T. S. Eliot Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) 1888–1965

Eliot was an American-born poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, and publisher who became a British citizen in 1927. A neoclassicist who had a profound effect on twentieth-century poetry and literary criticism, Eliot endeavored to re-educate his readers through the use of allusions drawn from the past: classical, biblical, and mythical allusions inform his work. He used classical literary structures and experimented with musical forms in his poetry, as evidenced in his Preludes and Four Quartets. The theme of death and rebirth, central to The Waste Land, is found throughout Eliot's work, as is his preoccupation with man's place in a world governed by the exigencies of time. Eliot received both the Nobel Prize and the British Order of Merit in 1948. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Harry Puckett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Almost every poem Eliot wrote is dominated by one or more traditional epistemological concerns—knowledge and belief, memory and perception, forgetting, recognition, and precognition. But his poetry is also dominated by prophets and prophecies, magi, choric forebodings, people who know but cannot see or speak, or if they speak are not heeded. His people are surrounded by a world of talking birds, cryptic messages, telling images, and words unheard; and what his people come to know is what they should have known or do know already. Knowing is, for Eliot, an act of recognition or re-cognition…. The silent message, the word unheard—an image, a gesture, an atmosphere—is often associated with issues of life and death. Those who hear the word live; and those who do not, die. (pp. 179-80)

The word unheard … takes various forms. It may be knowledge in the possession of one who cannot speak. It may be knowledge embedded in an image not noticed. It may be an open warning, openly ignored. It may also be a silent gesture, like the nod of the Lady's head in Ash-Wednesday, fully acknowledged and acted upon, as Sweeney wisely acted among the nightingales; Eliot's word unheard is not always unregarded. But the word unheard appears most strikingly in such diverse figures as Philomel, the infant Christ in "Gerontion," and J. Alfred Prufrock—all unable to speak, and sure to be unheeded if or when speech becomes possible.

The knowledge that matters most in Eliot's world is not discursive and discovered, like scientific knowledge, but revealed, recovered, recognized. Eliot's world is much like the subconscious worlds described by Jung and Freud, each in a different way, and both different from Eliot's, yet all having in common the idea of knowledge latent, veiled, or hovering, often in some sense silent or unheeded, commonly available only through images. Common to all is the idea of knowing as an act of recovery or recognition, of being able to know in some sense without really knowing; and finally the idea of superficial knowledge as an evasion of deeper knowledge…. (p. 181)

One thing that frequently happens to people in an Eliot poem is that they pay insufficient attention to feelings and the felt whole. And one thing Eliot himself does in writing a poem is to preserve and convey a generous portion of the felt whole—images and sounds—compelling the reader to do much of the abstracting, if he wants abstractions. The importance that Eliot attaches to the felt whole sets up a common bond between him and the Imagists. But Eliot is obviously not presenting merely images in his poetry; he presents patterns of images and concepts, built together into a feeling or even a pattern of such feelings. His ultimate obligation as a craftsman is not to the image but to the feeling. Moreover, he regards pure perception and purely immediate experience as impossible, because all our perceptions are guided, or filtered through, various concepts and preconceptions…. (p. 182)

[The] main trend in the English and American schools throughout Eliot's era was toward analytic philosophy; and, given the advantage of hindsight, we can see that Eliot's epistemology leads rather directly away from that kind of philosophizing and toward poetry, the traditional province of feeling (in several senses of the term, including Eliot's). (p. 183)

Just as Eliot's epistemology leads from the writing of philosophy to the writing of poetry, so the particular kind of poetry he writes is a reflection of his attitude toward knowing. Knowledge is made available to his magi in images; it is also made available to his reader in images. Knowing is an act of recognition for the women of Canterbury; so it is for the reader. Knowledge hovers in Eliot's poetic world. It hovers also in his real world. Hence his poetry is built on image, myth, and allusion. His poetry conveys knowledge; but it is knowledge the reader already has, in a latent state of one sort or another. As in the Jungian and Freudian constructs, it may be recovered only through struggle or crisis—in this case, struggle with the poetry…. By means of image, allusion, and myth … Eliot conveys to his reader certain knowledge that the reader already possesses but does not readily recover. The poem thus draws on the subconscious, and it draws on archetypal memories, yet Eliot's poetry is not especially Freudian or Jungian. With those constructs it has only a common ancestor in ancient myths—Homer's Oxen-of-the-Sun incident, the Oedipus myth, the Adam story—where men know, but know darkly, and so die. One of the primary differences between the kind of knowing in Eliot's poetry and the kind postulated by Jung and Freud is that Eliot need not speculate; he need not postulate concepts of archetype or libido. Although he may use such concepts as "feeling" and felt whole in some of his prose, his poetry gets along well without them. The knowledge recovered by Eliot's poetry exists, not in a racial memory or a superego, but in tradition; and Eliot's allusions are a kind of documentation…. The knowledge that poetry recovers exists in time, and Eliot's attitude toward knowledge is thus closely linked to his attitude toward time—a relationship explored at length in Four Quartets. It is here, at the end of "East Coker," that Eliot achieves his most concise and explicit definition of poetry:

