T. S. Eliot American Literature Analysis
Dante, Eliot once observed of the great Italian poet, his favorite writer, is “a poet to whom one grows up over a lifetime.” So, too, is Eliot himself. Indeed, although he was a formidable, forceful, and original critic, a tireless advocate of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and a dramatist whose work endures, the one title he preferred was “poet.” This is not to slight his other work but to emphasize the principal orientation and habit of mind from which his prose and drama sprang. He assessed his own critical work in “To Criticize the Critic,” a lecture he presented at Leeds University in 1961, by distinguishing several categories of critics and placing himself among those whose criticism is a by-product of their creative activity.
Eliot’s far-ranging critical work, like his poetry, dealt with artists and styles, writers and literature, that appealed to him and contained elements he would mine for his own poetic work. From the English religious and devotional work of the seventeenth century to the work of his contemporary, the classical scholar Gilbert Murray, from the French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century to William Shakespeare, Eliot interpreted literary production in ways that seemed original and fresh. His most notable critical concepts were the necessities of tradition, of impersonality in art, of the poet’s mind as a catalyst, as expressed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), and of an objective correlative between ideas or emotions and the precise words to express them, which he discussed in “Hamlet” (1919).
Schooled in classical drama, a critic of Shakespeare (and of such dramatists as John Dryden as well as the Elizabethans and Jacobeans), and a poet who incorporated dramatic speech and situations into his poetry, Eliot came to write poetic drama only in the 1930’s. His work includes the religious pageant plays The Rock and Murder in the Cathedral. The former is more static than dramatic, a chronic piece that owes much to classical Greek drama. The latter is somewhat more dramatic, but it relies heavily on choric elements, a sermon, and a trial scene following the murder of the archbishop of Canterbury.
The sparsity of Eliot’s stage directions allows for considerable latitude in handling elements of costume, set design, lighting, and stage “business” to heighten the drama of the play. While his later efforts, The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1953), and The Elder Statesman (1958) enjoyed a brief vogue and are occasionally revived, Murder in the Cathedral remains his most popular play.
Eliot’s poetry may be generally divided into three periods, the first beginning with his earliest efforts, the most famous of which is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915). “Gerontion” (1919) marks the inception of the second period, with The Waste Land as its apex and “The Hollow Men” as its terminus; it is also the terminus of what has been called his poetry of secular humanism. “Ash Wednesday” opens the final phase of his poetic practice, which may be characterized as one of Christian humanism. As with any attempt at poetic classification, this is a descriptive one which must be applied flexibly.
Eliot’s early poetry, although steeped in tradition, was startlingly new and individual; his later poetry, similarly heavily informed by tradition, continued his own tradition of innovation. In a literary career that spanned more than half a century, he became the premier poet of his age, remembered especially for his three masterworks, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” The Waste Land, and Four Quartets. From his earliest until his last poetry, he dealt with the essentially modernist themes of anxiety, depersonalization, the quest for identity and meaning, and the search for meaning through language, as well as with the timeless theme of love, both erotic and divine, and the physical and spiritual dualities of human existence.
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