of poetry in a society. He says that the term 'function' refers to 'what a thing ought to do rather than what it does or has done'. He, before talking about what poetry should do, traces its role from ancient societies till date. Poetry has always had a 'deliberate, conscious social purpose' (p.16). In primitive ages it had been used in religious rituals for magical purposes in form of runes and chants. Greeks also developed their drama out of religious rites. Likewise, in modern times the didactic poetry emerged that involved satire and again had the purpose of social purification through moral instruction. The poetry of nineteenth century, for instance a great deal of Shelly's work, was inspired by social and political reforms.
After dealing with the social role of poetry in general, Eliot moves on to its particular function that states what it ought to do in society. The foremost social function of poetry is that it 'has to give pleasure': ( i ) pleasure of entertainment and (ii) pleasure of value. Entertaining pleasure suggests mirth and relaxation, while the pleasure of value indicates information and learning. As some people believe that a particular social, moral, religious or political purpose in poetry restricts reader's imagination, Eliot holds that poetry always adds more to the reader's knowledge of the subject and sharpens his/her thinking power for that particular area. "There is always the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility" (p. 18).
"The impulse towards the literary use of the languages of the peoples began with poetry" (p. 19). Eliot states that poetry must be written in our own language because 'it has primarily to do with feeling and emotion; and that feeling and emotion are particular, whereas thought is general.' In other words, an alien language can express one's thought but cannot project the intensity of his original feelings and emotions. 'To feel in a new language' says Eliot is far different from 'expressing' the feeling in that language. Thus, at a social level, poetry written in its people's own language expresses their deepest feelings exposing their personalities and collective consciousness and presenting a unified vision of a healthy society.
Moving from poetry to poet, Eliot states that a poet's social function is to utilize his own language in expressing his people's feelings and emotions because 'his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve and second to extend and improve' and indirect duty then is to his people. A poet is a man of extraordinary intellect and observation having a command over human nature that allows him to versify his people's emotions in poetry. This expression of feelings enriches the language and keeps it alive forever.
It is not only the duty of a poet to preserve language but of every responsible citizen of a particular society. We cannot stop writing poetry because 'our sensibility is constantly changing, as the world about us changes'. This continuous change in society requires a development in language that is achieved through literature in its purest form. "But most people do not realize" says Eliot "that unless they go on producing great authors, and especially great poets, their language will deteriorate; their culture will deteriorate and perhaps become absorbed in a stronger one" (p.21). It is thus the responsibility of a poet and every citizen to write poetry in their own language in order to enrich it by making it more social and interactive.
Another important social function of poetry, according to Eliot, is that it ought to have a universal appeal. In other words, poetry should not be confined to a particular time or age. "It matters little whether a poet had a large audience in his own time. What matters is that there should always be at least a small audience for him in every generation" (p 21). Universality in poetry produces a definite influence on the future poets that makes them stay connected with the past and hence keep it alive forever, as Eliot says "It is, moreover, through the living authors that the dead remain alive" (p.21-22).
Conclusively, T.S. Eliot believes that poetry in its function to preserve language and influence people at a universal level is a social phenomenon. Its contribution to the improvement of language affects the people's communication in a society and polishes their artistic sensibilities. In a living and healthy society where there is 'a continuous reciprocal influence and interaction' of each upon the other, poetry influences them also who do not read it. And this is what Eliot means by the social function of poetry in its largest sense, "that it does, in proportion to its excellence and vigour, affect the speech and the sensibility of the whole nation" (p.22)
"THE SOCIAL FUNCTION OF POETRY"
CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE ESSAY "THE SOCIAL FUNCTION OF POETRY"
B.A. Sem VIII