T. S. Eliot World Literature Analysis
Writing about the poetry of Eliot is difficult for a number of reasons. One major difficulty is that Eliot himself helped dictate the rules for how critics interpret poetry. He did this through his many influential essays on poetry, beginning with those in The Sacred Wood, and through the way he transformed the style of modern poetry. Every young poet writing in English after Eliot has had either to imitate or to reject him (often both).
Eliot as a thinker was profoundly interested in the role of literary tradition—the impact of earlier great writers on later ones. However, he himself in a sense started from scratch. When Pound first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he was astonished. Eliot, Pound wrote, “has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.”
Sometime in the period from 1908 through 1910, Eliot managed to create a new poetic style in English. During this time, he had been reading the French Symbolist poets, who had flourished in the last half of the nineteenth century. Eliot was especially drawn to Laforgue, whose dramatic monologues contained a mixture of highly sophisticated irony and an original, difficult style. “The form in which I began to write,” Eliot later commented, “was directly drawn from the study of Laforgue. . . . The kind of poetry that I needed, to teach me the use of my own voice, did not exist in English at all; it was only found in French.”
The immediate result of this new style was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the first major modernist poem. Modernism was an artistic movement that lasted, in American and English literature, from about 1900 to 1940, although most literature since that time continues to be heavily influenced by modernist techiques. These techniques, first developed largely by Pound and Eliot, involved the use of free verse (poetry without regular meter and rhyme), multiple speakers (or personas) within one poem, and a disjointed, nonlinear style.
Another clear influence of French Symbolist poetry on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was Eliot’s use of intensely urban imagery: Prufrock is a citizen of the modern city, an acute observer of its confusion, grime, and poignancy. The poem’s opening lines are reminiscent of images that French readers had found in the work of Baudelaire. For English readers, however, the stark pictures of Eliot’s poem were startling: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.” When Prufrock, and Other Observations appeared in 1917, readers knew that a new and powerful poetic movement was beginning to make itself felt. Eliot and Pound knew that they were creating a literary revolution: Both poets actively furthered the revolution through their essays, articles, and reviews. Two years later, in 1919, Poems was published. The volume included “Gerontion,” a monologue spoken by an old man and cast in blank verse. Once again, the setting was bleakly urban and the sensibility of the speaker was distinctly modern, which meant that the speaker’s viewpoint was ironic, detached, and resigned.
The Sacred Wood, a collection of essays, appeared soon after the publication of Poems. Scholars still debate the impact on subsequent literature of these relatively short prose articles, most of which were written for literary magazines or newspapers. Students of modern English literature agree, however, that these essays, like the poems that preceded them, permanently altered the way readers assessed poetry. Eliot not only shaped readers’ perceptions of modern poetry but also reevaluated the poetry of the past, the “tradition,” as Eliot termed it.
Two essays from the collection are particularly important: “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and “Hamlet and His Problems.” In the first, Eliot sets out two key critical ideas: the nature of the tradition and the “impersonal theory of poetry.” For Eliot, the tradition of literature comprised a living body of works that both influenced contemporary writers and, at the same time, were somehow changed by the light cast on them by modern works. According to Eliot, the masterful poet, fully conscious of working within the tradition, is very much an instrument of the tradition; that is, he or she is in a way an impersonal medium for the common literary heritage. In “Hamlet and His Problems,” Eliot introduced the theory of the “objective correlative,” the idea that the words of literature should correspond exactly with things and with emotions.
One last key critical idea of this period, introduced in “The Metaphysical Poets” and “Andrew Marvell,” was the “dissociation of sensibility.” A practical effect of Eliot’s emphasis on literary tradition was to give new importance to literary periods that had been neglected; one of these, in Eliot’s view, was the era of the Metaphysical poets at the beginning of the seventeenth century. He believed that English poetry had declined in the period following the Metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell, and that the cause of this decline lay in a “dissociation of sensibility.” In other words, thought and feeling in poems (sensibility) began to be severed (the dissociation). Poets were no longer able to join the intellect and the emotions to produce true masterworks.
