THOMAS STERNS ELIOT (1888- 1965)
INTRODUCTION: T.S .Eliot is considered the most influential poet and critic of the first half of the 20th century. He created a new kind of poetry making innovations in poetic form and exploring the psychological complexity and the spiritual aridity of his contemporary world. He received the Nobel Prize for literature as well as honorary degrees from 12 European and American Universities.
Eliot was born in St. Louis, USA, in1888, of a family of British origin. He studied at Harvard, at the Sorbonne in Parisand at OxfordUniversity. In 1914 he settled in England where he made several jobs before founding the Criterion, a literary magazine, and becoming an editor.
In 1927 he took the British citizenship and was confirmed in the Church of England rejecting the Unitarian Church he belonged to when he was in USA (Unitarianism is a Christian theological Movement which denies the doctrine of Trinity and believes that God is a single person, The Father, and not three persons in one). He received the Nobel Prize for literature as well as honorary degrees from 12 European and American Universities. He died inLondon in 1965.
WORKS: his first volume of verse was Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) containing a satirical portrait of the emptiness of life in those years. In 1922 he published The Waste Land and in 1925 The Hollow Men both on the same theme of the hopelessness and emptiness of contemporary society dominated by despair. These works belonged to the first phase of his literary career, the phase dominated by pessimism before his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. In the works of the second phase after his conversion, the pessimism of the previous phase gave way to a more optimistic vision of the future of man. He published a poem, Ash Wednesday and then devoted to drama writing a pageant play, The Rock, and a modern miracle play, Murder in the Cathedral, based on the historical conflict between the King Henry II and the archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Beckett. During the war, he returned to poetry and published Four Quartets, a group of four poems, each one representing a musical instrument, and with the same theme: time, the past and its relation to the present.
FEATURES: Eliot was a man of vast erudition. He was familiar with varied cultural traditions: The Bible, Buddhism, the teaching of Zarathrusta*, the Lao-Tsé**, Dante and The Stil Novo, the Metaphysical poets of the 17thcent. and John Donne. The Metaphysicals influenced him with their use of wit, their striking association of images and the complexity of their poetry. Dante, instead, was considered the model of all poetic art and his influence has been described by Eliot as “the most persistent and deepest influence”. He also wrote that he had “borrowed lines from him in the attempt to reproduce…. the memory of some Dantesque scene and thus establish a relationship between the medieval inferno and modern life”. According to Eliot, Dante was one of those few people who could answer the question about the meaning of life because he had been to hell and back and he had seen what there was beyond life. Returning to life he had brought back with him the eternal secrets of death.
*Zarathrusta: an ancient Persian prophet who founded the Zoroastrian Religion, the sacred book of which is ” the Zend-Avesta”; his teaching became the guiding light of ancient Persian civilization and was spread throughout the empire by the mythic rulers of Persia(Cyrus the Great, Dario’s). Zoroastrians believed in one God,” Ahura Mazda”, but they also respected the great forces of Nature. They considered as great virtues the thoughts, good words and good deeds, while the lie was the greatest evil. Even the wicked were finally saved after purification in Hell.
**Lao-Tsé: the founder of the Taoist religion in China. Taoists believe that everything in the Universe is designed to move in an ordered and harmonic way. The sacred book of Taoism is the “Tao Te Ching” (=the way and its powers) which teaches that The Tao rules heaven, heaven rules earth and earth rules man. The man who has lost the “Way” and created disharmony may find harmony again by returning to simplicity and humility; he must also give himself up to the great Tao, he must be good and must avoid distinctions and honours. This religion, which is one of the three religions in China, started in 500 B.C. . Nowadays it has got over 52 million followers.
Apart from the poets mentioned before, Eliot’s ideas on poetry were mostly influenced by Erza Pound, the French poets Laforgue and Baudelaire and the French Symbolist and Imagist Movements. From Pound and the Imagists he learnt how to avoid decorative rhetoric and replace it with clear, precise images, using the minimum number of words. From the French symbolists he took the way they looked at life and appreciated their use of the free verse. Baudelaire made him discover the poetic possibilities of the ugliness and sterility of a modern metropolis. Laforgue taught him to draw images from everyday life, to deflate the tragic through irony and cynicism. Eliot was also greatly influenced by the teachings of Thomas Hulme who, in his Romanticism and Classicism condemned the idea of art as being only a matter of self-expression of the artist. Hulme looked back to neoclassical ideals where emotion was dominated by critical reason and poetic style was impersonal feelings. Eliot criticised the neoclassical separation between thoughts and feelings. He used the expression dissociation of sensibility to describe this phenomenon.
