About the Poet
Thomas Stearns Eliot, an American-born scholar, sophisticated eclectic, and poetic genius claimed by both the United States and England, is the twentieth century's touchstone author and critic. His monumental verse, written during a period of emotional turmoil and personal re-evaluation, gave voice to the post-World War I trauma that left a generation in doubt about the future of civilization. His style transcended previous literary movements with a surprising sense of humor. Both frustratingly obtuse and dazzlingly memorable, his masterworks redirect attention from the collapse of Edwardian respectability to the birth of modernism.
It seems inconceivable that so British a poet could be an American Midwesterner. The seventh son of brick maker Henry Ware Eliot and poet and biographer Charlotte Stearns, Tom Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888. His distinguished intellectual family derived from immigrants from East Coker, Somersetshire, a setting that Eliot returns to in his poetry. After completing studies at Smith Academy and a year at Milton Academy, he turned his back on America and cultivated the air, grace, and mannerisms of a London dandy.
Heavily influenced by Irving Babbitt at Harvard, Eliot earned a B.A. in literature and an M.A. in philosophy and Sanskrit, all in four years. To increase his fluency in French, he studied for a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, then returned to Harvard for doctoral work in philosophy. Eliot had traveled in Germany and begun a doctoral dissertation at Merton College, Oxford, when he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. As World War I engulfed Europe, health problems kept him out of the army.
After Eliot's father altered his will to underscore disappointment in his son's marriage, Ezra Pound influenced Eliot to remain in the British Isles and join the Bloomsbury Circle, a powerful intellectual force in England in the 1920s and 1930s. Following brief teaching stints at High Wycombe and Highgate Junior School, from 1919 to 1922, he worked for Lloyds Bank and began submitting verse of subtle brilliance to magazines. His poems departed from the modish romantics to concentrate on the mystic outlook of the metaphysics and the Christian divines.
Forever done with teaching and money handling, Eliot entered the book world for life as director of publisher Faber & Faber. He distinguished himself with a remarkable first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), followed by Ara vos prec (1920) and The Sacred Wood (1922). Immediately, he began composing two controversial works, The Waste Land (1922), winner of The Dial award, and The Hollow Men (1925), a profound verse of postwar malaise and a prime influence on the "lost generation." Among scholarly successes were Three Critical Essays (1920), Andrew Marvell (1922), and The Criterion, a literary quarterly he published and edited from 1923 to 1939. He received British citizenship in 1927 and sought baptism and confirmation in the Church of England. In 1932, he returned temporarily to the United States as Harvard's Charles Eliot Norton poetry professor and undertook a series of lectures on U.S. campuses.
A period of Anglo-Catholic thought influenced Eliot's The Journey of the Magi (1927), Ash Wednesday (1930), and The Four Quartets (1943), a war commentary begun in 1935. He exercised versatility in a melodrama, Sweeney Agonistes (1932), and two stage works: The Rock (1934), a pageant with choruses, and Murder in the Cathedral (1935). The latter, a poetic drama commemorating a significant act of violence perpetrated by Henry II, was performed on the site of the assassination of Bishop Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral's Chapter House.
Subsequent works displaying Eliot's piety and religious philosophy include The Family Reunion (1939), The Idea of a Christian Society (1940), and The Cocktail Party (1950), the most successful of his stage dramas. A lighter work, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1940), is the basis for Cats, the longest-running production in stage musical history. Less noteworthy are The Confidential Clerk (1954) and The Elder Statesman (1958), both more suited to reading than to acting. Lauded as English literature's most incisive critic, Eliot surveyed a range of interests with Homage to Dryden (1924), The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), Elizabeth Essays (1934), and On Poetry and Poets (1957).
In 1948, Eliot received the Nobel Prize for literature for his erudite treatment of modern sterility. He died in 1965; his ashes were interred in the village church of East Coker, the ancestral home of the Eliot family.
The dramatic monologue "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), an artistically fresh, visually inventive work, is a landmark of emerging modernism. Composed during the poet's period of casting about for a career and lifestyle, it blends the Victorian forms and rhythms of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning with the disdain and self-doubt of Charles Baudelaire. Eliot prefaces the poem with an epitaph in Italian from Inferno, Dante's epic journey into hell. The 131-line main text opens in a seedy part of London, a modern parallel of hell in its joylessness and perpetual torment. Propelled by the walk of the speaker and an unidentified "you," the action moves over doubts and questions neatly unified by rhymed couplets, interspersed in lines 3 and 10 with the odd incidents of unrhymed endings. Surreal and menacing, the skewering of the protagonist Prufrock on a surgical table terrorizes at the same time that it draws the viewer to a subject pinned down for study like an insect in the lab.