These three ideas—the impersonal theory of poetry, the objective correlative, and the dissociation of sensibility—certainly changed the way American and British scholars studied poetry: Innovative critical schools, such as the American New Criticism of the late 1920’s and 1930’s, were the result, and university training in literature was also changed by these principles.
Easily as important, however, is the fact that Eliot’s theories go a long way toward explaining what he was trying to do in his poetry. In his next major poem, and his most famous, these ideas were given full play. The Waste Land is unquestionably one of the most important poems of the twentieth century. Its importance lies in its literary excellence—its insight and originality—and in its influence on other poets. Although Eliot said that he always wrote with his mind firmly on tradition, The Waste Land broke with the look, the sound, and the subject of most poetry written since the early nineteenth century. In the poem, allusions to myth, religion, Western and Eastern literature, and popular culture are almost constant; in fact, many stretches of the poem are direct, and unacknowledged, quotations from other sources. Because no one narrator appears to be speaking the poem, the work seems as impersonal as a crowded London street. The five sections of The Waste Land also constitute Eliot’s “objective correlative,” a chain of events that sparks a particular emotional mood. The mood is one of despair, loneliness, and confusion—the central feelings, Eliot believed, of modern city dwellers.
During the early and mid-1920’s, Eliot struggled to emerge from his own private wasteland. Many of the poems of this period, such as “The Hollow Men,” reflect his desperation. At the same time, he was deeply immersed in the study of the great medieval poet Dante, whose poetry and prose seemed to illuminate a way that a poet could approach religion and achieve serenity of spirit. Accordingly, at the end of the decade Eliot joined the Church of England; from then until the end of his life, he was a faithful to it. Ash Wednesday (1930) accurately describes the stage in Eliot’s life that hovered between intellectual, nonbelieving despair and instinctive religious faith. In the poem, the speaker is far less impersonal than in earlier works: There is no reason to suppose, in fact, that the narrator is not Eliot himself, a man desperately seeking his God.
By 1930, Eliot was firmly established as an influential man of letters. As his literary star continued to rise, however, his personal life became more difficult. By then, he had separated from Vivien, and in 1933, with the cooperation of her family, he had his wife committed to a mental institution. Thereafter, Eliot lived the life of a secular monk. He actually roomed in the households of celibate clergy throughout much of the 1930’s.
Eliot had also become an even more prolific writer of reviews and essays. In fact, although he published a considerable amount of important criticism during the 1930’s (including The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England, 1933, and After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, 1934), his output of poetry had slowed to a trickle.
Not so his dramatic writing. Evidently, Eliot’s creative drive had rechanneled itself toward the writing of plays, especially ones with strongly religious themes. His first full effort was The Rock, which was a modernized version of the traditional pageant play staged in a large church. The peak of his dramatic career, however, came with Murder in the Cathedral. In this play set in the Middle Ages, Eliot retells the story of the murder of Thomas à Becket by his former friend King Henry II. The work enjoyed much popular success in London and New York, and it has been repeatedly broadcast as a radio play. The widespread acceptance of Murder in the Cathedral led Eliot to believe that the time was ripe for a revival of poetic drama, although, as it turned out, he remained the only masterly practitioner of the form.
Eliot’s last great poetic achievement came during the early 1940’s, with the publication of Four Quartets. Written as Britain faced the threat of Adolf Hitler’s armies, this long poem is strongly affirmative—a real departure, in many ways, from Eliot’s previous work. Many critics argue, in fact, that this, and not The Waste Land, is his greatest poem. The Four Quartets consist of “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding” (three of which were published individually). In this sequence, Eliot has moved quite far from his earlier impersonality: The poem is nearly autobiographical, although much of it explores the relation of human beings generally to God. Each of the places named in the quartets had a deeply personal meaning to Eliot. East Coker, for example, is the town from which the Eliot family came to the New World, and the Dry Salvages are a group of small, rocky islands off the New England coast, where Eliot vacationed as a boy.
