Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 13)
Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) 1888–1965
Born in the United States and later becoming a British subject, Eliot is considered by many to be the major poet and critic of our time. With The Waste Land came a radical, new poetry, filled with innovative rhythms and woven with foreign phrases and classical allusion. Eliot sought a union of intellect and feeling, frequently dealing with themes of time and disillusionment with the modern world. Initiating a new tradition in criticism as well as in poetry, Eliot wrote from a Christian, anti-romantic viewpoint, and gave new importance to such writers as Dante, Donne, and the French symbolists. As a playwright, he experimented with poetic drama, attempting a modern equivalent of Elizabethan blank verse. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
In a little short of 900 lines, [the] subtle, magnificent religious poems [in Four Quartets] contain more beauty and sense than any book within recent memory. They are capable of charming, and teaching, many thousands among the great general reading audience.
T. S. Eliot has never been an artist likely to please the bulk of that great audience. Simply as a rather solemn American-turned Englishman, he is personally unsympathetic to many. His work lacks commonness in the good sense of that word as well as the bad. It requires a patience of ear and of intellect which many readers lack; patience not merely in one reading but in many. For a long time, too, it was easy to misjudge Eliot, thanks to certain of his admirers, as the mere precious laureate of a Harvardian coterie….
Eliot is, to be sure, not a poet in the grand antique sense of spontaneous and unprecedented song. But as a devoted artificer of words and as a distiller of experience, he has always been a poet, and a particularly fine one. Unlike many greater and lesser poets, moreover, he has constantly grown and changed. In his youth he was most notably a satirist; then a mosaic artist of exquisite sensibility, a man who used the perfected expression of past artists as frankly as he used his own, to arrange, fragment by fragment, edge by edge, an image of the desolation of his time…. (p. 120)
Of all his poems [the Four Quartets] are the most stripped, the least obviously allusive, the least ingratiating in image and in diction, the most direct. They are set in a matrix of subtly intensified, conversational style. To many readers they will look, and remain, flat and forbidding. But those who will give them the care they require will find, here, the finest work of a distinguished lifetime.
Readers familiar with the great "last quartets" of Beethoven will suspect that Eliot derived from them his title, much of his form, elements of his tone and content. They will almost certainly be right, for no other works in chamber music fit the parallel. Both Beethoven and Eliot are working with the most difficult and quintessential of all materials for art: the substance of mystical experience. Both, in the effort to translate it into art, have strained traditional forms and created new ones. Both use motif, refrain, counterpoint, contrasts both violent and subtle, the normal coinage of both arts, for purposes more profound and more intense than their normal coinage, for purposes more profound and more intense than their normal transactions.
Beethoven was a man of colossal genius, originality and definitiveness; Eliot is not. That might make all the difference in the world; it makes a good deal less than might be supposed. For Eliot, if he lacks major genius, is nevertheless a man of fine intellect, of profound spiritual intelligence, and of poetic talents which, if "minor," are nevertheless unmatched in his generation. And his subject is of a dignity which, if approached with these abilities, makes excellent poetry unavoidable and great poetry possible.
There is poetry of both kinds in Four Quartets.
The heart of Eliot's meditation is Time. Not time as that hypnosis of clocks and of history which holds all human existence captive—though this sort of time gets his attention too—but time as the mystic apprehends it, "at the still point of the turning world." (pp. 121-22)
There is an opposite pole to this stillness. It may be discerned behind "the strained time-ridden faces, distracted from distraction by distraction," of any great city, any "place of disaffection" … a darkening of the soul whose opposite and whose one cure is "the darkness of God."… (pp. 123-24)
Time, moreover, is our savior as well as our destroyer. It is the air we must breathe, the lens through which we perceive timelessness, through which we become conscious….
Upon this theme, in poetry rich in paradox and reward, in mystery, in symbol, in despair and, ultimately, in hope, Eliot develops his great variations…. Each of the poems has not only its earthly-mystical locals but its season of the year and its Aristotelian element as well—which for which is not in every case clear. Of the first, the season seems to be spring, and the element air. Of the second: summer and earth. Of the third: fall and water. Of the fourth: "Winter spring" and fire. (p. 124)
"At the Still Point," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly News Magazine; copyright Time Inc. 1943), June 7, 1943 (and reprinted in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Fall-Winter, 1976, pp. 120-25).
