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 runs down into artful prose, as in the beginning of the third part of 'Little Gidding', and sometimes bogs down in a mere stunt, as at the conclusion of 'Triumphal March', either defect is better for the art of poetry than the steady lapse into a too obvious pseudo-poetic accent, which so many poets sooner or later find hard to resist. (p. 41)
T. S. Eliot's first complete verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral, shows him turning to Christian ritual in order to provide significant dramatic conventions or at least in order to give significance to the dramatic conventions which he employs. Choric speech chanted by a group of characters, echoing and iteration of phrases in order to build up a mood and an atmosphere, recitative spoken by different characters in a carefully ordered sequence, the set prose delivered by the hero to provide a moral focus for the play—these are difficult devices to employ with conviction in modern drama, but Eliot is successful with them because the ecclesiastical setting and the liturgical context enable him to subsume them in an extended and symbolic version of a Christian church service, so that the chanting seems natural and appropriate and the hero's central speech takes its place without forcing as a sermon delivered in the cathedral. (p. 156)
David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958.
[The] theme of the failure of communication, of a positive relationship, between a man and a woman is found … in the … early poems "Hysteria" and "La Figlia che Piange," and it is indeed a major theme of the whole body of Eliot's work. It appears early in The Waste Land with the image of the "hyacinth girl" [and] … is developed by various means throughout Eliot's poetry and plays. It becomes related to other emerging themes, especially to religious meanings—for example, in the symbolic imagery of the "rose-garden" which appears in Ash Wednesday, Four Quartets, The Family Reunion, and The Confidential Clerk.
One of the most familiar aspects of Eliot's poetry is its complex echoing of multiple sources…. The title "Portrait of a Lady" immediately suggests Henry James, and there is indeed much about this poetry which is Jamesian. For one thing, the theme of the man-woman relationship frustrated or imperfectly realized is a common one in James's fiction. (p. 10)
After the period of the early poems, the Jamesian qualities, like the Laforguean, are not abandoned but are assimilated and survive in the later stages of development…. The Jamesian quality emerges with great clarity in all the plays on contemporay subjects. They are all set in James-like genteel worlds. Such dramatic intensity as they have resides, as in so much of James's fiction, in crises of sensibility and awareness. (p. 11)
While the theme of estrangement between man and woman is, so to speak, an ultimate subject throughout much of Eliot's work, it also signifies the larger theme of the individual's isolation, his estrangement from other people and from the world…. In a sense, all of Eliot's works in verse are variations on the theme of isolation…. When we turn to the days, we find characters either accepting isolation or struggling to escape from it. (p. 12)
It has been said of some writers that they write as if no one has ever written before. Of Eliot it is the reverse which is true—and true with a special significance, so that one cannot speak of his sources in the usual scholarly fashion. The point is that Eliot was in a respect his own scholar, bringing to his work not only the influence of his sources but what might more aptly be called an awareness of his predecessors. This is true in a variety of ways. For example, the theme of isolation is so obviously universal and so readily available that a writer might very well pursue it without any awareness of particular antecedents or analogues. But for Eliot there is such an awareness. (p. 14)
Up through The Waste Land Eliot's poetry is richly furnished with images of the sordid, the disgusting, and the depressing, and with personalities of similar quality…. The Waste Land is a grand consummation of the themes, techniques, and styles that Eliot had been developing, and The Hollow Men is at once an epilogue to that development and a prologue to a new stage in the career. (pp. 17-18)
While the position of isolation and alienation from the world is the foremost theme of the poetry up through The Waste Land, the same position, but with respect to God, is the theme of Ash Wednesday. Thus the first position, considered as a problem, has not been resolved. It has, rather, been incorporated into the second position and thus reinterpreted and re-evaluated. If one does not love the world, one is already well prepared for making an effort to love God. Isolation and alienation from the world become a stage in the discipline of religious purgation, an ideal to be further pursued. (p. 19)
