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.
Among the many influences on Eliot’s poetry were the organizing structures used by the French Symbolists, particularly Jules Laforgue, and the synaesthetic practice of musical poetry. Influences on his finely honed expression included Ezra Pound, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert, and the English critic Walter Pater (whose influence Eliot was eager to disavow). The works he criticized and, in part, helped to revive were grist for his poetic mill; his poetry is filled with echoes of Shakespeare and seventeenth century dramatists, of the Metaphysical poets, of Dante, and of the poets of antiquity.
Biblical and liturgical echoes also chime through in his poetry. Eliot’s use of “the dead poets,” as he called them, arose not so much from erudite pedantry as from a desire to belong to and alter the tradition in which he wrote. If his references and allusions at first appear obscure and arcane, a careful study of their place in his poems usually reveals that the one text complements or adjusts the meaning of the other.
Eliot also has a lighter side, which surfaces in his appreciative essay of Marie Lloyd, the British music-hall star, in his “five-finger exercises” of the 1930’s, and, most popularly, in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), the foundation for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular 1980’s musical play Cats. In a later, amused reassessment of his own critical work he could point to lapses that he said surfaced as “the occasional note of arrogance, of vehemence, of cocksureness or rudeness, the braggadocio of a mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter.” The humorous side of Eliot’s work helps inform the ironic and sardonic elements of his more serious endeavors.
A consummate wordsmith and creator of memorable phrases, Eliot imbued his poetry with locutions that range from the gemlike to highly wrought goldsmith’s work as he sought the phrase and sentence that is right, “where every word is at home.” He consistently strove, as he wrote in “Little Gidding,” to find “The common word, exact without vulgarity/ The formal word, precise but not pedantic/ The complete consort dancing together.” His many poetic achievements have led him to be hailed as a poet’s poet.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
First published: 1915 (collected in Collected Poems, 1909-1962)
Type of work: Poem
Prufrock invites the reader on an inward journey through the dreamscape of his mind.
The masterpiece of his poetic apprenticeship, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” remains one of Eliot’s most intriguing and challenging poems; it may be usefully examined by listening to the voices it embodies. Like much of the poetry of Robert Browning, it is a dramatic monologue. Like the poetry of Jules Laforgue, it is a Symbolist poem that explores the narrator’s stream of consciousness as he relates, in fragmented fashion, his seemingly random thoughts that are unified by the structure of the poem.
One key to this song of misprized, reluctant, hesitant love is in the epigraph from Dante’s Inferno (XXVII) in which the speaker, Guido, reluctantly reveals the reason he is in Hell. While Prufrock finds it difficult to say what he means, he relates his thought as Guido had to Dante, without fear that his secret will be revealed to the living. The Dantean clue places the reader among the dead: This is one of the several suggestive possibilities for reading the poem and viewing its world as one of the circles that hold dead souls. The reader immediately enters what the critic Hugh Kenner has called a “zone of consciousness,” not a realistic setting, and listens to a story that is not sequential: One is invited to share a dream with disturbing overtones.
The often perplexed reader needs to make numerous decisions about the teller and the tale. Is Prufrock actually addressing the reader, as Guido did Dante, or is he talking to himself? Is he any or all of the self-caricatures he contemplates—ragged claws, John the Baptist, Lazarus, Polonius? Is he bound on an erotic mission, a visit of social obligation, or merely an imaginary prowl through half-deserted streets; does he move at all from the spot where he begins his narrative, or is all animation suspended and all action only contemplated or remembered? Readers must negotiate these and similar questions, open to a variety of answers, to determine the speaker’s identity and judge the situation in which they find themselves with Prufrock.
Similarly important are the sensory images that the voice projects, from the etherized patient to the ragged claws to the mermaids and one’s own death by drowning, which involves all the senses until consciousness is extinguished. As the voices—Prufrock’s, the women’s, the woman’s, the mermaids’, Lazarus’s, John’s—must be heard, so the images must be seen, the yellow fog and the seawater smelled and tasted, the motion of walking and the pressure of reclining felt along the nerves. Like many of Eliot’s dramatic poems, this drama calls for total sensory involvement as the reader observes with the mind’s eye the many scenes to which Prufrock refers.
