T. S. Eliot Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 3) - Essay

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) 1888–1965

Eliot was an American-born British poet, playwright, and man of letters. One of the most celebrated literary figures of our time, Eliot succeeded Yeats as the "greatest living poet." His poem The Waste Land, published in 1922, is regarded as one of the foundations of modern poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

[Eliot] has created for himself a poetic instrument, which, though low in tone and rather narrow in compass for a major poet, he uses with wonderful skill. (His prose—a kind of persona prose, suggesting behind its chilly didacticism an intolerance and arrogance from which Eliot as a man seems quite free—is in its own way equally skilful.) Sharing some of Pound's dubious devices in his earliest work, expressing disgust and despair and the poet's cleverness, Eliot rid himself of them to achieve a highly distinctive verse, low in tone, slow but subtle of movement, at once easy and yet tense, capable of an almost conversational tone and yet far-ranging in its allusiveness, that justifies his claim to be modern and yet not dissociated from poetic tradition. As a technical achievement, this could hardly be over-praised—a strong statement for once, for no poet, indeed no writer of any kind, in the period between the Wars, has had more praise or been quoted oftener than Eliot. His has been one of the major voices of the age, proclaiming its disgust and despair, its guilt and angst, its struggle to find a faith. A cynic, regarding Eliot's literary career itself as his chief creation, might suggest that this poet, having captured the avant-garde with his early work, then proceeded to strengthen his position, bringing in a new host of admirers, by announcing his conservatism in literature and politics and his acceptance of Anglo-Catholicism. Though this describes what has happened, it would be unfair to Eliot himself, whose sincerity cannot be questioned. And indeed this strengthening of his position, on a social level of orders and prizes, about which he probably cares little, actually meant a weakening of it on the more important level both of poetic creation and social criticism….

[Remaining] in England, becoming a British citizen, turning Anglo-Catholic, royalist, and the rest, meant in actual effect that Eliot rejected creation for mere acceptance. He accepted, whatever he may have thought of it privately, the British Establishment—the dole system, the refusal, until the last minute, to challenge the dictatorships, all the humbug and cant, the politically manipulated snobberies, the hard-faced industrialists and financiers turning up in ancient orders of chivalry, the newspaper proprietors cynically debauching their readers, and even a Church that is timid and time-serving. No doubt Eliot disliked many of these things; but he had to accept them: a man cannot ask to join a nation in order to become one of its most distinguished rebels…. But Eliot was trapped in his acceptance. The exquisite instrument went murmuring through metaphysical quartettes; there was chilly and arid praise of chilly and arid authors, bone saluting bone; there were cautious notes towards definitions of culture; but the poetry did not ring out, the prose speak out. A major poet in a bad time should make powerful enemies. If he despises the mob, he should openly show his contempt for those who mislead it and fatten on it. Eliot left despair, if not disgust, behind, passed through the wasteland, but the trumpets, either of battle or victory, never sounded on the other side; certainly, modesty and politeness were against it, and perhaps a false fixed attitude, and perhaps something dry and negative that remained. He turned to drama, perhaps to avoid direct and personal speech, and there made some experiments, much to his credit, in creating dialogue that, without any obvious break, could be flatly conversational and then quickly heightened. But he lacks the breadth of sympathy, the variety in himself to distribute among and give life to many characters, the constant dramatic invention within the main structure, that a dramatist needs. He is the central, best-remembered poet of the mood of the early Twenties; his technical mastery deserves all the praise it has received; he will have some stature even when all his influence has gone; but he would have been a greater poet if he had stayed at home, by the great rivers that ran through his boyhood.

J. B. Priestley, in his Literature and Western Man (copyright © 1960 by J. B. Priestley, reprinted by permission of A. D. Peters and Company), Harper, 1960, pp. 407-09.

Eliot is untouchable; he is Modern Literature incarnate and an institution unto himself. One is permitted to disagree wit him on a point here or a doctrine there, but no more. The enemy at Eliot's gate—practically everybody—searches his citadel for an opening and cannot find one. Eliot has long since anticipated every move; he and his men can prevent ingress or exit. Eliot resembles one of those mighty castles in Bavaria which are remarkably visible, famed for their unsightliness, and too expensive to tear down. Life goes on at the bottom; but it is always up there….