From World War II on, Eliot seemed increasingly to find the serenity for which he was searching. He continued to write plays, and these became more approachable, more popular, even more humorous.
Eliot definitely had his comic, whimsical side. Nowhere is this better displayed than in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), the series of poems about extraordinary felines that went into the making of Cats (1981), the successful Broadway hit musical. It seems reasonable to suppose that Eliot would have appreciated his success on Broadway. One of the twentieth century’s most difficult poets had at last found easy popular acclaim.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
First published: 1915 (collected in Prufrock, and Other Observations, 1917)
Type of work: Poem
A genteel, middle-aged speaker describes the emptiness and anxiety of a life lived in a grim twentieth century city.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” marks the beginning of the modernist movement in Anglo-American poetry. It is the first English-language poem in the twentieth century to employ free verse, startling juxtapositions of allusion and situation, an intensely self-conscious speaker (or “persona”), and a truly urban setting. The initial quotation is from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), the great fourteenth century epic describing the author’s descent into the Inferno and eventual ascent into Paradise. The lines (in Italian) are spoken by one of the damned souls to Dante as he journeys through Hell. Like souls in the Inferno, Prufrock exists in a kind of living death.
In the poem’s opening lines, Prufrock invites the reader to accompany him as he walks through a modern city making his social rounds. Perhaps he assumes that they share his comfortable wealth and socially active lifestyle. As his proper, even prissy, name implies, Prufrock is neurotic, fearful, sensitive, and bored. His upper-class friends—the women who “come and go”—apparently lead arid and pointless lives. At any rate, what is evident right from the outset of the poem is that Prufrock is unhappy with his life. His unhappiness, he suspects, has something to do with the society in which he lives: There is, for example, the jarring clash between the grim cityscape through which he walks and the mindless tea-party conversation of his friends.
One important way in which this poem is different from the poetry of the century before it is the way in which the speaker describes nature. In the nineteenth century, poets described the natural world as the real home of God, as the fountain at which weary human beings could refresh themselves. A nineteenth century poet, such as William Wordsworth, might have described the coming of evening as being “gentle, like a nun.” In contrast, Prufrock’s evening is like a very sick person awaiting an operation; the dusk over the city is anesthetized and spread-eagled on an operating table. The urban images that follow this one are just as grim: Prufrock’s city, which is perhaps Eliot’s London, is a town of cheap hotels and bad restaurants. The streets appear sinister; they seem to threaten the people walking in them, bullying them with pointed questions. The urban landscape is made even more ominous by a “yellow fog” that, catlike, “rubs” against windows and “licks” the “corners of the evening.”
As night falls and the fog settles in, Prufrock describes another landscape—this time, a temporal one where time stretches to infinity. He knows, however, that he will not be able to use this time to advantage; as usual, he will be indecisive. “There will be time” enough, he says, but only for “a hundred indecisions.”
Like the limitless streets outside his window, infinite time also threatens Prufrock. The more life he has left to live, the more he is left to wonder and to question. Wondering and questioning frighten him because the answers that they provoke might challenge the perfect, unchanging regularity of his tidy existence. He knows that time is dangerous, that “In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Nothing, in other words, is as settled as it seems. Nothing that has happened to Prufrock in his life is particularly comforting: He would like his life to change, but at the same time he fears change and the unexpected events that change might bring. He feels as though he already knows everything that is bound to happen to him. He especially knows the kinds of people whom he is likely to continue meeting—socialites who pin him down with their critical scrutiny.
Yet something besides these general, abstract worries bothers Prufrock. His chronic indecision blocks him from some important action. The reader never learns specifically what this thwarted act might be, but Prufrock seems to address a woman, perhaps one he loves. Their friends appear to gossip about them “among the porcelain” teacups. Prufrock implies, however, that the woman would reject him if he could ever gather his courage and tell her how he feels. He pictures her sitting in her genteel drawing room, explaining that she had not meant to encourage him: “That is not what I meant at all,” she tells him.
