T.S. Eliot’s Poetry Analysis

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In his own words,“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,”. T.S Eliot immortalized the sentiment of the 20th century through his critiques, essays, and plays. His most profound contribution, however, was as a poet. While the world around him morphed into the modern society we see today, T.S. Eliot’s pieces like Wasteland and Four Quartets reflect a Eliot uses a palate of imagery and figurative language in tandem with academic and literary references to place the reader directly within the dimension of the poem itself. Through poetry, Eliot become a conduit through which art, literature, and culture flowed and shaped the society around him.

The world of T.S. Eliot saw vast cultural change that served to fill the void of a fractured England after the first World War. The decade leading up to World War I portrayed a new era of art and literature, in which writers changed with the times, ‘Eliot praises the literary tradition and states that the best writers are those who write with a sense of continuity with those writers who came before, as if all of literature constituted a stream in which each new writer must enter and swim.’ (Siegal, 2014,  2). Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 ushered in a new era of extravagance and forthrightness (now called the Edwardian Age), which lasted until 1910 (Siegel, 2014,  3). ‘The passing of Victorian ideals and the trauma of World War I challenged cultural notions of masculine identity, causing artists to question the romantic literary ideal of a visionary-poet capable of changing the world through verse.’ (SparkNotes.com, 2018,  5). Over the course of Eliot’s life, gender roles and sexuality became increasingly malleable, and Eliot reflected those changes in his own work (Siegel, 2014,  3). Modernist writers created characters with more sexual fluidity and re-imagined masculinity and femininity against absolute identities dictated by society (Siegel, 2014,  3).

The war broke the exorbitant spirit of Great Britain, and many artists incorporated the desolate stance of the people within their work. ‘As for England, the aftershocks of World War I directly contributed to the dissolution of the British Empire. Eliot saw society as paralyzed and wounded, and he imagined that culture was crumbling and dissolving.’ (SparkNotes.com, 2018,  1). Although a state of disillusionment seemed to cast over Eliot’s work, the culture around him quickly recovered and the advancement of minority groups, such as women, were once again on the rise. The Second World War was crucial to how the public and its elite perceived the future of Britain (Anton, n.d.,  1). Prominent figures, such as Winston Churchill, vocalized the national sentiment, “We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be.” (Anton, n.d.,  6). Eliot himself was enveloped into the growing patriotism during the war, “Not many people know that at the end of his life he was the chairman of a large educational project called Books Across the Sea (BAS), set up in 1941 …to counter Nazi propaganda… Eliot was made president of the organization in 1943.” (Poore, 2015,  2). Eliot’s participation in the emotional ups and downs of England greatly contributed to his poetic themes.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26th, 1888. He came from a reputable New England family, whose ancestors emigrated to America in the 17th century (ThePoetryArchive.org, 2005,  1). Despite his family being from New England, Eliot lived in Missouri for the majority of his early life (NobelPrize.org, 2018,  1). He attended Harvard, which introduced him to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and a working knowledge of Sanskrit (he already knew Latin, Greek, French and German). After a year in Paris, Eliot began work at Harvard on his doctoral thesis on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley.While studying for his PhD Eliot had a revelatory encounter with the work of the French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue, which inspired him to compose his own poetry. (ThePoetryArchive.org, 2005,  1).

In 1914 Eliot took up a post at Merton College, Oxford, as a visiting fellow in philosophy (ThePoetryArchive.org, 2005,  1), and eventually settled in England, where he was a schoolmaster and a bank clerk. Eliot attempted to join the U.S. Navy as they joined the First World War in 197, but was rejected for physical reasons (Encyclopedia of World Biography, n.d.). Later in his life, he also became the literary editor for the publishing house Faber & Faber, of which he later became a director (NobelPrize.org, 2018,  1). He founded and, during the seventeen years of its publication (1922-1939), edited the exclusive and influential literary journal Criterion. His fondness for Britain, and his alliance to a more European style of poetry and literature were completed when he became a British citizen, and a member of the Anglican Church, in 1927 (NobelPrize.org, 2018,  1).

In 1915, after a short courtship, Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood (ThePoetryArchive.org, 2005,  1). This marriage was punctuated by Vivien’s deteriorating mental health and emotional instability, along with the death of Eliot’s father. In 1917, Eliot joined Lloyd’s Bank to help keep his new family financially afloat. The war years in the capital were formative for Eliot’s career, particularly with regard to his friendship with Ezra Pound (ThePoetryArchive.org, 2005,  1). It was Pound who did most to establish Eliot as a prominent figure in the modernist movement, particularly through his decisive editorial assistance in ‘The Waste Land’. While Eliot’s career gained momentum, his growing professional success masked personal suffering as his marriage disintegrated, and by 1938, Vivien’s physical and mental issues had her committed to a mental hospital, where she would spend the rest of her life (ThePoetryArchive.org, 2005,  1). This prompted a nervous breakdown in Eliot which resulted in three months’ enforced rest. It was during this time that he wrote “The Wasteland”, his “bleak masterpiece of psychic fragmentation, with its collage of voices, its violent disjunctions in tone and wealth of cultural allusion” (ThePoetryArchive.org, 2005,  1). Two years after Haigh-Wood’s death in 1947, Eliot met his second wife Valerie Fletcher. The couple married in 1957, and stayed together until Eliot’s death in 1965 (Begley, 2016,  3) .

