Study Guide

Words Alone

by Denis Donoghue

Words Alone Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Words Alone: The Poet T. S. Eliot is a unique critical work that intermixes literary biography with intimate autobiographical information about Denis Donoghue, its author, University Professor and Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University. In his close reading of Eliot’s major poems and some of his essays, Donoghue provides insights into Eliot’s writing against a backdrop of autobiographical reminiscence reflecting how, as a university student in Dublin in 1946, he first read Eliot.

Donoghue’s earliest exposure to the poet was through his relatively unsophisticated reading of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem that spoke directly to him as, according to Donoghue, it still speaks directly to young people who read it. In his earliest reading of the poem, he considered it to be a gloomy self-assessment of someone who had little going for him. He came to see more in the poem in subsequent readings, finding intimations of spiritual panic, of a confused mind in a void, and of the spiritual bankruptcy of life in general. Donoghue, as he matured and read more widely, was exposed to a broad panoply of critical theories regarding the poem, most of them considerably more sophisticated than his own early impressions of the work.

Remembering his own initial views of the poem helps Donoghue to understand why his students, the majority of whom have been exposed to little Eliot beyond “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” find in the poem reflections of their personal insecurities about what they perceive as their own inadequacies. Proceeding from the autobiographical base he establishes early in his study, Donoghue traces significant advances in his own critical understandings and perceptions. This approach humanizes his criticism and puts it on a plane that those unacquainted with recent critical theory can understand and appreciate, although the uninitiated will have to work diligently to keep up with Donoghue’s often complex arguments that, fortunately, are well articulated.

The study is enhanced by Donoghue’s musical background. Shortly after beginning his studies at University College, he became a student of lieder at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. This experience has had a profound effect upon his reading of many of Eliot’s poems, which he views as “music become speech.” Donoghue states, “If he were a composer, I think he would have gone to school with [Arnold] Schoenberg, [Anton von] Webern, or [Alban] Berg.” Donoghue is ever cognizant, in a musical sense, of Eliot’s rhythms and even more particularly of his tones and tone shifts.

Donoghue aptly compares and contrasts Eliot to other poets. He devotes an entire twenty-five-page chapter, “Stevens and Eliot,” to making extensive comparisons between Wallace Stevens and Eliot, but countless other comparisons occur throughout the book. Donoghue notes similarities between Charles Baudelaire and Eliot, noting that both often exemplify cities in their works, although he denies that there is any hard evidence to suggest that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a refutation of the pastoral qualities of William Wordsworth, as some critics have suggested.

Donoghue is at his best in his discussions of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land (1922). In focusing on “the diversity of languages with which The Waste Land’ ends,” he contends that “Eliot wanted to transcend the limits of any single language so that he could gain for his poem at least an air of universal application. . . . Eliot was remarkably sensitive not only to associations and contrasts but also to transitions from one tone to another.” He goes on to say that when Eliot does something that creates a jolt for the reader, as the ending of The Waste Landsurely does, he employs the technique to transport his audience “from one plane of reality to another.”

Of particular interest is Donoghue’s comparison of the first drafts of The Waste Land, as edited by Valerie Eliot and published in 1971 under the title The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, with the final version of the poem published in 1922. This fruitful exploration places Donoghue in opposition to various earlier critics who link the poem to Eliot’s supposed conception of the breakdown of Western civilization, as suggested by Oswald Spengler in his pessimistic but influential book Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918-1922; The Decline of the West, 1926). Spengler speculates that civilizations move in cycles and that Western civilization at the end of World War I was in a downward cycle, soon to be overtaken by a more vigorous Asian civilization.

Certainly much of Spengler’s pessimism coincides with Eliot’s as he expresses it in The...

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