Eliot exists only on paper, only in the minds of a few critics. No poet with so great a name has ever had less influence on poetry. At no point in the career of Eliot has there been the slightest indication of a literary following…. Eliot's "influence" is confined purely to criticism. Insofar as Eliot has enjoyed a poetic influence, it lies outside literature entirely and is what can only be called a "spiritual" influence. This spiritual influence is itself calculated and synthetic; and insofar as it fails as a true influence, it removes Eliot's one and only claim to literary power. But here he does not entirely fail….

Eliot has written a small body of poetry which is sacrosanct; he has written his most favorable criticism about poetry which is like his (namely Pound's); and has surrounded both with a full-scale esthetic-social doctrine….

Eliot's criticism is not "one thing" and his poetry another. They are one and the same. Herein lies the only unity of his work and of his "sensibility." This unity has been achieved coldly and ruthlessly, on paper. It has only as much relation to life as books can have: experience in Eliot is always and necessarily literary experience. All other experience is vulgar, with the possible exception of the religious experience, which is Eliot's escape hatch. His poems are therefore illustrations of the various stages of his "position."… Eliot is above pedagogy, being closer to philosophy than to history. But the unifying element in Eliot is theology: and it is not inaccurate to describe Eliot as a theologian gone astray…. Eliot shows a positive hatred for originality and in fact condemns it in every manifestation; originality is irresponsible freedom to him. It is for this reason that he consigns Blake to limbo while hanging on to Pascal for dear life. Blake, says Eliot, is home-made religion. Eliot stays within the shadow of his theological law, which shelters his politics, his religion, and his esthetics….

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"—this is probably Eliot's best poem and is a little masterpiece of its kind. It is highly unoriginal in content and in style, based as it is on the rhythms, the attitudes, and sometimes the very lines of minor Symbolist poets like Corbière and Laforgue. Rhythmically it is the most successful of Eliot's poems, possibly because it was conceived as a dramatic unit. The meter is varied within the conventional English line, and the rhyming is superb. There is every indication that at the time of composition (age twenty-three) Eliot still took seriously the customs of English prosody and was trying in earnest (i.e., without irony) to develop this technical side of our poetry. The general tone of the poem is that of polite sophisticated ennui, an essay in self-mockery. The literary allusions in the poem, not counting the epigraph, are of the most obvious nature…. The difficulties of the poem, which are intentional, are not insurmountable, say, to a reader quite conversant with poetry tending toward the baroque or self-conscious. "Prufrock" is a poem about self-consciousness. The split personality of Prufrock creates the chief obstacle to a first understanding of the poem. The other primary difficulty is imagistic, but this is also the main virtue of the poem….

Prufrock as a character is of no intrinsic interest but he is of high literary interest to all. In this poem Eliot has remained close enough to a human footing to make poetry out of a personal complex of crises, private, social, and intellectual. Had he written nothing else he would be remembered for this masterly little poem….

The Waste Land is the most important poem of the twentieth century, that is, the one that has caused the most discussion and is said by critics to be the culmination of the modern "mythic" style. The poem, by Eliot's own admission, is a collaboration with Pound. Pound edited it and removed a third or two thirds of it. The "continuity," we can assume, is therefore the work of Pound, who abhorred continuity in his own more ambitious poetry. As everyone knows how to read the poem or can find out by visiting the nearest library, I will say nothing about its meaning….

The Waste Land, because of its great critical reputation, not because of any inherent worth it might have, is one of the curiosities of English literature. Its critical success was, I dare say, carefully planned and executed, and it was not beyond the realm of possibility that the poem was originally a hoax, as some of the first readers insisted. But hoax or not, it was very shortly made the sacred cow of modern poetry and the object of more pious literary nonsense than any modern work save the Cantos of Pound. The proof of the failure of the "form" of this poem is that no one has ever been able to proceed from it, including Eliot himself. It is, in fact, not a form at all but a negative version of form. It is interesting to notice that in the conventional stanzas of the quatrain poems Eliot is more personally violent and ugly about his own beliefs; in his unconventional style the voice of the poet all but disappears and is replaced by characters from his reading….

