Thomas Stearns ELIOT
Born in St. Louis MO in 1888, he was educated at Harvard. He studied John Donne and Dante, praised by Eliot for his clear visual images, the lucidity of style and his force of compression. In 1910 he went to Paris and he read some works of the French symbolists; later he came back to Harvard and he took a degree in philosophy. At the outbreak of First World War, he settled in London, working as a clerk and publishing philosophy essays. After a collection of poems, he edited a magazine of European literature and in 1925 he became director of the publishers Faber and Faber, encouraging young poets such as Ezra Pound. His wife Vivien was in poor health and Eliot proved an intense emotional strain; he spent some time in a Swiss sanatorium in Lausanne, where he finished The Waste Land. Poetry was for him the only refuge to express the horror of his unhappy home life. This poem was published in 1922 after the reducing work of Ezra Pound, “the best craftsman” (← quotation from Dante’s Purgatory). In 1927 he became a British citizen and he defined himself as “classicist in literature, monarchist in politics, Anglo-Catholic in religion”. After the separation from his wife, Vivien died and Eliot felt a big sense of guilty “hell is in my bones”. After receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, he died in London.
WORKS - Divided into before and after the conversion to Anglicanism:
• First period is characterized by a pessimistic vision of world, without any hope, faith, ideal or values. It is a nightmare land where spiritual aridity and lack of love have deprived life of meanings - The Waste Land;
•The second period is characterized by purification, hope and joy.
IMPERSONALITY - Eliot was also a critic, and in his essays he focused on problems of style and technique: it is important for the artist to be impersonal (like Joyce), to separate the man who suffers from the mind who creates. “The poet has not a personality to express, but a medium, in which impressions and experiences combine in unexpected ways; the emotion of art is impersonal”.
The Waste Land - This poem escapes any order and unity: it's an anthology of indeterminate state of mind, impressions, situations and personalities. Al the fragmentary passages seem to refer to one voice relating to multiple personalities: Tiresias (Theban prophet from Sophocle’s playes) and a knight from the Legend of the Holy Grail; he moves through London and a post-war Europe, deprived of spiritual roots.
THEMES - These fragmentary parts share one theme: the contrast between the fertility of a mythical past and the spiritual sterility and chaos of the present. The fragmentation of this poem reflects the decay of western civilisation caused by World War I and by forces operating under the name of modernity.
• The Burial of the Dead - Basic opposition between sterility and fertility, life and death;
• A Game of Chess - It juxtaposes present squalor to past splendour;
• The Fire Sermon - Present alienation described as a loveless, mechanical, squalid sexual encounter;
• Death by Water - It reinforces the idea of spiritual shipwreck;
• What the Thunder said - It evokes religions from East and West: a solution is found in a sympathy with other human beings; but this solution anyway doesn’t modify the atmosphere of desolation.
HISTORY - The mythical past appears in references and quotations from literary works belonging to different traditions (most are religious texts, like Bible or Hindu sacred works). The use of quotations reflects Eliot’s concept of history - a repetition of the same events - and of classicism - ability to see the past necessary, as a premise for the present. Present and past exist simultaneously in The Waste Land, just as they do in mind: the continuous shifts of time and space are made possible by free associations.
MYTHICAL METHOD - At the origin of western culture, legends and myths were symptoms of important spiritual attitudes. In modern society myths are present, but their deep meaning has been betrayed - the contrast between past and present appears through mythical allusions. The meaninglessness of modern life appears through the allusion to the Arthurian legend and the Quest for the Holy Grail, a metaphor for man’s search for spiritual salvation; he also makes references to the Celtic myth of the Fisher King, awaiting a hero to break the impotence of his kingdom. The mythical method replaced the narrative method and it is a way of controlling, ordering and giving shape to the futility of contemporary history.
STYLE - The style is fragmentary, it is a mixture of different poetic styles (blank verse, ode, quatrain, free verse) which reflects the chaos of the present. In Eliot are present analogies with cubism: meanings must be searched not in a single fragment, but in the whole. Different techniques are adopted:
• IMPLICATION - The reader participates by experiencing the same world of the poet;
• OBJECTIVE CORRELATIVE - The poet has to find a combination of images and object to create an emotion: the emotion comes out from these phenomena when they are together;
• JUXTAPOSITION - Squalid elements juxtaposed with poetic ones (from French symbolists);
• REPETITIONS - Of words, images and phrases: they give the impression of increasing musicality of poem.
The Burial of the Dead - The title is a metaphor of the condition of contemporary man, whose life is meaningless, empty, alienating, quite similar to death. “April is the cruellest month” because in front of the re-birth of nature, the modern, empty man feels even more afflicted. London, the City, embodies the system of capitalism, whose citizens are “locked” in their everyday life, without any hope to make their condition better. Much of this passage derives from Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.
The Fire Sermon - Here it is introduced a key figure of the poem: Tiresias, a Theban prophet punished with blindness after seeing the goddess of knowledge Athena bathing naked - in Sophocle’s tragedy Oedipus King, he predicts that Thebes will be laid waste. In this passage it is described the final part, told by Tiresias, about the squalid meeting of two lovers. She is tired and bored, indifferent to her partner, and their sex moment goes quickly. When she wakes up, she is glad and not disturbed for her lover not being there with her; she puts a record on the gramophone.
What the Thunder said - The title derives from the holy Hindu book Upanishad, where the Lord of Creation speaks through the thunder. The agony of the poet is intensified, and he turns the water that drown and kills to the water that saves. Modern man is warned to leave the system of modern Church and look at Eastern spirituality to find the desired “water”. Through the words in Hindu “Datta”= To give, “Dayadhvam” = To agree and “Damyata” = To control Eliot gives some advices related to values absent in this waste land. After some apocalyptic tones, the poem ends with the word “Shantih” = Peace, with the hope for a rain, for water → for spirituality back. Anyway, this hope is far away and even the fact that this blessing is written in a language so distant from western civilisation, makes us think that the solution is very far, the Holy Grail is a hope but it’s difficult to get it, and nobody can escape from this waste land.