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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

[4995] Barry Hyams, T. S. Eliot, Half-Length Portrait, Seated, Facing Slightly Right, Holding Eyeglasses (1954), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-109122].

Born in St. Louis, Thomas Stearns Eliot was one of seven children. Originally from New England, the Eliot family’s lineage was bound to both religion and education. Eliot’s grandfather, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, moved to St. Louis in 1834, where he began a Unitarian Church and founded Washington University, which became one of the nation’s elite educational institutions. Eliot’s father was a successful business executive, but it was his mother, Charlotte Stearns, from whom he seems to have inherited his literary sensibility. She was a poet, and her biography of Eliot’s grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, was published in 1904.

Although Eliot spent his formative early years in St. Louis, he maintained strong connections to New England, where the family summered following the aristocratic tradition of his ancestors. He graduated from Milton Academy, an elite private school in Massachusetts; and like many of his relatives, he then went to Harvard. Graduating in three years, Eliot stayed in Cambridge to study philosophy. While at Harvard, his most influential professors proved to be George Santayana and Irving Babbitt, who was vociferous in his dislike for lingering Romanticism and exhausted aesthetic traditions. As his poetry suggests, Eliot’s formal education was intense and varied. He earned a master’s degree from Harvard in 1910, the same year in which he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and in Marburg, Germany, but when World War I exploded across northern Europe, he retreated to Oxford and London and never returned to America except as a visitor. Eliot read in an eclectic manner, to say the least, absorbing Dante, centuries of French poetry, and texts from Sanskrit. Eliot married his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood, on June 26, 1915, and it proved to be a turbulent marriage, ending in separation in 1932. Eliot’s difficulties dealing with his wife’s mental instability appear in subtle references in his poetry, most notably in Part II of The Waste Land.

In 1914, while in England, Eliot met Ezra Pound, who was to become one of the most influential figures in his life and career. It was Pound who first recognized Eliot’s genius, proclaiming he “has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.” Pound became Eliot’s mentor and proponent, as he convinced editors to publish his work. Then as now, however, it was hard for anyone to make a decent living as a poet, so Eliot taught school for a while and eventually took a job as a clerk at Lloyd’s Bank in London, where he worked while writing The Waste Land and other poems that made his reputation in the 1920s. The pressures of balancing a difficult marriage, Vivien’s health problems, his father’s death, and a developing writing career culminated in a mental breakdown in 1921. With most of The Waste Land completed, Eliot went to Lausanne, Switzerland, for rest and psychiatric treatment.

Pound helped Eliot edit The Waste Land extensively, reducing the poem by nearly half. Influenced by French poets like Laforgue, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, and characterized by its fragmented form, esoteric allusions, spiritual searching, and apocalyptic imagery, The Waste Land stands as one of the most ambitious and innovative works of its time. In many ways the quintessential modernist text, this poem dispenses with linear sequence and narrative cohesion; complete with footnotes, it seemed to dare the reader to make sense of it. Although The Waste Land has become a centerpiece in survey courses of twentieth-century literature, in 1922 its voice and its themes seemed utterly new.

In the same year, Eliot started Criterion, a magazine that soon became an important voice on the literary scene. By the late 1920s, Eliot had established himself as a leading critic and arbiter of literary taste. His literary essays, including “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), proved almost as influential as his poetry in shaping what came to be called “High Modernism.”

The Waste Land marks a turning point in Eliot’s career because it seems to mark the end of a kind of spiritual despair. Eliot’s poems in the years after, including “The Hollow Men” (1925) and “Ash Wednesday” (1930), suggest a transition that culminates in the spiritual solace that characterizes his elaborate meditations Four Quartets. Eliot did, in fact, become a dedicated member of the Church of England, and much of his later writing portrays this struggle for faith, including Murder in the CathedralThe Cocktail Party, and various essays and books on religion. As well as writing poems and critical essays, Eliot also wrote plays, some of which were produced on Broadway and in London’s West End. In 1948, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Teaching Tips