Apart from its intrinsic significance, this poem foreshadows many of the concerns and techniques Eliot would explore and use in the remainder of his poetry. It stands, then, as a prelude to other work and, as Eliot would have it, is modified by that work.
First published: 1920 (collected in Collected Poems, 1909-1962)
Type of work: Poem
Gerontion speaks the thoughts of a “dry brain in a dry season.”
Like Eliot’s earlier “Portraits of a Lady” (1917) and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the poem “Gerontion” is a dramatic but interior monologue in which the voice of the narrator is distinctly realized, and his words reveal his character and the dramatic situation or scene in which he acts. A difficult poem, it may be approached as a collage, entered as one would a stream, in this case the stream of consciousness of the narrator, who is, literally, a “little old man.”
The narrator weaves personal history with more universal themes to form a meditative reverie of remembrance interspersed with remembered fragments from the Bible and from the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic poets William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, Cyril Tourner, and Thomas Middleton. Other dramatis personae are the Jew, Christ, Mr. Silvero, Hakagawa, Mme de Tomquist, Fraulein von Kulp, De Bailhache, Fresca, and Mrs. Cainmel, as well as the anonymous boy who reads to the narrator.
Like the Fisher King of The Waste Land whom he prefigures, Gerontion is an old man waiting for rain, for rebirth in a period of aridity. Yet since the juvenescence of the year brings Christ the tiger who is eaten and who devours, there is some ambiguity and possibly some ambivalence about a rebirth that leads to death in a recurring cycle. There is also the equally large concern about action, phrased by one who denies that he has acted: He was not at the Battle of Thermopylae (the hot gates), nor did he fight knee-deep in the salt marsh (possibly before the gates of windy Troy). He has, instead, been acted upon, driven by the trade winds to a sleepy corner.
The space-time continuum figures prominently in the poem. Eliot’s use of space varies from the inner space of a dry brain to the house to the location of the house to the Jew who has wandered from Antwerp to Brussels to London to the ethnic origins of Hakagawa and company to the celestial Ursa Major. Some of the characters, in a trope reminiscent of the poems of seventeenth century poet George Herbert, are gone into a world of light, whirled beyond the Bear’s circuit in fractured atoms. Similarly, time is confused and variable as past, past remembered in the past and present, the present, and the future coalesce in the mind of the narrator. Similarly, the meditation on history and its gifts shuttles across time and raises ethical issues such as concerns over how and whether to act.
Above all, the poem represents an authorial attempt to present a speaker’s attempt to order his experience, to make sense of the present in the light of the past, to think, and, in the act of thinking, to create meaning. What Gerontion does is essentially what the principal narrator of The Waste Land will do; he is shoring up fragments of language and of meaning against the ruins of a life.
The Waste Land
First published: 1922
Type of work: Poem
The Waste Land explores human history and experience in a quest for regenerative wholeness.
The most celebrated poem of the twentieth century, The Waste Land epitomizes modernism—its anxious usurpation of previous texts in the literary tradition, its self-conscious desire to be new, its bleak analysis of the present as a post-lapsarian moment between a crumbling past and an uncertain future. Composed of five separate poems, the overarching poem is, in poetic range and effect, greater than the sum of these parts. Eliot combines many of the themes and techniques he had examined in his earlier work, themes such as aridity, sexuality, and living death, and techniques such as stream-of-consciousness; narration; historical, literary, and mythic allusions; and the dramatic monologue. As in his earlier works, he is intent upon voice and vision, but not to the exclusion of the other senses.
When he republished the poem in book form, also in 1922, he added more than fifty notes to it, some of which direct the reader to such sources as Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) and Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1915), the former for its handling of the Grail Quest and the waste land motifs, the latter for its expositions of vegetation myths and rituals.
Eliot’s note to line 218 helps explain the overall unity of the work and offers a useful starting place for a serious and necessary rereading of the poem by newcomers to the poem and to Eliot. “Tiresias,” he wrote, “although a mere spectator and not indeed a ’character,’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.” All the male characters become one, all the women, one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
The poem’s title, derived from the medieval Grail Quest, holds a clue: The questing reader must ask the right question of the Fisher King (who merges into Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, and, indeed, into the poet). The Greek and Latin epigraph concerns the Cumaean Sibyl who, asked by a boy what she wishes, states that she wishes to die—an impossibility, since she had asked of Apollo and been granted as many years as he had grains of sand in his hand. Unfortunately, she had not made the right first request: for eternal youth. One must, then, ask carefully. The Dantean dedication, to Ezra Pound, “the better craftsman,” fuses ancient, medieval, and modern at the outset of the poem, while acknowledging Pound’s role in shaping the work.