Prufrock knows, in any case, that he cannot be the hero of anyone’s story; he cannot be Hamlet (despite Hamlet’s similar bouts of indecision)—instead, he is only a bit player, even a Fool. He imagines himself growing old, unchanged, worrying about his health and the “risks” of eating a peach. Still, he faintly hears the mermaids of romance singing in his imagination, even though they are not singing to him. In a final imagined vision, he sees these nymphs of the sea, free and beautiful, calling him. Reality, however, intrudes in the form of “human voices,” perhaps those of the art-chattering women, and he is “drowned” in his empty life.
“Tradition and the Individual Talent”
First published: 1919 (collected in The Sacred Wood, 1920)
Type of work: Essay
The writing of a poem is a living dynamic wherein the contemporary poet is shaped by literary tradition, while, at the same time, tradition is altered by the poet.
Only rarely in the history of English literature has a critical essay, such as “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” so changed the way people understand poetry. Anyone who has any real interest in modern poetry—reader, critic, or poet—has had to confront this essay and decide for himself or herself its strengths and weaknesses.
One of the important ways that the essay has altered literary criticism has to do with the meaning of the title’s key words, “tradition” and “individual talent.” In the very first paragraph, Eliot indicates that, by “tradition,” he does not mean what people usually mean in talking about literature; ordinarily, a “traditional” writer is perhaps an old-fashioned writer, one who uses tried-and-true plots and a steady, understandable style. Rather, Eliot uses “tradition” in a more objective and historical sense: His definition of tradition is paradoxical because he says that the historical sense of tradition is a keen understanding of both what is timeless and what is not. A true poet understands “not only the pastness of the past, but . . . its presence.”
This is less confusing than it appears: Eliot simply means that for a poet writing in the tradition—a poet who understands his or her heritage—all the great poetry of the past is alive. When the poet writes a poem, great poems of the past help to enliven the modern work. This dynamic relationship is not finished when the poem is written, however, because the new poem casts a new light on the poems that came before. In the same way that the tradition of great poetry helped shape a new, modern poem, the contemporary poem changes the way one looks at the poems that shaped it.
Another apparent contradiction lies in Eliot’s use of “individual” in “individual talent.” He says that a poet’s true individuality lies in the ways he or she embodies the immortality of poetic “ancestors.” In a sense, poets who know what they are doing “plug into” tradition; electrified by the greatness of the past, they achieve a sharper profile, a greater individuality.
It is important to stress that Eliot is not saying that good poets should simply copy the poetry of the past. In fact, he argues just the opposite: Good poets bring something new into the world—“novelty,” he writes, “is better than repetition”—that makes an important advance on what has come before. To do this, the poet has to know what is truly new and different; a poet can do this only by having a thorough knowledge of the classic and traditional. To have this kind of knowledge means, in turn, that the poet needs to know not only about the poetry of his or her own language but also about the poetry of other nations and cultures.
In a crucial metaphor about midway in the essay, Eliot compares the poet to a catalyst in chemistry. He describes what happens when two gases are combined in the presence of a piece of platinum: A new compound is formed, but the platinum is unaffected. The platinum is the poet’s mind, which uses tradition and personal experience (the two gases) to create a poem. In this kind of literary combustion, the poet remains “impersonal.” That is, he or she manages to separate individual facts of life from the work of art that is being created. As Eliot says, “the poet has, not a ’personality’ to express, but a particular medium,” which is the medium of poetry.
In a third, concluding section of the essay, Eliot draws an important conclusion, one that has been crucial to the way poetry has been studied since the 1920’s. The essay shifts the study of a poem from an emphasis on the poet as a person, to the study of the poem isolated from the poet. After reading this essay, critics would increasingly concentrate on the internal structure of poetry—the tropes, figures, and themes of the work. At the same time, critics would banish the life of the writer from the study of his or her writings; the poet’s personality, as Eliot seemed to imply, was irrelevant to the artwork produced. The peak of this theory was reached with the New Critics and their successors in Britain and the United States from about 1930 through the 1950’s. Later years, however, have seen a waning of the impersonal theory of poetry and a return of the poet to his or her work.
