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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,...
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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.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2818
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 center is seen not merely as a consolation but also as something like a condition for the whirling of the unstilled, unhearing world:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard:
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word….
The pun on "still" is characteristic, with its multiple reference to time or duration, motion, and silence. The integration achieved in this poem is later developed and concentrated into a single image: "the still point of the turning world." As the geometer must postulate something he calls the "point"—a thing having neither depth nor breadth nor any dimensionality, yet somehow necessarily existing—without which he can have no geometry, so the unstilled world itself presupposes the geocentric still point, and for that matter the geotropic poet as well. Beginning with Ash-Wednesday, and no doubt due in part to the integration achieved there, Eliot sounds less like the prophet warning men against their obtuseness, more like the psalmist seeking his way into the silent center. He seeks that way, paradoxically, through words. Four Quartets is the continuation and culmination of that search, and a resolution of that paradox. Both the search and the resolution proceed through indispensable form…. [This] reliance on form as a way of redeeming words and music is reasserted, but redemptive form is now more explicitly Incarnation…. (pp. 184-87)
[Despite] the importance of the integration achieved in Ash-Wednesday and the elaboration of that achievement in Four Quartets, the word unheard is most successfully turned into poetry in the earlier work, where it is not explicit; the height of Eliot's achievement is The Waste Land, which is distinctly superior because more catholic, recovering more, from lost vegetation myths, the Upanishads, Greek drama, the Hebrew prophets, St. Augustine, Dante, the Elizabethans. Moreover, the function Eliot assigns to poetry is also a major function of literary criticism and scholarship: the recognition, recovery, or revelation of the word unheard. And The Waste Land is almost as much a work of criticism and scholarship as it is a poem—in this sense, too, an extraordinarily catholic work.
It is here, then, in The Waste Land that Eliot incarnates his word in the form likely to be most distinctly unheard by the modern ear. For it is here that the identification of tradition and the self, and the relation of tradition to redemption of the self, is most fully developed. The Cumaean sibyl in the epigraph is, as oracles traditionally have been, a source of information that does not fully inform, of knowing that often constitutes, in one way or another, not-knowing. As gatekeeper of the underworld in Vergil's Aeneid she also supplies Eliot with a symbol for the epic descent into Hell, which for Eliot as for Dante, represents a descent into the lower reaches of the self and the spectral images and the spectral knowledge waiting there—such a descent as in fact The Waste Land is—a descent through tradition, which is also a descent through the crowded sordid images of which the self is constituted. This identification of the self with the past is embodied in the ancient and virtually interminable self of the sibyl. In the main body of the poem this identification of self and past is achieved in the figure of Tiresias, presiding consciousness of The Waste Land…. (pp. 188-89)
"The Burial of the Dead" closes with an image of disinterment—a dog unearthing a corpse—that suggests the unearthing of buried truth. The allusion to Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, the disinterment of a consciousness, supports this suggestion—and so, in particular, does the charge of hypocrisy, implying the corpse in every man's garden…. Voices, prophecies, images, and incarnations hover throughout [The Waste Land] carrying knowledge, but somehow silent, or unheard, or latent, or ignored. In some form or other the word unheard is everywhere present. And it is everywhere associated with death, the dominant imagery in Part I: the Cumaean sibyl, the handful of dust, the man who knows nothing looking into the silence, the Hanged Man and death by water respectively unseen and foreseen by Madame Sosostris, the buried corpse. The association is sometimes sinister, sometimes comic, always ambiguous, uncertain. The only kinds of knowing in Part I are virtually identical with not-knowing, and both are akin to death. Here and throughout The Waste Land true knowledge, vital knowledge, redemptive knowledge is everywhere latent but one way or another inoperative.