“The Burial of the Dead,” part 1, contains a number of speakers, ranging from Marie to Madame Sosostris to Stetson, whose fragments of conversation in English, French, and German wind around ritual reenactments of burial and rebirth. From the Dantean vision of the dead walking over London Bridge to the dangerous business of doing a simple errand to the buttonholing last line from the French poet Charles Baudelaire, in which the reader is addressed directly as hypocrite and brother, the atmosphere is menacing. Structurally, the poem contains varieties of motion to organize it: motion in time across days, months, seasons, years, and centuries, motion in change from youth to age, action to stillness, and death to rebirth, as Bernard Bergonzi has observed.
Part 2, “A Game of Chess,” elaborates the themes of aridity and rebirth in the story of Lil’s barren sexuality and Philomel’s mythic reincarnation after sexual abuse, thus blending the mythic and the prosaic to reveal a relatively mindless luxury devoid of satisfying significance. Whether in the ornate boudoir which opens the sequence or the working-class pub which closes it, the pleasures of the world seem unsatisfying. In a memorable phrase that has rung through every English pub since their Victorian regulation, the barman’s call for closing becomes, in the poet’s hands, an advent call for change or a hastening of some final, eschatological closure: “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.”
In part 3, “The Fire Sermon,” the poet deals with the refining fire of purgation, unites Western and Eastern mystical theology in Saint Augustine and the Buddha, and combines ancient and medieval literary tradition in Tiresias and the Fisher King. These higher quests are played off against the more sordid ones of Sweeney and Mrs. Porter, the typist and the carbuncular young man, and Mr. Eugenides (“well-born” but decadent), as Tiresias begins to tie elements of the poem together.
The brief, ten-line “Death by Water,” part 4, presents water as destroyer, cleanser, and paradoxical life-giver in the case of Phlebas, the Phoenician sailor who passes, two weeks dead, backward through the stages of his age and youth and enters the whirlpool. This, too, Tiresias sees and possibly relates.
“What the Thunder Said,” part 5, brings rain and its promise of rebirth. The thunder reverberates with the words of the Upanishads (Hindu philosophic writings) for “give, sympathize, control,” keys to unlocking the prisons in which each individual is kept a solitary prisoner. The resolution offered to those journeying to Emmaus, to the Chapel Perilous, through “the present decay of eastern Europe,” depends upon the trinity of commands or counsels from the thunder and becomes “the peace which passeth understanding” (“shantih,” quoted from the Upanishads) repeated at the close of the poem.
Eliot’s achievement in this highly sophisticated poem is the blending of the disparate elements of varied traditions into a unity that may itself be both an object lesson in and a plea for the necessity of artistic wholeness. This is one possible reading of the piece as a metapoetical work that points as much to itself as it does to the traditions in which it exists and which it, in turn, alters.
“The Hollow Men”
First published: 1925 (collected in Collected Poems, 1909-1962)
Type of work: Poem
Eliot explores spiritual emptiness in this masquelike work.
This poem of emptiness, “The Hollow Men,” opens with a double epigraph, one from the novelist Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and one from the traditional children’s request for a penny on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. The former seems intended to draw the reader to Conrad’s short masterpiece and to the announcement of the death of Mr. Kurtz—perhaps the ultimate hollow man—to Charlie Marlow, the first narrator of that work. (Marlow had observed of London that it, too, was once one of the dark places of the world.) The latter epigraph also involves light and darkness, as it recalls the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, an alleged Roman Catholic attempt to blow up the English monarch and the houses of Parliament. The “guy” is a stuffed effigy of Guy Fawkes; the pennies collected by children are to purchase materials and fireworks to celebrate the ritual evening burning of the effigy. Both epigraphs allude to an emptiness, one spiritual and one physical.
