The Modern Age and T. S. Eliot



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The Modern Age and T. S. Eliot

In the last two decades of the 19th century, Victorian values had already decayed. The spreading feeling was that material gain implied spiritual loss.
The First World War left the country in a disillusioned mood: nothing seemed to be certain, even science seem to offer little security. While the new Universe was emerging, scientists and philosophers destroyed the old Universe, and the optimistic outlook it was characterised by.
The first set of new ideas was introduced by Sigmund Freud in his essay The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud’s view of the developing psyche emphasized the power of the unconscious to affect behaviour.
The growing crisis of values was also due to the introduction of “relativity” in science: Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity discarded the concepts of time and space, which he conceived of as subjective dimensions.
At the beginning of the 1900, a period of deep social and intellectual change, a powerful international movement called Modernism grew up: Modernism dominated the sensibility and aesthetic choices of all greatest artists of the Age, that implied a break with traditional values in favour of introspection and technical skill.
A number of common features can be highlighted:
• The intentional distortion of shape, (in poetry, rhymes disappeared in favour of blank verse)
• The breaking down of limitations in space and time;
• The awareness that our perception of reality is necessarily uncertain, temporary and subject to change,(characters’ introspection become a central theme);
• The need to reflect the complexity of modern urban life in artistic form;
• The intensity of the isolated “moment” or “image” to provide a true insight into the nature of things;
• An interest in the primitive and a reconsideration of the “past” without the restrictions imposed by national or continental culture;
• The importance of unconscious as well as conscious life;
• The impossibility of giving an absolute interpretation of reality.

The isolation and the alienation of modern man became the main themes of literature.
Some intellectual held that tradition and innovation were intertwined, as T. S. Eliot said in Tradition and Individual Talent.
Writers and poets drew inspiration from classical as well as new cultures to create a new subjective mythology. Artists regarded the past as a source which they could remould in a personal, original way. For instance, T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land exploited a wide range of influences: from Buddhist sources to the Metaphysical poets or even Dante; Joyce’s stream of consciousness is certainly indebted to Freud and Bergson.
The most original contribute to English literature during the first half of this century were made up by American living in England, like Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot, and two Irish authors (Yeats and Joyce).

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888 by a family of English descent and was educated at Harvard.
Though an American by birth, his cultural background was at first English and then European. He learned Italian by studying Dante, to whom he devoted one of his most celebrated essays in 1929: here Eliot stated Dante was the poet who best expressed a universal situation and praised him for his “clear visual images”, for “the lucidity” of his style and for “his extraordinary force of compression”. He was convinced that “more can be learned about how to write poetry from Dante than from any English poet”.
In 1910, he first went to Europe and studied in Paris at the Sorbonne, where he attended Henri Bergson’s lectures. Later he came back to Harvard and he took a degree in philosophy.
At the outbreak of the First World War, he settled in London, where he published essays on philosophy, taught for a while and started to work as a clerk in Lloyd’s Bank. In 1915, he married the British ballet dancer Vivien Haigh-wood, despite his parents worry about her mental stability. He was becoming a famous writer while his wife Vivien was in poor health, therefore Eliot was under considerable emotional strain. He spent some time in a Swiss sanatorium, in Lausanne, undergoing psychological treatment and here he finished The Waste Land; poetry became his only refuge where expressing all his horror at his unhappy home life, and some lines of The Waste Land reflected a deep repulsion at his marriage.
This long poem was published in 1922 after Ezra Pound had helped to reduce it to its final form, and Eliot later dedicated it to Pound himself, “il miglior fabbro- the better craftsman”, a quotation from Dante’s Purgatory.
In 1927, he joined the Church of England finding the answer to his own questioning and to the despair of a modern world lacking faith and religion.
Eliot finally decided to separated from his wife, who was committed to a mental asylum, where she died nine years later in 1947. Her death created a terrible sense of guilt within the soul of the poet.
In the Thirties and Forties, Eliot’s essays became more concerned with the ethical and philosophical problems of modern society. In 1948 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, for his ability of expressing his views on modern civilisation using a variety of literary forms, since he was a poet, an essayist and a playwright.
His works can be divided into two periods, before and after his conversion to Anglicanism.
The works of the first period are characterised by a pessimistic vision of the world, without any hope, faith, ideals or values, a nightmarish land where spiritual aridity and lack of love have deprived life of all meaning. The Waste Land belong to this period.
Purification, hope and joy are the key-words of the works of the second period.

The Waste Land escapes any order or unity. It is an anthology of indeterminate states of mind, of impression, hallucinations, situations, personalities. All the passages seem to belong to one voice pertaining to a multiple personality beyond the limits of space and time.
The Waste Land consists of five sections:
I. “The Burial of the Dead”, which focuses on the basic opposition between sterility and fertility, life and death;
II. “A Game of Chess”, which juxtaposes the present squalor to a past ambiguous splendour;
III. “The Fire Sermon”, where the theme of present alienation is rendered through the description of loveless, mechanical, squalid sexual encounter;
IV. “Death by Water”, which reinforces the idea of a spiritual shipwreck;
V. “What the Thunder said”, which evokes religions from East and West.
All these fragmentary parts runs through one main theme: the contrast between the fertility of a mythical past and the sterility of the present world, peopled by lost, alienated characters. The past appears in the references to and quotations from many literary works belonging to different traditions and cultures, and religious texts. This use of quotations reflects the concept Eliot had of Tradition and History, that is, the repetition of the same events.
In his evaluation of Western culture, Eliot went back to its origins, when legends and myths were symptoms of spiritual attitudes which he regarded as extremely important. In modern society, however, old myths are present, but they have lost their deep meaning, so that the contrast between present and past appears.

A funeral service in the Anglican rite is called “the order of the burial of the dead”. The title of the first section of The Waste Land refers to it, since it is a metaphor for the condition of contemporary man, whose life is meaningless, empty, alienating and quite similar to death. In the passage that follows, traditional myths and symbols are in an original way and acquire different and sometimes difficult connotations.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying "Stetson!
"You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
"Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
"Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
"Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
"You! hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable, - mon frere!"

Four Quartets is a sequence of four compositions. Since the poem has been written after Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism, it expresses his intellectual joys, because he has discovered a new faith in life and a miraculous peace persisting despite the cruelty of the world, the misery and weaknesses of life. It is a meditation upon time, upon the presence of the past in the present; it is a sort of recollection of the past which unveils the author’s hope for the future. In this poem, Eliot writes about the redemption of time and the world of man.