Let us go then, you and I,
Like a patient etherized upon a table. . . .
Although Pound had printed privately a small book, A lume spento, as early as 1908, "Prufrock" was the first poem by either of these literary revolutionists to go beyond experiment to achieve perfection. It represented a break with the immediate past as radical as that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads (1798). From the appearance of Eliot's first volume, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917, one may conveniently date the maturity of the 20th-century poetic revolution. The significance of the revolution is still disputed, but the striking similarity to the Romantic revolution of Coleridge and Wordsworth is obvious: Eliot and Pound, like their 18th-century counterparts, set about reforming poetic diction. Whereas Wordsworth thought he was going back to the "real language of men," Eliot struggled to create new verse rhythms based on the rhythms of contemporary speech. He sought a poetic diction that might be spoken by an educated person, being "neither pedantic nor vulgar."
For a year Eliot taught French and Latin at the Highgate School; in 1917 he began his brief career as a bank clerk in Lloyds Bank Ltd. Meanwhile he was also a prolific reviewer and essayist in both literary criticism and technical philosophy. In 1919 he published Poems, which contained the poem "Gerontion," a meditative interior monologue in blank verse: nothing like this poem had appeared in English.
The Waste Land consists of five sections and proceeds on a principle of "rhetorical discontinuity" that reflects the fragmented experience of the 20th-century sensibility of the great modern cities of the West. Eliot expresses the hopelessness and confusion of purpose of life in the secularized city, the decay of urbs aeterna (the "eternal city"). This is the ultimate theme of The Waste Land, concretized by the poem's constant rhetorical shifts and its juxtapositions of contrasting styles. But The Waste Land is not a simple contrast of the heroic past with the degraded present; it is rather a timeless, simultaneous awareness of moral grandeur and moral evil. The poem's original manuscript of about 800 lines was cut down to 433 at the suggestion of Ezra Pound. The Waste Land is not Eliot's greatest poem, though it is his most famous.
Eliot said that the poet-critic must write "programmatic criticism"--that is, criticism that expresses the poet's own interests as a poet, quite different from historical scholarship, which stops at placing the poet in his background. Consciously intended or not, Eliot's criticism created an atmosphere in which his own poetry could be better understood and appreciated than if it had to appear in a literary milieu dominated by the standards of the preceding age. In the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," appearing in his first critical volume, The Sacred Wood (1920), Eliot asserts that tradition, as used by the poet, is not a mere repetition of the work of the immediate past ("novelty is better than repetition," he said); rather, it comprises the whole of European literature from Homer to the present. The poet writing in English may therefore make his own tradition by using materials from any past period, in any language. This point of view is "programmatic" in the sense that it disposes the reader to accept the revolutionary novelty of Eliot's polyglot quotations and serious parodies of other poets' styles in The Waste Land.
Also in The Sacred Wood, "Hamlet and His Problems" sets forth Eliot's theory of the objective correlative:
The first, or programmatic, phase of Eliot's criticism ended with The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)--his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. Shortly before this his interests had broadened into theology and sociology; three short books, or long essays, were the result: Thoughts After Lambeth (1931), The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948). These book-essays, along with his Dante (1929), an indubitable masterpiece, broadened the base of literature into theology and philosophy: whether a work is poetry must be decided by literary standards; whether it is great poetry must be decided by standards higher than the literary.
Eliot's criticism and poetry are so interwoven that it is difficult to discuss them separately. The great essay on Dante appeared two years after Eliot was confirmed in the Church of England (1927); in that year he also became a British subject. The first long poem after his conversion was "Ash Wednesday" (1930), a religious meditation in a style entirely different from that of any of the earlier poems. "Ash Wednesday" expresses the pangs and the strain involved in the acceptance of religious belief and religious discipline. This and subsequent poems were written in a more relaxed, musical, and meditative style than his earlier works, in which the dramatic element had been stronger than the lyrical. "Ash Wednesday" was not well received in an era that held that poetry, though autonomous, is strictly secular in its outlook; it was misinterpreted by some critics as an expression of personal disillusion.
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
He left me, with a kind of valediction,
And faded on the blowing of the horn.
The passage is 72 lines, in modified terza rima; the diction is as near to that of Dante as is possible in English; and it is a fine example of Eliot's belief that a poet can be entirely original when he is closest to his models.
Eliot's plays, which begin with Sweeney Agonistes (published 1926; first performed in 1934) and end with The Elder Statesman (first performed 1958; published 1959), are, with the exception of Murder in the Cathedral (published and performed 1935), inferior to the lyric and meditative poetry. Eliot's belief that even secular drama attracts people who unconsciously seek a religion led him to put drama above all other forms of poetry. All his plays are in a blank verse of his own invention, in which the metrical effect is not apprehended apart from the sense; thus he brought "poetic drama" back to the popular stage. The Family Reunion (1939) and Murder in the Cathedral are Christian tragedies, the former a tragedy of revenge, the latter of the sin of pride. Murder in the Cathedral is a modern miracle play on the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. The most striking feature of this, his most successful play, was the use of a chorus in the traditional Greek manner to make apprehensible to common humanity the meaning of the heroic action. The Family Reunion (1939) was less popular. It contained scenes of great poignancy and some of the finest dramatic verse since the Elizabethans; but the public found this translation of the story of Orestes into a modern domestic drama baffling and was uneasy at the mixture of psychological realism, mythical apparitions at a drawing-room window, and a comic chorus of uncles and aunts.
After World War II, Eliot returned to writing plays with The Cocktail Party in 1949, The Confidential Clerk in 1953, and The Elder Statesman in 1958. These plays are comedies in which the plots are derived from Greek drama. In them Eliot accepted current theatrical conventions at their most conventional, subduing his style to a conversational level and eschewing the lyrical passages that gave beauty to his earlier plays. Only The Cocktail Party, which is based upon the Alcestis of Euripides, achieved a popular success. In spite of their obvious theatrical defects and a failure to engage the sympathies of the audience for the characters, these plays succeed in handling moral and religious issues of some complexity while entertaining the audience with farcical plots and some shrewd social satire.
Eliot's career as editor was ancillary to his main interests, but his quarterly review, The Criterion (1922-39), was the most distinguished international critical journal of the period. He was a "director," or working editor, of the publishing firm of Faber & Faber Ltd. from the early 1920s until his death, and as such was a generous and discriminating patron of young poets.
Eliot always kept his private life rigorously in the background. In 1915 he married Vivian Haigh-Wood; after 1933 she was mentally ill, and they lived apart; she died in 1947. In January 1957 he married Valerie Fletcher, with whom he lived happily until his death.
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