Divided into five parts, the poem begins in a choric proclamation of emptiness, as if a chorus of stuffed men were appearing before the reader in a frozen tableau vivant that will quicken to a dance round in part 5, followed by an antiphonal and concluding with another dance round.
The playfulness of some of the motion implied in the poem is in sharp contrast to the words of the hollow men. The poem’s first part also introduces the notion of a double kingdom of death, one in this world and one in the next.
The second part explores death’s dream kingdom, sleep, and the hope that the speaker, one of the hollow men in soliloquy, would not meet eyes he would wish to avoid, eyes that he would prefer remain distant. Part 3 sets the reader in a dead land, a desert place of isolation that thwarts, like death’s other kingdom, the ability to kiss, to express emotion. Part 4, filled with negation, describes a hollow valley, a broken jaw of lost kingdoms, where the hollow men gather silently on the beach of a tumid river and await the only hope of empty men, death.
The fifth part, the most complex and challenging, opens and closes with variants of children’s game-songs. The first substitutes the prickly pear for the traditional mulberry bush; the last is a version of “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Both, if sung and danced by the effigies, produce even more incongruity between the song and the words, the action and the statement. Framed by these songs are the shadow verses of one chorus played off against another chorus repeating phrases and variants from the Anglican conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer.
In his highly suggestive language and the characters’ elliptical speech, Eliot exposes an incompleteness that for these hollow men will be consummated not with the blaze and explosions customary on November 5 but with the inarticulate whimper that concludes the masque.
First published: 1930 (collected in Collected Poems, 1909-1962)
Type of work: Poem
In a poem of intercession, the speaker reluctantly seeks conversion.
“Ash Wednesday” contains many traces of Eliot’s newly found Anglo-Catholic orientation; he had officially joined the church in 1927. The poem’s title comes from the Christian movable feast day celebrating the onset of Lent, forty days before Easter: It is a day of mortification of the flesh and of turning toward the spiritual. The poem exemplifies the tensions between the flesh and the spirit, borrowing much from Dante’s medieval mysticism, as the story of conversion is told in a Symbolist dream, a favorite technique of Eliot. As in The Waste Land, characters merge; the Lady merges with other ladies, such as Ecclesia (church), Theologia (theology), and Beatrice (the blessed one, from Dante), possibly to represent the anima, or feminine principle.
The first portion of this six-part poem opens with a despairing lack of hope for conversion, followed by a prayer for mercy, a famous request for a holy indifference: “Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.” It concludes with a refrain from the last sentence of the Ave Maria, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” Eliot thus endows the poem with fragments of prayer (along with Shakespearean allusions), varied renunciations, and some recognition of the need for rejoicing. The negative assertion of hope’s lack at the outset is modified by prayers which indicate a realization of the need for spiritual help.
Biblical references crowd part 2, forming a litany; the response to many of its phrases is the unvoiced but expected “Pray for us.” In part 3, the speaker ascends a spiral staircase, past a devil and past a vision of an earthly paradise; this portion ends with the liturgical prayer before Communion from the Mass of the Faithful, echoing phrases from one of the miracle stories about Jesus. Part 4 blends the biblical Mary with other female figures, asks for a redemption of time, and concludes with a phrase from the prayer Salve, Regina, which asks that Mary show the fruit of her womb, Jesus, “after this our exile.”
Part 5 is a meditation on the Word of God, the Logos from the Gospel according to John, that Eliot would amplify in Four Quartets. This is accompanied by the refrain from the Improperia of the Good Friday service, “O my people.” The poem’s final segment returns to the original state of mind of the narrator as the poet recapitulates the themes and images of the entire poem and ends with a phrase addressed to the Lord in the Indulgentiam of the Mass of the Catechumens, the early dialogue between priest and laity which asks God to forgive sins, show mercy, hear prayers, “and let my cry come unto Thee.”
In many respects, Eliot’s Ash Wednesday is a poetic public demonstration of a change of heart, an assertion of Christian desire balanced by a recognition of frailty, that ends with a striving, itself a conversion from the poem’s opening posture.
First published: 1943
Type of work: Poetry
This sequence represents Eliot’s most mature poetic statement on spiritual and artistic health.