Eliot’s reputation as a poet advanced quickly and far outshone his theatrical success. In 1926 he delivered the distinguished Clark Lectures at Cambridge University, followed by the Norton Lectures at Harvard in later years (Bush, 1999,  18) . Eliot went on to receive practically every other honor the academy or the literary world had to offer. In 1948 Eliot received the Nobel Prize for literature, along with the British Order of Merit (Encyclopedia of World Biography, n.d.,  18). After World War II, Eliot wrote no more major poetry, but instead devoted himself to his plays and to literary essays (Bush, 1999,  22). Eliot’s life became immensely private and secluded within his second marriage, but also became notably happier than at any other point in his life (Begley, 2016,  1). Eliot died in London on January 4th, 1965, and his ashes were placed in St.Michael’s church in East Coker (Encyclopedia of World Biography, n.d.,  19).

Eliot divides his most famous poem, The Waste Land, into four separate parts, each with their own message. Collectively, these parts are a lament for society and what it has become as Eliot sees the modern age as decrepit and shallow in the wake of the first World War. Beginning with “The Burial of the Dead”, we see an immediate theme of loss, death, and the dried up remains of life after the war. In the first part of “Burial of the Dead”, Eliot juxtaposes the traditionally renewing and bright connotations of spring with darker images of the decay that he sees around him, “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land,/[…]stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.” (Poem Hunter, 2003-a, ll. 1-4).

Immediately after this, Eliot moves into an idyllic image of friendship, and uses his familiarity with the German language to help set the scene, “And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,/ And drank coffee, and talked for an hour./ Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch (I’m not Russian at all, I’m from Lithuania, really German). ” (Poem Hunter, 2003-a, ll. 10-12). Within the next paragraph, Eliot again reverts back to the main focus of his poem, creating lines that express his point of view, again through nature. The defeatist language he uses helps layer on the feelings of isolation and melancholy, “And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,/ And the dry stone no sound of water.” (Poem Hunter, 2003-a, ll. 23-25). Eliot uses many literary and cultural references within Waste Land to further solidify and propel his message throughout the poem. The first that we see in “The Burial of the Dead” is his use of the character Madame Sosostris, a fortune teller and card reader known throughout Europe.

Eliot makes use of tarot cards and their meanings, even adding a few cards of his own, to show the bleak outlook of English society and its meager hope for change (LiteratureNerd, 2011,  1). He also inserts his first reference of water and drowning, “Here, said she,/ Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,/ (Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)” (Poem Hunter, 2003-a, ll.46-48). This idea of not only Phlebas, but his watery grave are seemingly important to Eliot as he mentions it later in the poem. Eliot closes “The Burial of the Dead” with a more literal portrayal of its title, creating a scene in London, where the families and friends of those killed in the war gather to collectively mourn. He finishes the first part of his massive poem on a somber note, “A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many.” (Poem Hunter, 2003-a, ll. 62-63).

A deeper look at Eliot’s greatest successes such as The Wasteland and Four Quartets reveals several recurring themes that seem to persist throughout his life and work. The first of these being Religion, which is best expressed in poems like The Hollow Men, Four Quartets and Ash Wednesday. Religion plays a very important role in Eliot’s life, which made it an easy way for him to incorporate it into his poetry. The Hollow Men uses an increasingly fragmented Lord’s Prayer in its fifth part to represent the futility of man. The Hollow Men try to pray, but cannot seem to release themselves from the reality that they are between Heaven and Hell, “Between the potency/ And the existence/ Between the essence/ And the descent/ Falls the Shadow” (Poem Hunter, 2003-b, ll.86-90). The moral paralysis experienced by the Hollow Men is reflective of the sense of inner turmoil within Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday tells of the frustrating struggle that exists as faithless beings strive towards God.

Four Quartets, in contrast to The Hollow Men, serves as one of Eliot’s more uplifting and pleasant poems. The imagery, especially within Burnt Norton, is a pleasant break from the dismal gray and blacks of Eliot’s earlier poems,

“In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,

And the bird called, in response to

The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at.” (Poem Hunter, 2003-c, ll. 27-31). Time, although only used as such within Four Quartets, stands as a theme on its own. Time is repeatedly used throughout the many parts of Four Quartets, and is always a constant, ever present entity that exists outside of our understanding. Eliot creates this paradox, for man to fail to understand his own creation, as a way to throw the reader off balance. It would seem this way with many of his poems, that one must enter the world of Eliot’s nonsense to make any sense at all.