Eliot's career as a poet virtually comes to a close with Ash Wednesday. After that there is criticism, theology, and drama. The Four Quartets is the only attempt at what modern criticism calls a "major" poem—meaning a poem that deals with Culture wholesale. The Quartets were hailed by the Eliot critics as his crowning achievement; actually they are evidence of the total dissolution of poetic skill and even a confession of poetic bankruptcy. Eliot is quite open about this in the Quartets.

The Quartets are Eliot's bid to fame as a "philosophical poet." In [them] he expounds his metaphysics, his poetics, and his own place in the scheme of things. All of this is quite legitimate and not at all surprising; what is disturbing about the poems is their commonplaceness, their drabness of expression, their conventionality, and, worst of all, their reliance on the schoolbook language of the philosophy class. Eliot has traded poetry for the metaphysical abstraction, as in The Waste Land he had traded narrative for "myth." This development is psychologically consistent, a descent from French Symbolism to Metaphysical complexity-for-the-sake-of-complexity, to pastiche, to the myth-science of The Golden Bough, to philosophical abstraction without poetic content. It all ends in the complete abandonment of poetry….

The motivating force in Eliot's work is the search for the mystical center of experience. This search in his case has been fruitless and increasingly frustrating. Eliot's entire career is a history of his failure to penetrate the mystical consciousness. He begins as a youth with Symbolism when it is already a dying religious-esthetic mystique. He moves from Symbolism to the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century…. Eliot was fascinated by the Metaphysical poem because it is virtually a demonstration of prayer…. But neither Symbolism nor Metaphysical sacred poetry offered a way to Eliot, even when he tried a fusion of the two. Third, he attempted secular mythology as a way to penetrate the mystical consciousness. It was in this phase that he wrote The Waste Land, a poem which is a jumble of sacred and "profane" myths, adding up to nothing….

This in my view is the great failure of Eliot. Eliot ends up as a poet of religion in the conventional sense of that term. And once having made the religious commitment he tried to visualize a religion-directed society; he thus becomes an official of the most conservative elements of society and a figurehead for all that is formalized and ritualized….

Eliot is a poet of religion, hence a poet of the second or third rank; he is a thoroughgoing anachronism in the modern world, a poet of genius crippled by lack of faith and want of joy.

Karl Shapiro, "T. S. Eliot: The Death of Literary Judgment," in his In Defense of Ignorance (© 1960 by Karl Shapiro; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1960, pp. 35-60.

Probably on no other score has Eliot's work been so condemned as for its choice and treatment of people. Yet the number of characters who, directly or by immediately understood allusion, make their way into his poems is phenomenal. Because of the peculiar allusive structure of his verse, it is difficult to draw a line between who is and who is not actually in his poems. In one sense, only the old man, his boy, and his housekeeper inhabit the world of "Gerontion"; in a second sense, it is inhabited also by the jew, Christ, Mr. Silvero, Hakagawa, Mme. de Tornquist, Fräulein von Kulp, De Bailhache, Fresca, and Mrs. Cammel; in a third sense, it is inhabited by characters whom the old man's phrasing recalls—Vindici, Beatrice of The Changeling, Everyman, Tennyson's Ulysses, Judas, and others, all of whom are, when the allusions are perceived, hardly more shadowy than the second-level characters or, indeed, than the boy, the housekeeper, or even the old man himself. In the same way The Waste Land employs a small army of characters either present or recalled, all of whom contribute to our impression of Eliot's treatment of people. And other poems, especially those written no later than 1922, introduce people almost as multitudinously as Hardy's The Dynasts.

But the peculiarity of number is not the only distinguishing mark of Eliot's characters. Their kind of actuality is rather different from that of any other poet's people. In the first place, the poet cares little for their individual qualities; what he cares about is their relationship to certain enduring archetypal roles. They act, consequently, if they act at all, in conformity to the demands of their roles rather than from what we should call personal motives. The details of their talk, of their manners, of their gestures, are idiosyncratic rather of their roles than of themselves. The shifting of the candles by Mme. de Tornquist, the entrance of Doris from the bath, the successive actions of the typist and the clerk, all reflect nothing individual in these persons—no charming inconsistency, no personal diabolism—but are clearly ritual actions that they perform in order to fulfill their roles in a ritual drama….