While [the] ambivalence of parts and wholes is a structural convenience of which Eliot had always availed himself, it operates with special purpose in Four Quartets…. Four Quartets is (or are) essentially meditative and reflective poetry, but the mode of composition over a period of time, the fresh attack in each quartet on the same themes, the willingness to acknowledge and define changes in attitude—these give a dramatic quality to the reflections. The changes wrought by time are thus not only a general subject of the work, they are a particularized and dramatized meaning, and in being such they are also a lineament of the form. The poet's awareness of this fact is among the reflections he makes in the poetry. (p. 30-1)
Each of the quartets and then all of them together have a greater conventional unity than Eliot's previous nondramatic poetry. Whereas so much of the earlier work is a direct representation of the fragmentariness of experience, Four Quartets is a deliberate and sustained discourse on that subject. (p. 32)
Leonard Unger, in his T. S. Eliot ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 8), University of Minnesota Press, © 1961 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
[The poems that preceded The Waste Land] had expressed—as much in the dryness of their form as in their subject-matter—a mood of despair in regard to contemporary civilization, and the poet was obviously facing divergent roads, one leading to the ultimate denial of good in the universe, the other to the refuge of Christian hope. Subsequent writings made it clear that Eliot had become the foremost Christian poet of his day and, in his prose, one of the leading Christian apologists…. His devotion to traditional culture, the extent and depth of his knowledge, his use in poetry of current imagery and current idiom, and his compression in statement, present the reader of Eliot's poetry with an intertwining complexity.
The notes to The Waste Land show how vain it would be for 'the average man' to pretend to grasp the poem intellectually, and show, too, how far away poetry had travelled from Wordsworth's ideal of simplicity and intelligibility. Eliot it was who was chiefly instrumental in leading poets back to Donne, not as an imitator, but as bringing a Donne-like mind and spiritual apprehension to bear upon the contemporary world, and re-establishing the 'conceits' of the metaphysicals in modern dress. But whereas Donne's imagination was invariably passionate and consuming, Eliot's was often anaemic and chill.
Nevertheless, T. S. Eliot controlled the main current of poetry and criticism for a whole generation, largely through the hypnotic attraction his writings exercised in academic channels and, through acquiescent teachers, upon a multitude of students, including most of the apprentice poets. However much against his personal desire, he became the literary arbiter of the age.
A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 190-91.
After three slim volumes of poems had greatly extended his reputation, [T. S.] Eliot published in 1922 The Waste Land, a poem which many writers have called the most influential poem of the twentieth century. From such beginnings has grown what is perhaps the outstanding poetic and critical reputation in English and American letters of our time—notwithstanding the protests of a small but persistent and heated group of detractors who object chiefly to the "difficulty" of some of Eliot's poems and to the conservative, religious cast of his public personality and of some of his writings. (p. 18)
The nature of the influences [on Eliot] is clarified in Eliot's 1950 lecture entitled "What Dante Means to Me": From Jules Laforgue, he says, he learned that his own speech idioms had poetic possibilities; from Baudelaire, that his urban experience could be material for poetry and that juxtaposing the realistic and the fantastic could produce striking effects. (p. 20)
Most of Eliot's poems, in fact almost all of those preceding Ash-Wednesday (1930), are … organized in the consciousness and semi-consciousness of male personae who comment on their environments, often ironically but usually with genuine compassion. What the reader must intuit for each poem is the identity of its organizing persona and the quality and direction of his experience. (p. 22)
[All] of Eliot's poems and plays were to speak of experience common to men of most faiths, even though that experience would sometimes (most exclusively in The Rock, Ash-Wednesday, and Murder in the Cathedral) be expressed in the terminology of Christianity which permeates the Western cultural tradition; sometimes in the terminology of other religions (often of several in the same poem); and sometimes … in wholly secular terms. The mixing or counterpointing of religious and secular symbols is as characteristic of the Four Quarters and of the late plays as of The Waste Land and other earlier poems. (p. 23)
[Early, there were] tendencies that were to remain central in both Eliot's poems and plays throughout his career. Characteristically, a male persona with deep sympathy for his fellow men and a strong sense of moral and social responsibility examines the lives around him and raises "overwhelming" questions. (p. 32)
