By Jon Cogburn
Carole Seymour-Jones' A Painted Shadow: A Life of Vivienne Eliot is an important book that needed to be written. Like Vivienne Forrestor's recently translated (Jody Gladding) Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, and many books on Zelda Fitzgerald, Seymour-Jones' book sheds bright light on what it was like to be a creative woman at the beginning of the previous century.* In addition to the clearly evident historical interest, these kinds of books are aesthetically relevant. Vivienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald did far more for their respective spouses' arts than serve as muses. Vivienne proofread Eliot's material and pseudonomously contributed to the Criterion. F. Scott lifted whole paragraphs of brilliant prose from Zelda's letters.
At least in the way it is taught as something in the past tense, New Criticism (which T.S. Eliot helped inspire) absolutely prohibited taking information about an artist's life to be relevant to the task of interpreting and evaluating her art. Thinking otherwise was to commit "the intentional fallacy." In the introduction to her book, Seymour-Jones approvingly quotes Randall Jarrell's 1963's critique of this view with respect to T.S.:
Won't the future say to us in helpless astonishment: 'But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlations, Classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions? From a psychoanalytical point of view he was by far and away the most interesting poet of your century.
But the purported upshot of these comments is radically confused. First, the intentional fallacy concerns criticism of art, not art itself. It's perfectly consistent (albeit ultimately daft) for a new critic to say that T.S. Eliot's intentions and the history surrounding his work are entirely irrelevant to the appraisal of that work while (non-daftly) at the same time recognizing that auto-biography played a big role in the composition of said work. To think otherwise would be to think that New Criticism somehow automatically entails that most romantic poetry is bad. But a cursory examination of Eliot's own criticism shows that this is not the case.