The theme is an overt admission of weakness: The speaker confesses an inability to commit to sexual love. Prufrock has become a twentieth-century cliché for the prissy, conflicted bachelor obsessed with a balding head and prim wardrobe and mannerisms, not unlike Eliot himself. Like the sinuous fog, his gaze glides indoors, then outdoors, from surgery to street, social gathering, storm drains, terrace, and back into the "soft October night," another reference to his flaccid character. The juxtaposition of trivialities with life-disturbing doubts stretches out the tedium of modern life over "a hundred visions and revisions," an internal rhyme with "decisions." Unlike the outward control of selecting a tie pin or creasing his slacks, Prufrock's inner turmoil threatens to "disturb the universe." The pathetic hyperbole frames his chaotic thoughts, which swirl around the unexpressed question that dogs him.
Prufrock is not alone in courting disaster through uninvolvement. Passing acquaintances who discuss the arts, take tea and coffee, but take no action, are typical of the modern quandary. Still transfixed in line 57, Prufrock, choking on "the butt-ends of my days and ways," once more wriggles away from a decision. Aware of the fear of intimacy, he envisions himself as "a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas," a starkly sibilant, crablike image that echoes Macbeth's terror of scorpions in his mind. Well past his prime, Prufrock the shirker ironically envisions himself beheaded like John the Baptist, the prophet of Christ. More realistic is the companion image of the sissy gentleman stretching his arm for death, "the eternal Footman," to dress in burial shroud.
Returning to biblical allusion, Prufrock sees himself as Lazarus, a character in hell, proposed in Luke 16 as a messenger warning mortals to change their ways. Fearful of rejection, of being misunderstood, Prufrock lies splayed on a screen, his nervous system illumined by a magic lantern. Unable to claim the tragic significance of Hamlet, Prufrock settles for Polonius, the fuddy-duddy court adviser who gets himself killed by lurking at the edge of the action. Dismayed by the effects of age, Prufrock imagines women on the beach tittering to each other, but not summoning him with their songs. In the greater scope, the overripe bachelor is merely a symptom. Too long enthralled by fancy, the modern world, like Prufrock, has lingered in romanticism and self-indulgent frolic until the realities of the modern world threaten to consume it.
Also from Eliot's initial burst of brilliance, "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" (1919) features the opposite of Eliot's refined Englishman in a laughable, working-class buffoon. The poem, a sharp, cold satire that Stephen Spender labels "a violent cartoon," pictures its characters in animal images of an ape, zebra, giraffe, and Rachel Rabinovitch's "murderous paws."
Eliot loads the poem with mounting menace. End words are predominantly monosyllabic, producing a stabbing series of moon/place/above/gate and wood/aloud/fall/shroud. Through enjambment, the ten stanzas present a running account of Sweeney threatened by a "gambit," the trickery of bar girls. The poet shifts to dark humor by depicting Orion and his dog, the prophetic constellation that takes the shape of the stalking hunter. The point of the plotting is unclear. Like Agamemnon, the Greek king whose murder is recounted in the epigraph, Sweeney is sappily drunk and unaware of any sinister intent, whether to rob him or do bodily harm. Amid the omens of Death and the raven, he merits no pity from nature, as depicted by wisteria vines trailing around the framed face of an observer and the songs of nightingales, or from divine intervention, as implied by "The Convent of the Sacred Heart."
"Gerontion" (1920) is more universal in meaning as a bleak meditation prefiguring the symbols of dry sterility that dominate Eliot's later work. The poem was intended as a preface to The Waste Land. The title means "little old man" in Greek and introduces the text with a suitable epigraph from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. In the action, a lifeless, uncommitted old man lives out his declining years and ponders the erratic gifts of history. In a series of dense, interrelated images, the speaker regrets the worldwide decline of Christian faith. The images are the "hot gates" of Thermopylae, "Christ the tiger," and a slate of fictional characters, Mr. Silvero, Hakagawa, Madame de Tornquist, and Fräulein von Kulp, followed in line 68 with De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel. The names imply human faults: Silvero (money), Hakagawa (violent hacking), Tornquist (torn by quest), von Kulp (from the Latin culpa for fault). Like Gerontion's elderly body, exercising the remains of his withered "sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch," current generations seek escape in crass pleasures. Driven by nature — that is, the Trade winds — they age toward "a sleepy corner," their final resting place.
The Waste Land, a plotless elegy set among realistic images of London, is the most analyzed poem from modern times. It is the work of Eliot, concluded during his retreat to a Swiss sanitarium for rest and recuperation, and of Ezra Pound, the poet's adviser who supervised extreme cuts in the original text. In disjointed scenes and truncated dialogues, the poem, labeled an anti-epic, details an ongoing nightmare, the spiritual and emotional breakdown of Western civilization. Through interwoven allusions to myth, scripture, and document, the poem acts out the disorientation and collapse of modern humanity, which turned from religion but found nothing to replace it. Beginning at life's end, the poem, prefaced by a death urge, opens on a burial scene in April, when the stirrings of spring force buried roots back to life. Against a sterile, lifeless desert, the poet juxtaposes an erotic scene of "the hyacinth girl" and the cynical Madame Sosostris, the fakir who claims to tell fortunes with tarot cards.
