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The modern relic
Until recently, I'd disliked the work of T.S. Eliot. I'd found his poetry and drama overly intellectual, elitist and disdainful of the real world we live in. Having had to study the writing of this supposed twentieth-century giant relentlessly in school didn't help either.
But not long ago, I came upon a collection of so-called modern verse put together in 1930. It did not include a single Eliot poem, although he was already being acclaimed by then. Rather its "modern" poetry was taken from poets who were at their height of fame from 1880 to 1920.
And it was awful. Just awful stuff, going on about birds and flowers and England and and the sea and Beauty with a capital B. Full of "great" poets no one could bear to read today, as well as a few genuine greats, like W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy and Siegfried Sassoon, represented by their most sentimental, insignificant works. Robert Bridges took up four pages listing the virtues of every bit of vegetation he'd ever met.
That made me realize what Eliot and his imagist colleagues saved us from, the revolution they wrought in poetry in the first third of the twentieth century. After reading that old slop, I could go back to Eliot's first masterpiece "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915) and find it an energizing delight. So lively, so imaginative, so playful. So stimulating. So alive to modern times.
Freeing us from the decaying remnants of overheated romanticism, Eliot propounded a depersonalized, reportorial poetry. Rather than rhapsodize about nature, it addressed the difficulties of keeping body and soul together in the fragmented, fragmenting modern world.
However—and it's a big however—as Eliot continued writing, he tended to go over the same ground again and again, becoming more arid and intellectual with each outing. His startling imagery either fell away or began to repeat itself: rat's claws, rat's bellies, the skull beneath the skin, hollow eyes, the shards of civilization, over and over. Religious and metaphysical concepts eventually took over completely. Eliot's political and religious conservatism came to the fore, at times crossing over into intolerance and practically promoting fascism. By middle age, Eliot became as irrelevant as the bad old poets he had replaced—though his younger works would live on in English literature classes for decades to come.
It's hard now not to think of him as a British poet, but Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He was raised and educated in wealth, eventually graduating from Harvard University where, after a year's break studying at the Sorbonne in France, he also won his doctorate.
He moved to Britain in 1914 and met Ezra Pound, who helped him edit his poetry and get published. His first volume, led by "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", was Prufrock and Other Observations (1917).
His second volume, printed by Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press, was Ara Vos Prec (1919), published in the United States as simply Poems (1920). The collection starts with "Gerontion", self-described in a much-quoted passage as "Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry month". But the book also includes "Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar" with its derogatory references to Jewish figures. Several of the poems are in French.
Out with a whimper
If Eliot's disdain for the temporal, physical world showed in his early work, it was nothing compared to his next long poem, "The Waste Land" (1922). From its famous opening ("April is the cruelest month") to its prayerful conclusion ("Shantih shantih shantih") this five-part poem—complete with Eliot's own footnotes—may be the most studied and analyzed work of literature in modern times.
Or that honour may go to "The Hollow Men" (1925), a shorter, more popular presentation of the same ideas. Everyone knows the final lines:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
During these years Eliot was also making his reputation as an influential literary critic. In 1917 he had become assistant editor of the imagist journal Egoist and in 1922 he had founded and henceforth edited the quarterly review Criterion, introducing works by Pound, Auden, Proust and Cocteau. He also became a director of the book publishing firm Faber and Faber where he built up a stable of modernist writers.
His essays appeared in newspapers and a series of books, including The Sacred Wood (1920), The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) and The Idea of a Christian Society (1942). His views on art and culture turned away from the contemporary world toward traditional society. He started describing himself as "classical in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion".
In 1927, the same year he became a British subject, he published the short poem "Journey of the Magi", continuing his own pilgrimage toward religious faith that culminated in the meditative "Ash-Wednesday" (1930). The 1930 work is considered by some his fourth great long poem, although others give that honour to Four Quartets, which collects pieces from 1935 to 1942.
From the 1930s on, Eliot focused more on his project of resurrecting poetic drama. Among his verse plays are Sweeney Agonistes (1932), The Rock (1934) whose choruses are often studied as poetry separate from the play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1950). A dreary lot, all of them, although Murder in the Cathedral, which uses the slaying of archbishop Thomas Becket by allies of King Henry II for a meditation on temporal versus divine authority, has provided teachers material for many more hours of study to impose on their charges.
Too bad they don't instead teach Eliot's book of children's verse, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), which showed the dry old brain had a sense of humour after all. It's a slight, inconsequential work, with clever rhymes and limerick-like rhythms, but it became the basis for the musical Cats and may be the poetry collection read most of all his works outside of English literature classes.
Eliot won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.
— Eric McMillan
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