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As one of America’s first modernist poets, T. S. Eliot’s unique style and subject matter would have a dramatic influence on writers for the century to come. Born in 1888 in St. Louis Mo. at the tail end of the “Cowboy era” he grew up in the more civilized industrial era of the early 20th century, a time of the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford. The Eliot family was endowed with some of the best intellectual and political connections in America of that time, and as a result went to only the best schools. By 1906 he was a freshman in Harvard, finishing his bachelors in only 3 years and studying philosophy in France from 1910 to 1914, the outbreak of war. In 1915 the verse magazine Poetry published Eliot’s first notable piece, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. This was followed by other short poems such as ‘Portrait of a Lady’. ‘The Waste Land’, which appeared in 1922, is considered by many to be his most challenging work (see American Literature).
In 1927 Eliot became a British subject and was confirmed in the Church of England. His essays (’For Lancelot Andrewes’, 1928) and his poetry (’Four Quartets’, 1943) increasingly reflected this association with a traditional culture.
His first drama was ‘The Rock’ (1934), a pageant play.
This was followed by ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ (1935), a play dealing with the assassination of Archbishop Thomas a Becket, who was later canonized. ‘The Family Reunion’ appeared in 1939. ‘The Cocktail Party’, based upon the ancient Greek drama ‘Alcestis’ by Euripides, came out in 1950 and ‘The Confidential Clerk’ in 1953. The dialogue in his plays is written in a free, rhythmical verse pattern. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948 and other major literary awards. The author was married twice. He died on Jan. 4, 1965, in London.
T.S. Eliot once said that the largest difficulty facing poets today was form and that they must find “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.” This idea that the world is chaos and only the structure of the poets prose can bring order to it is the driving force behind Eliots work. But yet, Eliot has often been criticized or admonished for not providing that very order he speaks of. Professor of English Melissa Sodemn said that most of his poems are “a dramatic monologue loosely bound together with a rambling psychological coherence.”
When compared with poets of the previous century, Eliot’s style is often protrayed as ether the rambling hysteria of a “pre-60’s hippie” or a revolutionary who changed the world of prose forever. This marked contrast in opinions seems to be expected from one who wrote such controversial poems.
In The WasteLand he was “highly concerned with the regeneration of the fragmented modern world” and used a more mythical touch, somewhat akin to Homer’s Ulysses. Eliots viewed his giving the literary work structure the mythical method itself, something he learned from Joyce Leavell. Leavell even said “The assumption of the mythical method is that our culture and language once had a pervasive meaningfulness which has been lost in our increasingly rational and discontinuous society, but that by recovering the lost myth from within our culture, poets can restore mythic unity to literature.”
So why was did was this poet often considered to be so controversial at times? “I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a royalist in politics.” T.S. Eliot so defined, and even exaggerated, his own conservatism. The ideas of this stimulating writer were perhaps traditional, but the way in which he expressed them was extremely modern. Eliot was one of the first to reject conventional verse forms and language. His experiments with free expression contributed to his reputation as one of the most influential writers of his time.
Eliot’s “royalist” politics and intellectual elitism instilled certain aloofness in him. Remarking “If only I could be called once the ‘King” of poetry” during a seminar on politics, its obvious he felt the elite should rule. But don’t confuse his politics as being anti-democratic, on the contrary he was very much a believer in democracy but felt his kind of democracy died with the defeat of John Quincy Adams by Andrew Jackson in 1828. To him, the common man should be allowed to vote, but not govern.
Eliot went so far as to move to Britain and become a British subject, approving whole-heartedly of the constitutional monarchy and established House of Lords. Its is however fruitless to go further into Eliots views of American politics as they rarely entered his writings. With the exception of a low view of Franklin D. Roosevelt and sympathy for the Aristocracy in the south, he rarely said much of the comings and goings of American politicians. In fact it has been said the Eliot was one of the last “pre-political” writers, as he was one of the last highly public figures in literature to be far more concerned with the overall ideal of politics, and not the details at hand.
Eliot was a devout Christian and considered Christianity the fabric holding western society together. For him, the idea of a western society without a fundamental belief in a Supreme Being and unbreakable morals was simply unacceptable. He said, “I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology.” This belief along with his political conservatism ironically goes directly against his often-liberal views of love, environment, and morals. These ideas are also what he is attacked most often for. His seeming inability to come up with a coherent and consistent philosophy is nether neither surprising nor important. It must be remembered that Eliot was a poet, not an essayist or philosopher. He was not out to create an intellectual revolution but to write works that caused people to simply consider and think, and his poetry was beautiful.
R.B. Kitaj claimed “Eliot had been dismissed, in Bernard Lewis’s Semites and Anti-Semites, as a typical anti-Semite?I still believed Lewis to be in error, but for a fundamentally different reason. Eliot was certainly not a typical anti-Semite. He was an extraordinary anti-Semite. ” Kitaj claimed he found numerous anti-Semitic referrals in Eliots poems, and even claims that entire poems were devoted to this Anti-Semitism. Most English professors feel his work is to imbed with Anglo-Christian ideals and political conservatism. Others still consider him a liberal and his books to promote ideals counter to the workman American ideals.
However, in the 1920’s most English professors felt Eliots new style was simply counter to all the pre-set rules of prose which had been set out ever since Dante wrote in his native language. Now Eliot’s modernist style is copied throughout the world in virtually all circles of literature.
It could be said the Eliot was an Anti-Semite who believed in Kings over presidents and felt we should all just be good little Christians who live a liberal life style. But then the fact still remains, Eliot revolutionized poetry and society, he had a dramatic effect on England and America and regardless of what you think of his ideals, he wrote beautiful poetry.
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