T. S. Eliot

June 16, 2006


Thomas Stearns Eliot
American-born British poet, dramatist, and literary critic
One of the most influential Modernist poets of the 20th century
In 1948 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature
Converted to Anglicanism
Poetry derives its power from the capacity to embody and reconcile contradictory characteristics : Deeply conservative and traditional, but emerged as a trailblazer of experimental modernism
Youngest of 7 children: born in St. Louis
Mother was an aspirating poet frustrated by her limited educational opportunities
Shy, witty, self-ironic, and reserved in manner
Brilliant student : Earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard by the age of 23
Abandoned expected career path as a philosophy professor in the U.S. when he met Pound in England on a traveling fellowship
Married vivacious and sensitive but emotionally unstable Englishwoman Vivien Haigh-Wood, but failed to offer a living wage: took a post in the colonial and foreign department of Lloyeds Bank
Suffered a mental and physical collapse in 1921: sought treatment at a sanatorium in Lausanne, Switzerland and completed the initial draft of “The Waste Land” which he later revised with Pound
Left Llolyds Bank for an editorial position at the London publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer
Joined the Church of England and became a British citizen in 1927
Returned to harvard to give a series of lectures published as “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism”
Vivien was permanently institutionalized in 1938 and died 9 years later
Turned to drama in later years to win a larger audience
Married again after 1957 and fell virtually silent as a poet
Died in 1965 and is buried in East Coker, the English village from which his Eliot ancestors had originated


Stand on the highest pavement of the stair- / Lean on a garden urn- / Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair- / Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise- / Fling them to the ground and turn / With a fugitive resentment in your eyes: / But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair

She turned away, but with the autumn weather / Compelled my imagination many days, / Many days and many hours: / Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers. / And I wonder how they should have been together!

-La Figlia Che Piange

All this was a long time ago, I remember, / And I would do it again, but set down / This set down / This: were we led all that way for / Birth or Death?  There was a Birth, certainly, / We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, / But had thought they were different; this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. / We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods. / I should be glad of another death.

-Journey of the Magi

You tossed a blanket from the bed, / You lay upon your back, and waited; / You dozed, and watched the night revealing / The thousand sordid images / Of which your soul was constituted; / They flickered against the ceiling. / And when all the world came back / And the light crept up between the shutters / And you heard the sparrows in the gutters, / You had such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands; / Sitting along the bed’s edge, where / You curled the papers from your hair, / Or clasped the yellow soles of feet / In the palms of both soiled hands.


The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)

Follows the conscious experience of a man, Prufrock lamenting his physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and lack of spiritual progress, with the recurrent theme of carnal love unattained
Although Prufrock seems to be middle-aged, Eliot wrote most of the poem when he was only 22
Relayed in the “stream of consciousness” form indicative of the Modernists


Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table;

Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be times / To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’ / Time to turn back and descend the stair, / With a bald spot in the middle of my hair- / [They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’] / My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a / simple pin- / [They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’] / Do I dare / Disturb the universe? / In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

And I have known the eyes already, known them all- / The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, / And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, / Then how should I being / To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? / And how should I presume?

I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

I grow old… I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? / I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. / I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919/1920)


“In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence. We cannot refer to ‘the tradition’ or to ‘a tradition’; at most, we employ the adjective in saying that the poetry of So-and-so is ‘traditional’ or even ‘too traditional.’ Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise, it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction. You can hardly make the word agreeable to English ears without this comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology.”

“…we might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it, for criticising our own minds in their work of criticism. One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may =be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”

“Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feelig that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”

“He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe – the mind of his own country – a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind – is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draftsmen. That this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement.”

“But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.”

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

“I have tried to point out the importance of the relation of the poem to other poems by other authors, and suggested the conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written. The other aspects of this Impersonal theory of poetry is the relation of the poem to its author. And I hinted, by analogy, that the mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of ‘personality,’ not being necessarily more interesting, or having ‘more to say,’ but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations.
The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmit the passions which are its material.”

“The poet’s mind is in face a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.”

‘It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. The emotion in his poetry will be a very complex thing, but not with the complexity of the emotions of people who have very complex or unusual emotions in life. One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.”

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an excape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an excape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to excape form these things.”

“The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”

The Waste Land (1922)

Read as a representation of the disillusionment of the post-war generation
Dedicated to Ezra Pound, who suggested cuts and changes for the manuscript
Includes quotations from and allusions to Shakespeare, Dante, Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, Ovid, St. Augustine, Buddhist sermons, folk songs, and the anthropologists Jessie Weston and James Frazer
Deliberate use of fragmentation and discontinuity
Deals with the decline of civilization and the impossibility of recovering meaning in life, shifts between satire and prophecy, abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, elegiac but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures
According to Time magazine:

“There is a new kind of literature abroad in the land, whose only obvious fault is that no one can understand it.”

Eliot reading The Waste Land


April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Dull roots with spring rain.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water. Only / There is a shadow under this red rock, / (Come in under the shadow of this red rock), And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / ‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’ / -Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

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. 

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!’

‘What is that noise?’
The wind under the door.
‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?’
Nothing again nothing.
‘Do / ‘You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / ‘Nothing?’
I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’

I too awaited the expected guest. / He, the young man carbuncular, arrives, / A small house agen’s clerk, with one bold stare, / One of the low on whom assurance sits / As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire. / The time is now propitious, as he guesses, / The meal is ended, she is bored and tired, / Endeavours to engage her in caresses / Which still are unreproved, if undesired. / Flushed and decided, he assaults at once; / Exploring hands encounter no defence; / His vanity requires no response, / And makes a welcome of indifference. / (And I Tiresias have foresuffered all / Enacted on this same divan or bed; / I who have sat by Thebes below the wall / And walked among the lowest of the dead.) / Bestows one final patronising kiss, / And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…
She turns and looks a moment in the glass, / Hardly aware of her departed lover; / Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass: / ‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’ / When lovely woman stoops to folly and / Paces about her room again, alone, / She smoothes her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins


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