Eliot revalued the importance of traditions since he believed that the past and the present coexist in man and that the past was an important active part of the present. The study of the past could be a possible way of salvation for modern man: a poet should turn to the past and draw from all those that have paved the way to our modern culture. As we can see, even if Eliot was considered a Modernist, he was also the most classicist of them.To reflect the sordid concreteness of his contemporary life, Eliot made frequent use of symbols and anti-romantic images. The ideas in his poems are not connected with one-another and are presented without explanations. He did this in order to shock his readers and to be as close as possible to real life experiences. Further he also used brief allusions to other poets’ works and made references in the original language. Also the subject matter was difficult: he wrote of painful states of mind and experiences which were almost impossible to formulate precisely and very difficult to communicate. From what said before we may understand why some poems by Eliot are obscure and very difficult to be understood by a common reader.
POETRY AND THE POET: Eliot believed that poetry was to be used only as an instrument to express other people’s feelings, so he advocated objective impersonality of art against the romantic conception of poetic subjectivism and worked out the theory of the objective correlative, that is the need to convey an emotion without a direct statement but indirectly through something suggesting one’s own feeling.He wrote in his Essay on Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked”.
He shared with Joyce the view that the poet should be detached. As he wrote in a prose work Tradition and Individual Talents published in 1919 “ the poet should write impersonally and not directly involve his own emotion in his poems”.
THEMES: his favourite themes were: modern man’s alienation from society, the question of personal identity, the problem of faith in modern civilization, the sense that the present is always inferior to the past, the fear of living, the moral, spiritual and sentimental emptiness of his time. In the works written after his conversion, Eliot finds a way out to all human problems in the Anglo-Catholic conception of life and finds a hope in religious belief which may give a hope to man’s oppression and to his sense of futility.
THE LANGUAGE: Eliot makes use of a very colloquial language and many of his lines are spoken by the characters. The tone of his poems is always detached and sometime ironic and satirical. The rhyme scheme and the line length are often irregular while the rhythm has got a good musicality.
THE WASTE LAND
The Waste Land is a long narrative poem published in 1922. It belongs to the first phase of Eliot’s poetic production, the phase in which the poets overcomes the vision of the material death of society and urban life to reach the vision of the spiritual death of the world. This phase will end with the publication of The Hollow Men (1925) and with Eliot’s conversion to the Anglo-Catholicism (1927). IN the Hallow Men we find the same background as in The Waste Land: strerile,arid and lifeless; man is hollow,stuffed with straw rather than with a brain: “we are the stuffed men/leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw“. Here are the last lines:” This is how the world ends/This is how the world ends/This is how the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper“.
GENERAL VIEW: The Waste Land was written in fragments over a long period of time and it was put together with the help of Erza Pound who revised and shortened it. When it appeared, it made an enormous impact on readers because it was a powerful presentation of the sterility and decay of post-war Europe, peopled by spiritually dead persons, whose power of feeling was disintegrated by a kind of apathy.
The Waste Land is Eliot’s representation of a journey through this devastated world and the attempt to find a solution to save it. The solution is found in the search of The Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus Christ at the last supper and in which Joseph of Arimathea had collected the blood from the wounded body of Christ after crucifixion. The sacred Cup was then brought to Brittany or to the Pyrenees and then it disappeared as a consequence of the spiritual impoverishment of Mankind never to be seen again. According to a legend, it was visible only to those men who had a pure and chaste heart. Eliot finds the solution of man’s salvation in the Holy Grail because he believed in the legend of The Fisher King: the Fisher King, wounded by a spear of thrust, had become sexually maimed and his land had become arid. A young knight had gone in quest of the Holy Grail, had found it in a Chapel and taken it to the king who was healed. As a consequence his land had returned to fertility again.
PLOT: in The Waste Land there is neither plot nor logical development. If we have to find a plot it might be the following: a character goes to Madame Sosostris, a fortune-teller, asks for a solution, receives a response and goes in quest of the Holy Grail.
