T. S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot (1888- 1965) was one of the most influential poets of the 20th century and a recipient of the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature for his “outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry.” He was also an essayist as well as a literary critic.
Professor Emerita of Literature at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL, Jewel Spears Brooker authored and edited a number of scholarly books about T. S. Eliot.
Q: You are Professor Emerita of Literature at Eckerd College, and the author and/or editor of eight books, including T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews and Mastery and Escape: T. S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism. What initially drew you to the works of T. S. Eliot? What, in your opinion, makes his poetry worthy of study?
A: I was 17 when I first read T. S. Eliot. In retrospect, I can see that I was drawn by an awareness that this august poet was actually speaking to me, a teenager in Kentucky, expressing my desire to spread my wings, my fear of flying, my need to speak, and my fear of language. My response was similar to one that Eliot described in 1919 when recalling his early attraction to the French poet Jules Laforgue. Eliot comments on the marvelous luck of encountering in one’s youth a writer with whom one immediately recognizes “a feeling of profound kinship, . . . when a young writer is seized with his first passion of this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks even, from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person. The imperative intimacy arouses for the first time a real, an unshakeable confidence.” This sort of encounter constitutes a “recognition” in the Shakespearean sense, an experience that “first introduces one to oneself.”
In reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock for the first time, I experienced this sense of “imperative intimacy,” in which one is suddenly introduced to oneself. I was struck by at least two aspects of the voice emanating from the poem, both related to my emerging sense of myself. The first relates to Prufrock’s struggle to cope with the conflict between his feelings and his thoughts. He is tormented by an awareness that his thoughts censure his feelings, and his feelings subvert his thoughts. He probes and rejects various identities; he is not Lazarus, not Hamlet, not even a crab “scuttling across the floors of ancient seas.” The second relates to his sense of alienation. Prufrock is not only isolated from himself, but from others as well. He must “prepare a face to meet the faces that [he] meets;” when he enters a room, he sees himself through the eyes of women who are there. He feels that he is being reduced to a “formulated phrase” and pinned to the bulletin board of clichés in their minds. Prufrock’s attempt to say what he means haunted me when I was 17, and, in a slightly different way, haunts me still.
Two of the many things that make Eliot worthy of study can be illustrated by The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The first is that he presents a portrait of a distinctly modern individual, a self-conscious intellectual tormented by self-analysis, a man who (like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) thinks himself into paralysis and madness. The second is that this character raises “overwhelming questions,” as Prufrock puts it, about human nature, about what it means to have both a head and a body.
Q: Along with Joseph Bentley, you co-authored Reading The Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation. What made you decide to write an entire book focused on this poem in particular? How would you describe The Waste Land’s value both as a poem and as a point in Eliot’s overall legacy?
A: Before writing this book, Joseph Bentley and I had spent years teaching and reading The Waste Land. We knew from experience that it captivated and changed students; as literary critics, we knew of its stature as a monument of modernism. Our motivation was a passion for sharing this challenging but immensely rewarding work, for enabling others to know what we knew and perhaps to love what we loved.
The importance of The Waste Land is inseparable from its reflection of a moment of crisis in the history of Western civilization. Written in the aftermath of the Great War (1914–18), it vividly portrays the effects of this unprecedented catastrophe–in the lives of individuals, families, and nations, but also in nature and culture. But The Waste Land is also a personal work; as such, it records the psychological and spiritual breakdown suffered by the poet and his friends who lived amongst falling bombs. The structure of the poem, which consists of an arrangement of fragments of life, art, and religion, reflects the horror of history in tatters. A striking example of the thematic/structural synthesis can be seen in the montage of collapsing cities of part V: “Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal.” This composite “Unreal City” includes cradles of Western civilization and capitals of combatants in the Great War.
For the poem’s first readers, the title image suggested the barren land of the Western Front, an image that millions knew first hand and millions more saw almost daily in newspapers. But even for contemporaries, the image reached beyond the landscape in France to a landscape of the soul. Eliot universalized this image of desolation and extended his theme throughout history by anchoring his poem in a myth that has existed in one version or another for millennia and in virtually all cultures. This myth deals with the response of ancient agricultural peoples to seasonal cycles of decline and death in fall and winter, and rebirth and flourishing in spring and summer. The trans-cultural myth tells of a land in which crops fail and children and cattle are stillborn. Because the king and his people (like the head and the body) are integrally connected, his fate determines theirs. When he weakens or becomes impotent, they too get sick or become barren. Eliot uses fragments of this myth to paint a picture of an urban waste land with weak leaders and compliant citizens who lead unfruitful lives, unblessed by human love and unredeemed by any belief that could restore meaning.