Among all the possible roles, Eliot has chosen mainly to portray that of the quester, man in his role as seeker for meaning, truth, reality, virtue, the good life. All the events of Eliot's verse take their meaning from their relationship to this quest, and all the characters must be interpreted according to the ways in which they fulfill this role. Those who continue to pursue the goal either have or do not have the requisite qualifications; those who fail to pursue it at all, or who give up the pursuit, are damned. Virtually every character can be evaluated in terms of his reference to this central situation. Since the pursuit may be attempted through various human activities—mainly love, poetry, political and economic activity (history), and religion—some characters are treated only or mainly in terms of the search as it may be made through one of these areas. Most of the women of The Waste Land, for example, are reprehensible for their degrading attitudes toward human love, which in Eliot's verse never turns out to be a very profitable path for the quester. The quester in Ash Wednesday works through religion, in Four Quartets through several of the possible activities, but in The Waste Land the protagonist's search is more general: it is the quest, whatever its specific form….

The conversational tone of most of Eliot's work invites the reader to accept the persona in a more or less equal relationship. The persona does not speak down to the reader—even in Four Quartets he addresses the reader as a friend except in a few falsely humble, rather patronizing lines that tend to weaken the equal relationship. But while the conversational base defines the rapport between reader and persona, within the conversational tone the persona reveals a pattern of emotional response appropriate to his role as questing man. The talk of The Waste Land reflects in turn the speaker's aspiration and despair, his capacity for ectasy and humor, his union of sense and sensibility which makes him a representative man. The tones reveal the man, his cosmic situation, and his relation to the reader; it might even more accurately be said that a definition of each of these includes a definition of the others. The persona is involved in the same world as the reader; as his world defines his own role, his own self, so it defines both the reader's pattern of responses and his involvement with all other men in a human world. In fact, the deliberate reproduction of the tones of casual speech, of what Wordsworth called "the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation," has been felt in our century and the last to signify the commonalty of all human experience. Yet because in Eliot there exists no real discontinuity between the self and its cosmic situation, the reader's identification with the persona is doubtfully pure. Reader and persona are emblems of each other. The poet and the reader share the persona's situation—his traffic among tones, his quest.

George T. Wright, "T. S. Eliot: The Transformation of a Personality," in his The Poet in the Poem ("Perspectives in Criticism," Volume 4; originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California), University of California Press, 1960, pp. 60-87.

The death of T. S. Eliot agitated a thousand complacencies; and a hundred writers of obituaries must have quietly wondered why their tributes sounded a faint note of irrelevance. The truth is that many whose self-imposed duty it was to remind the public had forgotten in what ways Eliot was great, and many others had never learnt it. Certainly, if we compare his case with that of Yeats, we can see an interesting lack of agreement. Almost everyone agrees on the broad lines of an account of Yeats' development; but many critics of Eliot would seem to deny that he had developed at all, in any sense that we might admire. Yet, reading even those obituaries, one is struck afresh by the sense that he haunts English poetry and criticism, indeed he haunts European culture, like some benevolent yet disturbing spectre of its own raison d'etre; and anyone who offers to try and arrive at some sensible, albeit personal, account of his greatness has to take up directly the question of his development, its phases, its ambiguities, and its profundity. Personally, I think we are confronted with the most ambitiously experimental religious poet since Wordsworth. For, if it was 'J. Alfred Prufrock' and 'The Waste Land' that accomplished the revolution in the sensibility of a generation, it is Four Quartets that is the peak of his personal achievement as a poet….

As with most great poets, there is both a continuity and a discontinuity between the various stages of that development. Four Quartets are much less 'religious' in any limiting sense than the earlier poems, and it is true that many people spontaneously use the word 'philosophical' rather than the word 'religious' about them; yet as a religious expression and exploration they seem to me much the most satisfying of his poems. Not that they are insistently religious at all; in fact, they are less so than most of the earlier poems because they are much less the expression of a need for the consolations of religious self-commitment. At the same time, they are more fully the product of a self-questioning and hence, presumably, of some personal need, a need which the great authority of the rhythms declares as a need less to console than to know and to place the self.