[The] doctrine of moral responsibility forms the deepest theme of most of Eliot's poetry and all of his plays, and it is those other authors and writings that deal with such questions best that Eliot most frequently quotes or alludes to in his art and his criticism: Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, St. John of the Cross and other Christian mystics, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Greek dramatists, Baudelaire, and Christian ritual. (p. 36)
Eliot's works characteristically attempt, with considerable success, to express the almost inexpressible: the self-probings of many of his personae, the dawning moral awareness of Sweeney, the moral and spiritual struggles of Thomas in Murder in the Cathedral and of Ash-Wednesday, and the search for one's proper place in the universe in all of the major works. (p. 38)
The Waste Land is intensely personal, and the basis of its technique and progression lies in a highly individualized consciousness. The necessity to transcend one's self is a basic theme of the poem. Further, social responsibility is at the very core of the mythic and traditional elements combined in it. (p. 50)
Eliot denied that [The Waste Land] was intended to express the disillusionment of a generation. Its message, though universal, is intensely personal; and the waste land exists in no one time or generation, but in a wrong psychic focus equally possible to all generations—and escapable, as our art reminds us, by individuals in every generation. What it is intended to express is the recognition not only of the anatomy of hell but of the necessity and promise of escape from it. (p. 69)
Among Eliot's major contributions to our tradition are his labors to re-establish the popularity of verse drama and his finding of verse forms appropriate to the speech of the twentieth-century world. Both in his poetic practice and in his critical pronouncements these matters have received constant emphasis. Throughout his career Eliot has emphasized the responsibilities of the poet not only to entertain, but to expand the awareness of his reader and to assist him in man's perpetual struggle to rediscover the best that has been revealed and lost again and again by others before him. The search for the deeper identity, the tougher self, requiring the painful shedding of illusions and the recognition of the falseness of projections of what one wants to see, is found from Prufrock to The Elder Statesman…. (p. 170)
Philip R. Headings, in his T. S. Eliot, Twayne, 1964.
[Eliot's] double task has been the interpretation of the age to itself, 'holding the Mirror up to Nature' as the greatest poet of all proclaimed, and maintaining the standards of strict literary excellence, 'purifying the dialect of the tribe', as he himself, quoting Mallarmé, declared his aim to be. As Eliot has said of another poet, in his own work the reader will find 'a record of the spiritual struggles of a man of intellectual power and emotional intensity who gave much toil to perfecting his verses. As such, it should be a document of interest to all who are curious to understand their fellow men.'
Eliot's early poetry, published during the war of 1914–18, depicts in ironic and epigrammatic terseness the little anxieties, social embarrassments, and unacknowledged vacuity of polite society in Boston and London. The world he displays is the world of Henry James's novels, where frustrated society ladies breathe their invitations and deprecations by a faint nuance, where corrupt financiers and decayed nobility drive their social bargains, where the final reckoning discloses only that 'I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.' (p. 9)
Eliot has a few strong and central symbols, as he has a few strong and central themes, and the sea as the source of primal life and energy is one of the most important. (p. 11)
Eliot's early poetry, with its subtle deflation of feelings ('Conversation Galante'), its shocking juxtapositions in the manner of Donne ('Whispers of Immortality' and 'Mr Eliot's Sunday Morning Service') is summed up in the Sweeney poems, "Sweeney Erect' and "Sweeney Among the Nightingales'. The lovely world of Renaissance art, classic legend, and natural beauty is superimposed upon the squalors of tavern and brothel. There is no comment, no explanation and no attempt to connect the two. Instead the sharp hard lines of the verse, the alternation of magnificence and familiarity in the words and the startling incongruity of the images are left to make their own effect. The reader has to complete the work within his own experience. Here are to be seen two of Eliot's principal poetic weapons—his use of implication, of statements which carry a weight far beyond their ostensive meaning, which 're-echo, thus, in your mind' and which therefore oblige the reader to a peculiarly active and strenuous participation in the poetry. For Eliot always wrote with a very strong sense of his readers. He made demands upon them, without which the poems are imcomplete. It is no use approaching Eliot in a state of wise passiveness. You have to use your wits. (p. 12)
'The Hollow Men' (1925) marks the sharpest break in Eliot's poetry; it may be looked on as a kind of prologue or ante-chamber to 'Ash Wednesday' (1930). They have in common a new kind of image, a new kind of rhythm, and a new mood…. 'The Hollow Men' marks the dead centre in Eliot's poetry: it records the experience of utter destitution where there are no forms, not even the forms of nightmare. (pp. 19-20)