The poem thus suggests the importance that Eliot assigns to "feelings" and "the felt whole," which people in The Waste Land consistently overlook or ignore. But Eliot transcends such philosophical and pseudo-philosophical terms to integrate dramatically his epistemology with his concern over human failure and redemption. It is this concern that … puts him in touch with the problem of knowledge as it typically appears in Greek epic and tragedy, Hebrew prophecy, and modern works in the same tradition, most notably Dante's Commedia. (pp. 189-91)
[The] most striking symbol in Part II is Philomel …, evoking the theme of lust. Raped and mutilated, she cannot speak what she knows; transformed into the nightingale, she sings, but the world will not hear. In the myth she reveals what she knows with a woven image, hence the characteristic pun on "still": "And still she cried, and still the world pursues."… [The words that are neither heard nor felt by the object of Prufrock's love song] are, of course, heard and felt by the reader, insofar as the poem is effective and the reader receptive. Prufrock's love song is, in this sense, really a love song. In the very process of not achieving that ultimate expression he longs for, he does achieve it. The poem he speaks is very nearly as musical as Four Quartets, and it does convey that total despair and alienation associated with the I-want-to-die genre of conventional love songs. Prufrock's word is, in fact, heard—just to the extent that his absurd private torment is transmuted into significant public poetry. (pp. 191-92)
Eliot commonly uses apparent nonsense to convey sense, as Shakespeare does in both comedy and tragedy. The effect of this technique might very aptly be described as moving the hearers to "collection," and recollection. (p. 192)
The Waste Land is radically different from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," but the tones of melancholy, prophecy, and hysteria are as conspicuous in the voice of Prufrock, knowing it will not be heard, as they are in the voices of The Waste Land. (p. 193)
The closing lines of "The Fire Sermon" allude to St. Augustine's Confessions—first to Book III, in which Augustine recounts his chase after abstruse knowledge on two continents, like Eliot's, ending in a rejection of the academic for the religious, while nonetheless retaining an academic orientation. The substance of his confession in Book III is his failure to see the immanent God: "These things I then knew not, nor observed; they struck my sight on all sides, and I saw them not." Book X, to which Eliot also alludes here, is an involved epistemological dissertation on memory, which Augustine regards as the source of his knowledge of God; but how a knowledge of God reached his memory is a question he finds mysterious. He concludes that the Truth of God is all about him: "Every-where, O Truth, dost Thou give audience to all who ask counsel of Thee, and at once answer all…. Clearly dost Thou answer, though all do not clearly hear." And God, of course, is equally immanent…. Here is Eliot's emphasis on the ubiquity of truth, but its evasiveness, and man's extraordinary capacity for evading it—even when he appears to seek it most diligently. Here, too, is Eliot's emphasis on memory, and the act of knowing as an act or recognition. (pp. 194-95)
"What the Thunder Said" is surely among the noisiest poetry in the language—faces sneering and snarling, singing grass, the cicadas, the hermit thrush, "maternal lamentation," "falling towers," "whisper music," bats whistling, voices out of cisterns, the cock on the roof. The only interruption of this bedlam is the walk to Emmaus. In this incident two of Christ's disciples walk together discussing the strange events of the first Easter; Christ appears to them, unrecognized by his two followers, and enquires what they are talking about…. Their response to him is a masterpiece of dramatic irony that Eliot might have envied: "Are you the only man living in Jerusalem who does not know what has been happening there these last few days?" Then his disciples tell the risen Christ of his own crucifixion, expressing disappointment that he had not redeemed Israel. Still unrecognized, he rebukes them for not heeding the prophets, and soon after, at dinner, a recognition-scene occurs, but then he disappears. The whole incident epitomizes the kind of knowing-but-not-knowing—the virtual suppression of knowledge, or the fear of seeing and seizing the redemptive knowledge always close at hand—characteristic of Eliot's world. Yet in The Waste Land this knowledge is not exclusively Christian but goes back to the oldest of the Indo-European scriptures, the Upanishads. The final stanza recapitulates the entire section, and in large measure the poem itself—a jumble of noise, madness, hysteria, weariness, longing, climaxed by three words from a dead language, containing the sum of all redemptive knowledge, and a benediction…. Eliot fully expects his words to go unheard, as the tradition itself from which they come has gone unheard for up to several thousand years.
Yet ignorance of the word is death, and knowledge is redemptive. Despite his pessimism, Eliot thus exalts knowledge to an extent unsurpassed and hardly equaled by any other modern poet. In response to the ancient question, whether poetry conveys knowledge, Eliot's answer is positive. To be sure, the knowledge it conveys is knowledge we already have; yet for lack of it we go to perdition. (pp. 195-96)
Harry Puckett, "T. S. Eliot on Knowing: The Word Unheard," in The New England Quarterly (copyright 1971 by The New England Quarterly), June, 1971, pp. 179-96.
