T. S. Eliot

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

It takes a special kind of person to capture the identity of the struggles of life through a pen and piece of paper.  Many have tried to use tangible words and poetry to express the intangible, to better understand and shed light on the world.  One of the people I believe did this the best was T. S. Eliot.  A master in the art of language and eloquence, Eliot strove to bring a new perspective to the literary circles with his modernist thinking and beautiful, almost haunting, way of engaging the imagination.  Today, I’d like to show you more about my favorite poet, T. S. Eliot, and some of his most famous pieces and how his style and interpretations set the foundation for a new change in literature.

Thomas Sterns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of six children.  As a boy, he learned to speak Latin, Greek, French and German, which would later help him in his extensive vocabulary.  At the age of fourteen, under the influence of works he was studying in school, he began to write his first pieces of poetry.  Unfortunately, these beginning pieces of art were destroyed, as Eliot believed that he had no real poetic talent.  Later in life, he studied philosophy at Harvard and went on to attend Oxford, which is where I hope to one day get my own PhD degree.

In 1922, he published what is arguably his most famous work, and my favorite: "The Waste Land."  It was revolutionary in that it opened up a new world of ideals and philosophies.  This is one of only five hundred books of this poem hat includes Eliot’s original lengthy manuscript and the editing notes from Ezra Pound.  His wife published this version posthumously and it is a rare collector’s edition.   "The Waste Land" begins with these iconic words:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

One very important thing to understand about Eliot’s style, especially in this piece, is that he was a Modernist, meaning that he viewed the world very literally.  The Modernism style emerged when people began to doubt preconceived ideas about themselves and about the world.  There was a feeling of betrayal and distrust in authority figures and in established traditions.  In hopes of capturing these feelings and new mindsets, poets like Ezra Pound and Eliot made their most famous contributions to the world of literature.

Coming out of the strict Edwardian era, he challenged masculine identity and tried to illuminate the low depravity of mankind.  The audience of his readers was just recovering from the horrors of World War I and this poem appears to be a response to many of the notions that were surfacing.  Eliot was apparently trying to make the point that there was a universal damaged psyche among humanity.   The title also comes from a belief that the modern world was becoming infertile, dried up and empty.

He expresses many of these things through a rather fragmented poetic style.  He collages different rhythms, meters and tones to create the image of the dysfunctional state of mankind.  In an attempt to understand the modern world, he turned to the roots of Greek and Latin and specifically sought to make his poetry intricate and more difficult to comprehend.  As one of the most popular poets of his day, he strove to defy cultural parameters and to be intellectually and artistically different.

The specific styles that Eliot used is difficult to describe, as appeared to meander with no real direction or specification.  Also, the plot of "The Waste Land" is nonlinear and the interwoven story lines are seemingly disconnected.  Furthermore, it does not have a specific beginning, climax and end.  He did, however, make use of juxtaposition, which means that he would place certain phrases or passages together to have a contrasting effect.  It is my opinion that the different sections that make up "The Waste Land" are there each as an individual piece of a puzzle.  They play off of each other.  It begins with a nostalgic woman recalling her past.  Then it suddenly jumps to two women in a pub, one of high society and one from the slums.  The next section is derived from a Buddhist sermon about abstinence.  The next part tells of a man who has forgotten his worldly cares and who was drowned, embracing his mortality.  The last piece of the poem ends with a dramatic description of decaying cities with thunder rolling ominously.  When strung together, all of these symbolize emptiness, loneliness and the inability to depend upon ourselves.

I believe that, as one of the most popular Modernists, Eliot strove to connect the relationship between the reality and the unknown and he used his words as a mirror to reflect how he felt. Today, T. S. Eliot remains a literary legend.  By incorporating specific techniques such as juxtaposition, he showed that there should be no limit to what is art while also expressing his philosophy and worldview.  The Nobel Prize association says of Eliot, “Never compromising either with the public or indeed with language itself, he has followed his belief that poetry should aim at a representation of the complexities of modern civilization in language and that such representation necessarily leads to difficult poetry.”

One of my favorite quotes from Eliot describes his perception of poetry and its importance.  “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion.  It is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality.”  Here he describes the freedom he found through picking up a pen and writing.  He truly was that special kind of person, one who could capture the power of the written word and gain the love and attention of so many.

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