The Waste Land has five sections, each of which combines fragments of ancient myth and modern life. The first, “The Burial of the Dead,” presents a world in which “April is the cruellest month.” In contemporary Europe, April had become the season of death, for that was the time of the spring offensive on the Western Front; in the postwar spring, Easter mocks the living dead on the streets of London and Paris. The second section, “A Game of Chess,” depicts in parallel portraits two marriages, one middle class, and one working class. The former is childless, the latter is physically fruitful; both are spiritually barren. The portraits are enriched with embedded love stories from myth and history (Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, Terus and Philomel, Antony, and Cleopatra). The third section, “The Fire Sermon,” introduces Tiresias, a weary prophet who witnessed the fall of King Oedipus and now watches with resignation a mechanical sexual encounter between two office workers. The fourth, “Death by Water,” presents a drowned sailor, his death an ironic version of Christian baptism. The last, “What the Thunder Says,” projects longing for relief while mixing memories of a resurrected Christ and an Indian nature God with fragments of contemporary despair. The Waste Land ends with fragments of an Eastern benediction, “Shantih shantih shantih” (Peace, peace, peace).
The Waste Land is the premier poem of the century not only because it galvanized European and American readers in the 1920s, but also because it speaks to readers across the decades and around the world. According to literary critic Richard Ellmann, educated readers in Asia and Africa are more likely to know The Waste Land than any poem in their own language. The questions it raises and the form in which it presents them are endlessly resonant.
Q: You’ve been teaching poetry since 1981, and in 1988 you edited Approaches to Teaching Eliot’s Poetry and Plays. What are some common difficulties that students and new readers encounter when trying to interpret Eliot’s work? Which of his poems would you recommend as a “starting point” for those interested in exploring Eliot’s writing?
A: Some readers are intimidated by Eliot’s knowledge and by the form of his poems. Regarding form: many readers expect a work of literature to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. But modernist writers undercut this narrative expectation in two ways. The first, evident in Prufrock, is that the poem is organized as a flow of consciousness, with psychological rather than narrative coherence. The second, evident in The Waste Land, is that the poem consists of juxtaposed non-chronological elements that force the reader to collaborate in the creation of coherence. The other difficulty is that Eliot, an exceptionally learned poet, embeds references to classical and modern literature in his poems. Most of his allusions, however, are not to esoterica, but to texts that are part of our shared cultural heritage, such as the Bible and Shakespeare. One of the rewarding things about reading Eliot is that he leads us to review the story of Lazarus or of Hamlet and to reconsider the familiar in an unfamiliar context. But even readers who do not recognize Biblical or Shakespearean allusions will know fragments such as “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down” and in beginning with that single line can move to a complex understanding of the poem.
The pedagogical approach that works best for me is interdisciplinary. I relate Eliot’s poetry to the other arts (including cinema), contemporary popular culture, the Great War, classical mythology, and more. His poetry developed in three stages, more or less parallel to stages one can see in modern painting, so I sometimes introduce him by focusing on parallels between poetry and painting. The early poems (1909–11) may be compared to Expressionism, the postwar poems (1919–25) to Cubism, and the late poems (1927–42) to Neoplasticism. Among the artists whose work exemplifies these stages are Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, and Piet Mondrian.
Eliot’s early poems are preoccupied with existential issues. I introduce The Love Song by inviting students to look at Munch’s “The Scream.” They are unanimous in seeing it not as a painting of the sunset or of a person standing on a bridge, but as a portrait of a feeling—anxiety or depression. I then ask them to consider the opening lines of Prufrock—“Let us go, then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” With Munch’s iconic painting before them, they are quick to see that The Love Song is not a description of the sky or the evening, but of the state of mind of the speaker.
Eliot’s middle poems are preoccupied with history and can be seen as roughly Cubist, that is, they dissect history and reassemble fragments to provoke analysis and comparison. In a discussion of The Waste Land, I sometimes invite students to look at a painting such as Picasso’s “The Weeping Woman.” I then have them identify the numerous fragmentary allusions to women in A Game of Chess (e.g., Eve, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Eliot’s wife, women from the local pub, and more). These fragments generate a Cubist portrait of a woman, which provides the basis for consideration of the endlessly complex representations of the female in art and history.
