Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
In addition to being a successful liturgical dramatist, T. S. Eliot was an editor, an essayist, and a poet of great distinction. He became assistant editor of The Egoist in 1917 and founded The Criterion in 1922, serving as editor of the latter from then until its demise in 1939. As an essayist, Eliot explored the place of modern literature with regard to tradition, discussed the relationship between literature and ethics, and emphasized the need for a modern idiom. Among his extremely influential collections of essays are The Sacred Wood (1920) and After Strange Gods (1934), both dealing with the individual’s debt to tradition, the latter propounding a moral standpoint; The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933); and On Poetry and Poets (1957). In For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) and The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), the impact of his 1927 confirmation in the Church of England on his life and letters is particularly evident.
Eliot’s poetry has had a greater influence, not only in England and the United States but also in world literature, than that of any of his contemporaries. Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1919; printed by Leonard and Virginia Woolf), and The Waste Land (1922) illustrate his growing despair over personal problems as well as modern social trends. Ash Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1943), produced following his confirmation, are meditations concerning spiritual illumination. In Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), Eliot demonstrated his talent for writing comic verse with equal success. That work has been reprinted widely in many formats and even, in 1983, provided the basis for a Tony Award winning musical, Cats.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Any assessment of T. S. Eliot’s achievements as a dramatist must be made in the light of his own comments about the relationship between past and present, between “tradition and the individual talent.” For Eliot, a new work of art causes a rearrangement of the ideal, preexisting order. As Carol Smith points out, his comments about “historical perspective” are not innovative; what is new is his idea that the “given” order defines the artist, whose chief responsibility is to subsume his individual talent as part of the progress of literary history. Eliot’s dramatic works are therefore “classical” in the altered sense of his attempting to employ a modern idiom in the service of the imperatives of history, both literary and religious.
One of Eliot’s achievements was the presentation of liturgical drama on the modern stage to a commercial audience. His endeavor in this regard began with his writing both a pageant, The Rock, and a ritual drama, Murder in the Cathedral, for the limited audiences provided respectively by a benefit to promote church building in London and the Canterbury Festival, audiences preconditioned to dramas of redemption. (Sweeney Agonistes, an experimental fragment, was not produced until 1933.) With his later plays, however, Eliot undertook the task of convincing secular audiences that traditional ideas about redemption were viable within a modern framework. The Family Reunion, his...
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Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
When T. S. Eliot startled the poetic world with the publication of Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, he was already on his way to becoming a prolific, formidable, and renowned literary critic of extraordinary originality and depth. Between 1916 and 1920, for example, he contributed almost one hundred essays and reviews to several journals, some of which he helped edit. Although his most enduring and famous criticism (except for his superb work on Dante) is contained in such essays as “Hamlet and His Problems” and “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (The Sacred Wood, 1920), he published thirty books and pamphlets and scores of essays, many of which remain uncollected. Chief among his other volumes of prose are Homage to John Dryden (1924), Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca (1927), For Lancelot Andrewes (1928), the celebrated Dante (1929), Selected Essays (1932, 1950), The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England (1933), After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934), Essays Ancient and Modern (1936), Poetry and Drama (1951), and On Poetry and Poets (1957). From its inception in 1922 until its last issue in 1939, Eliot was editor of The Criterion and an important contributor to that and other journals concerned with literary, cultural, political, and religious matters....
(The entire section is 466 words.)
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
T. S. Eliot’s achievements are such that he became the premier poet of his own generation and enlivened literary criticism by contributing such phrases as “objective correlative,” “dissociation of sensibility,” and “impersonal” poetry. He greatly helped to foster a resurgence of interest in Dante, in the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, and in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama at a time when such a resurgence was needed. He also provided a strong critical and poetic voice that chided the Victorian and Edwardian poets while furnishing a new poetry that served as a practical criticism of theirs.
The one title he preferred, and the one by which he is best and justly remembered, is “poet.” His poetry is not, on first acquaintance, easy; and it may not be so on second or third acquaintance. He is, as he said of his own favorite writer, Dante, “a poet to whom one grows up over a lifetime.” His poetic originality, called into question in his early days by those who charged him with plagiarism, lies in the careful crafting and arrangement of lines and phrases, the introduction of literary, historical, and cultural allusions, and the elaboration of image and symbol in highly charged and often dramatic language that both describes and presents a personal emotion or experience and generalizes it. Eliot’s careful husbanding of words, phrases, images, and symbols results in a recurrence of those elements and a continuity of subject matter from his juvenilia through his first and second masterpieces (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land) to his last (Four Quartets). The themes of his greater poems, as of his lesser ones, involve...
(The entire section is 698 words.)
Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Explain how T. S. Eliot’s reading habits as a young man helped shape his literary career.
What aspects of Eliot’s depiction of J. Alfred Prufrock are totally missing in the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning and those of other earlier poets?
Explain how Eliot’s understanding of the key words in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” govern the thesis of the essay.
What must a person coming to Eliot with a reading background of poetry written before World War I learn for a minimally successful understanding of a work such as The Waste Land?
Does The Waste Land ever become, or come dangerously close to becoming, a waste land of Eliot’s scholarship?
After poems like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, why does Eliot’s Four Quartets disappoint some readers?
What is most compelling, for a reader disinclined to share Eliot’s religious convictions, in his later religious poetry?
Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
How does T. S. Eliot alter the poetic traditions to which he contributes? For instance, what is new and distinctive about the protagonist and the “love song” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?
Which images in J. Alfred Prufrock’s interior monologue best convey his insecurity and the reasons for it?
Choose one theme of The Waste Land and trace its development over the five parts of the poem.
What musical conventions does Eliot employ in his poetry?
Given Eliot’s theory of the impersonality of poetry, is it possible to read his poetry from first to last as a spiritual autobiography?
What does the assertion that Murder in the Cathedral is...
(The entire section is 142 words.)
Bibliography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. The first comprehensive biography based on Eliot’s published and unpublished writing as well as on extensive interviews with his friends and associates. Ackroyd has been praised in several reviews for his handling of both Eliot’s life and work, especially the poet’s disastrous first marriage and The Waste Land.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Murder in the Cathedral. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. A collection of the most significant articles, by a variety of critics, on one of Eliot’s most famous plays. Some of the articles tend toward obscurity, but...
(The entire section is 837 words.)