Why is T.S. Eliot worthy of critical study?  What makes him worthy of critical study in the future? Refer to two of his poems.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One reason why T.S. Eliot is worthy of critical study is because of the disenchantment expressed in his poems.

There will always be sadness in the world.  Despite its preponderance, we have a tendency to avoid paying attention to it because we avoid what makes us uncomfortable.  The work of T.S. Eliot reminds us that sadness and disenchantment are daily parts of our lives.   The only thing we can do is understand their roles in shaping our identities and world.

In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Eliot delves into a topic that most would want to avoid.  Eliot focuses on the outsider, the person on the periphery.  The poem's speaker is looking into a world unwilling to accept him. Most would want to be on the inside, and would avoid paying attention to those relegated to the margins. However, Eliot brings this experience to the poem's center.  

The poem's speaker does not command immediate respect from everyone. He is not a Romantic hero who is able to make women swoon upon seeing him. Rather, Eliot's speaker is self-conscious about his looks.  He expresses discomfort about physical details like "a bald spot in the middle of my hair" or "how his arms and legs are thin!" The speaker is not a "carpe diem" type of person.  He does not actively "seize the day" and discard the thoughts of other people.  Rather, he has "measured out" his "life with coffee spoons." This image makes us think about people who live an invisible and indistinguishable life.  He is not a "Prince Hamlet" or an "attendant lord." Rather, he will "grow old" and "wear the bottom of my pants rolled."  

Eliot challenges the poetic conventions of a hero.  This hero suffers from low self-esteem, believing the very worst about himself as the world's gaze traps him.  While this is not someone we would like to think about, our world is filled with people like this.  In our lesser moments, we might actually share the speaker's experience of being "pinned and wiggling."  Eliot's illuminates a condition we want to avoid examining.  He forces us to look at something difficult so we can better understand who we are.

"The Waste Land" is another Eliot poem that compels us to embrace difficult reflection.  Written in the wake of World War I, Eliot brings out the disillusion that is a part of the human experience.   The poem's images of broken hope are worthy of critical study.  From the opening image that does not recall the perceived vigor of spring as much as "dried tubers" to how "the dead tree gives no shelter," Eliot conjures a world where natural disillusion mirrors the state of human existence.  At the same time, he shows a desolation in human beings.  This is conveyed in images such as the "old man with wrinkled female breasts" along with how people were "once handsome and tall" but no longer.  Eliot's poem insists that we examine how disillusionment can take form in ourselves and our world. It is worthy of critical study because of the richness of images from different intellectual and spiritual traditions. These mental pictures communicate social and personal disenchantment, a topic we would rather avoid.  

In the cases of both poems, Eliot's work is worthy of critical study because it transforms us. The result of examining uncomfortable realities is that we see ourselves and our world differently.  We end up paying attention to concepts that might not immediately grab our attention. Eliot changes our thinking. It might be only for a moment, but the poems broaden our thought towards of the amazing intricacy of life.  It is filled with varying intensities of sadness, loss, and pain.  Eliot forces us to ponder this social and emotional complexity.

I would start a presentation on Eliot by stressing his background.  He is a writer that pulls from so many elements in order to communicate his ideas. Greek and Roman traditions, as well as Romantic sensibilities along with Judeo-Christian and Hindu philosophical frames of reference dominate his poetry.  When we read T.S. Eliot, we end up reading more than T.S. Eliot.  He is worthy of further study because of their vast intellectual and religious references.  I would focus on how "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Waste Land" are filled with such references. You could spend several slides probing such references.  I would conclude the presentation with how both poems focus on disillusionment, paving the way for focus on uncomfortable reality.  This becomes the final reason why Eliot's work is worthy of further study.

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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