The Waste Land
First published: 1922
Type of work: Poem
A complex tapestry of voices, cultures, and historical periods, the poem weaves a portrait of modern society in decay.
In order to understand The Waste Land—one of the most difficult poems in a difficult literary period—the reader might do well to envision the work as a much-spliced film or videotape, a montage of images and sounds. This imaginary film is, in a sense, a real-life documentary: There are no heroes or heroines, and there is no narrator telling readers what to think or how to feel. Instead, Eliot allows multiple voices to tell their individual stories. Many of the stories are contemporary and portray a sordid society without values; other stories are drawn from world culture and include, among other motifs, Elizabethan England, ancient Greek mythology, and Buddhist scriptures.
The poem is divided into five sections. In the first, “The Burial of the Dead,” the speaker is an old Austro-Hungarian noblewoman reminiscing about the golden days of her youth before the disasters of World War I. The second section, “A Game of Chess,” is set in the boudoir of a fashionable contemporary Englishwoman. The third, “The Fire Sermon,” mixes images of Elizabeth’s England, the Thames and Rhine rivers, and the legend of the Greek seer Tiresias. The fourth, “Death by Water,” is a brief portrait of a drowned Phoenician sea-trader. The fifth, “What the Thunder Said,” combines the above themes with that of religious peace. These parts combine in the poem’s overall montage to create a meaning that encompasses all of them. Because the poem is so complex, that meaning must be left to the individual reader; however, many students of the poem have suggested that, generally, Eliot shows his readers the collapse of Western culture in the aftermath of the war.
Part 1 is a natural beginning for Eliot’s overall panorama because the speaker, Marie, describes her memories of a key period in modern history. Clearly, her life has been materially and culturally rich. Now in old age, thoughts of the past seem to embitter her, and she spends much of her time reading. The following stanzas describe the visions of the Sibyl, a prophetess in Greek mythology, and compare these to the bogus fortune-telling of a modern Sibyl, Madame Sosostris. The section’s final stanza imagines a fog-shrouded London Bridge as a pathway in the Underworld, where souls fleetingly recognize one another.
In part 2, a narrator describes the sensual surroundings of a wealthy woman’s bedroom—the ornate chair in which the woman sits, the room’s marble floor and carved fireplace, her glittering jewels and heavy perfumes. She is bickering with a man, her husband or her lover, and complains that her “nerves are bad to-night.” Then a contrasting setting appears: a London pub. Two women are gossiping in Cockney English about a friend’s marriage gone bad.
A description of the River Thames begins part 3. The narrator juxtaposes the pretty stream that Renaissance poets saw with the garbage-filled canal of the twentieth century. Most of the section tells the story of an uninspired seduction. The speaker, ironically, is the Greek sage Tiresias, who, in legend, was changed from a man into a woman. In this androgynous mode, Tiresias can reflect on both the male and the female aspects of the modern-day affair between a seedy clerk and a tired typist. This section ends with snippets of past songs about the Thames and the Rhine.
The brief stanzas in part 4 picture Phlebas, a Middle Eastern merchant from the late classical period. The tone is elegiac: The speaker imagines the bones of the young trader washed by the seas and advises the reader to consider the brevity of life.
