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Some Notes on T.S. Eliot: for a Complex Modernism

From an epistemological point of view, the nineteenth century bade defiance to long-established knowledge. Lyell and Darwin, through their geological and biological studies, questioned the Church and biblical authority and, furthermore, the philosophers of suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) ultimately

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From an epistemological point of view, the nineteenth century bade defiance to long-established knowledge. Lyell and Darwin, through their geological and biological studies, questioned the Church and biblical authority and, furthermore, the philosophers of suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) ultimately challenged human life itself by reconsidering its economical, moral and psychological structure.

These are the premises for the gradual emergence of Modernism, the cultural movement which inherited nineteenth century intellectual quandary.

 

The poet who best illustrates this predicament is the Anglo-American T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), a Nobel laureate for literature in 1948. Albeit his American origins, he wanted to retrace his European roots and therefore he settled down in Paris, where he met the most famous American poet at that time, Ezra Pound.

It was at this time that Eliot started to outline his literary ideology. Out of his contempt for Romantic poetry, he maintained that poetry should not be an overflow of powerful feelings. Instead, the poet should be impersonal and must distance himself from what he is writing, using objects or words instead to mirror the author’s stances. Furthermore, literary creation should rest upon tradition and that the universal literary canon should furnish ample material for Eliot to write his works. This is why his Modernist approach can be regarded as complex: he quotes directly from literary works, or he alludes to it by rephrasing or rewriting them and he expects readers to understand the source of his allusion or quotation.

 

In 1922, such complex literary considerations became of the core of one of Eliot’s masterpieces: The Waste Land. The backdrop of the poem is similar to an Arthurian romance, where the quest is central to the plot, but it’s far more complex than that. Eliot was heavily influenced by Sir James Frazer’s seminal anthropological work The Golden Bough (1890), whose main theme was death and resurrection. In a convoluted and allusive style, Eliot acts like a modern Dante.
Like the Italian poet (whom he admired), the Anglo-American author is faced with his impossibility of seeking solace as the First World War has annihilated a whole continent.
The waste land is Eliot’s own, because his soul is so racked and torn that he cannot experience the joy of peace and stability. The promise of a new beginning, symbolised by a distant thunder, cannot be fulfilled.

 

1927 was a key year in Eliot’s life. The poet was received into the Anglican Church and his conversion makes the poet write that he is “traditional in poetry, conservative in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion”.

His religious experience is reflected in his poem A Song for Simeon (1927). The Gospel according to Luke is the direct source because, like old Simeon in the Gospel who can die in peace after seeing Christ, Eliot can now go in peace because religion has alleviated his own troubles. 

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