'Gerontion' must be seen as central to Eliot's poetic practice; here he initiates and exhaustively explores permanent features of his basic idiom. Here also he enacts the logic—the social as well as verbal logic—of the conversion of words into the Word. Thereafter, the Word within the word is immanent as doctrinal justification for each poetic act. 'Gerontion' may well end in Eliot, as [Hugh] Kenner claims, one whole phase of Anglo-American linguistic practice; but emphatically it inaugurates that marriage of doctrine and poetic which determines our final sense of Eliot's career. (p. 83)
'Gerontion' by common agreement is a dramatic monologue in which the drama has collapsed into incoherence and the monologuist has disintegrated into fragments of his own memory. So much is indicated by the epigraph, a quotation from the Duke's speech to Claudio in Measure for Measure:
Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both.
This describes well enough the situation of Gerontion as a representative human figure, caught in time and shorn of grace. The epigraph serves to insist that Gerontion is not merely an emblem of modern man; his futility is the futility of all men at all times sundered from supernatural power by their refusal...
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Arnold P. Hinchliffe
The English verse dramatists sought to restore verse plays to their central place in the English theatre. T. S. Eliot began with certain advantages over poets like Claudel and Yeats because he had already brought back ordinary words and situations into poetry. Even so he experienced the inevitable difficulties of getting modern characters to speak verse convincingly…. Eliot saw his task as twofold: to overcome the prejudice against verse in the theatre and to prevent the enjoyment of verse for itself. Such enjoyment would distract the audience from the serious purpose of the plays, for Eliot had turned to the theatre to gain a wider audience for the ideas in his poetry.
Because of his great authority as poet and critic, Eliot strengthened the impression that the problem of verse drama was, simply, to find a type of verse that would work on the stage. It has always been a convention of verse drama that there was an agreed type of verse, as the Elizabethans used blank verse or French classicism the alexandrine. Given this basic premise and the dramatic quality of his poetry, Eliot's move into the theatre is extremely logical. Murder in the Cathedral (1935) was, in context, very successful but the context was not the world in which his audience lived and to which they returned at the end of the play. And Canterbury Cathedral was not the commercial theatre; it had a congregation rather than an audience…. Because he suspected...
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Joseph N. Riddel
Despite Eliot's professed historicism, and his concern with the tradition, the thing which characterizes the rhetoric of his criticism (and his poetry as well) is the absence of presence. To put it another way, history and art can only be an imperfect sign of the divine, an immanence available not to the will but only to an ascetic ecstasy. History and knowledge bear marks of guilt, as in "Gerontian," and only in the silence and innocence of the unspoken Word is the Word known in the world. As in the borrowing from the sermon of Lancelot Andrewes, the "sign" signifies an absence in itself in order to signify the "wonder" that it stands for—"The word within a word, unable to speak a word." The timeless monuments of history, of his early essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," are signs in time which signify an order that originates outside time and therefore seems to speak for the traditional idea of presence. But such signs in Eliot repeatedly become comments on themselves, and point to the silence of their own center. The sign is not of the center, but a mediation, a supplement. Eliot's symbolism is Episcopal, not Catholic, and thus a sign of history's lack, of language as a part of the universal problematic. Signs, and poems, become aesthetic objects …, each of which affirms its own center, its own silence, and not a creative origin outside itself. They are "symbols" of a lost significance. But by their own objective presence, their...