Perhaps the most prominent themes that are constant within Eliot’s poetry, are his earliest. Traces of Isolation and Death appear most frequently throughout his works, most notably in The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. After the events of World War I, Eliot saw the world as a desolate, infertile, and tepid swamp. He saw humanity as ill focused and vain, which comes out quite clearly in A Game of Chess (within The Waste Land). Eliot directly attacks modern society, and the cheap thrills it chases,

“‘What shall I do now? What shall I do?’

‘I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street

‘With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?’” (Poem Hunter, 2003-a, ll.132-135). Although The Waste Land has a certain air of discomfort at the state of things, it does not match the sentiment given by The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Hollow Men. Both poems have an alarming sense of urgency at the moral state of their narrator, who in both cases are torn and, unable to act upon any impulses they have. Eliot uses a fragmented style within his writing that suggests the narrators’ train of thought is often interrupted with whatever pressing issue ails such narrator the most. This style not only keeps the reader on their toes, but adds an uneasy flow to the poems themselves that make them stick in a reader’s mind.

Eliot attributed much of his early style to the French Symbolist Laforgue, who he first encountered in college. He saw poetry itself as an ongoing stream in which each newcomer must simply join in, surrounded by not only their past but their future. In the essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot asserts that poetic tradition is not a mere repetition of the work of the immediate past,but that it comprises the whole of European literature, from Homer to the present. (Davies et al., 2018,  6). In this regard, Eliot mastered his own definition of modern literature as he became arguably one of the most educated poets of his time. Not only had he packed his works full of Allusions, quotations, footnotes, and scholarly Exegeses (Siegal, 2014,  2), Eliot also set about reforming poetic diction (along with Ezra Pound) with striking similarity to the Romantic revolution (Davies et al., 2018,  3). Eliot used the phrase “objective correlative” in the context of his own impersonal theory of poetry; which influenced correcting the vagueness of late Victorian rhetoric by insisting on a correspondence of word and object. (Davies et al., 2018,  7).

While reforming many of the older ways of the poets before him, Eliot still held and maintained great reverence for myth and the Western literary Canon (Siegal, 2014,  2). He found ways to incorporate the best parts of aging literature into his radically modern style, creating pieces that were truly unique to his times and psyche. ‘While he took from them their ability to infuse poetry with high intellectualism while maintaining a sensuousness of language, Eliot also developed a great deal that was new and original.’ (SparkNotes.com, 2018,  1).

Many examples of the assimilation of old and new can be seen in his first major poem, The Waste Land. The Waste Land proceeds on a principle of “rhetorical discontinuity” (Davies et al., 2018,  5) that demands not only the attention of the reader, but of society itself. The Waste Land expresses, with great power, the disenchantment, disillusionment, and disgust in the time after World War I. (Davies, Gardner, & Tate, 2018,  4). The central themes of dread, and the stark realization of abandonment and despair are woven throughout several poems at this time. “Son of man,/You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ a heap of broken images.” (Eliot, 1922. P.1, ll.20-22), shows the bleak worldview that clung to Eliot after the War, Wasteland reflecting the fragmented experience of the 20th-century sensibility of the urbanized West.

In the second part of Waste Land, A Game of Chess, Eliot uses the image of a paranoid queen in her throne room, surrounded by vastly luxurious items, as a depiction of the modern world. He felt the need to convey his disgust at the materialistic culture he saw around him, along with his concern for how it affected his generation and those coming after him. Eliot saw society become increasingly bored with their luxuries, and with their things, and so used the queen to verbalize these concerns, “ ‘You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember/ Nothing?’ ” (Eliot, 1922, p.4, ll.123-124).

Although the central themes of Eliot’s poetry often stuck a more gruesome and harrowing chord within the halls of modern literature, they continue to ring out with potency in the 21st century, more than 50 years after his death. Eliot’s personal life and cultural awareness had a significant effect on all of his writings, but is most evident within the many poems he wrote in his long career. A highly educated man, T.S. Eliot used both poetry and essays as a literary outlet, which served to educate his peers and readers. Eliot’s use of academia references and expert literary devices created the exact image of each poem. While the society and culture of the times that created such masterpieces as Waste Land and Four Quartets may be gone, the messages they presented have a lasting impact on each new generation.


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Cite this paper

T.S. Eliot’s Poetry Analysis. (2021, Sep 17). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/t-s-eliots-poetry-analysis/

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