Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in Missouri in 1888 and he was educated at Harvard. He learned Italian by studying Dante and he devoted one of his most celebrated essays in 1929.
In 1910 he first went to Europe and studied in Paris at Sorbonne where he attended Herni Bergson’s lectures and he started to read french symbolism.
In 1915 he married the British ballet dancer Vivien-Haigh-Wood. After the collection of poems ‘Prufrock and Other Observations’ (1917) which established him as an important avant-garde poet, he edited ‘The Criterion’ (1922).
In 1925 he became a director for the publishers Faber and Faber, publishing all his writings through them and encouraging the production of young poets.
The Waste Land is a long poem published in 1922.
In 1925 he published ‘The Hollow Men’, a poem read as a sequel to ‘The Waste Land’s’ philosophical despair. In 1927 he became a British citizen and in the same year he joined the Church of England finding the answer to his questions and to the despair of the modern world lacking faith and religion. His poetry bloomed in Ash-Wednesday, Four Quartets and Murder in Cathedral.
Eliot decided to separate from his wife, who was committed to a mental asylum and she died in 1947. In the 1930s and 1940s Eliot’s essays became concerned with the ethical and philosophical problems of modern society. In 1948 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He died in London in 1965.
The impersonality of the artist
Eliot was an influential literary critic: his critical essays on authors, both ancient and modern as well as on the theory of poetry and on the foundation of literary criticism are numerous and of primary importance.
Most of them are collected in such well-known books as The Sacred Wood, Selected Essays, The Three Voices of Poetry and On Poetry and Poets.
In the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot declared: the poet hasn’t a personality to express and the emotion of art is impersonal. The characters of his first works are archetypes of the 20th century human beings who turn their own subjective experience into universal form with which anyone can identify.
2. The Waste Land (1922)
The Waste Land defies any order or unity. It’s an anthology of indeterminate states of mind, of impressions, hallucinations, situations and personalities.
He is Tiresias, the Theban prophet from Sophocle’s plays who experienced blindness and the life of both sexes. He moves through London and a post-war Middle Europe has been deprived of its spiritual roots.
The Waste Land consists of five sections:
- The Burial of the Dead (opposition between sterility and fertility);
- A Game of Chess (past ambiguous splendor);
- The Fire Sermon (alienation);
- Death by Water (spiritual shipwreck);
- What the Thunder (religion from East and West).
The sterility of the present
This poem reflects the breakdown of a historical, social and cultural order destroyed by the war and by those forces operating under the name of modernity.
The new concept of history
The mythical past appears in the references to and quotations from many literary works belonging to different traditions and cultures and religious texts (Bible and Hindu sacred works). The repetition of the same events is the ability to see the past as a concrete premise for the present.
Present and past exist simultaneously in The Waste Land as they do in the mind.
The innovative stylistic devices
The style of The Waste Land is fragmentary because of the mixture of different poetic styles, The most effective analogies can be found in some cubist images and cinematic shots.
Eliot requires the active participation of the reader who experiences the same world as that of the speaker by employing the technique of implication.
Eliot adopted the objective correlative and the juxtaposition, he repeated words, images and phrases from page to page.
3. The Hollow Men (1925)
‘The Hollow Men’ of the poem are themselves trapped in some sort of between-world, a limbo or purgatory between death and life, existence and nothingness, light and darkness.
In five sections, Eliot lets the collective voice of the Hollow Men address us from their between-world which is at once a desert space (‘cactus land’) and a place suggestive of entropic decay, as though the end of the world or even the universe has come: that fading star, and the general lifelessness of the world the Hollow Men inhabit, imply that this land of twilight is a world in its death throes.
And indeed, when we reach the final lines of the poem, we are told that we are witnessing the end of the world, which happens anticlimactically, with a whimper rather than a bang.
This moment is filled with religious significance – as the allusions to the the Lord’s Prayer suggest – but any attempt at prayer is only half-formed and half-achieved: those prayers to broken stone (toppled statues, or broken icons, perhaps?) prefigure the failed attempts to utter the full conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer (‘For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, for ever and ever, Amen’).