T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

    Contributing Editor: Sam S. Baskett

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    For the uninitiated reader, Eliot's poems present a number of difficulties: erudite allusions, lines in a number of foreign languages, lack of narrative structure compounded by startling juxtapositions, a sense of aloofness from the ordinary sensory universe of day-to-day living. For the more sophisticated, Eliot's "modernism," his quest for "reality," may seem dated, even "romantic"; the vision of the waste land, stultifying and bleak; the orthodoxy of "The Dry Salvages" a retreat from the cutting edge of late twentieth-century thought and poetic expression.

    To address these problems, explain the most difficult and essential passages, providing some framework and background, without attempting a line-by-line gloss of all the references and their ramifications. The poems, especially The Waste Land, should not be treated as puzzles to be solved, but rather, the early poems at least, as typical "modernism" which Eliot "invented" in The Waste Land and "Prufrock," a product of symbolism, images, and aggregation. Emphasize that this is all the expression of a personal, intense, even romantic effort by Eliot to get things "right" for himself in his search for order in his life, a validation of his existence, in a word, for "salvation." Emphasize continuing themes, continuing and changing techniques as Eliot attempts to translate, as he said of Shakespeare, his own private agony into something rich, strange, and impersonal.

    Students often ask why Eliot is so intentionally, even perversely, difficult. Why the erudite allusions, the foreign languages, the indirectness? What is his attitude toward women? What of the evidence of racial prejudice? What of his aloofness from and condescension to the concerns of ordinary human existence?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The symbolism of the waste land, garden, water, city, stairs, etc., as Eliot expresses the themes of time, death-rebirth, levels of love (and attitude toward women), the quest motif on psychological, metaphysical, and aesthetic levels. Dante's four levels--the literal (Eliot's use of geographic place is more basic than has been given sufficient attention), allegorical, moral, and anagogic--are interesting to trace throughout Eliot's developing canon. The relations between geographic place and vision, between the personal, individual talent and the strong sense of tradition, are also significant.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Eliot's relation to romanticism, his significance in the development (with Ezra Pound) of modernism, his role as an expatriate effecting a "reconciliation with America" in "The Dry Salvages" are all important considerations. His techniques of juxtaposition, aggregation of images, symbolism, the use of multiple literary allusions, the influence of Dante are all worth attention, as is his use of "free verse" and many various poetic forms. Note also the musicality of his verse, his use of verbal repetition as well as clusters of images and symbols.

    Original Audience

    When Eliot's works first appeared, they seemed outrageously impenetrable to many, although he quickly became recognized as the "Pope of Russell Square." This recognition was partly through Pound's efforts, as well as Eliot's magisterial pronouncements in his criticism. Even as he challenged the literary establishment, he was in effect a literary "dictator" during much of his life, despite the shock felt by his followers when he announced in 1927 that he was "catholic, royalist and a classicist." With the religious emphasis of Ash Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1943), as well as in his plays of the '30s and '40s, it seemed to many that he had become a different writer. A quarter of a century after his death, it is possible to see the continuing figure in the carpet, Eliot as a major figure in modernism, a movement superseded by subsequent developments. His eventual importance has been severely questioned by some critics (e.g., Harold Bloom).

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Compare Eliot with Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens. Pound for his influence as "the better craftsman" and for his early recognition of and plumping for Eliot; all of these poets for their combined (but differing) contribution to modernism and the search for reality as a way out of "the heart of darkness." Williams and Stevens (Adamic poets) make interesting contrasts with their different goals and techniques: Williams criticizing Eliot's lack of immediacy, Stevens commenting that Eliot did not make the "visible a little difficult to see."

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. What are the similarities and differences in Eliot's protagonists?

    What is the continuing fundamental theme in his work?

    Is "The Dry Salvages" essentially different from his early poems? How so? Are there any continuities?

    Consider the thrust of a particular poem on literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogic levels.

    What is Eliot's attitude toward women?

    What are the techniques by which Eliot's poems achieve intensity?

    2. Compare and contrast the protagonists of two poems.

    Trace the quest motif through Eliot's poems.

    How do the late poems ("DS") differ from "Prufrock"? The Waste Land?

    Discuss Eliot's attitude toward death as expressed in the poems.

    Discuss Eliot's symbolism, the use of water as a symbol.


    Baskett, Sam S. "Eliot's London." In Critical Essays on The Waste Land. London: Longman Literature Guides, 1988, 73-89.

    --. "Fronting the Atlantic: Cape Cod and 'The Dry Salvages.'" The New England Quarterly LVI, no. 2 (June 1983): 200-19.

    Drew, Elizabeth. T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949. Especially pp. 1-30.

    Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot's Early Years. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1977.

    --. Eliot's New Life. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1988.

    Julius, Anthony. T.S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    Kermode, Frank. "A Babylonish Dialect." In T. S. Eliot, edited by Allen Tate, 231-43. New York: Delacorte Press, 1966.

    Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time. London, 1973. Several useful, illuminating essays.

    Martin, Jay, ed. A Collection of Critical Essays on The Waste Land. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Twentieth Century Interpretations, 1968. Several useful, illuminating essays.

    Miller, J. Hillis. Poets of Reality. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1965. 1-12.

    Moody, A. D. T. S. Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

    Ricks, Christopher. T. S. Eliot and Prejudice. London: Faber, 1994.

    Williamson, George. A Reader's Guide to T. S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967.