Eliot’s late poems, concerned with philosophical and religious issues, can be compared to Piet Mondrian’s abstract compositions of primary colors on a grid of black lines. In Four Quartets, primarily written during the Second World War, Eliot creates a dance of opposites on a “grid” of the four seasons and the four elements. The Waste Land is a heap of broken images; Four Quartets consists of windows through which one catches echoes of harmony and glimpses of a garden of reconciliation where “the fire and the rose are one.”
Q: Throughout Mastery and Escape, you refer to the “modernist obsession with history.” How does Eliot’s work characterize this particular aspect of modernism? What role did history and current events play in shaping Eliot’s poetry?
A: This issue is addressed to some extent in the comments above on The Waste Land. Briefly, the situation is that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the dominant view was one of progress. Rooted in an extension of evolutionary science into social theory, the view of history was optimistic and utopian. This view came crashing to earth in the summer of 1914 with the beginning of the Great War, a catastrophe that lasted four years, ending in the slaughter of nine million young soldiers, many more civilians, and devastating not only the survivors but also nature and culture in much of the world. As Eliot says in Sweeney Erect, a dark poem written at the end of the war: in the 19th-century, history was viewed by Emerson as the “lengthened shadow” of great men, but now we see only “the silhouette / Of Sweeney straddled in the sun.” Sweeney is a murderous and sexually voracious apelike man featured in several Eliot poems. In another image, this one from Gerontion, also written at the end of the war, Eliot presents history as a giant and “cunning” whore who “deceives with whispering ambitions, / Guides us by vanities . . . gives when our attention is distracted / and what she gives, gives with such supple confusions / That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late / What’s not believed in.” The conviction that “history” had tricked us into believing a lie continues in The Waste Land, published in 1922; the same year, in Ulysses, James Joyce writes, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The obsession with history is integrally related to the realization that the knowledge we believed would lead to endless summer instead led to the corpse-lined trenches and the unreal city of prowling zombies.
In the mid-1920s, Eliot’s desire to escape from history began to change. As he moved towards his conversion in 1927, he began to reflect on the Christian view that the center of history is the Incarnation, in which Christ humbled himself and entered history as the man Jesus, subjecting himself to time, change, and death. The complex view presented in Eliot’s later poetry, most notably in Four Quartets, is that although one cannot (and should not) attempt to escape from history, it is possible for a person who accepts his existence “in time” to experience moments that are timeless and beyond the time-ridden world of contemporary history.
Q: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of Eliot’s earliest poems, as well as one of his most famous. In what ways does The Love Song exhibit the themes and characteristics that would become emblematic of Eliot’s poetry? How does this poem fit into Eliot’s overall legacy?
A: This question is addressed above in comments on The Love Song. Let me only add that, in addition to its importance in Eliot’s oeuvre, the poem marks one of the turning points in the history of poetry. The modernist movement in poetry begins with this poem. Before Prufrock, there is Romanticism; after, there is Modernism. A shorthand way of making this point would be to compare the image of the evening in William Wordsworth’s It is a Beauteous Evening with the opening image in The Love Song. The former evokes holiness, loveliness, and peace; the latter (comparing the evening to a patient etherized upon a table) evokes illness, inertia, and madness. Another quick way of understanding the significance of the poem is suggested by the title, which ironizes itself, cracks itself down the middle, and announces its modernity. The first half suggests a major romantic genre and brings to mind the endless love songs of the 19th century. The second half, which gives the name of the “singer / lover,” reveals that he can neither love nor sing. One can imagine a Freddie or an Alfie singing a love song, but not a “J. Alfred Prufrock.” Almost single-handedly, this title wrings the neck of Romanticism.
Q: Many of Eliot’s poems take on an almost lyrical quality. In 1942, in a lecture entitled “The Music of Poetry,” he said that “the music of poetry is not something that exists apart from the meaning.” What did he mean by this? What exactly is “the music of poetry” and how did music influence Eliot’s writing?
A: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the most important movements in the arts was Aestheticism. The slogan of this movement, as formulated by Walter Pater in Studies of the Renaissance, was “art for art’s sake.” A central tenet, also from Pater, was that “All art aspires to the condition of music.” The idea is that art exists for its own sake, not as an adjunct to something else, not for use in promoting an agenda. Poetry should be as immune to paraphrase as a string quartet by Mozart. The notion that a poem can be paraphrased is, according to the French poet Charles Baudelaire, a heresy; poetry, like music, said Stéphane Mallarmé, should be “useless.”
