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encountered in college, in a book by Arthur Symons called The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It is easy to unde rstand why a young aspiring poet would want to imitate these glamorous bohemian figures, but their ultimate effect on his poetry is perhaps less profound than h e claimed. While he took from them their ability to infuse poetry with high inte llectualism while maintaining a sensuousness of language, Eliot also developed a great deal that was new and original. His early works, like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, draw on a wide range of cultural reference to depict a modern world that is in ruins yet somehow beautiful and deeply meaning ful. Eliot uses techniques like pastiche and juxtaposition to make his points wi thout having to argue them explicitly. As Ezra Pound once famously said, Eliot t ruly did “modernize himself.” In addition to showcasing a variety of poetic innovati ons, Eliot’s early poetry also develops a series of characters who fit the type of the modern man as described by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and others of Eliot’s contem poraries. The title character of “Prufrock” is a perfect example: solitary, neurasth enic, overly intellectual, and utterly incapable of expressing himself to the ou tside world. As Eliot grew older, and particularly after he converted to Christianity, his po etry changed. The later poems emphasize depth of analysis over breadth of allusi on; they simultaneously become more hopeful in tone: Thus, a work such as Four Q uartets explores more philosophical territory and offers propositions instead of nihilism. The experiences of living in England during World War II inform the Q uartets, which address issues of time, experience, mortality, and art. Rather th an lamenting the ruin of modern culture and seeking redemption in the cultural p ast, as The Waste Land does, the quartets offer ways around human limits through art and spirituality. The pastiche of the earlier works is replaced by philosop hy and logic, and the formal experiments of his early years are put aside in fav or of a new language consciousness, which emphasizes the sounds and other physic al properties of words to create musical, dramatic, and other subtle effects. However, while Eliot’s poetry underwent significance transformations over the cour se of his career, his poems also bear many unifying aspects: all of Eliot’s poetry is marked by a conscious desire to bring together the intellectual, the aesthet ic, and the emotional in a way that both honors the past and acknowledges the pr esent. Eliot is always conscious of his own efforts, and he frequently comments on his poetic endeavors in the poems themselves. This humility, which often come s across as melancholy, makes Eliot’s some of the most personal, as well as the mo st intellectually satisfying, poetry in the English language. Themes, Motifs & Symbols Themes The Damaged Psyche of Humanity Like many modernist writers, Eliot wanted his poetry to express the fragile psyc hological state of humanity in the twentieth century. The passing of Victorian i deals and the trauma of World War I challenged cultural notions of masculine ide ntity, causing artists to question the romantic literary ideal of a visionary-po et capable of changing the world through verse. Modernist writers wanted to capt ure their transformed world, which they perceived as fractured, alienated, and d enigrated. Europe lost an entire generation of young men to the horrors of the s o-called Great War, causing a general crisis of masculinity as survivors struggl ed to find their place in a radically altered society. As for England, the after shocks of World War I directly contributed to the dissolution of the British Emp ire. Eliot saw society as paralyzed and wounded, and he imagined that culture wa s crumbling and dissolving. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) demonstrate s this sense of indecisive paralysis as the titular speaker wonders whether he s hould eat a piece of fruit, make a radical change, or if he has the fortitude to keep living. Humanity’s collectively damaged psyche prevented people from communi cating with one another, an idea that Eliot explored in many works, including “A G ame of Chess” (the second part of The Waste Land) and “The Hollow Men.” The Power of Literary History Eliot maintained great reverence for myth and the Western literary canon, and he
