How does Eliot present the past in his poems?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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For T. S. Eliot, one of the big problems with the modern age was precisely how far it removed humans from the past and from their history. This is something that he sought to emphasise in his poetry through a presentation of the past as being vital and important. Cultural amnesia, or a forgetting of the shared past of humans, is something that T. S. Eliot argues is responsible for the many problems of modernity, and thus the various characters view past events in a favourable fashion, painting the past as if it were a golden age. Some critics actually argue that such presentations are profoundly unrealistic, as Eliot is romanticising the past, however Eliot's poetry maintains the vital importance of remembering what has happened before in order to understand the present and avoid its many pitfalls. In The Waste Land, for example, note how Eliot presents the elderly figure of Marie:

In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

Now that she is old, she no longer goes to the mountains where she had such fun as a child. Instead of having adventures, she now only reads about them, and flees the cold in the winter, voyaging towards warmer southern climes. Eliot draws a parallel here between Marie and humans in general. Instead of experiencing life, humans only read about adventures and only desire a safe life. The past in this sense is therefore presented as a judgement on the present. Throughout this poem, the unknown speaker who asks the narrator "Do you remember nothing?" clearly emphasises the importance of remembering the past, but then also of acting on it, allowing the knowledge of the past to impact the way humans live in the present.

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