Thomas Stearns Eliot



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The best known and most influential literary personality of the period between World Wars I and II, was Thomas Stearns Eliot who born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888. His family was descended from one of the original Puritan settlers, and his parents were wealthy and fond of culture(his mother was a poet while his father was an artist).
He studied at Harvard, Paris and Oxford universities, thus giving a cosmopolitan bent to his education. Though an American by birth, his cultural background was at first English and then European. In fact he discovered John Donne and the English Metaphysical poets; he learned Italian by studying Dante, 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 “clear visual images”, “the lucidity” of his style and “his extraordinary force of compression”, to come to the conclusion that “more can be learned about how to write poetry from Dante than from any other English poet”.
In 1910 he first went to Europe and studied in Paris at the Sorbonne where he attended Henri Bergson’s lectures, and where he started to read the works of the French Symbolists. 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 the city, and from 1917 to 1919 he was assistant editor of The Egoist. In 1925 he married the British ballet dancer Vivien Haigh -Wood, despite his parents’ worries about her mental stability.
After the collection of poems Prufrock and other Observations(1917),which contains a satirical portrait of the emptiness and pessimism that characterized life in those years, in 1922 he founded “The Criterion”, thus beginning his career as an editor, and published all his writings encouraging also the production of young poets such as Ezra Pound, W.H.Auden, Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender(1909-1995). Throughout this time Vivien was in poor health and 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”, dedicated to Ezra Pound.
Based on various legends, it portrays London as a sterile, waste land, and expresses the depression and cynicism of the postwar period. The poem is built around several symbols, the most important of which are drought and flood, representing death and rebirth. The highly allusive manner and numerous references make the poem difficult to understand. Its true originally lies in its presentation of man’s spiritual crisis and in its variety of style, rather than in its literary apparatus. In writing The Waste Land Eliot was influenced by Dante, the English Metaphysical poets and the French symbolists.
In 1927 he became a British citizen and defined himself as “classicist in literature, monarchist in politics, Anglo-Catholic in religion”. In the same year he joined the Church of England finding the answer to his own questionings and to the despair of a modern world lacking faith and religion. With the poem Ash Wednesday(1930)a new phase began in the poet’s development: though the old attitude remains ,he finds hope in religious belief and in the stabilizing influence of the Christian religion. This poem is more lyrical in spirit, and the style is relaxed and musical with its repetition and assonance. Eliot finally decided to separate from his wife, who was committed to a mental asylum, where she died nine years later in 1947. Her death, however, created a terrible sense of guilt within the soul of the poet and unhappiness led him to write in a letter of his: “I have always known hell- it is in my bones”.
In the Thirties and Forties, Eliot’s essays became more concerned society. His growing social concernes led him towards the theatre and he became one of the chief exponents of poetic drama. In 1932 he wrote a fragment, Sweeney Agonistes, in 1934 a play, The Rock, and in 1935 a modern miracle play, Murder in the Cathedral, on the well-known conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket. The latter play was notable for the moving speeches of the Chorus in the traditional Greek manner. The Family Reunion(1939)-a modernization of the story of Orestes-was not equally successful.
During the war Eliot passed again to poetry and in 1943 wrote Four Quartets, a group of four poems each of which is built on a musical pattern. The structure of the four poems is the same: the themes are developed through variations in the manner of a musical composition, and brought to a final resolution. Through images of magical beauty the poet recounts his past experiences, the collective past of mankind and the significance of human experience.
T.S. Eliot had by this time become internationally acclaimed, and in 1948 he was awarded the Order of Merit and the Nobel prize for literature. He wrote The Cocktail Party in 1949, The Confidential Clerk in 1953, and The Elder Statesman in 1958. In these plays he used a conversational style, abolishing such devices as the use of the chorus and the lyrical passages, which had characterized his earlier productions. With the poet and the dramatist, it is worth remembering the critic. Eliot left several essays, which greatly contributed to define the modern age and the role of culture. The first of his critical books, The Sacred Wood, came out in 1920; four years later Homage to John Dryden was published, also containing an essay on the Metaphysical Poets. The Selected Essays(1932) can be considered the best of his work and one of the most influential books of criticism of the 20th century. His later cultural position is stated in The Idea of Christian Society(1939) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture(1948). Eliot received honorary degrees from several universities in Europe and the USA and is considered one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century.
He died in London in 1965.
The Waste Land escapes any order or unity. It is an amazing anthology of indeterminate states of mind, of impressions, hallucinations, situations, personalities. All the fragmentary passages seem to belong to one voice pertaining to a multiple personality beyond the limits of space and time.
In his introductory note on The Waste Land Eliot stated that the title, the plan and large part of the symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie Weston’s book on the Grail legend From Ritual Romance.
