T. S. Eliot Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to being a successful liturgical dramatist, T. S. Eliot was an editor, an essayist, and a poet of great distinction. He became assistant editor of The Egoist in 1917 and founded The Criterion in 1922, serving as editor of the latter from then until its demise in 1939. As an essayist, Eliot explored the place of modern literature with regard to tradition, discussed the relationship between literature and ethics, and emphasized the need for a modern idiom. Among his extremely influential collections of essays are The Sacred Wood (1920) and After Strange Gods (1934), both dealing with the individual’s debt to tradition, the latter propounding a moral standpoint; The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933); and On Poetry and Poets (1957). In For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) and The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), the impact of his 1927 confirmation in the Church of England on his life and letters is particularly evident.

Eliot’s poetry has had a greater influence, not only in England and the United States but also in world literature, than that of any of his contemporaries. Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1919; printed by Leonard and Virginia Woolf), and The Waste Land (1922) illustrate his growing despair over personal problems as well as modern social trends. Ash Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1943), produced following his confirmation, are meditations concerning spiritual illumination. In Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), Eliot demonstrated his talent for writing comic verse with equal success. That work has been reprinted widely in many formats and even, in 1983, provided the basis for a Tony Award winning musical, Cats.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Any assessment of T. S. Eliot’s achievements as a dramatist must be made in the light of his own comments about the relationship between past and present, between “tradition and the individual talent.” For Eliot, a new work of art causes a rearrangement of the ideal, preexisting order. As Carol Smith points out, his comments about “historical perspective” are not innovative; what is new is his idea that the “given” order defines the artist, whose chief responsibility is to subsume his individual talent as part of the progress of literary history. Eliot’s dramatic works are therefore “classical” in the altered sense of his attempting to employ a modern idiom in the service of the imperatives of history, both literary and religious.

One of Eliot’s achievements was the presentation of liturgical drama on the modern stage to a commercial audience. His endeavor in this regard began with his writing both a pageant, The Rock, and a ritual drama, Murder in the Cathedral, for the limited audiences provided respectively by a benefit to promote church building in London and the Canterbury Festival, audiences preconditioned to dramas of redemption. (Sweeney Agonistes, an experimental fragment, was not produced until 1933.) With his later plays, however, Eliot undertook the task of convincing secular audiences that traditional ideas about redemption were viable within a modern framework. The Family Reunion, his first full-length experiment in turning drawing-room comedy into religious fable, was not immediately successful; as his close friend and adviser Elliott Martin Browne reports, critics found the work mixed—the most negative reviews said that the play was characterized by “lifeless smoothness” and “difficulty” and was guaranteed to leave the audience “vexed and exhausted.” Some modern critics, however, such as Eliot’s biographer T. S. Matthews, find the play “extraordinary, . . . far superior to his later, ‘better made’ plays.” The Cocktail Party, on the other hand, was better received; even those who wrote negative reviews acknowledged that the production bordered on greatness. Browne notes that similar comments were made about The Confidential Clerk, although critical reception was influenced by the general belief that Eliot’s attempt “to combine the esoteric with the entertaining” was no longer innovative. The Elder Statesman, Browne believes, was overinterpreted by gossipmongers intent on reading the play in the light of Eliot’s marriage to his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, the previous year.

Quite aside from their mixed commercial appeal, Eliot’s plays illustrate his critical theories not only about the connection between drama and poetry but also about the failure of realistic theater. As C. L. Barber notes, Eliot’s Aristotelian viewpoint prompted him to criticize modern drama for its lack of rhythm. For Eliot, poetry was more than a distraction, more than an attempt to prettify dramatic diction. Never extrinsic to the action, poetry provides an underlying musical pattern that strengthens the audience’s response. The presence of such an abstract pattern suggests, as Eliot says in “Four Elizabethan Dramatists” (written in 1924), that the great vice in English drama is realism, for it detracts from the unity of the play. As his large essay Poetry and Drama (1951) makes clear, such unity is more than a technical matter of form and content, for the literary is handmaiden to the religious. Eliot’s ideal vision of verse drama is one in which “a design of human action and of words” is perpetuated in such a way that the connection between the everyday world and the universal design is illustrated; such a drama, Eliot believed, would provide the proper feeling of “reconciliation” to lead the audience to a spiritual awakening.

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

When T. S. Eliot startled the poetic world with the publication of Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, he was already on his way to becoming a prolific, formidable, and renowned literary critic of extraordinary originality and depth. Between 1916 and 1920, for example, he contributed almost one hundred essays and reviews to several journals, some of which he helped edit. Although his most enduring and famous criticism (except for his superb work on Dante) is contained in such essays as “Hamlet and His Problems” and “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (The Sacred Wood, 1920), he published thirty books and pamphlets and scores of essays, many of which remain uncollected. Chief among his other volumes of prose are Homage to John Dryden (1924), Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca (1927), For Lancelot Andrewes (1928), the celebrated Dante (1929), Selected Essays (1932, 1950), The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England (1933), After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934), Essays Ancient and Modern (1936), Poetry and Drama (1951), and On Poetry and Poets (1957). From its inception in 1922 until its last issue in 1939, Eliot was editor of The Criterion and an important contributor to that and other journals concerned with literary, cultural, political, and religious matters.

