Thursday, September 8, 2011

Required Poet: T.S. Eliot

Are you ready for some confusion? But don’t worry, this is the fun kind of confusion. Ever have fun getting lost? Yeah, me neither, but T.S. Eliot makes it fun for some reason, although The Waste Land is not exactly a happy poem. And while The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is not exactly cheery, it is a bit more light-hearted as it follows the thought process of a nervous fellow trying desperately to communicate his feelings. And then we also have Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which is his essay on the relationship between the poet and the literary tradition that preceded him.


In general, T.S. Eliot was a modernist…but what does that mean? Well, from a broad and non-specific sense, modernists rejected the conservative values of realism. They also rejected tradition, and also the all-powerful Creator God for a more abstract and unconventional ethic initiated by changing technology and the awful consequences of World War I. In short, they felt “traditional” forms of, well, everything, were feeling a bit “outdated.”

When it comes to Eliot’s specific poems, Love Song is more of a dramatic monologue of sorts (think Hamlet) spoken by way of stream of consciousness (think Hamlet if he were a character in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury *shudder*). I found this poem to be surprisingly enjoyable despite the frustrating patterns and lines (which I am guessing is supposed to suggest the frustration of Prufrock), and the sense of desperation that is felt through the speaker. Even more surprising, however, is how much I enjoyed The Waste Land, and you want to talk frustrating lines and patterns…yikes. It’s obscure, it references a billion different things (and the notes sometimes hinder more than help), and it does probably the one thing that frustrates me the most in any piece of writing: is switches the narrative voice as well as the location and time without notifying the reader. And as it changes voice, it also switches between satire, prophecy, and even languages. There are bits of dramatic monologue in there too, but again, it switches from monologue, to dialogue, and then even to a group of people speaking. And the idea of it having elements of prophecy in it creeps me out a little since it was written after WWI. I probably shouldn’t find that unsettling, but I do.

“Tradition and the Individual Talent” is much more straight-forward (although it still has its cryptic moments too) in that it is a critical essay Eliot wrote as a contribution to literary theory. In this way he was much like Sir Philip Sidney and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as they also acted as poet-critics.


What I get from both Love Song and The Waste Land is a general sense of what is lost and what will be if action isn’t taken. Prufrock seems to lament and regret the lost of past opportunities (and possibly the future ones he also realizes he won’t be able to grasp). He struggles over what to say and his ability to say it before it is too late. The style makes it difficult to clearly state what is literal and what is symbolic, but generally speaking, I am going to go with the interpretation that the poem is about a sexually-frustrated man who wants (or even needs) to say something but is afraid, and ultimately says nothing…and immediately regrets it. And the stream of consciousness style helps convey the internal struggle and the thought process of someone who wants desperately to express themselves but fear is the ultimate barrier in stopping them.

In The Waste Land, for me the sense of loss mostly comes from the fact that it was written after WWI and apparently during a period of personal difficulty for Eliot. Critics have often read the poem as a representation of the feelings of the post-war generation. And apparently, those feelings were mostly of disillusionment and despair and loss. And really, it is all in the title.

Of course, both poems also share their disjointed structure, although The Waste Land is much more fractured and hard to follow. With Love Song I always had a good idea of what was going on. With The Waste Land, as soon as I felt I had a handle on things I would lose it, or probably more accurately, it was taken away from me. And the only indication of any type of approaching change that the reader is given comes from the fact that the poem is divided into five parts. But again, much like with Love Song, the disjointed nature of The Waste Land could be indicative of Eliot’s feelings at the time.

For “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” it seems that the short version of it is this: Eliot feels that while acknowledging the traditions of the poets that came before, the individual should not submit to their ways of doing things completely and therefore give up novelty and talent for an older more accepted way. He then takes it upon himself to establish sort of an official tradition by picking particular works as the “canon” for that tradition, and therefore brings much criticism upon himself.


Eliot was actually born in America but become a citizen of England at the age of 39. Interestingly enough, he also converted to Anglicanism from Unitarianism earlier that same year. This was seven years after the publication of The Waste Land, and 12 years after the publication of Love Song. Eliot most likely worked on The Waste Land for several years before it was published. It is believed that some of the work he did on it was done during what was supposed to be a resting period for both him and his wife. Eliot had been diagnosed with some form of a nervous disorder, and officially, he took leave from work for a nervous breakdown. There were also apparently several drafts of the poem made as well as a few title choices before Eliot settled for The Waste Land.

Oddly enough, Eliot strongly influenced the school of New Criticism, even though he would later criticize the New Critics for their ridiculously detailed analysis of the text. But he does share with them the desire to look at the stylistic qualities of a poem rather than its ideology. New Critics also prefer to look at a work in the context of the writers previous work.

Normally, this is when I would go into each poem individually, but I really can’t think of any more to say that I haven’t already put down here. Overall, all three of these were a good experience for me. Next week I will deal with Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, although the post may be a bit late as I am once again attending the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Fortunately I have already read the bulk of what is required for the test, so hopefully a post will go up by Monday the 19th.

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