Prufrock. and other incidences of nonreproductive sexuality. In the repressive Victori an era of the nineteenth century. is a hermaphrodite—and his powers of prophesy an d transformation are. as if al l of literature constituted a stream in which each new writer must enter and swi m. But the poet must guard against excessive aca demic knowledge and distill only the most essential bits of the past into a poem . and tones within one poetic work was a way for E liot to represent humanity’s damaged psyche and the modern world. “The Love Song of J. bare arms. Eliot also argued that the literary past must be in tegrated into contemporary poetry. due to his male and female genitalia. Alfred Prufrock” reflects the feelings of emasculation experienced by many men as they returned h ome from World War I to find women empowered by their new role as wage earners. thereby enlightening readers. and Eliot reflected those changes in his work. Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 helped usher in a n ew era of excess and forthrightness. The effect of this poetic collage is both a reinterpretation of canonical tex ts and a historical context for his examination of society and humanity. rather than whole texts fro m the canon. a conversation about abortion. and many lines also have long footnotes written by Eliot a s an attempt to explain his references and to encourage his readers to educate t hemselves by delving deeper into his sources. . with its barrage of sensory perceptions. World War I. The Changing Nature of Gender Roles Over the course of Eliot’s life. English women began agitating in earnest for the right to vote in 1918 . further transformed society. humanity’s psyche had been shattered by World War I and by the collapse of th e British Empire. which lasted until 1910. images. se xuality was not discussed or publicly explored.” an essay first published in 1919. E liot praises the literary tradition and states that the best writers are those w ho write with a sense of continuity with those writers who came before. as well as to place his ideas about the cont emporary state of humanity along the spectrum of history. Collaging bits and pieces of dialogue. Critics read the following line from The Waste Land as a statement of Eliot’s poetic project: “These fragments I have shored against my rui ns” (431). Women were allowed to attend school.packed his work full of allusions. prostitution. “t alking of Michelangelo” (14). The Waste Land juxtaposes fragments of various e lements of literary and mythic traditions with scenes and sounds from modern lif e. as peop le felt both increasingly alienated from one another and empowered to break soci al mores. Only the very best new work will subtly shift the stream’s current and thus imp rove the literary tradition. and scholarly exegese s. foreign words. and women who could afford it continued th eir education at those universities that began accepting women in the early twen tieth century. the poem’s central character. A disd ain for unchecked sexuality appears in both “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” (1918) and The Waste Land. Eliot creates a character that embodies wholeness. now called the Edwardian Age. since Eliot includes only parts. gender roles and sexuality became increasingly fl exible. unable to make a decision. Modernist writers created gay and lesbian characters and re-imagi ned masculinity and femininity as characteristics people could assume or shrug o ff rather than as absolute identities dictated by society. Eliot simultaneously lauded the end of the Victorian era and expressed concern a bout the freedoms inherent in the modern age. In “The Tradition and the Individual Talent. scholarly ideas . and a puritanical atmosphere dic tated most social interactions. women were confined to the domestic sphere. footnotes. Using these fragments. quotations. in some sense. Motifs Fragmentation Eliot used fragmentation in his poetry both to demonstrate the chaotic state of modern existence and to juxtapose literary texts against one another. The latter portrays rape. Eliot tries to highlight recurrent themes an d images in the literary tradition. With Tiresias. watches women wander in and out of a room. These echoes and references are fr agments themselves. Nevertheless. Practically every line in The Waste Land echoes an academic work or can onical literary text. and elsewhere admires their downy. and the flappers of the Jazz Age began smoking and drinking alcohol in public. from 1914 to 1918. Tiresias. represented by the two genders coming together in one body. In Eliot’s v iew. formal styles.
