T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a well- to-do family with roots in the northeastern United States. He received the best education of any major American writer of his generation at Harvard College, the Sorbonne, and Merton College of Oxford University. He studied Sanskrit and Oriental philosophy, which influenced his poetry. Like his friend Pound, he went to England early and became a towering figure in the literary world there. One of the most respected poets of his day, his modernist, seemingly illogical or abstract iconoclastic poetry had revolutionary impact. He also wrote influential essays and dramas, and championed the importance of literary and social traditions for the modern poet.
As a critic, Eliot is best remembered for his formulation of the “objective correlative,” which he described, in The Sacred Wood, as a means of expressing emotion through “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” that would be the “formula” of that particular emotion. Poems such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) embody this approach, when the ineffectual, elderly Prufrock thinks to himself that he has “measured out his life in coffee spoons,” using coffee spoons to reflect a humdrum existence and a wasted lifetime.
By this time Eliot had already achieved great success in 1917 with his first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations (which included “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a work begun in his days at Harvard). Eliot’s reputation was bolstered by the admiration and aid of esteemed contemporary poet Ezra Pound, the other tower of Modernist poetry. During Eliot’s recuperation from his breakdown in a Swiss sanitarium, he wrote “The Waste Land.” A couple of months later he gave Pound the manuscript in Paris. Thanks to Pound’s heavy editing, as well as suggestions (specifically about scenes relevant to their stormy, hostile marriage) from Haigh-Wood, “The Waste Land,” published in 1922, defined Modernist poetry and became possibly the most influential poem of the century. Devoid of a single speaker’s voice, the poem ceaselessly shifts its tone and form, instead grafting together numerous allusive voices from Eliot’s substantial poetic repertoire; Dante shares the stage with nonsense sounds (a technique that also showcases Eliot’s dry wit). Believing this style best represented the fragmentation of the modern world, Eliot focused on the sterility of modern culture and its lack of tradition and ritual. Despite this pessimistic viewpoint, many find its mythical, religious ending hopeful about humanity’s chance for renewal.
Eliot was now the voice of Modernism, and in London he expanded the breadth of his writing. In addition to writing poetry and editing it for various publications (he also founded the quarterly Criterion in 1922, editing it until its end in 1939), he wrote philosophical reviews and a number of critical essays. Many of these, such as “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” have become classics, smartly and affectionately dissecting other poets while subliminally informing us about Eliot’s own work. Eliot defined his preference for poetry that does away with the poet’s own personality, and poetry that uses the “objective correlative” of symbolic, meaningful, and often chaotic concrete imagery.
Eliot joined the Church of England in 1927, and his work afterward reflects his Anglican attitudes. The six-part poem “Ash Wednesday” (1930) and other religious works in the early part of the 1930s, while stellar in their own right, retrospectively feel like a warm-up for his epic “Four Quartets” (completed and published together in 1943). Eliot used his wit, philosophical preoccupation with time, and vocal range to examine further religious issues.
Eliot continued his Renaissance man ways by writing his first play, “Murder in the Cathedral,” in 1935. A verse drama about the murder of Archbishop Thomas? Becket, the play’s religious themes were forerunners of Eliot’s four other major plays, “The Family Reunion” (1939), “The Cocktail Party” (1949), “The Confidential Clerk” (1953), and “The Elder Statesman” (1959). Religious verse dramas cloaked in secular conversational comedy, Eliot belied whatever pretensions his detractors may have found in his Anglophilia. He leapt ahead with this anti-pretension with “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” (1939), a book of verse for children that was eventually adapted into the Broadway musical “Cats.”
As one might expect from his work, Eliot was unhappy for most of his life, but his second marriage in 1957 proved fruitful. When he died in 1965, he was the recipient of a Nobel Prize (1948), author of the century’s most influential poem, and arguably the century’s most important poet. Perhaps due to the large shadow he casts, relatively few poets have tried to ape his style; others simply find him cold. Still, no one can escape the authority of Eliot’s Modernism, one as relevant today as it was in 1922. While Eliot may not have as much influence on poets today as some of his contemporaries, he has had a far greater impact on poetry.
About The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
T.S. Eliot started writing “Prufrock Among the Women” in 1909 as a graduate student at Harvard. He revised it over the next couple of years, changing the title to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” along the way. First published in the Chicago magazine Poetry in June 1915, “Prufrock” later headlined Eliot’s first book of poetry, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). The collection established Eliot’s reputation as a Modernist poet to be reckoned with, and “Prufrock” detailed many of the techniques and themes
Eliot would expand with “The Waste Land” and later works: vocal fragmentation and allusiveness, a precision of imagery borrowed from the 19th-century French Symbolists, a condemnation of the sterility of the modern world, and a dry, self-conscious wit.
The poem is very much a young man’s work, though its speaker, through dramatic monologue, is a presumably middle-aged man. The farcical “J. Alfred Prufrock” name echoes Eliot’s style at the time of signing his name “T. Stearns Eliot,” and we can assume that Eliot shared at least some of Prufrock’s anxieties over women, though he clearly satirizes Prufrock’s neuroses (and, thus, his own) at points in the poem. However, this remains a dangerous assumption, as Eliot famously maintained in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the “progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.
Brief Introduction to Robert Frost
Robert Lee Frost, b. San Francisco, Mar. 26, 1874, d. Boston, Jan. 29, 1963, was one of America’s leading 20th-century poets and a four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. An essentially pastoral poet often associated with rural New England, Frost wrote poems whose philosophical dimensions transcend any region. Although his verse forms are traditional he often said, in a dig at archrival Carl Sandburg, that he would as soon play tennis without a net as write free verse. He was a pioneer in the interplay of rhythm and meter and in the poetic use of the vocabulary and inflections of everyday speech. His poetry is both traditional and experimental, regional and universal.
Frost’s importance as a poet derives from the power and memorability of particular poems. “The Death of the Hired Man” (from North of Boston) combines lyric and dramatic poetry in blank verse. “After Apple-Picking” (from the same volume) is a free-verse dream poem with philosophical undertones. “Mending Wall” (also published in North of Boston) demonstrates Frost’s simultaneous command of lyrical verse, dramatic conversation, and ironic commentary. “The Road Not Taken” and “Birches” (from Mountain Interval) and the oft-studied “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (from New Hampshire) exemplify Frost’s ability to join the pastoral and philosophical modes in lyrics of unforgettable beauty.
Frost’s poetic and political conservatism caused him to lose favor with some literary critics, but his reputation as a major poet is secure. He unquestionably succeeded in realizing his life’s ambition: to write “a few poems it will be hard to get rid of.”