The final section, part 5, is set in a barren landscape, perhaps the Waste Land itself, where heat lays its heavy hand on a group of anonymous speakers. They seem to be apostles of some sacrificed god, perhaps Christ himself. The opening stanza’s description of confused “torchlight on sweaty faces” in a garden and an “agony in stony places” tends to suggest this Christian interpretation. Hope, however, has fled the holy man’s followers, who wander through the desert listening to thunder that is never followed by rain. Nevertheless, the thunder holds some small promise. The poem shifts setting again. Now the thunder crashes over an Indian jungle while the speaker listens and “translates” the thunderclaps. The thunder speaks three words in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, which is also the language of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. The first word is “Datta” (“given”), the second is “Dayadhvam” (“compassion”), and the third is “Damyata” (“control”). In this three-part message from the natural world, which tells of God’s gifts of compassion and self-control, the speaker finally finds cause for “peace”—the “shantih” of the closing line.
First published: 1943
Type of work: Poem
The speaker meditates on his own life, the passing of time, and his own relation to God and to other human beings, living and dead.
Perhaps the best way to approach the Four Quartets is to view it as Eliot’s spiritual autobiography. This long work is by far the poet’s most personal poem. In it, he drops the many masks of his earlier verse—Prufrock or the multiple speakers of The Waste Land—and meditates on the meaning of life and God. The poem is divided into four sections, the “quartets” of the title: “Burnt Norton,” the name of an English country house with a memorable garden; “East Coker,” the village from which Eliot’s English ancestors left for the New World; “The Dry Salvages,” a group of small islands off the New England coast, to which Eliot would sail as a young man; and “Little Gidding,” the name of a religious community led by Nicholas Ferrar, a seventeenth century Christian mystic.
Much of the language in this poem is undramatic, abstract, and philosophical. In fact, it is important to remember that Eliot was trained as a philosopher, so that when he uses common words such as “time” or “future,” he has thought carefully about a very particular definition. As the poem makes clear, for Eliot “time” was not at all a vague concept.
“Burnt Norton” opens, as did The Waste Land, with a memory of childhood, although this time the memory is Eliot’s own. He recalls a garden where children played hide-and-seek. The surroundings are calm, quiet, and lovely—like the memories themselves. The following parts of this first section approach the passage of time in different ways: the change of seasons as it is charted by the movement of constellations, the “still point” of religious illumination and its contrast with the “internal darkness” of worldly life, and the struggle to capture time and eternity in words (Eliot’s own struggle as a poet).
Eliot imagines an older kind of time in “East Coker,” the poem’s second section. This is rural time, the cycle of the seasons in planting and harvest. Because the farming village of East Coker is also in Eliot’s own past, as the place of his forebears, it represents historical time as well. In the section’s third stanza, he pictures what an old country festival might have been like before the Eliots departed for America. When he looks at what his ancestors have bequeathed him, however, he feels deceived. He had hoped that their heritage would teach him how to grow old gracefully, but as he looks forward into old age, he sees only death—his own and that of others, no matter how powerful or famous. Thus he struggles to come to terms with the darkness. Words, he knows, cannot encompass death. He counsels himself to have patience, neither to hope nor to strive. Most of all, he realizes that he needs to put himself under the care of the “wounded surgeon,” a figure for Christ. Dying repentant, Eliot believes, is the only true life.
“The Dry Salvages,” the third section, comprises two memories of Eliot’s youth: the rhythm of the Mississippi River in his St. Louis boyhood and the sounds of the Atlantic Ocean near his family’s summerhouse. The river and the sea are “gods,” living beings that modern people have ignored—perhaps to their peril. His thoughts turn to New England fishermen, constantly fighting the elements, waiting to return to land. He draws a parallel between these men, cast on the harsh rhythms of the ocean, and his readers. They, too, are set on a voyage whose end cannot be known. They are not the same people who left port, for every moment they are changing. Like the sea, everything around the reader is unstable and flowing. Just as individuals are incessantly losing their past selves, so they are unable to see through the mists of the future. Memory remains their only reality, unless they attain the timelessness of the saint.
“Little Gidding,” the last section, hints at an answer to Eliot’s perplexity with the many kinds of time—human, natural, and divine. As he sits in a old English chapel, he hears a “Calling.” Through Love, human beings are redeemed, and through death, they are mysteriously born again.