He also acknowledged the influence of another book, The Golden Bough, by Sir James Frazer(1854-1941), Which deals with the development of magical, religious and scientific thought and gives vast information about ancient religions and magical practices.
The poem, conceived as a monologue, basically presents a character going to a fortune-teller, receiving a response, and reading manifestations of this response in various episodes.
The Grail legend, to which Eliot refers, tells about a land which is barren because its king –The Fisher King-has been wounded by a spear thrust through his things, and sexually maimed. A young and pure knight goes in quest of the Holy Grail –the cup which had been used to collect the blood from the body of Christ – and reaches a Chapel where the Grail is kept. Only if this knight asks the meaning of the Grail and of the lance that sees during a procession will the king be healed, and the land reclaimed fertility.
Miss Weston found close correspondence between the Grail legend and the ancient symbolism of fertility rites. The Fisher King appears to be mediaeval version of the pre-Christian young men of young gods slain or drowned in the springtime and then symbolically revived. The fertility of the land was associated with their youth and strength (there are also the myths of Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Thiresias).
Moreover, Miss Weston found resemblance between this ancient fertility ritual and the Christian ritual, in that the central moment was for both Eucharistic: taking the Food of Life from sacred vessels.
In this prospective Eliot inserted the description of this own waste land.
The Waste Land consist of five parts:
1. The Burial of the Dead. It begins challenging the traditional attitude to seasons: spring is not welcome, because it awakes memory and desire, while winter brings “forgetful” snow. This part deals with the opposites of life and death, fertility and sterility, hope and despair, which are the main concern of the poem.
2. A Game of Chess. Its main theme is the emptiness of modern life, which suggests lack of love, sterility, deceit. Eliot juxtaposes the present squalor to a past ambiguous splendour.
3. The Fire Sermon. This part develops the theme of lust: love is meaningless. The present alienation is rendered through the description of a mechanical and squalid sexual encounter.
4. Death By Water. This is the shortest part(10 lines only),and is about the body of a drowned sailor decomposing in the sea.
5. What the Thunder Said. Here there are all the main themes that have appeared in the previous sections. After hinting at the death of Christ it presents a journey through the desert to an empty chapel. The voice of the thunder echoes in the distance.
Thus the whole poem starts with a state of paralysis(sections I, II, III) and proceeds with an allegorical journey(sections IV, V) towards the expectation of a symbolic rebirth, which is to come. All this fragmentary parts are run through by 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 and also languages. And if this last fact emphasized the character’s inability to communicate because they cannot understand what is being said to them, it also makes his verse difficult to read. But it is also true that the quotations and allusions have great evocative power, and add a further dimension to the poem. Poetry does not have to be understood to convey its message; it can be enjoyed without a full understanding of it, in the same way as a music, or art, does not to be translated into words. This use of quotations reflects the concept Eliot had of tradition and history, that is, the repetition of the same events, and of “classicism”, that is, the ability to see the past as a concrete premise for the present and “the poetic culture” as a “living unity” of all the poems written in different periods. Thus present and past exist simultaneously in The Waste Land, just as they do in the mind, and the continuous shifts of time and space are caused by the free associations of ideas and thoughts, as in Ulysses by James Joyce.
In his evaluation of Western culture, Eliot went back to its origins, when legends 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 and have been betrayed, and it is especially through these mythical allusions that the contrast between present and past appears. Eliot contrast the present meaningless of life with allusions to Arthurian legend and the Quest for the Holy Grail. There are references also to the May festivities celebrating the rebirth of nature, and the Celtic myth, linked to the paradigm of fertility. Eliot found myth the framework for his own fragments.
The style of The waste Land is fragmentary because of the mixture of different poetic styles, such as blank verse, the ode, the quatrain, the heroic couplet, and free verse, thus reproducing the chaos of present civilisation. The most effective analogies can be found in some “cubist images” or in some apparently unconnected cinematic shots used to express a certain emotional state: the meaning is not in the single fragment but in the whole. Instead of using simple, clear statements, Eliot requires the active participation of the reader/public, who experiences the same world as that of the speaker/poet by employing the technique of implication or by using quotations from different languages such as Latin, Italian, Sanskrit or French.
Metaphor and symbol replace direct statement; to this end, Eliot adopted the technique of the “objective correlative”, that is the attempt at communicating philosophical reflections and feelings by means of a simile, a description or a monologue by character in order to provide a vision of the world or a feeling of the lyrical “I”. From French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue, Eliot derived the technique of juxtaposition: squalid elements are juxtaposed with poetic ones, trivial elements with sublime ones. Another device widely used by Eliot is the repetition of words, images, and phrases from pages to page: they all give impression of completion increasing the musicality of the poem.
