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Thomas Stearns Eliot - Life and works


Thomas Stearns Eliot

Life and works

Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888 into a distinguished family. He studied literature and philosophy at Harvard and after obtaining his Master's degree in 1910, he studied in Oxford, Paris and Germany. He settled in England in 1915, the year of his marriage to the poet Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and worked as a schoolteacher for a brief period, before finding a job as a clerk at Lloyds Bank. His marriage was a tense and troubled one and he eventually left his wife in 1933 and married again in 1947. Eliot became a British citizen in 1922 and, in 1925, joined Faber & Faber publishing firm, of which he eventually became a director. He joined the Church of England in 1927. Eliot first came to notice as a poet with the publication of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). His next major work, The Waste Land, appeared in 1922 and was subsequently published in Poems 1909-1925, which included The Hollow Men, another landmark in modernist poetry. Eliot's next collection, Poems 1909-1935 (1936), added The Journey of the Magi and Ash Wednesday, which introduced possibilities of spiritual regeneration after the desolate and alienating panoramas revealed in the earlier works. In 1943 he published the major collection of his lat 959f58j er career, The Four Quartets, containing poems which are openly religious in character. In the 30's he began writing verse drama. Murder in the Cathedral (1935) was his first success in this genre followed by The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950) and The Confidential Clerk (1954). Throughout his career as a poet, Eliot was a regular contributor of critical essays to literary magazines. His first collection was The Sacred Wood (1920), followed by Homage to John Dryden (1924). His lectures given at Harvard were also collected in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933). In 1948 Eliot received the Nobel Prize for literature. On his death in 1965 the once avant-garde experimental poet had become a pillar of the literary establishment, whose views on poetry and fiction had achieved the status of commandments.

5.2. Eliot's poetry

The themes of Eliot's works are:

modern man alienation from society;

contraposition between time and eternity;

the question of personal identity;

relationship past-present and the exaltation of the past (tradition);

the fear of living;

the spiritual dryness, sterility and emptiness of modern life;

the role of faith in the modern world.

Eliot was a poet who for his cosmopolitan culture drew inspiration from several sources and himself represented an outstanding model for other poets. His models were:

Ezra Pound and the Imagists (for the use of clear and precise images and an essential vocabulary);

French Symbolists;

John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets (for the use of wit, the striking association of images and the consequent difficult and sometimes obscure poetry);

Dante, who Eliot saw as the model of all poetic art;

Myth and ancient rituals (which he derived from his anthropological studies).

Eliot asserted that the poetry had to be used only as a mean to express people's feelings (not the poet's ones) and as a consequence he tried to achieve the complete objective impersonality. For this he avoided the use of first person singular and chose the dramatic monologues and dialogues conceived as dialogues between the two halves of the same self. The function of his poetry is to communicate something thought the musicality and rhythm even before the words and their meaning. The need to convey an emotion indirectly through something which aroused people's feelings led Eliot to create the theory of the "objective correlative", that is an external fact, a situation or an event which evoked an emotion.

5.3. The Waste Land (1922)

The Waste Land is one of the central works in the modernist tradition and the one which most decidedly carries poetry into the 20th century, leaving late Victorian model behind. The poem is divided into five unequal sections (without realistic or logical continuity):

"The Burial of the Dead"

"A Game of Chess"

"The Fire Sermon"

"Death by Water"

"What the Thunder said"

The poem expresses the modern artist's disillusion with the modern world and, at the same time, the desperate need and search for a new tradition. It also represents the culmination of the first phase in Eliot's career, which may be called nihilistic. Another theme is the juxtaposition (relation) of past and present which is represented by the juxtaposition of the images which are not logically ordered. The fragmentation of the poem is a reflection of the fragmentation of contemporary culture. The central metaphor of the poem is the spiritual dryness and sterility of modern life (the death of western culture as a consequence of the lack of any belief, religious or other, which can give meaning to everyday existence). The only possible ordering factor in this chaotic and almost nightmarish representation of reality is the myth: Eliot brings together images of modern decadence with images and quotations from ancient myths and legends (in particular he evokes fertility myths, rites and rituals of the early Christianity and makes references to the medieval romances of the Holy Grail). The several references to sterility and fertility provide a framework for all the various fragments of the poem. Eliot uses a narrative sequence: stream-of-consciousness technique.

The Burial of the Dead" is the first section of the poem called "The Waste Land".

April is the cruellest month, breeding   
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water [.]

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

Unreal city
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Aprile è il più crudele dei mesi, genera
Lillà da terra morta, confondendo
Memoria e desiderio, risvegliando
Le radici sopite con la pioggia della primavera.
L'inverno ci mantenne al caldo, ottuse
Con immemore neve la terra, nutrì
Con secchi tuberi una vita misera

Quali sono le radici che s'afferrano, quali i rami che crescono da queste macerie di pietra? Figlio dell'uomo, tu non puoi dire, né immaginare, perché conosci soltanto Un cumulo d'immagini infrante, dove batte il sole, e l'albero morto non dà riparo, nessun conforto lo stridere del grillo,
L'arida pietra nessun suono d'acque. [.]

Madame Sosostris, chiaroveggente famosa,
Aveva preso un brutto raffreddore, ciononostante
E' nota come la donna più saggia d'Europa,
Con un diabolico mazzo di carte. Ecco qui, disse,
La vostra carta, il Marinaio Fenicio Annegato
(Quelle sono le perle che furono i suoi occhi. Guardate!)
E qui è la Belladonna, la Dama delle Rocce,
La Dama delle situazioni.
Ecco qui l'uomo con le tre aste, ecco la Ruota,
E qui il mercante con un occhio solo, e questa carta,
Che non ha figura, è qualcosa che porta sul dorso,
E che a me non è dato vedere. Non trovo
L'Impiccato. Temete la morte per acqua.
Vedo turbe di gente che cammina in cerchio.
Grazie. Se vedete la cara Mrs. Equitone,
Ditele che le porterò l'oroscopo io stessa:
Bisogna essere così prudenti in questi giorni.

Città irreale,
Sotto la nebbia bruna di un'alba d'inverno,
Una gran folla fluiva sopra il London Bridge, così tanta, Ch'io non avrei mai creduto che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta. Sospiri, brevi e infrequenti, se ne esalavano, E ognuno procedeva con gli occhi fissi ai piedi. [.]

The poem's closing lines are in Sanskrit and foretell that modern man, isolated among the ruins of his culture, threatened by enemies within and without, his myths broken and his emotional drained, may glimpse the possibility of Shantih (peace which passeth understanding) only through love and loss of selfhood.  


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