Thomas Stearne Eliot
Life and works
He was born in Missouri, U.S.A., but he came from an English family and his cultural background was first English, then European. He took his degree at Harvard, but then he went to study in Paris, at the Sorbonne, and attended lectures by Henry Bergson. He also read the works of the French Symbolist poets. In 1915 he settled in London and began to publish philosophical essays. In 1917 the collection of poems Prufrock and Other Observations made him famous. He became the director for the publishing firm Faber & Faber and helped young avant-garde poets to publish their works. His wife Vivien had serious mental problems and Eliot suffered from the strain of his marriage. In Switzerland he underwent some psychological treatment and finished writing The Waste Land.
“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
(from The Waste Land, 111-114)
The Waste Land was published in 1922. Five years later he became a British citizen and joined the Church of England. Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets are his collections of religious poems. He committed his wife to a mental asylum, where she died after nine years. He wrote two plays, Murder in the Cathedral and Family Reunion.
First period: pessimistic vision of the world (Prufrock and Other Observations, The Waste Land).
Second period: purification, hope and joy (The Journey of the Magi, Ash Wednesday, Four Quartets).
Plays: Murder in the Cathedral, on St. Thomas Becket’s assassination. Family Reunion, on a man haunted by the Furies. The plays are written in verse and have choruses, like Greek tragedies.
The Sacred Wood, On Poetry and Poets; his critical essays are both on writers of the present and the past and on the theory of poetry. He believed the artist has to be impersonal. The characters he portrays in the works of his first period are contemporary characters whose experience becomes universal.
Modern/T. S. Eliot’s world:Chaotic, Futile, Pessimistic, Unstable, Loss of faith, Collapse of moral values, Confused sense of identity.
19th-century world:Ordered, Meaningful, Optimistic, Stable, Faith, Collapse of moral values, Morality/Values, Clear sense of identity
The waste land
One or sometimes more than one traveler/s cross a waste land in search of water. The journey ends at the river Gange
I – The Burial of the Dead: the opposition between sterility and fertility.
II – A Game of Chess: present squalor juxtaposed to past, but ambiguous, splendour .
III – The Fire Sermon: present alienation represented through a mechanical sexual intercourse.
IV – Death by Water: a spiritual shipwreck.
V – What the Thunder Said: through references to religions of the East and of the West a possible solution is suggested in the form of mutual human sympathy.
The long poem is composed by a series of fragments, thoughts, memories, impressions, feelings, hallucinations, situations.
There seems to be one main character, who takes on multiple personalities: he is a contemporary traveler, sometimes accompanied by other travelers, sometimes alone, he is Tyresias, who experienced blindness and the life of two sexes, he is the knight in search of the Holy Grail. As a consequence the narrator is expressed in the 1st person, he changes from one section to the other, according to the personality he takes on.
Time and setting
The poem is set sometimes in the past, sometimes in the present. The settings vary from contemporary London to the past of the Middle Ages, to Middle Europe before and after the war.
•The journey: from spiritual paralysis through a waste land to the expectation of rebirth.
•Contrast between fertility of the past and sterility of the present, often symbolized by the contrast rock/water.
The concepts of history and tradition:
History consists of the repetition of the same events and the tradition of the past is alive in the present. The poetic tradition consists of all the poems written in the past in the world. References to and quotations from literary works and religious texts of different cultures. Coexistence of the present and the past (like in the mind) and continuous shifts of time and space (like in the mind due to the free association of ideas).
The mythical method
In the past myths had a deep meaning they have lost today. Contemporary futility and anarchy can be given an order and controlled only giving the old myths new life, rediscovering the meaning they still have as they are part of the collective unconscious. The fragments of The Waste Land acquire order and meaning in the framework of myths.
“It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history […] Instead of the narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.”
(T. S. Eliot, from Ulysses, Order and Myth, 1923)
Mixture of poetic styles, from blank verse to heroic couplet to free verse, reproducing the chaos of present civilization. Use of quotations in different languages.
“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
Objective correlative: an external equivalent for an internal state of mind; thus any object, scene, event, or situation that may be said to stand for or evoke a given mood or emotion, as opposed to a direct subjective expression of it. An example of objective correlative in The Waste Land: instead of saying that the traveler/s experiment a state of psychological sterility, Eliot shows them as they wander in a dry, deserted and waste land.
Peter Barry in his book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory compares the objective correlative to mimesis, referring to Plato and Aristotle’s contrast between mimesis and diegesis: mimesis shows, rather than tells, by means of directly representing an action that is enacted. Diegesis is the telling of the story by a narrator.