Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 10)
Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) 1888–1965
Eliot was an American-born poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, and publisher who became a British citizen in 1927. A neoclassicist who had a profound effect on twentieth-century poetry and literary criticism, Eliot endeavored to re-educate his readers through the use of allusions drawn from the past: classical, biblical, and mythical allusions inform his work. He used classical literary structures and experimented with musical forms in his poetry, as evidenced in his Preludes and Four Quartets. The theme of death and rebirth, central to The Waste Land, is found throughout Eliot's work, as is his preoccupation with man's place in a world governed by the exigencies of time. Eliot received both the Nobel Prize and the British Order of Merit in 1948. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Almost every poem Eliot wrote is dominated by one or more traditional epistemological concerns—knowledge and belief, memory and perception, forgetting, recognition, and precognition. But his poetry is also dominated by prophets and prophecies, magi, choric forebodings, people who know but cannot see or speak, or if they speak are not heeded. His people are surrounded by a world of talking birds, cryptic messages, telling images, and words unheard; and what his people come to know is what they should have known or do know already. Knowing is, for Eliot, an act of recognition or re-cognition…. The silent message, the word unheard—an image, a gesture, an atmosphere—is often associated with issues of life and death. Those who hear the word live; and those who do not, die. (pp. 179-80)
The word unheard … takes various forms. It may be knowledge in the possession of one who cannot speak. It may be knowledge embedded in an image not noticed. It may be an open warning, openly ignored. It may also be a silent gesture, like the nod of the Lady's head in Ash-Wednesday, fully acknowledged and acted upon, as Sweeney wisely acted among the nightingales; Eliot's word unheard is not always unregarded. But the word unheard appears most strikingly in such diverse figures as Philomel, the infant Christ in "Gerontion," and J. Alfred Prufrock—all unable to speak, and sure to be unheeded if or when speech becomes possible....
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Eliot's views on personality in poetry seem to have two phases … but offer no serious contradiction. The impersonality of the poet creates a set of poems which add up to a distinct and significant personality: the poems have the personality. The first half of this proposition, the purging of "all the accidents of personal emotion" from the poem, is not much cherished these days….
Few critics are now as eager as Eliot was to separate "art" from "the event," "the mind which creates" from "the man who suffers."
Indeed, Eliot himself is supposed to have said that The Waste Land was "only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling." But then he may have meant only that he thought The Waste Land was not a great poem, and while there are poets we must simply disfigure or dismiss if we look at them through Eliot's theory, there are others, Eliot included, whose achievement needs to be understood, not as a conquest of emotion, but as the translation of emotion into another key.
Eliot's unhappiness lies behind "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," but it is not in the poem, even as a source or a shadow. In the later work, the unhappiness appears more clearly, but it is still disciplined and displaced, so that the apparently confessional Four Quartets remain impersonal in Eliot's sense. Like the poetry...
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As a major poet T. S. Eliot began in the Waste Land and ended at Little Gidding. That both places are associated with chapels is no accident: even in the depths of the tradition [of Victorian and twentieth-century English poetry] …, the way out is symbolized for believers and unbelievers alike by religious buildings, real or legendary. Since it is in Eliot's later work that major English poetry emerges from its fixation on lost childhood and its spiritual paralysis, we naturally look for reasons that will explain his ability to reverse or (better) to complete the journey that had begun at Tintern Abbey. In The Waste Land (1922) there is already a spiritual prescription for modern man: give, sympathize, control. It is not until his culminating work twenty years later that we see fully the meaning and fruits of this advice.
"Burnt Norton" (1937), the first of the Four Quartets, begins with the observation, today almost hackneyed from frequent quotation that
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
In our context this is a pregnant assertion, though its possible meanings are not clarified at this stage of the quartets. At least it raises the possibility that the past to which we look back nostalgically may be...
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Robert Martin Adams
Whether Ulysses had such overpowering influence on The Waste Land that the latter is in effect a parody of the former is a point that need not be decided here; Joyce thought it did, but he was touchy in these matters, and even if he was right, hardly anyone connected the two works till many years after both were published. The basic fact that Ulysses made a tremendous impression on Eliot is beyond question, and nobody did more to make it clear than Eliot himself. His friends were amazed; for the first time in their experience, he was openly enthusiastic about a contemporary book. He not only talked up Ulysses among his acquaintance, he wrote, in November 1923, a most influential notice for The Dial under the heading "Ulysses, Order, and Myth"; this statement served for many years not only as a landmark of Joyce criticism, but as a credo for advocates of myth as a structural principle in modern writing.
In fact, Eliot's essay in The Dial applies more directly to the use of myth in The Waste Land than to the use of myth in Ulysses. The Grail legend as interpreted by Jessie Weston really serves as a structural principle on which Eliot hung (with the help of Pound) his observations of contemporary London. (pp. 37-8)
Robert Martin Adams, in his AfterJoyce: Studies in Fiction After "Ulysses" (copyright © 1977 by Robert Martin Adams;...
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[The] war book above all others in the 'twenties was The Waste Land, and no account of the forces that formed the 'thirties generation would be accurate that neglected that powerfully influential poem. Eliot had an acute sense of what he called 'the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history', and he put that sense of history into his poem. And in 1922 contemporary history meant vestiges of the war: hence the two veterans who meet in the first part, and Lil's husband, who has just been demobbed, in the second, and the shouting and crying in part five, which Eliot's note identifies with the Russian Revolution. But beyond that, the world of the poem, with its heaps of broken images and its shocked and passive and neurasthenic persons, is a paradigm of war's effects, and of a world emptied of order and meaning, like a battlefield after the battle. And the manner of the poem—its ironic tone, its imagery, its lack of heroes and heroism, its antirhetorical style—is also a consequence of the war, an application of war-poet principles to the post-war scene. (p. 25)
To Eliot's young admirers, The Waste Land was the essential vision of the post-war world, and the generation's donnée. It is worth noting that the generation involved here includes both the friends of Waugh at the beginning of the 'twenties, and the friends of Auden at the end…. [In] the 'twenties, when the two groups...
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