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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 of rhythmical grumbling." But then he may have meant only that he thought The Waste Land was not a great poem, and while there are poets we must simply disfigure or dismiss if we look at them through Eliot's theory, there are others, Eliot included, whose achievement needs to be understood, not as a conquest of emotion, but as the translation of emotion into another key.
Eliot's unhappiness lies behind "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," but it is not in the poem, even as a source or a shadow. In the later work, the unhappiness appears more clearly, but it is still disciplined and displaced, so that the apparently confessional Four Quartets remain impersonal in Eliot's sense. Like the poetry of Yeats, and unlike the poetry of Hardy, Hopkins, Lawrence, or Pound, they inhabit a zone beyond personal anguish. In yesterday's aesthetic, this would have been a sign of the greatness of Yeats and Eliot and the inferiority of the others. I'm not sure we need to make such choices, but we do, clearly, need to recognize the differences of poetic mode.
The second phase of Eliot's views on the subject—the notion that greatness in poetry is measured by the dimensions and integrity of a whole oeuvre—seems more dubious…. Eliot would be a great poet if he had written nothing more than the last section of The Waste Land. Eliot's thought here seems to answer a moral or metaphysical need for wholeness, a quest for what he himself called "character," rather than a real critical requirement….
We gain something by taking the long view of Eliot, by tracing out a career rather than studying separate poems. But we probably lose more than we gain…. We can usefully place [The Waste Land] in a continuum, but it is more "fully itself" when we see it as a poem and not as an item in Eliot's spiritual progress. (p. 15)
Even so, any perspective which misses the abrupt discontinuities in Eliot's work has missed too much, for such discontinuities are the life of the poems. It is not simply that Eliot is a "poet of fragments," as Spender says, or that he sees the world as broken in pieces. Eliot specializes in putting fragments together in such a way that we see the wholeness that we lack:
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,
And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.
The accidental nightingales, merely singing in two different places and times, the brave flourish of the implausible connection ("And sang") offer a perfect picture of what it means not to be able to put things together. Of course the perfection of the picture, while not a solution to the problem, is a relief. Things are together in the poem, however violently they have been yoked to each other. It is striking that when Eliot writes of the last canto of Dante's Paradiso, he shows an almost exaggerated interest in Dante's sudden introduction of the pagan Neptune into the highest circle of the Christian heaven:
I do not know anywhere in poetry more authentic sign of greatness than the power of association which could in the last line, when the poet is speaking of the Divine vision, yet introduce the Argo passing over the head of wondering Neptune.
This, Eliot says, "is the real right thing, the power of establishing relations between beauty of the most diverse sorts; it is the utmost power of the poet." The leap from the contemporary Convent of the Sacred Heart to the classical scene of Agamemnon's death is a parody of such power. It establishes a relation only in the poem, not in the world, and it is a relation between sorts of betrayal not sorts of beauty. But the parody has an authority of its own, and … parodied revelations in Eliot often lead to the truth, which is not easily distinguished from its travesty. The point is that Eliot has found in Dante not only a model of lost unity, but also a poet who at a later date might have written The Waste Land, introducing the voice of Ezekiel, say, into Baudelaire's desolation.
The Waste Land itself is not the ruin of a whole poem pulled down with Pound's aid, but a selection of the best fragments from a larger bundle of fragments. (pp. 15-16)
The Hollow Men and Ash-Wednesday are not entirely successful attempts to point fragments toward a larger meaning, and the Four Quartets reflect the triumphant discovery that that is Eliot's enduring subject: how to join fragments into a poem; how to live out one's life in the long lulls between the fragmentary moments of illumination—"the moment in the rose-garden, / The moment in the arbour where the rain beat, / The moment in the draughty church at smokefall"—which represent our only chance of a victory over time. The Quartets record a sporadically successful, finally failing tussle with temps perdu; and their distinction lies not, I think, in their claims for religion or in their remarkable lyric passages, but in the unfolding enterprise itself. They are the poem of the mind's quarrel with the insufficiencies of language, where language at times, miraculously, is found to be sufficient after all. (p. 16)
Eliot's prose seems in its way as reticent as the poetry, and yet it does give us more glimpses of the man who suffered. Stray phrases in all kinds of sentences communicate an abiding sadness: "the eternal message of vanity, fear, and lust"; "the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life"; "the fact that no human relations are adequate to human desires"; "the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering." The tug of those phrases helps us to understand Eliot's religion, I think; and his use of a formula like "the ecstasy of assent," and his attachment to Dante's line (always slightly misquoted), "E'n la sua volontade è nostra pace." Against such profound and extensive misery, perhaps only external agencies are any use at all: God, dogma, a harsh old law, our peace underwritten by His will. "I am really shocked by your assertion that God did not make Hell," Eliot wrote to a friend. "It seems to me that you have lapsed into Humanitarianism…. Is your God Santa Claus?" "Only Christianity," Eliot wrote earlier, "helps to reconcile me to life, which is otherwise disgusting…."
