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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography / literary criticism

Words Alone

Denis Donoghue

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To purchase Words Alone

Title: Words Alone
Author: Denis Donoghue
Genre: Biography / Literary Criticism
Written: 2000
Length: 299 pages
Availability: Words Alone - US
Words Alone - UK
Words Alone - Canada
  • The Poet T.S.Eliot

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, freewheeling overview of T.S.Eliot and his poetry

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 2/1/2001 Jonathan Bate
The Economist A 22/3/2001 .
The Independent . 27/1/2001 Lachlan Mackinnon
National Review A+ 9/7/2001 Jeffrey Hart
The New Criterion . 5/2001 Paul Dean
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/11/2000 Adam Kirsch
Partisan Review . (2/2002) Igor Webb
TLS B+ 9/11/2001 Angela Leighton
The Washington Post . 26/11/2000 Steven Moore

  Review Consensus:

  Interesting, well done.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Donoghue makes a good point about the hypocrisy of the liberal intellectuals who have downgraded Eliot on account of his religious convictions (.....) But he fails to address the way in which Eliot's tendency to make oracular pronouncements, in both verse and prose, has made his work date very quickly. To me, many of the poems now read as period pieces." - Jonathan Bate, Daily Telegraph

  • "Words Alone is not simply a successful attempt at a fresh survey of the most minutely scrutinised poet in English of the 20th century, for it aims to restore to readers the sense that they should -- as readers did in the last century -- "submit" to Eliot as a master of language." - The Economist

  • "Of course, there are individual readings one might quarrel with and moments when one feels there is more to be said. None the less, I read this book with mounting excitement, and finished it confident that it is the best yet written on its subject." - Lachlan Mackinnon, The Independent

  • "In Words Alone he has given us the best book written so far about Eliot. He settles one major question after another, and reinforces his authority with careful and decisive readings of the poems." - Jeffrey Hart, National Review

  • "If Words Alone differs from a standard critical study, it is in Donoghue's willingness to browse informally through his reading, to use his sources as inspiration rather than armor. Indeed, he can err on the other side: he is sometimes too casual, and does not always draw out his themes and topics with sufficient clarity." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Denis Donogue's idiosyncratic, passionate, opinionated book exposes all the rifts of literary criticism itself, divided as it is between aestheticism on the one hand, neutral, formal, celebratory, and morality, politics or religion on the other, with all their attendant "rectitudes". " - Angela Leighton. Times Literary Supplement

  • "(H)is close readings are buttressed by a wide range of background material, making Words Alone almost a history of modern poetry as well as an argument for Eliot's predominant position in that history." - Steven Moore, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Denis Donoghue's book, Words Alone, offers a personal view and interpretation of T.S.Eliot and his poetry. Mixing biography, autobiography, and literary criticism, Donoghue offers a very personal reading of Eliot and -- because Donoghue is a knowledgeable and widely-read literary critic -- a broad and useful survey of critical reaction to Eliot. It makes for an interesting and informative book.
       Donoghue discusses the central issues of Eliot's biography, from his marriage to his religion and to what is considered his anti-Semitism. Donoghue also focusses on most of the major (and some of the minor, or at least less well-known) poems, devoting individual chapters to a number of them. He gives his own readings of the poems, but also spends a great deal of time considering other readings.
       Donoghue greatly admires Eliot's work (he writes that he has never wavered from his conviction that Eliot "is one of the irrefutable poets"), but he does not hesitate to criticize or point out weaknesses. "I could live without 'The Dry Salvages'", he writes, for example, and he explains the defects and weaknesses of that poem and others. But he also offers much material and many arguments showing the value and beauty of Eliot's poetry (and his literary criticism).
       The wide range of opinion called and commented upon make this a particularly useful work. Donoghue invokes and quotes writers as varied as E.M.Cioran, Guy Davenport, R.P.Blackmur, F.R.Leavis, Gilles Deleuze, and Henry James, among others. He examines arguments about Eliot's personality, politics, and especially his attitude towards religion, and brings these to bear -- where relevant -- on his analyses of the poems.
       Donoghue is thorough and knowledgeable, easily shifting from Eliot to his critics and influences. The wealth of material is intimidating, but Donoghue writes approachably. "I'll quote the poem later and take it slowly", he writes at one point, not rushing ahead of -- and rarely overwhelming -- the reader.
       It is a remarkably broad achievement. The autobiographical digressions are a nice added element as well, allowing the reader to understand where the critic is coming from better, without straying too far afield in that direction.
       Words Alone is packed full of Eliot (and not just the words alone, though that is Donoghue's focus). A serious introduction to Eliot's work, and a useful re-examination of critical attitudes towards him and his work it is certainly something for all interested in the poet to peruse.

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Words Alone: Reviews: T.S.Eliot: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Irish-born Denis Donoghue (1928-2021) studied at University College, Dublin, and Cambridge University.

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© 2001-2021 the complete review

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