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...
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