T.S.Eliot is considered one of the greatest exponents of Modernism. The publication of The Waste Land in 1922 was a literary event, because it voiced the spiritual and moral confusion of a period which found its appropriate definition in the title of a work by the poet W.H.Auden, The Age of Anxiety.
An American birth and a cosmopolitan by vocation and by education, Eliot possessed a wide and deep knowledge of the masterpieces of world literature. He acknowledge a special debt to Dante, whom he considered a model for his own poetry. What he admired in the Italian poet was the capacity to express a wide emotional experience –based not on individualism but on the entire cultural reality of his time – and at the same time the restraint, the perfect balance between the personal and the impersonal. Like Eliot, Dante had witnessed the disintegration of an age, the fall of the Empire, and he voiced the hope for salvation.
Eliot was keenly aware of the emotional and spiritual sterility of his time, and when family financial difficulties accumulated he was on the edge of nervous collapse. He found a way out in religion, and in 1927 this descendant of Puritan forbears became Anglo-Catholic. So while his early works are in the mood of disillusionment and convey irony and disgust for a trivial, sordid, empty world, Ash Wednesday marks the passage to a series of works which show growing concern with the supernatural and religion. If Dante was to him the Poet per excellence, Eliot also acknowledged other influences: the Metaphysical poets, notably John Donne, for the blend of emotion and though, immediacy and technical control( Eliot deplored the division between though and feeling – the “dissociation of sensibility”-which, in his opinion, impoverished English poetry from the 17th century onwards); the Symbolists, and Charles Baudelaire in particular with his division of the sordid aspects of the modern metropolis and his capacity to place side by side the squalid and the visionary, the images, for the concision in language and the freedom in versification. Ezra Pound played a very important role for Eliot: he constantly helped and encouraged him, revised The waste Land before publication, and advised Eliot to tighten his poem removing several explanatory and descriptive parts.
The Waste Land, dedicated to Ezra Pound, “il miglior fabbro”, is a typical example of modernist art, and such as very difficult to define. It is not a narrative poem, nor dramatic, nor lyric. The main difficulty for the reader is to work out a meaning: there seems to be no beginning and no end; thoughts appear unfinished,; there are abrupt shifts; the characters are not clearly defined and the events cannot be located at a particular place; the past merges with the present, while fragmentation and juxtaposition challenge a logical evolution. The impression one receives is that of “a hap of broken images”, that the poet puts together using a criterion similar to the cinema technique of montage. Gradually, the reader is impressed by certain themes and motifs.
For example, the theme of The Waste Land do no talk to one another: they recite monologues; sexual relationships are either a manifestation of lust and violence, or mechanical and boring. Eliot’s Puritan ancestry is evident in the association of sin with sexuality; the most recurrent symbols are sterility are presented through cruel or unfilled sexual episodes. The barren land which must be restores to fertility, i.e. saved, is the human heart, full of selfishness and lust; the search for the Grail is the search for truth.
It is also possible to discern the motif of pilgrimage and of quest, following the course of the Thames as if flows through London; the Thames is first associated with the Rhine, the great river of German mythology, and finally the journey through The Waste Land concludes with powerful allusions to the Ganges, the sacred river of India, thus uniting Western and Eastern cultures. Like the rest of Eliot’s early works, The Waste Land presents affinities with other important works of Modernism: the structure which breaks away with the canons of traditional poetry reminds us of Joyce’s bold experimentation in novel-writing, of Picasso in painting and Stravinsky in music; the sense of emptiness, corruption, lack of communication, meaninglessness of life, is a feature common to all modernist writers and artists, from James Joyce to William Butler Yeats, from Ezra Pound to Guillaume Apollinaire, from Franz Kafka to Joseph Conrad, from Thomas Mann to Marcel Proust, and so on. An example is provided by the comparison between the description of the Thames at the beginning of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and in The Fire Sermon. Both writers stress the commercialization, the degradation of the Thames, which is no more the Thames of the age of Shakespeare. Like many of his contemporaries, notably Ezra Pound, Eliot saw English poetry of the turn of the century as over-emotional, lacking vitality and intellectual rigour; he maintained that, to express the complexities of reality, poetry could not be simple, and he did make his verse difficult: he seemed to throw loose images and bits of dialogue at the reader, without a linking narrative or logical sequence. Poetry had to be objective, impersonal. Images are the “objective correlative” of the emotions they aim to suggest; the language stimulates the imagination; exterior objects suggest feelings: “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” will represent a particular emotion, and when they are given to the reader the emotion is evoked. The phrase “objective correlative”(used also by Eugenio Montale), was coined by Eliot himself, and became very fashionable. Today its validity is argued.
The effect of great poetry –and of great art in general – is mysteriously powerful.