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Thomas Stearns Eliot
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The Waste Land
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An Anglo-American poet, critic, dramatist, and editor, Thomas Stearns Eliot was a major innovator in modern English poetry, famous above all for his revolutionary poem The Waste Land (1922). His seminal critical essays, such as those published in The Sacred Wood (1920), helped to usher in literary modernism by stressing tradition, continuity, and objective discipline over indulgent romanticism and subjective egoism. In rejecting the poetic values of the English romantics and Victorians, Eliot, along with William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound, set new poetic standards equal to those established by James Joyce and Marcel Proust in fiction. In 1948 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Eliot, born in St. Louis, Mo., Sept. 26, 1888, was descended from a distinguished New England family. Between 1906 and 1914 he attended Harvard, studying widely in literature and philosophy. As a graduate student in philosophy, Eliot went abroad to study principally at the Sorbonne and Oxford. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he decided to take up permanent residence in England and became a British subject in 1927. In 1915 he married Vivien Haigh-Wood, whose mental instability led to her confinement in institutions from 1930 until her death in 1947. The emotional difficulties produced by the marriage evidently prompted some intense passages in Eliot's poetry. Living in London, he worked as a teacher and bank clerk and helped edit the imagist magazine The Egoist (1917-19). In London he also met his countryman Ezra Pound, who read Eliot's poems and responded enthusiastically. From 1920 to 1939, Eliot edited The Criterion, and in 1925 joined the publishers Faber and Gwyer as an editor; he later became a director of the firm, later renamed Faber and Faber. In 1927 he joined the Church of England. Eliot was awarded the British Order of Merit in 1948 and the American Medal of Freedom in 1964. He died in London on Jan. 4, 1965.
As a young poet Eliot found inspiration in French Symbolist poetry, particularly the ironic, self-deprecating verse of Jules Laforgue, and in the flexible, colloquial blank verse of the 17th-century metaphysical poets and Jacobean dramatists. Both influences are apparent in his first important poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1909-11) and Portrait of a Lady (1915), both published in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). Equally influential were his readings of Dante, Shakespeare, ancient literature, modern philosophy, and Eastern mysticism, all of which influenced other early poems such as Mr. Apollinax (1916), Sweeney among the Nightingales (1918), and Gerontion (1920), a poem that anticipates the power of The Waste Land. With the help and encouragement of Ezra Pound, Eliot's poetry began to appear in English and American magazines. Pound regarded Eliot as a truly modern poet who had developed an extraordinarily original idiom that fused tradition and superior learning with the contemporary and colloquial.
Eliot was not a prolific poet, but his small output soon gained respectful attention from readers of modern poetry on both sides of the Atlantic. During the postwar years his prevailing sense of despair and sour irony, and his conviction that contemporary civilization falls short of past grandeur, struck a responsive chord in many readers. The appearance of The Waste Land in 1922 aroused both notoriety and genuine admiration. It was notorious because it appeared bafflingly obscure, and at the same time slangy and iconoclastic, a gesture of defiance toward traditional literary ideals; it seemed a poetic expression of the Jazz Age. More discerning readers responded to the deeper aspects of the poem: its juxtaposition of disparate, clashing images; its superimposition of past and present, ancient myths being reenacted in a modern urban setting, Dante and Shakespeare counterpointed against blues and ragtime. Eliot quoted or alluded to a wide range of literary sources, incorporating them into the texture of the poem by a marked personal rhythm. However difficult particular passages may be, Eliot's verse is emphatically memorable. The Waste Land was the product of several years' gestation and, like most of Eliot's poetry, is composed of fragments that were carefully arranged and juxtaposed, rather like the collage technique of 20th-century painting. In a 1971 published facsimile of the original manuscript, it became evident how much the final form of the poem owed to the extensive revisions made, at Eliot's request, by Pound.
Two years before The Waste Land appeared, Eliot's collection of essays on poetry and criticism, The Sacred Wood, was published (1920). His best-known essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, advanced the key points of all his later criticism: the importance of literary history and tradition, and the belief that poetry lies not in an unbridled expression of emotion but in an escape from emotion. In Hamlet and His Problems, he called Shakespeare's play an "artistic failure" because of Hamlet's inexpressible emotional attachment to Gertrude, and coined the term objective correlative, meaning an image or metaphor that arouses emotional response in the reader. Other essays on Dryden, Donne, and the metaphysical poets generated new interest in these writers.
Following his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, Eliot's poetry took on new spiritual dimensions. The six-part poem Ash Wednesday (1930) sensitively traces a pattern of spiritual progress. Based on Dante's Purgatorio, it draws on a narrower range of associations than The Waste Land. The emphasis is on the struggle toward belief rather than the triumphant assertion of it. Eliot's last major poetic sequence, Four Quartets (1943), which was written in four sections from 1935 to 1942 and which he believed to be his finest achievement, is religious in a very broad sense. It deals with ideas of incarnation, the intersection of time and eternity, and the discovery of spiritual insight in sudden and unexpected moments of revelation. More personal than the previous poems, it is exquisitely lyrical and musical in structure.
With his best-known play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935; film, 1952), based on the murder of Saint Thomas à Becket, Eliot hoped to revive poetic drama. Commissioned for the 1935 Canterbury Festival, it is an effective combination of theater, liturgy, and verse. His other plays--The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1953), and The Elder Statesman (1959)--are contemporary secular dramas that, like the poems, draw on a variety of literary sources. Eliot commented at length on the subject of drama in Rhetoric and Dramatic Poetry (1919) and Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry (1928). Other works include Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), a book of verse for children that was eventually adapted for the musical theater stage; the play Sweeney Agonistes (1932), and the prose works The Idea of a Christian Society (1940) and Notes Toward a Definition of Culture (1948).
Although Eliot is widely regarded as a great poet and equally great critic, some readers have been put off by his austere personality. But the best of his poems and essays have a remarkable capacity for renewing themselves and revealing a man who was not only an imaginative artist but also a keen cultural commentator who made readers reevaluate their notions of literature.
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