Eliot came to drama later than to poetry and criticism, though the seeds of drama are clearly in his early poetry, and the drama occupied much of his criticism. His dramatic writing ranges from religious pageant-plays in verse, The Rock: A Pageant Play (pr., pb. 1934) and Murder in the Cathedral (pr., pb. 1935), to quite diverse efforts such as The Family Reunion (pr., pb. 1939), The Cocktail Party (pr. 1949), The Confidential Clerk (pr. 1953), and The Elder Statesman (pr. 1958). All his dramatic work has as one of its objects the restoration of poetic drama to the popular theater.

The record of Eliot’s achievement is by no means complete. Many of his essays are available only in the journals in which they were published, and his notebooks have not been fully mined. The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume I, 1898-1922, edited by Valerie Eliot, his second wife, was published in 1988. The letters exemplify Eliot’s characteristic civility, and they give glimpses of his occasional insecurities as a young American determined to succeed in England on England’s terms. Eliot’s thousand or so letters to Emily Hale have not been published; they are in the Princeton University Library and may be made public after January 1, 2020. Valerie Eliot has edited and published The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound (1971) and Eliot’s Poems Written in Early Youth. Several of Eliot’s manuscripts are in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library and in the Hayward Collection at King’s College, Cambridge.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

T. S. Eliot’s achievements are such that he became the premier poet of his own generation and enlivened literary criticism by contributing such phrases as “objective correlative,” “dissociation of sensibility,” and “impersonal” poetry. He greatly helped to foster a resurgence of interest in Dante, in the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, and in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama at a time when such a resurgence was needed. He also provided a strong critical and poetic voice that chided the Victorian and Edwardian poets while furnishing a new poetry that served as a practical criticism of theirs.

The one title he preferred, and the one by which he is best and justly remembered, is “poet.” His poetry is not, on first acquaintance, easy; and it may not be so on second or third acquaintance. He is, as he said of his own favorite writer, Dante, “a poet to whom one grows up over a lifetime.” His poetic originality, called into question in his early days by those who charged him with plagiarism, lies in the careful crafting and arrangement of lines and phrases, the introduction of literary, historical, and cultural allusions, and the elaboration of image and symbol in highly charged and often dramatic language that both describes and presents a personal emotion or experience and generalizes it. Eliot’s careful husbanding of words, phrases, images, and symbols results in a recurrence of those elements and a continuity of subject matter from his juvenilia through his first and second masterpieces (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land) to his last (Four Quartets). The themes of his greater poems, as of his lesser ones, involve identity, sexuality, the nature of love, religious belief (or its absence), and the telling of a tale/writing of a poem in language adequate to the emotion or state that the telling/writing seeks to express.

It is a short step from the dramatic situations of Eliot’s early and middle poetry, situations that owe something to the poetry of Robert Browning, more to John Donne and the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and most to the Symbolist poetry ofJules Laforgue. One of Eliot’s chief aspirations and limited achievements countered the thrust of modern drama since Henrik Ibsen (the N drama of William Butler Yeats excepted): Eliot was dedicated to the revivification of verse drama in the twentieth century. He succeeded in doing this, to some extent, in The Rock, more so in Murder in the Cathedral, and less so in The Family Reunion and subsequent plays. Although his account of the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket clearly inspired Jean Anouilh’s Becket (pr. 1959), Eliot’s attempt to revive the poetic drama amounted to a false start, perhaps attributable in part to the highly poetic but undramatic and static nature of his plays.

Eliot’s achievements have led at least one critic to state that in the area of humane letters the larger part of the twentieth century may be called the Age of Eliot. Eliotatry aside, there is some merit in the remark. No stranger to prizes and awards, Eliot may have valued, and needed, the Dial Award of 1922 for The Waste Land. In the course of his long career he received doctoral degrees (honoris causa) from a score of British, European, and American universities; was Clark Lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge (1926), and Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University (1932-1933); and won the Hanseatic Goethe Prize (1954), the Dante Gold Medal (Florence, 1959), the Emerson-Thoreau Medal (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1959), and the U.S. Medal of Freedom (1964). In 1948, he achieved a dual distinction: Not only was he awarded the British Order of Merit, but he also won the Nobel Prize in Literature for, he surmised, “the entire corpus.”

In another sense, Eliot’s continuing achievement may be measured by the extent to which innumerable students, teachers, and researchers have surrendered to him. Each year several books or portions of books, as well as numerous essays, swell the number of works about him, his thought, and his writing; they stand as monuments to his still-unfolding mind and meaning. A legend in his own time, he remains one today.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Explain how T. S. Eliot’s reading habits as a young man helped shape his literary career.