STRUCTURE: The Waste Land is divided in five sections: The Burial of Death, A game of Chess, The Fire Sermon, Death by Water, What the Thunder Said.
The first section,The Burial of Death, deals with the cruel coming of spring in a sterile land( then no spring), A Game of Chess contrasts past splendour to the present squalor, The fire Sermon reinforces the theme of squalor, Death by water deals with the theme of purification telling the story of Phlebas, a drowned Phoenician sailor, What the Thunder Said, taken from an Indian legend in which the Lord speaks through the thunder, conveys the image of the disintegration of western civilization and suggests its possible salvation.
The poem isn’t a series of detached scenes but there is a certain unity from the beginning to the end. Every section deals with the same unifying theme of the aridity and revolves around the same vision of a nightmarish world inhabited by spiritually dead people without God; each section has got the same setting, which is the dead landof Aprilwhich is waiting for rain to bring it life. Unity is also achieved through the use of the association of ideas narrative technique which links the sequences of images to each other and through the figure of Tiresias*. Eliot wrote about Tiresias: ’Tiresias is the most important personage in the poem uniting all the rest…. The two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees is the substance of the poem’. Then Tiresias represents the continuity of history; he has seen and known every thing, yet he cannot do anything to guide the future. He is only an observer of what he has foreseen as a prophet.*in Greek mythology Tiresias was a Theban prophet who was condemned to eternal blindness by Athena, the goodness of Knowledge, because he had seen her bathing naked; Tiresias’ mother, the nymph Chariclo,had asked Athena to restore her son’s sight. The goodness who cold not undo her own action had endowed him with the power of prophecy as compensation. Ovid in his Metamorphoses tells us that Tiresias had also changed his sex twice: a man, he was changed into a woman for he had beaten by a stick two snakes in love: after seven years, for the same reason, he was changed to man again. As far as his blindness, according to another legend, when he was a man again, he was consulted by Hera and Zeus who were arguing over who, had more pleasure in sex, between the man and the woman. Tiresias had answered that the pleasure a woman felt was nine times superior to the man’s one. Era, who had maintained the opposite, angry with him, condemned him to blindness but Zeus, who couldn’t undo Era’s act, had given him the gift of prophecy in compensation).
THEMES: the poem deals with two main themes: the emptiness and sterility of modern life and the meaningful link with the past.
The tone is pessimistic but, like in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or in Waiting for Godot, there is in the end some hope of salvation. The sense of collapse in the values of the western civilization is balanced by the possibility of regeneration contained in the reference to the Holy Grail, to ancient fertility myths and to vegetation ceremonies. All that develops with the passing of time and is explained in the cyclical recurrence of history.
Eliot uses what he calls The Mythical method, a method by which different experiences in different periods of time can express both the contemporary world and the human conditions because of the simultaneous existence of the changing and the permanent.
CRITICISM: When it appeared, The Waste Land was accused of obscenity. Eliot was aware of it and provided it with notes on it to be read while reading the poem which was very complex and difficult to be understood by a common reader (Coleridge/the Rime of…). It is necessary for a reader to have a vast and literary knowledge in order to grasp its meaning. The difficulties come from the frequent use Eliot makes of quotations from a lot of authors and brief allusions to their works, but also from the language because he quotes from six languages, including Sanskrit. In addition he often makes use of symbolism, both religious and surrealistic, hard to be understood and of interior monologues in the tradition of the Stream of Consciousness technique mingling past, present and future.He often deals with painful states of mind and experiences which are almost difficult to formulate precisely and to communicate.
Nowadays criticism is discussing about whether Eliot was helped or better copied from his first wife, Vivien Highwood, some parts of the poem. According to The Observer, an English magazine, there are many evidences of that in some letters he wrote. Michael Hastings, an English playwright, maintained that the first 40 lines of The Burial of the Dead had been published in Eliot’s literary magazine, Criterion, under the signature of Mrs Fanny Marlowe who should be Vivien’s pen name. Vivien’s relatives have reported the question to the Court, claiming for the copyright. The editor Faber and Faber has recognized Vivien’s participation to The Waste Land in a recent edition of it.
As far as the contribution of Erza Pound to the reduction of the poem from the original one thousand lines to the present 433 lines there is no doubt because in 1971 the original with Pound’s corrections was published.