Selected Essays, 1917-1932 Analysis
by T. S. Eliot

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Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The Renaissance and English Writers
The Renaissance refers to the extremely broad European cultural movement characterized by a flowering of art and literature. Although it began in fourteenth-century Italy, the movement did not have much influence in English literature until the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603), which marked a new sophistication and sensibility in poetry and drama. Writers such as Edmund Spencer and Philip Sidney began this revolution in poetry, while Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd were among the first pioneers in the new dramatic verse form that came to a height with the plays of William Shakespeare.

With the introduction of printing technology, lyric poetry became widely available to all classes for the first time, and this is one of the reasons that Elizabethan writing was not confined to the court. In the plays, which people of all types could see in the theaters in London's South Bank, graceful and innovative writing in iambic pentameter (a verse form in which each line has five iambs, or feet, of two syllables each) was combined with drama containing a broad range of realistic human emotions.
Poetry and drama—including Shakespeare's later tragedies—continued to develop rapidly after Elizabeth's death in 1603 and the ascension of James I of Scotland. Poets began to divide into two main new camps: the ‘‘Sons of Ben,’’ who imitated Ben Jonson's direct language intended to get closer to meaning, and the ‘‘metaphysical poets’’ (chiefly John Donne), who were characterized (unfairly, in Eliot's and others' views) by long and complex comparisons taken to the extreme. By the 1650s, Milton's technical genius to manipulate language marked the beginning of the Restoration period in 1660.

Victorian England
The other historical period of vital importance to Selected Essays, 1917-1932 is the one immediately before Eliot's own. Chiefly important to Victorian literature are three main elements: the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the British Empire, and the fierce intellectual movement stressing moral self-consciousness. These combined to form a number of like-minded writers, particularly novelists, who wrote "realist" fiction attempting to display the actual social conditions of the time, often with moral judgments about social and political issues.

Victorian literature is also characterized, however, by the growing counterculture that exploded in the 1890s. Critics such as Walter Pater argued vehemently with eminent Victorian social and critical writers such as Matthew Arnold (although Eliot argues that Pater and Arnold are of the same philosophical disposition without knowing it). But Victorian values did not completely break down until the modernist movement of the early twentieth century.

Modernism is generally considered to have coincided with World War I, which caused drastic changes to a variety of assumptions and ways of thinking. Many modernist writers, feeling that they could no longer express themselves in old forms, responded with experimental techniques that borrowed from a variety of other movements, most notably postimpressionism (which dealt with a simplification of form in the visual arts) and naturalism (which dealt with a deterministic universe involving a brutal struggle for individual survival). Most important to modernism in fiction was James Joyce's effort to deal with a multiplicity of viewpoints that lead to an "epiphany," or sudden moment of truth and understanding. In poetry, modernism was influenced by Eliot's own poetry, with modernist poems often reflecting the spiritual decadence of Eliot's ‘‘The Waste Land.’’

Eliot, with support from his friend Ezra Pound, was clearly the authoritative father figure of this movement. His theory, which guided the main current of modernist thought, desires both to experimentally break from the immediate past and to communicate closely with a dense tradition (creating a new but classical form). Selected Essays, 1917-1932

(The entire section is 2,088 words.)