(1888-1965) T. S. Eliot is one of the 20th century's most important poets, whose work is a part of what is known as the modernist movement in poetry. Critic C. K. Stead has gone so far as to claim that Eliot took part, along with Ezra pound, in "invent[ing] modernism" (39). Eliot not only influenced the so-called Lost Generation that followed World War I but may be seen as a herald of the "principal tidal movement of poetry in English in the twentieth century" (Stead 4-5). Eliot's early influences were French, including philosopher Henri Bergson, while his poetic maturation came as a result of reading Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Tradition in Literature (1899) and the poetry of the French symbolists Jules Laforgue and Charles Baudelaire. As an American poet, however, it is hard to deny his American poetic predecessors Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson as inspiration, as well as novelist Henry James, whose journalistic style, based on objective observation, Eliot adopted and remade into his own, with the help of Pound. Eliot's recreating of these continental and American influences led to a revolutionary new style of writing and reading poetry that, according to Leroy F. Searle, "opened the way to more explicitly speculative and theoretical studies of literature" and provided an early model for New Criticism (see fugitive/agrarian school) (529).
Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He attended Harvard University (1906-10) and studied at the Sorbonne (1910). There he read the symbolists, who believed that language, particularly the use of symbol, is the vehicle for transcendence and allows the reader's imagination, by use of association, allusion, and allegory, an alternate reality. He returned to Harvard to pursue a dissertation on F. H. Bradley, whose book Appearance and Reality (1893) made an impression, by Eliot's own account, on Eliot's prose style. Eliot eventually settled in London (without a Ph.D.) in 1914, where he met Pound and T. E. Hulme, whose writings and theories on imagism extended the symbolist influence; the imagist school's "dry hard image" became the new vehicle for transcendence (Stead 38), enacting what Bergson called a true understanding of experience that is reflected by an immediate datum of consciousness. In other words, truth is found in the contemplation of whatever is present. Eliot was confirmed in the Church of England and became a naturalized British citizen in 1927. These experiences greatly affected his writing, especially in poems like the waste land (1922) and the four quartets (1943). Eliot was presented the Dial Award in 1922 for The Waste Land. He was also awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, as well as the British Order of Merit, in 1948, and the American Medal of Freedom in 1964.
In his first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Eliot demonstrates the admiration he held for James who, in Eliot's opinion, was able to control his work yet remain impersonal. To accomplish this invisible control as James did, Eliot turned toward character, revealing the psychological complexity of culture through what amounted to studies and portraits of people. The poems in Prufrock largely survey characters of the "decorous" set, such as Miss Nancy Ellicott of "Cousin Nancy" and Miss Helen Slingsby of "Aunt Helen." By focusing on character, Eliot reveals the vacuity of a culture ravaged by world war and unable to be restored by its impotent citizens. In "The Boston Evening Transcript," the speaker "wearily" fetches the paper for his Cousin Harriet and says that the readers of this paper "sway in the wind like a ripe field of corn." Incapable of achievement, like unpicked corn, their only movement is slight and meaningless. The reader imagines that they will rot on the stalks.
Eliot may also be suggesting that the literature of the day is guilty of such meaninglessness, even his own poetry. "the love song of j. alfred prufrock" is the study of a man who is aware of the debased state of his culture and wants to change it, yet he is also a product of this culture, living an empty life, which is measured out "with coffee spoons." Prufrock aspires to the heroic, but he cannot enact change; he cannot "disturb the universe" and tell what he knows of the apparent dissolution of civilization. The poem implies that Eliot, like Prufrock, also fails to write of the despair he sees; he is "deferential," perhaps because he is a new poet trying to find both confidence and an effective method to deliver his message. Eliot may be comparing himself to Prufrock, who like his forebear James, is "meticulous," "full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."
The Waste Land is the seminal example of Eliot's modernist style and theory. The poem is a collage of disparate images that recall both the ancient and contemporary to demonstrate how much civilization has lost and, perhaps, to make a path for redemption. Eliot uses an impersonal, objective technique that defined poetry as an escape from emotion and personality and allowed for the recapture of what he termed the "historical sense" (Prose 38) by employing a "dissociation of sensibility" (Essays 248) that denies contemporary influence in order to regain the past magnificence of civilization by way of literary history and tradition.
Eliot's fragmented poetry mimics the fragmentation of culture. And yet Eliot's poetry makes sense of the fragments that it collects by involving human thoughts,
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