You are on page 1of 2


Influence beyond style, beyond innovation

T.S. Eliots body of work, despite its modest size, has had an enormous influence, both on Eliots contemporaries and those writing in the wake of the modernist poetic tradition, of which Eliot is arguably at the centre. Eliots own aesthetic project was a reaction against the languid, sentimental poetry of the late 19th century, stressing, for example in The Metaphysical Poets (1921), the use of innovative but precise imagery, a method exemplified by the 17th century Metaphysicals, of whose poetry he remarks that the meaning is clear, the language simple and elegant simple and pure (Eliot, SP, 62). At the same time, Eliots poetry is almost deliberately impenetrable, this a commitment to the principle that the poetry of his erathat is, of a fraught, war-ravaged modernity must be difficult (65). To this end, there arose the heavily literate and fragmentary bricolage that has come to define Eliots style. In entirely literary-historical terms, then, Eliots influence might be thought of mostly in terms of stylistic innovation, part of a larger, modernist avant-garde. Yet, in William Empsons perhaps misleadingly-titled The Style of the Master (1948), Empson opens with a startling statement, not so much an appraisal of Eliots stylistic and aesthetic contributions to English poetry than a strange, ambivalent personal testimony. Empson writes: I feel, like most other verse writers of my generation, that I do not know for certain how much of my own mind he invented (Empson, 152, emphasis mine). One implication of Empsons confession, in which he attributes, perhaps nervously, the very foundations of his thinking to Eliot, is the possibility that, beyond the radical, insistent modernness of Eliots style exists something else that is arresting about his poetry, something which can be said to operate on the deepest structures of thought and experience. As Empson goes on to say, Eliot has a very penetrating influence, perhaps not unlike an east wind (ibid): the effect is mental, perhaps even spiritual. Empsons admission of an uneasy indebtedness echoes a sentiment Eliot expresses in his 1930 essay on Charles Baudelaire, whom he credits with having, through refining a vocabulary of poetic images for the demands contemporary life, created a mode of release and expression for other men. For Eliot, Baudelaires greatest achievement was an invention of language (Eliot, SP, 234, emphasis mine). Here, as with Empsons mystical east wind, Baudelaire, for Eliot, had a powerful, constituting influence. Eliot would remark in a later essay, What Dante Means to Me (1959) that reading Baudelaire taught him that the source for new poetry might be found in what had been regarded hitherto as the impossible, the sterile, the intractably unpoetic (Eliot, TCTC, 126). The sense here is that Baudelaires new language enabled Eliots poetry, and is perhaps

part of the animating force behind it, that which brings to life, to first intensity, (SP, 234) hitherto dead or enervated materials. What Baudelaire opened to Eliot, essentially, were the poetic possibilities of the cityscape, the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis which, through Baudelaires poetic treatment, became elevated to a new, phantasmagorical plane (TCTC, 126). Yet, as William Chapman Sharpe suggests, this availability of a new poetic vocabulary alone did not enable Eliot to fecundate the citys barren images (114). Instead, for Sharpe, Eliots treatment of the cityscape first required a complex inter-textual relationship between the elder poets genius and Eliots own lived experience (115), a fertile relation that Eliot in his Tradition and the Individual Talent calls a conformity between the old and the new, through which the past [is] altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past (SP, 39). The key idea here is how Eliots own urban experiences catalysed his inheritance of an inventory of sterile images to produce an intense, poetic city. It is the lived experience that forms the basis of this papers inquiry, though this is not to suggest a brand of solely biographical analysis, against which Empson returns, here, as a point of departure. The effect Eliot had on Empson and his contemporaries, that inventive, perhaps mythic or spiritual, but nonetheless vague structuring force, might be extrapolated to a general sense of the poetrys powerful resonance to the present day. This vagueness might be helpfully elucidated by a consideration of the lived experience as it finds it way into the poetry. Could Empson and his contemporaries, by claiming to have been invented by Eliot, in fact have seen a common lived experience in Eliots poetry, and that like Baudelaire to Eliot, this encounter gave them a new language for living in their moments? Could, following from this, the resonance of Eliots poetry be traced to a writing, at the poetrys deepest structures, of an authentic ontological reality? These questions lead to the city, the theatre of modern experience, in which are played out various mental and spiritual dramas. In the paradigmatic poet of the city, Baudelaire, Eliot found both a way to incorporate the city into his poetry (a strategic and innovative use of imagery), and a way to cope with (or, at least, express) the predicament of urban living. The second of these, the way in which the poetry grapples with the urban predicament, is less clearly expressed than the first, but this predicament is arguably that which makes Eliots poetry unique, and has the mysterious, if not troubling, qualities of Empsons east wind. ii. Situating Eliot in a tradition of city writing

[Reference Monograph: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, VerlaineThe City] To Eliots mind,