"The Romantic Englishman, the Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism"


T.S. Eliot


About the work:

This webpage presents "The Romantic Englishman, the Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism," one of the two short essays by T.S. Eliot that appeared in the "Notes on Current Letters" section of the first volume of The Tyro (Spring 1921). The essays were classified as work C119 by Donald Gallup in his bibliography of Eliot's works.


The Tyro: A Review of the Arts of Painting, Sculpture and Design was the short-lived (two issues) magazine founded and edited by Eliot's friend (Percy) Wyndham Lewis.

The other Tyro essay by Eliot is titled "The Lesson of Baudelaire." Also published in the first issue of The Tyro was Eliot's poem "Song to the Opherian" (pseudonymously attributed to Gus Krutzsch.) Both the essay and the poem can be read online at this website.

Lawrence Rainey has also republished Eliot's Tyro essays in an annotated edition of The Waste Land. The essays have also been annotated by him and the five paragraphs of "The Romantic Englishman" have four pages of notes (although, oddly, the page number that the essay was printed on is lacking.)

This webpage has used a copy of the essay as published in The Tyro as its source, not the version as printed in the book Rainey edited.


Eliot, T.S.   "The Romantic Englishman, the Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism"   Tyro,   vol. I,   Spring 1921,   p. 4

Eliot, T.S.   The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose,   Lawrence Rainey, ed.,   New Haven: Yale University Press (2005)   pp. 141-3, 210-4

Gallup, Donald.   T.S. Eliot: A Bibliography, A Revised and Extended Edition.   New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (1969)   p. 207

Website: FluxEuropa - dark music and more
Webpage: FluxEuropa: The Art and Ideas of Wyndham Lewis
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Author: Rik
Revision date: January 7, 1999
Viewed: May 22, 2006

About the copyright:

It is my understanding that this work is in the public domain in the U.S. but perhaps not in other countries (particularly in the U.K. and E.U.) Be careful about republication.

About this webpage:

Revision date (y/m/d h:m:s):
$Date: 2006/11/13 23:07:58 $
Rickard A. Parker    (raparker@theworld.com)

Hyperlinked table of contents to Eliot's text


Paragraphs in the text below have been anchored and can be linked to individually with these anchor names: #pp-1, #pp-2, #pp-3, #pp-4, #pp-5, #pp-6,

Other useful anchors are: #top, #introduction, #anchors, #text

The Romantic Englishman, the Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism

Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, Sir Giles Overreach, Squire Western, and Sir Sampson Legend, who was lately so competently revived by Mr. Byford at the Phoenix, are different contributions by distinguished mythmakers to the chief myth which the Englishman has built about himself. The myth that a man makes has transformations according as he sees himself as hero or villian, as young or old, but it is essentially the same myth; Tom Jones is not the same person, but he is the same myth, as Squire Western; Midshipman Easy is part of the same myth; Falstaff is elevated above the myth to dwell on Olympus, more than a national character. Tennyson's broad-shouldered genial Englishman is a cousin of Tunbelly Clumsy; and Mr. Chesterton, when he drinks a glass of beer (if he does drink beer), and Mr. Squire, when he plays a game of cricket (if he does play cricket), contribute their little bit. This myth has seldom been opposed or emulated; Byron, a great mythmaker did, it is true, set up the Giaour, a myth for the whole of Europe. But in our time, barren of myths--when in France there is no successor to the honnęte homme qui ne se pique de rien, and René, and the dandy, but only a deliberate school of mythopoeic nihilism--in our time the English myth is pitiably diminished. There is that degenerate, descendent, the modern John Bull, the John Bull who usually alternates with Britannia in the cartoons of Punch, a John Bull composed of Podsnap and Bottomley. And John Bull becomes less and less a force, even in a purely political role.

The theatre, naturally the best platform for the myth, affords in our time singularly little relief. What a poor showing, the military and nautical V.C.'s, the Spy, the Girl who sank the Submarine! The Englishman with a craving for the ideal (there are, we believe, a good many) famishes in the stalls of the modern theatre. The exotic spectacle, the sunshine of "Chu Chin Chow," is an opiate rather than a food. Man desires to see himself on the stage, more admirable, more forceful, more villainous, more comical, more despicable--and more much else--than he actually is. He has only the opportunity of seeing himself, sometimes, a little better dressed. The romantic Englishman is in a bad way.

It is only perhaps in the music hall, and sometimes in the cinema, that we have an opportunity for partial realization. Charlie Chaplin is not English, or American, but a universal figure, feeding the idealism of hungry millions in Czecho-Slovakia and Peru. Bur the English comedian supplies in part, and unconsciously, the defect: Little Tich, Robey, Nellie Wallace, Marie Lloyd, Mozart, Lupino Lane, George Graves, Robert Hale, and others, provide fragments of a possible English myth. They effect the Comic Purgation. The romantic Englishman, feeling in himself the possibility of being as funny as these people, is purged of unsatisfied desire, transcends himself, and unconsciously lives the myth, seeing life in the light of imagination. What is sometimes called "vulgarity" is therefore one thing that has not been vulgarised.

Only unconsciously, however, is the Englishman willing to accept his own ideal. If he were aware that the fun of the comedian was more than fun he would be unable to accept it; just as, in all probability, if the comedian were aware that his fun was more than fun he might be unable to perform it. The audience do not realize that the performance of Little Tich is a compliment, and a criticism, of themselves. Neither could they appreciate the compliment, or swallow the criticism, implied by the unpleasant persons whom Jonson put upon the stage. The character of the serious stage, when he is not simply a dull ordinary person, is confected of abstract qualities, as loyalty, greed, and so on, to which we are supposed to respond with the proper abstract emotions. But the myth is not composed of abstract qualities; it is a point of view, transmuted to importance; it is made by the transformation of the actual by imaginative genius.

The modern dramatist, and probably the modern audience, is terrified of the myth. The myth is imagination and it is also criticism, and the two are one. The Seventeenth Century had its own machinery of virtues and vices, as we have, but its drama is a criticism of humanity far more serious than its conscious moral judgments. "Volpone" does not merely show that wickedness is punished; it criticises humanity by intensifying wickedness. How we are reassured about ourselves when we make the acquaintance of such a person on the stage! I do not for a moment suggest that anyone is affected by "Volpone" or any of the colossal Seventeenth Century figures as the newspapers say little boys are by cinema desperados. The myth is degraded by the child who points a loaded revolver at another, or ties his sister to a post, or rifles a sweet-shop; the Seventeenth Century populace was not appreciably modified by its theatre; and a great theatre in our own time would not transform the retired colonel from Maida Vale into a Miles Glorious. The myth is based upon reality, but does not alter it. The material was never very fine, or the Seventeenth Century men essentially superior to ourselves, more intelligent or more passionate. They were surrounded, indeed, by fewer prohibitions, freer than the millhand, or the petrified product which the public school pours into our illimitable suburbs.


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