At every important stage of Eliot's growth, it is as though he were troubled by a double thought, strained at the depths of his being by a double question: What must this poetry be? and How may this poetry be religious? Freedom and the recognition of necessity work together in every poet's psyche; in Eliot's the struggle was Antaeus-like. At first sight he would seem to have been luckier than Yeats, for he knew, or was convinced that he knew, precisely what the sacred is and where it is to be found. In a sense this is true; we are in no doubt of his allegiances or of his theology. But in another and deeper sense, I think the truth is precisely the opposite: he had a mind too scrupulous, senses too palpitant, a spirit too aware of intangibles, to assume anything very much for very long about his own access to the sacred; and the doubt, the self-doubt, seems to be particularly intense when he is actually forming a poem in which the sense of that access, and of its object, may itself be created. In his prose there are many examples of smugness; in his poetry there are almost none….

Eliot is the crucial case in our era of a poet who has tried to solve the general religious dilemma from within the patterns of Christian orthodoxy, not by reducing the problems to fit the pattern but by expanding the pattern to comprehend the problems. That expansion of the orthodox pattern is not an addition of doctrines but an expansion and examination of sensibility; and it is not seen fully, it is not even seen clearly as such, until 'Little Gidding' completes the tentative patterns of Four Quartets. To that extent, it is an unusual work within his oeuvre, and it cannot help making us conscious of the discontinuities in his development….

I think it could be shown that 'The Waste Land' is not the splendidly impersonal analysis of the state of a civilisation which people have often taken it to be; the poet's personal preoccupations do intrude, and the poem becomes a releasing, an acting-out, of tensions; its seeming impersonality is the result of a strategy undertaken to conceal, from Eliot himself as much as from his readers, the personal nature of those preoccupations. One can give a half-hearted assent to the claim that its parts work together organically to achieve a structural unity, and yet be nagged by the sense that that unity is pretty mechanical in its total effect. And I think it could be shown that those people are wrong who maintain that it is a religious poem of a remarkably positive sort, full of subtle religious affirmations; on the contrary, its great vigour and scope come not from any affirmation or from the power of values affirmed, but from the force with which a scarified and searching sensibility feels the emptiness of modern life. It is a search, but its vigour is the vigour of its rejections. It is not regeneration that is dramatically presented in its final section, but a compulsive clinging to the words like 'water' which might be able to give some poetic reality to the idea or hope of regeneration…. 'The Waste Land' seems to be neither an anti-Christian poem wearing its frustration on its sleeve nor a Christian poem in heavy disguise, but a compulsive yet still pre-Christian one….

['Ash-Wednesday'] is, if anything, an institutional work …, if only because the emotional effort of producing it is obviously so … intense and anguished. It is very far from being what its title suggests, a devout meditation on the place and significance of Lent in the procession of the liturgical seasons. On the contrary, it is in a way the most explicitly personal, the most openly emotional, of all Eliot's poems. It is the exploration of a personal condition which he sees as a period of emotional aridity, the beginning of a subjective Lent. It is an emotional cry of emotional deprivation and of a hope for release from it. The trouble is that the personal nature of the emotion is not declared, but is disguised as the traditional cry of the Christian people beseeching its God….

[The] question of pattern had been Eliot's problem all along: not just conceptually but procedurally. So, if his art shows a progress in the explicitness with which he formulates this as the question which each poem has existentially to answer, it shows also a progress in the firmness with which a poetic pattern is in fact established. This seems to me obvious if we compare either 'The Waste Land' or 'Ash-Wednesday' with 'Little Gidding'; but it is also true if instead of 'Little Gidding' we think of 'East Coker' or even of 'Burnt Norton', a poem devoted almost entirely to posing the problem by evoking moments of awareness without pattern. The early poems are momentaneous, non-discursive, in method; 'Prufrock' makes a comedy and a half-success of its own fragmentary nature, 'Portrait of a Lady' makes a half-diagnosis of it. But there are three chief stages in which the fact of disjunction, of fragmentariness, and the possibility of pattern are played against each other; they are 'The Waste Land', 'Ash-Wednesday', and Four Quartets. The first in effect yields to the disjunction, is built of fragments, sometimes great and glowing but nevertheless confusing ones; and what pattern it asserts (if, indeed, it can accurately be said to assert any) is arbitrary and in a way a confession of despair because the name of the pattern is necessity. The second has a clearer sense of pattern but, as I have argued, it is one imposed on the emotions and failing in any case actually to order or even to cover them. The third, as a whole, achieves the pattern which is its subject; but it does so only by fighting out interiorly, and with great courage and resource, the problem involved of realising the possibility of pattern at each stage. This is perhaps the deepest sense in which it is an exploratory work; the 'concepts' it creates have to do with its own procedures as much as with any philosophical or theological mysteries….