Simpler, more direct in style than much of his early work, Four Quartets stands as the masterpiece of Eliot’s poetic maturity and as an index of the extent to which his poetic concerns had changed and his spiritual concerns had deepened. Each poem of the group, as C. K. Stead has ably documented, is in five movements in quartet or sonata form. The first part of each concerns the movement of time, in which fleeting moments of eternity flicker. Dissatisfaction with worldly experience is the keynote of each of the second parts. Part 3 is a spiritual quest for purgation and divestiture of worldly things. The lyric fourth part comments upon the need for spiritual intercession, while the concluding part probes the issue of artistic wholeness, an issue allied to the achievement of spiritual health.
Formed from lines originally written for Murder in the Cathedral, “Burnt Norton” (1939), the first of the sequence, is thematically linked to the play but goes beyond it, as Eliot probes more deeply the motivation for action and the role of the poet as a participant in the Logos (Word). His epigraphs from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus concern the neglect of the law of reason (Logos) and cite the paradoxical phrase, “The way upward and downward are one and the same.” A problematic proposition, “If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable,” is part of the poem’s meditative opening, which also reiterates Thomas à Becket’s line from the play, “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.” The ascendent spirit and descendent body are the Heraclitean oppositions of part 2, in a continuing meditation on the limits of time and its eternity and the desire to purge the human condition of its limitations.
In “a place of disaffection,” the narrator seeks to approach the condition of fire with a “dry soul” (part 3); part 4 celebrates the dark night of the soul, “at the still point of the turning world.” The final segment treats words and music moving in time, artistic wholeness and spiritual health involving words as part of the Divine Logos, and love as a timeless present.
“East Coker” (1940) recalls Eliot’s ancestral home in Somerset (which is also his burial place). Pursuing the poet’s beginning in his end (1) and his role as craftsman of words (5), the poem contains a rueful look backward at “years largely wasted, years of l entre deux guerres” essaying to learn to use words. In this poem, the focus is on the earth from which the poet springs; it has relevance to God the Son in some readings (as in the first of the poems, air is the dominant element), and some see direct relevance to God the Father. In this interpretation, the next poem, “The Dry Salvages” (1941), has as its motifs Mary, the Mother of God, and the element of water, and “Little Gidding” (1942), the element of fire and the Holy Ghost. These remain suggestive possibilities for interpretation, but they are supported by the texts.
“The Dry Salvages,” a group of rocks off the Cape Ann coast, reflects the poet’s early life in the United States, as does “the strong brown god,” the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Much more explicitly religious in statement than the first two quartets, the poem has direct references to God and the Annunciation made to Mary (part 1), the tenets of Krishna (part 3), and the Queen of Heaven, figlia del tuo figlio, the “daughter of your son” (part 4). The occupation for the saint in part 5, “The point of intersection of the timeless/ With time,” is also the poet’s occupation, as Eliot continues to play out variations upon his themes.
His most famous poem in the sequence, “Little Gidding,” is also his last major poetic statement. This place name is meant to evoke its seventeenth century associations as a center of spiritual life and its contemporary symbolism for the poet as the place of “the intersection of the timeless moment” (part 1). Encountering “the shade of some dead master,” the speaker finds in the spirit’s disillusionment yet another cause to reassess the poet’s task: “To purify the language of the tribe” (part 2). The burden of the third part, that prayers and intercession are needful in the face of sin’s inevitability, reinforces each of the prior third parts of the sequence.
In the final segment, all birds coalesce to become one bird, as the Heraclitean fire of the epigraph is subsumed into the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The final and often-quoted and anthologized hymn to poetic practice as a means of achieving unity and spiritual health concludes the poem and the sequence in a complete affirmation unprecedented in Eliot’s poetry.
Taken together in the light of their ending, the poems of Four Quartets rank among the most highly accomplished works of devotional poetry and treatments of a poet’s vision of poetry itself. With this sequence, Eliot capped his career as a poet.
Murder in the Cathedral
First produced: 1935; first published, 1935
Type of work: Play
Eliot dramatizes the killing of Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.