the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again….

A few lines later his idea of poetry and his idea of life merge into one:

Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered….

The word unheard, as a symbol of the nature, process, and function of poetry, is generally referred to most explicitly in Eliot's later work, beginning with Ash-Wednesday, and more particularly the opening stanza of Section V …, which marks an important development. Prior to 1930 in such poems as "Gerontion," The Waste Land, and "Journey of the Magi" Eliot dwells primarily upon man's failure to hear and heed the word which is plainly, sometimes loudly or blatantly, set forth. During this earlier period the other aspect of the word unheard—the silent word silently heeded—ironically appears in only one important poem, "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," where Sweeney acts on the "felt whole" as Agamemnon did not. But in Ash-Wednesday both of these aspects appear together, and achieve full integration in Section V. Here, the fact that the silent Word does exist at the...

(The entire section is 2818 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eliot's views on personality in poetry seem to have two phases … but offer no serious contradiction. The impersonality of the poet creates a set of poems which add up to a distinct and significant personality: the poems have the personality. The first half of this proposition, the purging of "all the accidents of personal emotion" from the poem, is not much cherished these days….

Few critics are now as eager as Eliot was to separate "art" from "the event," "the mind which creates" from "the man who suffers."

Indeed, Eliot himself is supposed to have said that The Waste Land was "only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece...

(The entire section is 1274 words.)

Christopher Clausen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a major poet T. S. Eliot began in the Waste Land and ended at Little Gidding. That both places are associated with chapels is no accident: even in the depths of the tradition [of Victorian and twentieth-century English poetry] …, the way out is symbolized for believers and unbelievers alike by religious buildings, real or legendary. Since it is in Eliot's later work that major English poetry emerges from its fixation on lost childhood and its spiritual paralysis, we naturally look for reasons that will explain his ability to reverse or (better) to complete the journey that had begun at Tintern Abbey. In The Waste Land (1922) there is already a spiritual prescription for modern man: give, sympathize,...

(The entire section is 941 words.)

Robert Martin Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whether Ulysses had such overpowering influence on The Waste Land that the latter is in effect a parody of the former is a point that need not be decided here; Joyce thought it did, but he was touchy in these matters, and even if he was right, hardly anyone connected the two works till many years after both were published. The basic fact that Ulysses made a tremendous impression on Eliot is beyond question, and nobody did more to make it clear than Eliot himself. His friends were amazed; for the first time in their experience, he was openly enthusiastic about a contemporary book. He not only talked up Ulysses among his acquaintance, he wrote, in November 1923, a most influential notice for The Dial under the heading "Ulysses, Order, and Myth"; this statement served for many years not only as a landmark of Joyce criticism, but as a credo for advocates of myth as a structural principle in modern writing.

In fact, Eliot's essay in The Dial applies more directly to the use of myth in The Waste Land than to the use of myth in Ulysses. The Grail legend as interpreted by Jessie Weston really serves as a structural principle on which Eliot hung (with the help of Pound) his observations of contemporary London. (pp. 37-8)

Robert Martin Adams, in his AfterJoyce: Studies in Fiction After "Ulysses" (copyright © 1977 by Robert Martin Adams; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1977.

Samuel Hynes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] war book above all others in the 'twenties was The Waste Land, and no account of the forces that formed the 'thirties generation would be accurate that neglected that powerfully influential poem. Eliot had an acute sense of what he called 'the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history', and he put that sense of history into his poem. And in 1922 contemporary history meant vestiges of the war: hence the two veterans who meet in the first part, and Lil's husband, who has just been demobbed, in the second, and the shouting and crying in part five, which Eliot's note identifies with the Russian Revolution. But beyond that, the world of the poem, with its heaps of broken images and...

(The entire section is 956 words.)