  • Although written in free verse, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” continues the long-standing poetic tradition of the dramatic monologue. Students will probably be most familiar with the dramatic monologues of English poet Robert Browning, such as Last Duchess.” Reading one of these famous poems can help students understand that the speaker is Prufrock, a fallible and possibly unreliable character and not the voice of Eliot himself. Try having your students stage the different parts of the monologue, using voices appropriate to the words. A similar strategy can be used for “Gerontion,” which is also in the form of a dramatic monologue. Students often find the fragmented form, esoteric allusions, and disembodied speaker difficult and frustrating. Before discussing Eliot in class, have students write a line-by-line paraphrase of the poem and then a quick (three-to-four-sentence) plot synopsis. Begin class discussion by breaking into groups to compare the plot summaries and paraphrases. Each group should come up with a “master” versions; then have the class discuss the poem as a whole.
  • Consider beginning your discussion of Eliot with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Encourage students to read the poem aloud and to listen to the sounds and rhythms. Instead of focusing on the footnotes, help them appreciate the lyric quality of Eliot’s verse.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How would you describe the speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? What are his fears? Is he a sympathetic character? Why does he ask so many questions? What is the significance of the title? How would you describe the tone of this poem?
  2. Comprehension: Some readers have argued that Tiresias is the narrator of The Waste Land, a voice behind all the other voices. When he appears in “The Fire Sermon” in line 217, he says “I, Tiresias.” Who is this figure in classical mythology? Why might Eliot choose to invoke him here? How does he relate to other themes in the poem?
  3. Comprehension: In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot writes: “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.” What does Eliot mean here? Does he follow his own dictum? What would he say of other poets in this unit?
  4. Context: “Learning of German Retreat from Her District,” in the archive, depicts some of the devastation inflicted upon the European landscape. In the video, critic Lisa Steinman argues that, like the war-torn buildings, The Waste Land “is, in fact, a kind of rubble of stuff that used to have meaning and used to go together and that doesn’t seem to go together.” What are the fragments from which The Waste Land is composed? From what cultures do these fragments originate? What sorts of images would you use to illustrate this text?
  5. Context: Many readers have noted that The Waste Land is written in an apocalyptic mode; that is, it functions as a work of crisis literature that reveals truths about the past, present, and/or future in highly symbolic terms, and it is intended to provide hope and encouragement for people in the midst of severe trials and tribulations. What crises do the characters in The Waste Land face? Given this context, how do you read the ending of the poem? Is the final line triumphant or apocalyptic?
  6. Context: How does Eliot’s brand of modernism differ from Williams’s? Do they share any ideas, beliefs, or techniques?
  7. Exploration: What is the effect of the host of esoteric allusions in The Waste Land? Why do you think Eliot chooses the kinds of references he does? Why does he draw from so many different religions?
  8. Exploration: In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot argues that “if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged.” What keeps Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from merely “blindly” or “timidly” adhering to the tradition of dramatic monologues? What is uniquely modern about Eliot’s innovations?

Selected Archive Items

[4995] Barry Hyams, T. S. Eliot, Half-Length Portrait, Seated, Facing Slightly Right, Holding Eyeglasses (1954), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-109122]. 
T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and studied at Harvard, but spent most of his adult life in Europe. Eliot was a student of Sanskrit and Buddhism, and his poetry was deeply influenced by orientalism as well as neoclassicism.

[6971] Underwood and Underwood, Learning of German Retreat from Her District, French Woman Returns to Find Her Home a Heap of Ruins (1917), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115012]. 
Photograph of woman looking at the ruins of her home in the Somme region. Many modernist writers were shaken by the unprecedented devastation of World War I.

[7105] New York Times Paris Bureau Collection, London Has Its Biggest Raid of the War (1941), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
Photograph of a London building destroyed by bombs. London experienced heavy fire bombing during World War II.

[7658] Herbert Johnson, Future Pastimes. Breaking the News to Her Papa–by Radio (1922), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Cartoon depicting a young woman telling her father of her engagement over the radio. For some, the broadened communication made possible by the radio was inspiring. For others, like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and the father in this picture, the new technology was cause for alarm.

[8949] Lisa M. Steinman, Interview: “Rhythms in Poetry” (2003), 
courtesy of American Passages
Professor of English and humanities Lisa M. Steinman discusses The Waste Land.

[9140] Robert Browning, My Last Duchess (1842), 
courtesy of Project Gutenberg. 
Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” is a quintessential example of the dramatic monologue. The first-person speaker is a duke who hints at the murder of his last wife, even as he arranges a new marriage. The dramatic monologue was a form later used by T. S. Eliot (see “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”).

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