It is significant that Four Quartets are the only poems where Eliot accepts his own presence and nature as basic, necessary data, and builds his poems around them. And in 'Little Gidding', he has shown us how a great religious poetry may be written in our time by accepting the self and, as it were, exploring its content.

The greatness of 'Little Gidding' is, of course, achieved at some cost: the intensity of vision is achieved at the cost of breadth of reference, the honesty is achieved at the cost of explicit human sympathy. But the self-exploration is not necessarily self-concern, and the intensity is not necessarily coldness. In the earlier quartets these limitations trouble us; in 'Little Gidding' they do not. Within the considerable limits of his temperament, Eliot has there climbed to an eminence of meditative nobility where no other contemporary poet can follow him; the fact that the ascent has been painful merely adds to the achievement.

Vincent Buckley, "T. S. Eliot: The Growth of Vision," in his Poetry and the Sacred (reprinted with permission of Chatto and Windus Ltd. and the author), Chatto and Windus, 1968, pp. 205-37.

It is strangely unnerving to reflect that we shall never, without committing the solecism that only delayed shock can excuse, be able to talk about 'Mr Eliot' again. The handleless 'Eliot' placed him among the great dead while he was still alive. 'T. S. Eliot' suggested a kind of literary tycoonery and a no-nonsense anti-romanticism (we'd never dream of talking about 'R. Brooke' of 'D. Thomas'). But 'Mr Eliot' carried connotations of gratitude that one of the immortals was still our contemporary, also the affection—qualified by the gentlest of mockery, learnt from the man himself, also a certain fear, which he never taught—that is due to a respected teacher. The days of his great pronouncements are long over, but we were always ready to be freshly directed on some point of faith or art or morals. Mr Eliot (the habit will persist for a while) was always right, or rather he had so modified our modes of thinking and evaluation that we could never find him wrong. Whatever is valuable in contemporary Western civilization, so we like to believe, can be referred ultimately to Eliot's plain if fragmentary statements about the nature of the good society. As for literature, the tastes of all of us have been Eliotian for the past forty-five years. He was a maker in a double sense: he made not only his poetry but also the minds that read it. With great patience he schooled us away from shock or bewilderment towards acceptance, eventually love, of his work. Love became a habit. In time, the Eliotian cadences, whether verse or prose, turned into our instinctive music; young poets and critics had to teach themselves to resist the quiet but insistent voice. But there could never be any thoroughgoing reaction. To reject Eliot was to welcome anarchy….

[His] affirmation of the importance of tradition was accepted even by the avant-garde. For, with Eliot, the past was not a dull and venerable ancestor but a living force which modified the present and was in turn modified by it. Time was not an army of unalterable law; time was a kind of ectoplasm. One of the shocks of The Waste Land was to find past and present co-existing, even fusing. It was an analogous shock to the opening one of Prufrock, in which the evening is a patient etherized upon a table. Eliot broke down the old divisions, and he insisted on revolutionary syntheses which proved, on examination, to be as old as the hills, part of disregarded tradition. He was most radical when he was most conservative.

Eliot's claim to greatness as a poet is based on a very small body of work. Such a claim is more easily substantiated when a poet writes much: it would be surprising if the prolific Longfellow did not produce at least a few good poems. But it is doubtful if posterity will want to discard more than a handful of Eliot's poems—perhaps the Rock choruses, perhaps some of the last of his occasional verses. The Waste Land and Four Quartets are alike great commentaries on eras of crisis and change, but the permanence of their greatness resides in their concentration on the permanent in human experience. Three of the plays will, I think, remain in the repertory, and this in spite of flaws which the author was the first to recognize. His right to be called the greatest of modern verse-innovators may perhaps yield in time to that of Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro. But Eliot is sane where Pound is cranky, though it has taken the world a long time to recognize the sanity. His magical achievement is to make out of the sane, the reasonable, the scholarly, even the flat and prosaic, a poetry which induces the authentic tingling down the spine and even moves to tears (who can remain dry-eyed during Thomas's sermon or in the last scene of The Cocktail Party?). His criticism and scholarship are the air we breathe and, like the air, they are being taken for granted by the young and clever…. Eliot—the great bare name like Donne or Milton—is someone we go on knowing, not only in the cerebral cortex but in the digestive tract. And are grateful to go on knowing.