What aspects of Eliot’s depiction of J. Alfred Prufrock are totally missing in the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning and those of other earlier poets?

Explain how Eliot’s understanding of the key words in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” govern the thesis of the essay.

What must a person coming to Eliot with a reading background of poetry written before World War I learn for a minimally successful understanding of a work such as The Waste Land?

Does The Waste Land ever become, or come dangerously close to becoming, a waste land of Eliot’s scholarship?

After poems like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, why does Eliot’s Four Quartets disappoint some readers?

What is most compelling, for a reader disinclined to share Eliot’s religious convictions, in his later religious poetry?

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How does T. S. Eliot alter the poetic traditions to which he contributes? For instance, what is new and distinctive about the protagonist and the “love song” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?

Which images in J. Alfred Prufrock’s interior monologue best convey his insecurity and the reasons for it?

Choose one theme of The Waste Land and trace its development over the five parts of the poem.

What musical conventions does Eliot employ in his poetry?

Given Eliot’s theory of the impersonality of poetry, is it possible to read his poetry from first to last as a spiritual autobiography?

What does the assertion that Murder in the Cathedral is “more choric than dramatic” mean?

Contrast Eliot and William Faulkner’s use of Christian symbols and allusions. In particular, how do their attitudes toward these Christian elements differ?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. The first comprehensive biography based on Eliot’s published and unpublished writing as well as on extensive interviews with his friends and associates. Ackroyd has been praised in several reviews for his handling of both Eliot’s life and work, especially the poet’s disastrous first marriage and The Waste Land.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Murder in the Cathedral. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. A collection of the most significant articles, by a variety of critics, on one of Eliot’s most famous plays. Some of the articles tend toward obscurity, but most are helpful in placing the play in the larger context of poetic drama. Includes a helpful introduction by Bloom and a bibliography.

Browne, Elliott Martin. The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. The most exhaustive textual study of Eliot’s plays available, this book analyzes the early typescript and manuscript versions of Eliot’s dramas, identifying and commenting on all major changes. Browne attempts to reconstruct Eliot’s writing process, and so any reader interested in that aspect of Eliot’s art might begin here.

Childs, Donald J. From Philosophy to Poetry: T. S. Eliot’s Study of Knowledge and Experience. London: Athalone Press, 2001. Childs analyzes Eliot’s literary works with emphasis on how he expressed his philosophy through his poetry. Bibliography and index.

Davidson, Harriet, ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: Longman, 1999. A collection of literary criticism regarding Eliot and his works. Bibliography and index.

Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet, T. S. Eliot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A wide-ranging critical examination in the form of an intellectual memoir, and an illuminating account of Donoghue’s engagement with the works of Eliot. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Includes all the poet’s significant extant correspondence up to the age of thirty-four. An important addition to the biographical and critical literature on Eliot, none of which had access to this complete collection of letters. His correspondence contains drafts of poems and reveals both his extremely correct and whimsical sides.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Reviewed by Richard Ellmann and other important critics as the most thorough treatment of Eliot’s early career, Gordon’s study is a superb meld of biography and criticism, drawing upon unpublished diaries, letters, and poems by the poet’s mother. Should be read in conjunction with Peter Ackroyd’s equally important biography.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988. A continuation of Gordon’s biography of the early years, concentrating on the religious phase of the poet’s life, his separation from his first wife, his friendships with two other women, and his marriage to Valerie Fletcher in 1957. Gordon is equally sound on Eliot’s later poetry, especially on the development of Four Quartets.

Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999. In this exhaustive biography Gordon builds on the efforts from her first two books covering Eliot’s early years. She assiduously tracked down Eliot’s correspondence and manuscripts to address the issue of Eliot’s anti-Semitism and misogyny. Gordon reinforces her thesis that Eliot’s poetic output should be interpreted as a coherent spiritual biography.

Habib, Rafey. The Early T. S. Eliot and Western Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A look at the philosophical beliefs held by Eliot and how they found their way into his literary works. Bibliography and index.

Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Waste Land.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Eight essays by eminent poets and scholars on the development, the achievement, and the impact of Eliot’s great poem. Each essay assesses Eliot’s place in literary history and examines not only his published poetry but also the facsimile publication of Eliot’s manuscripts of The Waste Land.

Malamud, Randy. T. S. Eliot’s Drama: A Research and Production Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. A close look at the production of Eliot’s dramatic works. Bibliography and indexes.

Malamud, Randy. Where the Words Are Valid: T. S. Eliot’s Communities of Drama. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. A critical analysis and interpretation of Eliot’s plays. Bibliography and index.

Moody, A. David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A comprehensive reference work dedicated to Eliot’s life, work, and times. Bibliography and index.

Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A critical study demonstrating how Eliot’s personal voice works through the sordid, the bawdy, the blasphemous, and the horrific to create a unique moral world. Schuchard works against conventional attitudes toward Eliot’s intellectual and spiritual development by showing how early and consistently his classical and religious sensibility manifests itself in his poetry and criticism.