[In] his last, and by general agreement, his greatest poem, Four Quartets, which was worked out slowly between 1935 and 1942, he achieved both a new depth and a new clarity…. In these poems, Eliot meditates upon a wide diversity of material: his personal experiences as they have shaped themselves into a pattern; the pattern of history, including the beginning of the war and the London blitz; the difficulties of a poet and the nature of language. Such diversity is far greater than that of 'The Waste Land', yet it is as strictly organized as 'Ash Wednesday'. The method is again solvitur ambulando. Phrases are repeated from poem to poem: experiences which are recognizably related, if not the same, reappear in different contexts. There are numerous echoes of the early poems, which do not have the effect of repetition, but rather of older partial statements re-integrated and completed. There is a kind of finality and mastery about the work; the ease and boldness of the transitions is coupled with a manner still tentative and exploratory, especially in the first poem. By the time the last poem is finished, the symbols have been fully unfolded, and the accent is one of assurance and power. In spite of the apparent lack of progression, by the restatement and redefinition of the symbols 'a meaning reveals itself gradually' which is then seen to have been latent, though unrecognized, in the earlier parts. This particular use of implication is assisted by various formal devices, some of which are in the nature of scaffolding and are relatively unimportant. For instance, each of the poems is concerned with one of the four elements—'Burnt Norton' with air, 'East Coker' with earth, 'The Dry Salvages' with water and 'Little Gidding' with fire. The four elements are brought together at the beginning of the second movement of 'Little Gidding', where they are seen to be symbols of multiple meaning. The water and fire are not only those of the raids on London—firemen's or bomber's elements—they are the water of baptism and the fire of purgatory, the water which is a symbol of natural life (as in 'The Waste Land') and the fire which is a symbol both of destruction and of renewal. (pp. 27-8)
[It] is the reconciliation of [the] moments of illumination with the pattern of daily living which is the theme of the later works in general and of the Four Quartets in particular. (p. 30)
Eliot is a dramatist in a very special and limited sense; but he recognized and used his limitations, so that his particular form of drama, though very restricted, is coherent, self-consistent and extremely actable. Like the plays of Ben Jonson, these dramas are two-dimensional but not superficial. They are plays of the surface, but the implications go far below the surface. The characters exist only in relation to each other: they fit in with each other and are constituent parts, distorted to scale, of the main theme. The action is of the slightest. A single moment of choice, the Kierkegaardian choice, is set before the main character; the rest of the play leads up to and leads away from this moment. There are no sub-plots, minor interests, or digressions. The moment of choice is the same for all…. The choice lies between two kinds of action; the result is in each case a resolution of the dilemma. These plays are not tragedies; they are the kinds of plays that are written when the tragic experience—necessarily a temporary, though an inevitable, state for each individual has been left behind. (pp. 38-9)
Had he not become the most famous poet of his time, Eliot would have been known as its most distinguished critic. This statement must be qualified by adding that it is really impossible to distinguish the poet and the critic; for his criticism springs from his poetic sensibility and I is poetry is best explained in terms of his criticism. (p. 48)
It is the forming of new wholes, the relating of experience which Eliot learnt from the Elizabethans and from the metaphysicals, and this was what he particularly valued in their work. His account of the poetic experience is clearly based upon the great definition by Coleridge of the Poetic Imagination from the fourteenth chapter of Biographia Literaria. (p. 54)
In his line of traditional and civilized poetry, [Eliot] has left no successor. His unique position of authority, comparable only with that of Samuel Johnson, derived from a variety of causes. In the first place, the particular consistency and coherence of his writing made it a structural whole: indeed in his later work, the interest of its place in the whole sometimes predominated over the effect of the particular part. The risk of over-determination has not always been avoided, although a constant development of theme can also be followed, the early themes of the City and the Garden giving way to those of identity and relationship, communication and solitude. (pp. 55-6)
M. C. Bradbrook, in her T. S. Eliot, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, revised edition, 1968.