Anthony Burgess, "Lament for a Maker," in his Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1968, pp. 99-101.

Eliot as a projection of his oeuvres has a form distinctly unlike the form of any of his poems. He is infrangible, while his poems are fragmentary and seemingly irresolute about their fragmentariness. His poetry is about the difficulty of conceiving anything. Never merely expressive of ideas already successfully shaped in the mind, his poems enact the mind's effort even to form an idea. Yet he thrives upon some inward assurance, mysterious and not always accessible, that cannot be translated into programmatic thinking or into daytime sense. Reality is commonly extolled to the degree that it rationalizes those very moments which are for Eliot the intimation of some pattern that is deeper or higher—the geography varies with the occasion—than the business of daily living. He treasures such moments because they disrupt what passes for reality or history. No wonder that Eliot's personality has so conspicuously escaped most of the reminiscences that have been written so far by his friends. Its true substance was hidden, one suspects, beneath the numerous public guises which it has amused Edmund Wilson, Auden, and Eliot himself, in "Mélange Adultère de Tout," to enumerate….

Subsuming the personae ascribed to Eliot is a self that cannot be made public, except through questions and revisions of whatever can be made public. This Eliot, beyond anyone's parody but his own, nearly beyond anyone else's criticism, is secure in "the kind of pattern we perceive in our lives only at rare moments of inattention and detachment, drowsing," as he beautifully puts it apropos of Marston, "in sunlight." Eliot exists for understanding at an impossible remove, perhaps, from the kind of mind, the liberal orthodox, for whom thinking and even suffering, consists in the abrasions of one abstraction on another. But anyone of genuinely radical sentiment can find in him an exercise of intelligence and spirit for which to be humanly proud and grateful.

Richard Poirier, in his The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life (copyright © 1971 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 60-1.

The transformation of T. S. Eliot from skeptic to religious believer was a public event and to the literary world quite a spectacular one. Criticism has been busy with it ever since, following often at considerable length—now and then at considerable distance too—the course of his journey from a view of the Church as Hippopotamus "wrapt in the old miasmal mist" to a Christian faith that "all shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well." The substance of his later belief he made explicit in his writing, and the change has been welcomed, denounced, scoffed at, and analyzed from many angles, with or without sympathy. Interesting as much of this subsequent discussion is, one element has been largely ignored that seems to me of even greater interest and certainly of equal importance to the reader of Eliot's poetry. It is his preoccupation, which appears markedly in the poems, with the process itself of subjective change. A concern, that is, not only with what one may change from or to but with change itself: how possible it is, how easy, how subject to the will; what the experience may be like of attempting to transform wish into will, will into belief and then dedication. Thinking of these questions, one realizes that the subject has not often been touched by other poets….

"The whole of Shakespeare," Eliot once wrote, "is one poem … united by one significant and developing personality"; the words characterize his own work more sharply than they do Shakespeare's. His recurrent imagery, of which there is more than in any other writer I can think of, repeated exactly or with variations, and his repeated observations ("Human kind cannot bear very much reality" is the first that comes to mind) may originally have sprung from a narrow range of sensibility but if so he made a virtue of the limitation, deliberately unifying his work by means of these "patterns in his carpet"; the repeated images enrich, rather than impoverish, his work by a concretion of associative values for the reader that carry from one passage to another. And the continuity derived from "one significant and developing personality" which he ascribed to both Shakespeare and Dante was certainly also a deliberate aim of his own work. His Christian commitment is the most obvious unifying factor in the later work, but through the related theme of change as process, the early and the later work are held in a single developing pattern. In the Prufrockian world, change, which there means becoming able and willing to enter into a living human relationship through love, is, as we have seen, impossible; the word love does not even enter after the title, and the hell is felt to be permanent.