Although it is clear that the early Eliot was attentive to both meaning and music, he was nevertheless influenced by the Aesthetes—the cult of beauty. To realize the extent of his association of poetry with music, one need only look at his titles, including The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Preludes, Rhapsody on a Windy Night, First Caprice in North Cambridge, Interlude in London, Opera, and Four Quartets.
The Music of Poetry is a late essay (1942), contemporaneous with Four Quartets, a poetic sequence inspired in part by the late quartets of Beethoven. It is in part a cautionary note regarding the Quartets, and in part a reflection on Aestheticism. The musical analogy, Eliot acknowledges, is important, but should not be pushed too far. The music of poetry is not pure music and cannot be fully grasped apart from the meaning of words, for the meaning is part of the music and the music is part of the meaning. Eliot maintains that “only a part of the meaning can be conveyed in paraphrase” because “the poet is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.” To approach those frontiers, one must be sensitive to the music of poetry, the sound of sense.
Q: While he will probably always be best known for his poetry, Eliot was also an accomplished literary critic and the author of several plays including Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), and The Cocktail Party (1950). What, in your opinion, is the importance of Eliot’s work in the theater? What can students learn from studying his plays?
A: Eliot is the 20th-century representative of an important category in English literary history–critics who were themselves, major literary artists. His lineage as a poet-critic includes Sir Philip Sidney, John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold. His most important essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919), is an essential reference point in modern criticism. Whereas earlier critics had defended either tradition (the classical view) or the individual talent (the romantic), he argued that both were not only necessary but also complementary. This is one of a large number of wide-ranging essays written between 1916 and the middle 1950s. Eliot’s essays had a formative effect on modern taste, especially his analysis and defense of 17th-century drama and poetry. His work includes influential essays on illustrious ancestors such as Dante and Shakespeare, contemporaries such as Joyce, Ezra Pound, and W. B. Yeats, as well as essays on the nature of poetry and drama. Some of his essays, such as the discussion of Joyce’s Ulysses, originated as reviews; others, such as The Music of Poetry and the tribute to Yeats, originated as lectures.
Eliot was interested in drama from the very beginning of his career. Many of his best essays are on drama, and most of his early poems, including The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Portrait of a Lady, are internal debates featuring different aspects of the self in conflict. The Waste Land is an arrangement of many voices from different times and cultures. His poems, in fact, are sometimes performed as mini-dramas.
The most important dramatists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (for instance, Henrik Ibsen or Anton Chekhov) wrote in prose. Eliot’s ambition, often expressed in his essays, was to help rejuvenate poetic drama by re-connecting it with its roots in ancient ritual. Believing poetry was more resonant than prose, he wrote all of his plays in verse, not the verse of Shakespeare or John Dryden, but verse born in the 20th century. His first full-length play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935), dramatized the story of the murder of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. This historical drama, a study of martyrdom, was performed in the Cathedral for an audience that was primarily Christian. His subsequent plays, however, were social comedies in contemporary settings for theaters in the heart of London and New York. All include ancient myth in the background, but remain focused on contemporary life. Eliot’s dramas, especially Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party, are still frequently performed. His most important contributions to 20th-century drama are his essays on classical and modern plays, and his attempts to bring poetry and myth back to the theater.
Q: Eliot was also the founder and editor of The Criterion, a literary review that ran from 1922 to 1939. What prompted him to start the journal, and what sort of impact did it have on his writing?
A; In 1919, French poet Paul Valéry said that the mind of Europe was exhibiting all the symptoms of a nervous breakdown, a mental collapse of historic proportions. The same year, in Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot asserted the importance of trying to rehabilitate it. “The mind of Europe, the mind of [one’s] own country . . . is a mind . . . more important than [one’s] own private mind.” He argued that the mind of Europe could be salvaged, beginning with literature and extending to politics and related fields such as economics. In founding The Criterion in 1922, he hoped to contribute to the reintegration of the Western mind by providing a forum in which his contemporaries could transcend their private minds and engage in a conversation across national and ideological boundaries. To assist in this project, he assembled distinguished writers from both sides of the cataclysm, including Virginia Woolf, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, Jacques Maritain, Wilhelm Worringer, and Max Scheler.
The optimism with which The Criterion began faded in the 1920s and collapsed in the 1930s as it became clear that “the war to end all wars” was only part one of a greater catastrophe. In his valedictory column (“Last Words”) in 1939, Eliot confessed that he was so depressed by the “grave dangers” of the political situation that he simply could not continue. Hitler was on the move; the time for rejuvenation through literature had passed. “For myself, a right political philosophy [has come] to imply a right theology–and right economics to depend upon right ethics.”