as in the case of Phlebas the sailor from The Waste Land. it can also lead to drowning and death. But the Fisher King also stands in for Chris t and other religious figures associated with divine resurrection and rebirth. linked to the Holy Grail legends. or to conceive of images or thoughts. in which a knight quests to find the grail. Trying to process the destruct ion has caused the speaker’s mind to become infertile: his head has been filled wi th straw. Eliot’s scene ec . and water brings relief elsewhere in The Waste Land and in “Li ttle Gidding. While writing his lo ng poem. the impotence or death of the Fishe r King brought unhappiness and famine. Buddhist sp eeches. Eliot saw the Fisher King as symbolic of humanity.E. Eliot drew on From Ritual to Romance. ritual fails as the tool for healing the wasteland. The Fisher King is. wat er provides solace. academic works. thereby teaching h is readers as he writes. West on’s book examined the connections between ancient fertility rites and Christianit y. He filled his poems with references to both the obscure and the well known. in turn. and he is now unable to think properly. and pass by fetid pools of standing water. the two primary methods by which the war was fought. stiffened from rigor mortis. Corpses salute the stars with t heir upraised hands. In his notes to The Waste Land. including following the evolution of the Fisher King into early representatio ns of Jesus Christ as a fish. and the women chattering in “A Game of Chess” represen t an out-of-control sexuality. Eliot’s characters wait for water to quench their thirst. Traditionally. Trench warfare and chemical weapons. watch rivers overflow their banks. religious ritual. Although wate r has the regenerative possibility of restoring life and fertility. including Hindu chants. his impotence causes the land to wither and dry up). cry for rain t o quench the dry earth. Later poems take their images almost exclusively f rom Christianity. water symbolizes both life and death. In The Waste Land. and the figure of Je sus Christ. in which the fertility of the land was linked to the health of t he Fisher King. T he speaker of “What the Thunder Said” fishes from the banks of the Thames toward the end of the poem as the thunder sounds Hindu chants into the air.” but. Prufrock hears the seductive call s of mermaids as he walks along the shore in “The Love Song of J. Infertility Eliot envisioned the modern world as a wasteland. Tiresias represents con fused or ambiguous sexuality. Eliot explains the cruc ial role played by religious symbols and myths. such as the echoes of the Lord’s Prayer in “The Hollow Men” and the retelling of the story of the wise men in “Journey of the Magi” (1927). a wounded figure who could be healed through the sacrifice of an effigy. He drew heavily from ancient fer tility rituals. water can imply baptism. in which neither the land no r the people could conceive. a 1920 book about the legend of t he Holy Grail by Miss Jessie L. robbed of its sexual potency in the modern world and connected to the meaninglessness of urban existence. Traditionally. World War I not only eradicated an entire generat ion of young men in Europe but also ruined the land. Eliot t hus cautions us to beware of simple solutions or cures. 800 B. unable to cope with either reproductive or nonrepro ductive sexuality: the Fisher King represents damaged sexuality (according to my th. the only object capable of healing the land.” the speaker discusses the dead land. decimated plant l ife. for many of his symbols and images. to perceive accurately.). he realizes that a malicio us intent lies behind the sweet voices: the poem concludes “we drown” (131). even as Eliot p resents alternative religious possibilities.Mythic and Religious Ritual Eliot’s tremendous knowledge of myth. and pagan ceremonies. and Eliot draws upon these traditional meanings: water cleanses. Ultimately. and key bo oks in the literary tradition informs every aspect of his poetry. for what looks innocuous might turn out to be very dangerous.” the fourth part of Four Quartets. leaving behind detritus and carnage. Christianity.C. like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey (ca. The Fisher King The Fisher King is the central character in The Waste Land. various characters are sexually frustrated or dysfunctional. Weston. now filled with stone and cacti. Symbols Water In Eliot’s poetry. In “The Hollow Men. Alfred Prufrock.
In The Waste Land.” and “The Love Song of J. which he symbolized using music. implies a song. He believed that high culture. as the title. opera. with various lines repeated as refrains. Eliot blended high culture with low culture by juxtaposi ng lyrics from an opera by Richard Wagner with songs from pubs. was in decline while popular culture was on the r ise. and drama. Eliot was interested in the divide between high and low culture. American ragtime .hoes the scene in the Bible in which Christ performs one of his miracles: Christ manages to feed his multitude of followers by the Sea of Galilee with just a sm all amount of fish. much as the chorus functions in Greek tragedies . Elsewhere Eliot uses lyrics as a kind of chorus. and Australian troops. That poem ends with th e song of mermaids luring humans to their deaths by drowning—a scene that echoes O dysseus’s interactions with the Sirens in the Odyssey. in cluding art. Alfred Prufrock” is. Music thus becomes another way in which Eliot collages and references books from past literary traditions. seconding and echoing the actio n of the poem. Music and Singing Like most modernist writers. Eliot splices nursery rhymes with phrases from the Lord’s Prayer in “The Hollow Men.
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