The Waste Land is very different from Prufrock but in some respects it looks more different than it is. Its canvas is no longer confined to a single figure; poetic range and technique reach the opposite extreme as microscope gives way to cinemascope. The terms of the question are different and the answer is different, yet the question itself at its most abstract level remains similar: now, for the world at large, is change possible? In contrast to Prufrock, the answer here, at least as I understand it, is "Perhaps."…

Though Eliot's lifelong admiration was for Dante and probably at some stage, not early, he saw [in certain] of his own poems a distant parallel to the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, that analogy was in the nature of a tribute rather than of attempted rivalry; he never was and never thought himself to be the modern Dante. On the other hand, he did, I think quite consciously, in prose as well as poetry, set himself to become Arnold's rival, successor, and improver, the influence coming down chiefly from Arnold's prose, not his poetry. Eliot did in fact succeed in becoming Arnold's successor as a fountain of certain kinds of ideas. On one level, what are all the quotations and allusions in The Waste Land doing but carrying out literally Arnold's injunction to know and propagate "the best that has been known and thought in the world," demonstrating the relevance of the past to the present, exemplifying the value that a unified broad culture may have in giving power to what one has to say, and, in passing, showing its author equipped, as Arnold believed the critic if not the poet also should be, with knowledge of more than one's own language and literature? The Waste Land in one of its aspects is a going demonstration, really an exhibition, of the ideal unity of culture and was surely meant to be so….

The poem is … woven of almost countless patterns and cross-patterns through which the central theme makes its way. The subject, on its public level, is society, but not society conceived as a system, and it is this latter circumstance that places The Waste Land properly in the sequence that begins with Prufrock: the ills of the world are not represented as curable by any change in organization of church or state, not by social, economic, or political means, not by choosing new leaders or instituting new forms of government. The illness is of the sum of individual souls, just as in Prufrock it is of one representative soul, and their cure can be wrought, if at all, only by change in those souls. The formula for this is "Da"—"Datta" (give), "Dayadhvam" (sympathize), "Damyata" (control, especially self-control), the choice of words from the Sanskrit being logically (whether or not effectively) justified in that they represent the ancient linguistic link between East and West and so symbolize the unity of culture, while their substance advances the main theme of possible salvation for the waste land—through change in the individual….

The experience of conversion presented by Eliot is poles distant from the easy evangelism of "come to Jesus and he will take away your troubles"; Eliot's Christianity belongs to the very different tradition of a long and narrow and difficult but necessary Christian way, in which there may be more pain than joy, and very little ease. In his thought, as far as we can follow it, the will plays a double role. For the individual will must be dissolved through identification with the will of God: "Teach us to care and not to care" is his paradoxical formulation of this. It is what he prays for at the beginning of Ash Wednesday and what he is still only praying for at the end, where its meaning is placed beyond dispute by the addition of Dante's words "Our peace in His will." In absolute terms no human will, however devout the Christian, is ever completely dissolved and so all need to pray, but as the context shows, Eliot means more than that: even in relative terms his humility has far to go. It is the individual will also, however, that, cooperating with supernatural grace, must will itself out of existence….

In his prose, Eliot could be doctrinaire, illiberal, condescending; he displayed no hesitations and few self-doubts. He was under no obligation to make public confessions of his flaws, and he gave few hints of there being any. For some years, indeed, beginning with his initial attacks on humanism, his prose was often colored by a repellent intellectual and moral-sounding arrogance. Prose, however, one writes for the world, poetry largely for oneself; and in his poetry Eliot subjected himself to a more rigorous and self-critical criterion of sincerity than he seems to have done in his prose….

Ash Wednesday,… though its theme is appropriate enough for the day that marks the beginning of Lent, is not merely the self-examination and repentance prescribed for the occasion. It contains these, but they fall within the framework of another theme, for the poem as a whole is a history and in the end a meticulously honest examination of one man's inner change and a weighing of that change to know how great it is, how genuine, how small.

Elisabeth Schneider, "Prufrock and After: The Theme of Change, in PMLA 87 (copyright © 1972 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America), October, 1972, pp. 1103-17.