T. S. Eliot Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 1)

Start Your Free Trial

Download T. S. Eliot Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) 1888–1965

Eliot, American-born British poet, playwright, and man of letters, is the only American poet to have won the Nobel Prize. With the publication of The Waste Land in 1922 he changed the direction of American poetry. His other well-known poems include The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Four Quartets, and Ash Wednesday. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

[Though] Eliot learned something from the Imagists, he was never content with merely the justness of his images, their visual accuracy; for him an image had to function as symbol as well as visual record, and the organization of the images within a poem was determined by a kind of poetic dialectic which was the most distinctive pioneering feature of Eliot's early work. For Eliot, an image draws its meaning not only by conveying the quality of the thing it denotes (as rock or sand conveys the quality of dryness) but also from its direct or oblique references to its earlier use in literature, religion or mythology and also from the pattern of meaning and suggestion set up cumulatively by the poem as it unfolds. Behind Eliot lay not only Imagism, but the metaphysical poets, Jacobean drama, the provocative ironies of Laforgue and the symbolic subtleties of Rimbaud and Verlaine, to name only a few influences. There lay, too, a deep suspicion of modern industrial civilization, a desire for classical discipline, and an interest in Sanskrit and Oriental philosophy, all of which were part of the atmosphere of Harvard University when he was a student there. (p. 29)

The man who was at the centre of English—and American—poetry from say, 1920 to 1930 was T. S. Eliot, who was involved in the politics of literature, whose criticism preached and practised the aims of the anti-romantic revolution, and whose poetry expressed much more directly than that of Yeats the mood of his generation. The Waste Land was central to its time in both theme and technique. The combination of mythical, anthropological, Christian and oriental imagery in order to find an effective poetic way of projecting poetically the modern dilemma, the construction of the poem by means of a series of dramatic episodes linked to each other by a profound emotional pattern rather than by any overt logic, the cunning variations on the main theme of physical and spiritual barrenness and frustration, the teasing allusiveness—all this was to become very much the way of the 'new poetry'; it was Eliot's eclectic myth-using rather than Yeats's personal myth-making that was to provide the model for a whole generation of poets. (p. 39)

What stands out in Eliot's poetry from the beginning is his style and cunning; he imposes his own accent on language, and it is an original and a striking one. 'Prufrock' and 'Portrait of a Lady' are as striking today as they were in 1917: the manipulating of phrase, the handling of pauses, the counterpointing of colloquial and formal speech—these are technical triumphs, and they represent skills that have stayed with him steadily. We recognize them in The Waste Land, in the Ariel poems, in the Four Quarters, in all four of his plays. The tone changes often, the accent almost never. It is the accent of poetry held down—beaten down, one sometimes feels—to its most subdued, its least obvious pitch. Eliot never confuses poetry with what sounds like poetry, or with what casual readers might mistake for poetry. If he plays tricks, they are never the tricks of the pseudo-poet. There are no short cuts anywhere in his work, no complacent sinking back to the dead level of 'poetic' speech which seems to be poetic only because it is reminiscent of what popular thought takes poetry to be. Eliot sometimes fails by trying too hard to achieve certain effects by indirection—as he fails, in the view of some readers at least, at the end of The Waste Land —but he rarely fails by not trying hard enough, by not working at his craft. If his poetry sometimes...

(The entire section is 4,103 words.)