Eliot, especially in the years immediately following his entry into the Anglo-Catholic communion, could fall into a shrill moral snobbery…. Still, one can dislike Eliot's religion and his heartless high Tory politics without disliking Eliot, whose integrity survives his shrillness. (pp. 16-17)
Michael Wood, "The Struggles of T. S. Eliot," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), May 13, 1976, pp. 15-18.
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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, control. It is not until his culminating work twenty years later that we see fully the meaning and fruits of this advice.
"Burnt Norton" (1937), the first of the Four Quartets, begins with the observation, today almost hackneyed from frequent quotation that
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
In our context this is a pregnant assertion, though its possible meanings are not clarified at this stage of the quartets. At least it raises the possibility that the past to which we look back nostalgically may be fulfilled in some future which is neither visionary nor unbearably distant. That past is "our first world" of leaves and roses and children's voices; but there is something amiss in it, and we cannot stay. The roses, as one might equally say of Wordsworth's performing daffodils, "had the look of flowers that are looked at." Their naturalness, and our own insofar as we try to be childlike, is deceptive…. What follows is adult life, a life of evasions. It contains at every point the possibility of transcendence, but only if we are willing to face reality. (What that means is also less than clear at this point.) Meanwhile, like Eliot's predecessors, we are left with spots of time, flashes of shame and nostalgia…. (pp. 417-18)
The pilgrimage to Little Gidding (1942) is clearly a voyage of recovery, but it is not made in the eager expectant frame of mind that one might anticipate. This is partly because spiritual purposes are never quite clear to those for whom or in whom they are accomplished, nor are they ever carried out in precisely the way one intends. The egotism that leads us to suppose we are either of great importance or in control of our own lives is one of the things we must lose in order to find ourselves anew…. We are reminded of several things about Wordsworth and children. First, Words-worth went to Tintern Abbey in the first place as a refuge from traumas connected with the French revolution…. The purpose was refuge and, on the second trip, a slightly self-indulgent revisiting. Second, and equally important, Eliot's is a more genuinely childlike position than anything we have seen so far. For the most striking fact about children is not that they are innocent but that they are helpless: they have little control over their own lives or purposes. To Wordsworth, being childlike meant something quite different from allowing oneself to be controlled by events not of one's own making, or by the will of another…. Eliot's pilgrimage is dominated above all by a discipline that excludes sentimentality and self-assertion. Unlike, say, Wordsworth's or Arnold's journeys, it is undertaken neither as an escape nor as a form of self-indulgence, but as a duty.
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
One thing that never occurred to Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey, or to Arnold at the Grande Chartreuse, was to pray. (pp. 419-20)
"Little Gidding" is, unlike "Tintern Abbey," both a war poem and a meditation on history…. The way to deal with history is not to flee from it but to open oneself to all of its crises and participants without refighting its battles…. History, like life at any stage, "is a pattern/Of timeless moments." Thus analyzed and accepted, nostalgia becomes something other than itself: it too is redeemed in a larger pattern…. Desire too must go—not only the desire for wealth, fame, comfort, but also the desire for liberation itself, peace, wholeness, indeed the achievement of any of our own purposes whatsoever.