Eliot’s best-known and most performed play, Murder in the Cathedral dramatizes the assassination of Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 at the hands of four knights and at the bidding of King Henry II. In this play, written for production at the Canterbury Festival, June, 1935, Eliot put into practice his long-held desire to reestablish verse drama as a viable form of theater, a wish shared by the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, whose work preceded Eliot’s. Both sought to return poetry to the stage for historical and aesthetic reasons, as they viewed the popular realistic plays of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as less desirable than poetic drama. Both writers have secured lasting places in the history of modern drama.
Modeled upon the chorus of ancient Greek tragedy, the chorus that opens the play introduces the place and the time—the return from a seven-year exile of the archbishop, at odds with the king for whom he had served as chancellor. Three priests, a messenger, Thomas, and four tempters of some demoniac reasonableness fill out the players of the first act. These last, for echoic effect, should be read/played by the same actors who play the four knights in the third act: This was Eliot’s original design, and it is one reason he altered the lines of the knights in the play’s second edition (1937), the text now current.
The chorus of the women of Canterbury comments on the action and presents its own sense of foreboding, fear, and, at the play’s end, desolation. The priests, who may be seen as chorus leaders, voice their own concerns and trepidations. They seek to act according to conventional wisdom, counsel Thomas to flee back to France, seek to protect him from martyrdom, and finally look to the martyr for spiritual help in a time of personal need for comfort.
Of greater dramatic interest is the interplay between Thomas and the tempters, who offer him fleshly delights and good times, earthly political power by regaining the chancellorship he had resigned upon becoming archbishop, temporal sovereignty by joining a coup against the king, and glorious triumph over the king by seeking martyrdom. Once the murder is committed—onstage (a break with classical and neoclassical traditions but quite Jacobean)—the knights offer the audience-turned-jury their defense of disinterestedness in carrying out the king’s will; finally, they claim that Thomas has sought martyrdom and seek a verdict of “suicide while of Unsound Mind.”
Throughout the play, Eliot’s language echoes scriptural injunctions, parables, and situations. In his stage directions and dialogue, Eliot uses liturgical hymns and portions of the Anglo-Catholic Mass. The interlude between the two acts is a Christmas sermon stylistically reminiscent of those of the seventeenth century ministers John Donne and Lancelot Andrews.
“Tradition and the Individual Talent”
First published: 1919 (collected in Selected Essays, 1932, 1950)
Type of work: Essay
Eliot places the poet in a literary tradition and argues for the impersonality of art.
“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” one of Eliot’s early essays, typifies his critical stance and concerns; it has been called his most influential single essay. Divided into three parts, appearing in The Egoist in September and December, 1919, the essay insists upon taking tradition into account when formulating criticism—“aesthetic, not merely historical criticism.”
Eliot opens the essay by revivifying the word “tradition” and arguing that criticism, for which the French were then noted more than the English, in his view “is as inevitable as breathing.” The first principle of criticism that he asserts is to focus not solely upon what is unique in a poet but upon what he shares with “the dead poets, his ancestors.” This sharing, when it is not the mere and unquestioning following of established poetic practice, involves the historical sense, a sense that the whole of literary Europe and of one’s own country “has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”
A correlative principle is that no poet or artist has his or her complete meaning in isolation but must be judged, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. As Eliot sees it, the order of art is complete before a new work of art is created, but with that new creation all the prior works forming an ideal order are modified, and the order itself is altered.
One of the essay’s memorable and enduring phrases concerns the objection that the living know so much more than the dead writers could have: Eliot counters by asserting, “Precisely, and they are that which we know.” In gaining that knowledge, the artist engages in a “continual surrender” to tradition, and his or her progress “is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” The definition of depersonalization that Eliot offers forms another of the essay’s enduring phrases: As the novelist Gustave Flaubert and the English critic Walter Pater had written before him, Eliot seeks a scientific base for his works and likens the poet’s mind to “a bit of finely filiated platinum . . . introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.”
The poet’s mind, then, is a catalyst, as Eliot explains it in the essay’s second part. His point is that the poet’s transforming mind stores up feelings, phrases, and images until all the particles that can form a new work of art come together to do so. The poet has not so much a personality to express as a medium for the expression of complex emotion that is separable from the poet’s own emotions. Poetry, Eliot emphasizes, is not a turning loose of personal emotion but a consciously deliberate escape from it. The emotion of art, he reminds his readers in the essay’s final section, is impersonal.