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The Eliot of 'Gerontion' and 'The Hollow Men' … is a quasi-Absentist, his protagonists the seeming victims of an incapacitated faith. The poems tempt us to share despair—at least they feel their way into it with a relish. At the same time they allow us to infer that not faith but the protagonists are to blame. They may be said to refer Christian belief to the reader and even to judge and as it were wait to receive the repentant speakers, who meanwhile enjoy their backwardness. So somehow the 'sightless' hollow men know that a holy plenitude is possible for others—others have crossed the tumid river with 'direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom'. Their desert Absentist realm, with its belatedness, its impotency, is not then the only kingdom, the only death. Now for the Absentist, absence is irremediable and insuperable; it pervades and limits everything; the 'broken jaw of our lost kingdoms' is all. By contrast, the hollow men torture themselves with knowledge of a numinous other realm—and please themselves by hanging back from it. 'Let me be no nearer', they pray as it were inversely, 'Let me also wear / deliberate disguises'. What is this if not self-willed? Their despair is disingenous.
Yet, spurious as spiritual destitution may be in his poems, Eliot provided models for Absentist forms. Introducing into English poetry an 'insidious' principle of disorientation, he dispersed the spatial and temporal closures of traditional...
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To begin with Eliot's title, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," is the second half quite what the first led us to expect? A man named J. Alfred Prufrock could hardly be expected to sing a love song; he sounds too well dressed. His name takes something away from the notion of a love song; the form of the title, that is to say, is reductive. How does he begin singing?
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky …
That sounds very pretty—lyrical—he does seem, after all, in spite of his name, to be inviting her for an evening; there is a nice rhyme—it sounds like other dim romantic verse. Then comes the third line:
Like a patient etherised upon a table …
With this line, modern poetry begins.
In the first place, the third line proves that the author of the first two lines did not mean them. They were a come-on, designed merely to get the reader off guard, so that he could be knocked down. The form, again, is reductive; an expectation has been created only to be diminished or destroyed…. And the word "then"—"Let us go then"—is really very unpromising; if he had only said, "Let us go," it would have sounded much more as if they were going to go; "Let us go then" sounds as if he had been giving it thought, and thought suggests hesitation. Of course he...
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The common observation of the coldly apocalyptic gesture in Eliot, the intoning of favored set phrases ("Unreal City"), the self-concealing reverie that proved a peculiarly satisfying mode, fit nonetheless with [Gabriel Pearson's account of the social situation of Eliot as an embattled aesthete]; but with the proviso that we take this in its spirit, since with slight alterations it could cover any symbolist retreat to language, any style enamored of obscure intensities of speech. Disinheritance being a general modernist theme, various social situations may lie behind it, not merely that of a poet who may have felt expelled from a world more sturdily composed than the one his poems would reflect. The tone of lament, or of disdainful surmise, implies some more hopeful relation to sources of health that the poems can only point to off-the-page. In certain of the early poems, some nicely turned pieces of grumbling are symptomatic of the banishment to an interior world or, more accurately, a composed and witty stage idiom, one incapable of offering any representation of the social world that is not immediately thrown into doubt by its own ironic self-regard, its appetite for appropriation and dissembling gestures.
It is of course understandably easy, and for polemical purposes useful, to allow Eliot's knowledge of certain intimate modern gestures to yield a large proposition about an entire way of life. Certainly "The Waste Land" sweeps up...
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The strength of T. S. Eliot's poetry depends on insights that mediate between morality and psychology. Eliot understood the shifting, paradoxical nature of our deepest emotions and judgments, and tried to embody this quality in his style. "All that concerned my family," he once said, "was 'right and wrong,' what was 'done and not done.'" It became the poet's discovery that what is wrong when acted may be right when remembered, that today's gladness justifies yesterday's grief, and that religious serenity may be the upper side of skepticism.
Most of Eliot's innovations of poetic technique strive to disorientate the reader. They give one a literary experience that follows the contours of reversible emotions. Reading Eliot's lines sympathetically, one enters into a drama (often incomplete) of moral judgment imposing itself on a flux of contradictory moods. His ambitious effects are formal equivalents of the process by which insight interrupts experience.
The reason Eliot assigned such importance to ambiguous or paradoxical states is that he required high purpose to live by; and purpose involves choice. The eliciting of true decisions from evasive moods became for him a fundamental occupation….
[Eliot conceived] of discipline rather than freedom as the first need of humanity. "At the bottom of man's heart," he said when he was twenty-eight—in a phrase that anticipates a line of "Gerontion"—"there...
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