The Criterion preserves a long and important conversation on vital elements of European intellectual life in the period l’entre deux guerres (between the two wars). For the 16 years that Eliot edited the review, he was the leader of an extraordinary community of letters, a community he himself generated and sustained. His immersion in the intellectual history of his time was to bear fruit in his remaining writings, primarily the social criticism (The Idea of a Christian Society) and late poetry (Four Quartets).
Q: Your essay for Paul Douglass’ book T. S. Eliot, Dante, and the Idea of Europe covers Eliot’s early exposure to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. The Italian poet’s influence can be seen throughout Eliot’s work, including The Love Song, The Waste Land, and Four Quartets. What was it about Dante’s poetry that so appealed to Eliot? What prompted him to allude to Dante over so many years?
A: In “What Dante Means to Me” (1950), Eliot says that Dante had influenced him more than any other writer. This comment is corroborated by his poetry, which begins and ends with Dante. The epigraph of Eliot’s first major poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, is a voice emanating from tongues of flame in the depths of the Inferno. In The Waste Land, a man observes crowds flowing over London Bridge, and thinks of Dante’s “I had not thought death had undone so many.” The coda of Eliot’s last major poem, Little Gidding (the last Quartet), alludes to the flames of Dante’s purgatory and the rose of his paradise. “All shall be well . . . When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.”
These three poems are good reference points for understanding three important dimensions of Eliot’s attachment to Dante. The first is psychological; Prufrock is torn between thoughts and feelings, and Dante illustrates how it is possible to think one’s feelings and feel one’s thoughts. Dante’s image of gluttony, for example, enables the reader to see and smell what is essentially an idea. The second, evident in The Waste Land, is aesthetic, and it has to do with Eliot’s attempt as an artist to emulate Dante. And the third, evident in the Quartets, is primarily intellectual and moral, and it has to do with the achievement of social and spiritual unification through the cultivation of humility.
Q: You’ve referred to Four Quartets, Eliot’s final major poem, as “the summit of his achievement”, and indeed this was the work for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. In what ways does Four Quartets represent the culmination of Eliot’s writing, and how does it build upon his earlier ideas?
A: Four Quartets, a long meditation on the meaning of being in time and the possibility of being redeemed from time, is Eliot’s last major work. It consists of four parallel poems, published individually between 1935 and 1942, and as a sequence in 1943. The series seeks to capture those rare moments in which one is conscious of the intersections between time and eternity. It draws upon decades of Eliot’s reflection on idealist philosophy, Eastern religion, Christian mysticism, and the language of poetry; it also draws upon his experience in contemporary history (personal distress, including a failed marriage, and public disasters, including two world wars and a world depression). A major idea, contained in the epigraph from Heraclitus, is that the way up and the way down are one and the same. At once thematic and structural, this motif suggests that the ascent to wisdom and to God requires an emptying of the senses and a descent into darkness. The religious content, universal in the beginning, gradually coalesces through allusions to the Bible, Dante, St. John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich into a Christian revelation of the Logos.
The individual poems in Four Quartets have much in common. Each is named for a particular place; each has five parts and is related to one of the four seasons and one of the four elements. Every part has a similar structure: part one consists of a meditation on time and place suggested in part by the place named in its title; part two begins with a highly symbolic lyric, followed by a prosaic meditation; part three suggests a horizontal journey in time and a vertical journey into the self; part four is a lyrical prayer; and part five is a meditation on time and art, concluding with a return to the beginning. As suggested by the title, the sequence is analogous to a musical composition with contrapuntal arrangements of ideas, symbols, and themes.
The first Quartet, Burnt Norton, is named for an English house with a rose garden visited by Eliot in the summer of 1934. It is associated with spring and with the element of air. The second, East Coker, is named for the English village from which Eliot’s ancestors set out for the New World in the 17th century and to which his ashes were to be returned. It is associated with summer and with the earth. The third, The Dry Salvages, is named for a group of rocks in the north Atlantic near the Massachusetts coast, where Eliot spent his boyhood summers; it also contains descriptions of the Mississippi River near his childhood home in St. Louis. It is associated with autumn and with water. The final poem, Little Gidding, is named for a religious community that became a sanctuary during the 17th century English Civil War. Composed in 1942 during the bombing of London, Little Gidding is a meditation on wartime suffering and the providence of God. It incorporates the accumulated wisdom of Christian mystics and poets, and is associated with fire and with winter. The last movement completes both the individual poem and the four-part sequence by recapitulating major themes and returning to the images of Burnt Norton, the first poem in the series.