Eliot brings the setting closer to home in line 60 with direct reference to London. Caught up in a daily cycle of meaninglessness, victims repeat actions that perpetually deny humanity and rob life of hope. In stave II, a wealthy couple go through the motions of a depleted relationship, their sexual malaise symbolized by the mechanics of a chess game. Like death-in-life skulls, their lidless eyes look toward the door as though awaiting the personified death to knock. With lines 128-130, Eliot shifts from the gravity of former lines with an abrupt "O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag," a vaudevillian tagline that epitomizes the ardent striving, goallessness, and banality of contemporary amusements.
A quick change to a dragged-down woman with rotted teeth and a body sapped at age 31 from a chemically induced abortion reprises the notion of hovering death. As she listens to a chastising friend, the insistent voice of the barkeep warns that time is running out. The reminder, in capital letters, is an alarm to a generation of couples whose physical union has lost significance. The image parallels a breakdown of communication in Eliot's own marriage, which ended with separation in 1932 and his first wife's mental disintegration and retreat to an asylum for the rest of her life.
Stave III, "The Fire Sermon," echoes Psalm 137, a biblical lament for the fallen realm of Babylon. Eliot updates the poem with ironic images of the Thames polluted with the trash of a summer night's entertainment. The couplings of lovers degenerate to the rape of Philomel, a pervasive Greek myth that results in the transformation of sisters into birds. The urbane Eugenides sets up a weekend of carnal pleasures. Viewed by the Greek seer Tiresias, the androgynous messiah figure condemned to abandon maleness for a period of life as a woman, the uninspired seduction scene of a clerical worker on her divan-bed wearies and bores. The surreal connection with Elizabeth I, seduced in a canoe, heightens the poet's dismay at unloving, uninspiring human actions, the "broken fingernails of dirty hands."
Staves IV and V, the most marked by literary curiosities, modulate to abject figures of a waterless desert. Longing overwhelms the dominant pentameter lines with pulsing dimeter calling for "water / A spring." The dry rot that destroyed a mélange of ruling cities — "Jerusalem Athens Alexandria" — moves into the modern era to devour "Vienna London." Remorse for the death of Christianity takes the form of a cockcrow, an allusion to Peter, the disciple who denied the Messiah. The allusion is pertinent to Eliot's personal philosophy, for he was the sole Christian holdout among lapsed believers, atheists, and agnostics of his literary circle.
The final voice is that of the ill-fated Fisher King, a vegetating authority figure who reigns over a sterile land. He suffers physical wounds that symbolize the impotence and fruitlessness of his kingdom, now reduced to a valley of dry bones. Only a worthy warrior can lift the curse through a dual initiation rite — by entering the castle and explaining a series of obscure symbols, which the poet depicts as the Buddhist triad "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata" [give, sympathize, control]. Eliot ends the poem with the ritual call to peace, repeated three times in pattern with the Buddha's three-part command.
Written over two decades after his early masterpieces, "Burnt Norton" (1936) is the first of The Four Quartets. Eliot observes his typical stylistic patterning with an erudite epigraph drawn from Heraclitus and a division into five staves, a parallel of the movements of a musical composition. Lulling the reader with repetition in "Time present and time past," "time future," and "all time," the poet-speaker mimics a Buddhist chant, a compelling intonation that, like self-hypnosis, draws the reader into a veiled, mystic consciousness. The mesmerizing effect of these time-oriented phrases embodies his philosophic consideration of history, which is comprised of time and action. With exaggerated simplicity, in line 42, the poet speaks through a bird, which commands, "Go, go, go . . . human kind / Cannot bear very much reality."
Stave II intensifies Eliot's contemplation of time and his contemporaries' inability to escape from a "bedded axle-tree," which brings action to a halt. Toying with the conjunctions "neither . . . nor," he looks beyond to "the still point," life's end, which concludes "the dance." The bewildered human mind attempts to make sense of life, but acquires only "a little consciousness." The agony of confusion over purpose creates the "place of disaffection" in stave III, a characterization of a world of distractions and fancies, of "bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind," an allusion to the Cumaean sybil's leaves on which she wrote prophecies. The spirit, overwhelmed by sterility, emptiness, and malaise, sinks into torpor. Staves IV and V find hope in eternity. As Eliot describes it, "the end and the beginning were always there." Words fail to capture the purpose of creation, which Eliot epitomizes as "unmoving" love, the conclusion to his formal deliberation on meaning.
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Account for critics who reject abstruse, densely referential poetry like Eliot's The Four Quartets and The Waste Land as self-consciously pedantic and too obscure for most readers. Summarize contrasting opinion that lauds the intricate allusions, exacting logic, and multiple meanings of Eliot's work.
2. List significant lines from The Waste Land along with their literary influences. Account for the fruitlessness of human strivings and potential for chaos that Eliot stresses in his vignettes of failed love.
3. Compose an extended definition of mock-heroic with elements drawn from Eliot's "Sweeney Among the Nightingales."
4. Compare "Gerontion" to the cynical old Roman in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22. Determine why the characters neglect virtue and embrace a slow drift toward oblivion.
5. Discuss religious images in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." How do such images function in the poem? Does Eliot treat religion seriously?