That this austere, almost medieval form of self-denial is unlike anything proposed or practised by any of our other poets except Hopkins is obvious. That in it lies, for Eliot, our only salvation is evident from all of his major works. "Little Gidding" is in this as in other senses his master-work, and it is not surprising that after it he wrote no more poems. Yet the reward that the "classicist" offers us at the end of this most romantic of nineteenth-century searches would have made Wordsworth and most of his successors nod their heads. It is, in truth, the achievement of their quest and the way out of their dilemma, even though the disciplines by which it is achieved are alien to all of them.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We shall know it as only adults can know, but we shall be at home in it as only children and those who have given up the desire that their desires should rule can be at home anywhere. (pp. 420-21)
Christopher Clausen, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1976 by The University of the South), Summer, 1976.
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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.
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[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 its shocked and passive and neurasthenic persons, is a paradigm of war's effects, and of a world emptied of order and meaning, like a battlefield after the battle. And the manner of the poem—its ironic tone, its imagery, its lack of heroes and heroism, its antirhetorical style—is also a consequence of the war, an application of war-poet principles to the post-war scene. (p. 25)
To Eliot's young admirers, The Waste Land was the essential vision of the post-war world, and the generation's donnée. It is worth noting that the generation involved here includes both the friends of Waugh at the beginning of the 'twenties, and the friends of Auden at the end…. [In] the 'twenties, when the two groups overlapped at Oxford, they were one post-war generation, sharing a view of society as decadent and emptied of values. And Eliot's poem seemed an immediate and authoritative expression of what they saw.
From its first appearance, The Waste Land was read as a work of primarily social and moral import, a public poem on public themes. It is possible, now, fifty years later, to see it as the private nightmare of a young expatriate having a nervous breakdown in Zürich or, in Eliot's own terms, as 'the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life … just a piece of rhythmical grumbling', but in the 'twenties such readings were not current, because they were not useful to a generation living in the shadow cast by the late war. The poem was about the consequences of the war, and when influential young critics wrote about it, they dealt with it in essentially public terms, as a sentence passed by the poet on post-war society. And by writing as they did they helped to fix this reading as the orthodox one.
I. A. Richards, then a young don at Cambridge, was especially influential, for he seemed, to the young men he taught, to occupy roughly the same place in post-war criticism that Eliot did in post-war poetry. (pp. 27-8)
Richards was the first English critic to develop a theory of modern poetry in terms of which The Waste Land was an important poem. [He wrote]:
[Mr. Eliot] seems to me by this poem, to have performed two considerable services for this generation. He has given a perfect emotive description of a state of mind which is probably inevitable for a while to all meditative people. Secondly, by effecting a complete severance between his poetry and all beliefs, and this without any weakening of the poetry, he has realised what might otherwise have remained largely a speculative possibility and has shown the way to the only solution of these difficulties. 'In the destructive element immerse. That is the way.'
It is, I think, a crucial passage: it claims the poem as a philosophical support for a certain philosophical attitude—what Richards elsewhere in the book calls 'the neutralisation of nature'; and it links the poem with the post-war generation, as a perfect account of an inevitable state of mind. Henceforth, if one did not feel a sense of desolation, if one did not immerse in the destructive element, one was not a meditative person. For young people, this is surely the way beliefs, and feelings about beliefs, are often formed. And if this is so, then the creation of a received view of The Waste Land, and of the poem's connection with a post-war state of mind, was a significant part of the formation of the 'thirties generation.
The interpretation of the poem that Richards urged was not an eccentric one; it simply ignored the private meaning, what Eliot meant when he called it a personal grouse against life. He was encouraged to read it as he did by Eliot's own critical writings, by the famous defence of difficulty in 'The Metaphysical Poets', for example, and more specifically by Eliot's review of Ulysses, published in 1923. The essay is a justification of what Eliot calls 'the mythic method', and a transparent defence of the way The Waste Land is put together; the method, he says, 'is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history'. Such a vision of history separates the post-war world from all the past, and from past ideas of order and value; it must have both confirmed and helped to form Richards' understanding of Eliot's poem, and, more importantly, it must have helped to form the post-war generation's sense of its isolation from the world before the war. (pp. 28-9)
[All] through the 'thirties Eliot—classicist, royalist, and Anglo-Catholic though he proclaimed himself to be—managed to be both a model and a patron to the radical young. (p. 47)
Samuel Hynes, in his The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s (copyright © 1976 by Samuel Hynes; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of The Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin, 1977.