Het zal morgen al 55 jaar geleden zijn dat dichter, toneelschrijver en criticus Thomas Stearns Eliot is overleden.

Eliot was born in St.Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888, and was educated at Harvard University. After graduating in 1909, he studied philosophy at the University of Paris for a year, then won a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford in 1914, becoming a British citizen when he was 39. His first notable publication, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, begun in February 1910 and published in Chicago in June 1915, is regarded as a masterpiece of the modernist movement. It was followed by some of the best-known poems in the English language, including “Gerontion” (1920), “The Waste Land” (1922), “The Hollow Men” (1925), “Ash Wednesday” (1930), “Murder in the Cathedral” (a play, 1935), “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” (1939, used by Andrew Lloyd Webber for his musical “Cats”) and “Four Quartets” (1945). He gave the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1926 and he lectured at Harvard in 1932, at the University of Virginia in 1933 and at the University of Chicago in 1950.
Als criticus is hij een vertegenwoordiger van “The New Criticism“. De naam werd bedacht door J.E.Spingam in 1910, maar werd pas populair vanhaf het gelijknamige boek van John Crowe Ransom in 1941. Bij Eliot zelf vinden we de ideeën het best verwoord in “The Sacred Wood”, een essay-bundel uit 1920.
– Oorzaak: uitputting van de romantische stijlconventie. Een nieuwe conventie wordt teruggevonden bij de 17de eeuwse metaphysical poets.
– Reactie tegen overdreven impressionisme en het moraliseren in de literaire kritiek, die hij meer technisch gefundeerd zou willen zien.
– Wijst op het onpersoonlijke karakter van het kunstwerk.
– Verwerping van de romantische opvatting als zou poëzie een vorm van spirituele autobiografie of zelfopenbaring zijn.
– Tegen dissociation of sensibility.
Eliot’s early poetry, until at least the middle 1920’s,is mostly concerned in one way or another with the Waste Land, with aspects of the decay of culture in the modern Western world. After his formal acceptance of Anglican Christianity we find a penitential note in much of his verse, a note of quiet searching for spiritual peace, with considerable allusion to Biblical, liturgical, and mystical religious literature and to Dante. Ash Wednesday (1930), a poem in six parts, much less fiercely concentrated in style than the earlier poetry, explores with gentle insistence a mood both penitential and questioning. The so—called “Ariel” poems (the title is accidental, and has nothing to do with their form or content) present or explore aspects of religious doubt or discovery or revelation, sometimes, as in Marina, using a purely secular imagery and sometimes, as in Journey of the Magi, drawing on Biblical incident. In Four Quartets of which the first, Burnt Norton , appeared in the Collected Poems of 1935, though all four were not completed until 1943, when they were published together) Eliot further explored essentially religious moods, dealing with the relation between time and eternity and the cultivation of that selfless passivity which can yield the moment of timeless revelation in the midst of time. The mocking irony, the savage humor, the deliberately startling juxtaposition of the sordid and the romantic, give way in these later poems to a quieter poetic idiom, often still complexly allusive but never deliberately shocking.
The poetry of Eliot
1.The use of free verse.
2.He uses the words in the original etymological sense (associations, echoes).
3.The use of recurrent themes (leitmotivs).
“The use of recurrent themes is as natural to poetry as to music. There are possibilities for verse which bear score analogy to the development of a theme by different groups of instruments ; there are possibilities of transitions in a poem, comparable to the different movements of a symphony or a quartet ; there are possibilities of contrapuntal arrangement of subject-matter. It is in the concert room, rather than in the opera house, that the germ of a poem may be quickened.” (T.S.Eliot, The Music of Poetry, 1942)
4.The objective correlative, i.e. a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events that express a certain emotion and evoke the same emotion to the reader.
“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art, is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion ; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” (T.S. Eliot : Essay on Hamlet)
5.Influence of the symbolists: poetry is like music.
– Both exist in time.
– Evocation, suggestion insead of narrating or describing by the melody of the words (compare tone with colour).
– But: harmonic structure by the literal sense.
“For music itself may be conceived as striving towards an unattainable timelessness ; and if the other arts may be thought of as yearning for duration, so music may be thought of as yearning for the stillness of painting or sculpture … I find that I enjoy and “understand” a piece of music better for knowing it well, simply because I have at any moment in its performance a memory of the part that has preceded and a memory of the part that is to come. Ideally I should like to be able to hold the whole of a great symphony in my mind at once.” (T.S. Eliot “Valery”)
6.Dislocation (switching from one thing to another without transition).
“Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The Poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, note indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.” (T.S.Eliot, The Metaphysical Poets, 1921)
7.Significative silence.
The Waste Land (notes by Martine Simoens)
– draft: Margate, Lausanne (1921)
sent to Ezra Pound
reduced to 434 lines, the rest appeared in “The Hollow Men” (*)
– printed Oct. 1922 – The Criterion, The Dial: without notes
– Boni and Liveright, New York: with notes
– manuscript:
gift to his attorney, John Quinn
1968: New York Public Library
“A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Draft”, ed. Valerie Eliot, 1971.
Product of the “Unified Sensibility”
– Eliot “I myself should like an audience which could neither read nor write”
– E.Pound: the poem’s obscurities are redugible to 4 Sanscrit words
conclusion: an “intellectual” apparatus would easily impede a full and unified experience of the poetry.
Main themes:
* Spiritual deadness brought about by the process of secularization
Result: Two kinds of life
– life in death
– life in life
two kinds of death
– death in life
– death as life-giving
* Fertility cults, life cults (see Frazer & Weston)
* The Grail-legend: Quest for the Grail and the Fisher King (see Weston & Lampo)
Sibyl cfr. mind of Europe: spiritual emptiness
I The Burial of the Dead
– death in life:
1 attractiveness of death (I-7)
2 life at its highest moments of meaning and intensity resembles death (31-42)
– death as life-giving:
1 the Hanged Man = Divine king = Fisher King = Phoenician sailor (Part IV)
2 Tarot Pack
3 The corpse planted in the garden
4 Death by water
II A Game of Chess
– contrast between life in a rich and magnificent setting (Cleopatra-scene) and life in the low and vulgar setting of a London pub. Both scenes are taken from the contemporary wasteland.
– death which is the door to life: The violation of Philomela
“are you alive, or not” “Is there nothing in your head?” (117-134)
– sterile and unfruitfull death in modern life (115-116) contrasted with regenerating death (126)
III The Fire Sermon
– Fire = sterile burning of lust
Elisabeth = the typist: the same emptiness of love
Tiresias: 1) Eliot’s note
2) Oedipus Rex (245)
3) Odyssey (246)
4) Methamorphoses: chance of sex (“foresuffered”) (241)
Collocation of St Augustine and Buddha (307-311)
asceticism necessary to check the drive of desire
(imagery: fire=lust)
– Fisher King (189-190): misinterpretation of his title
Contrast between life-giving death and sterile death (191-192)
IV Death by Water
– contrast with The Fire Sermon: Symbolism fire water
– symbol of surrender and relief through surrender: conquest of death and time, as death by water is life-giving
– drowned Phoenician sailor = drowned god of fertility cults = Smyrna Merchant (part III)
– Marked difference in tone (as compared with 194-195)
V What the thunder said
– association of Christ in Gethsemane with other hanged gods (cfr. the Golden Bough): death-in-life (329-330)
– reminds of the dryness, silence of “The Ancient Mariner” and Dante’s hell; rhythm of the words allows them to work upon our mind
– disconnection of the traditional values: decay of Eastern Europe, the region with which the fertility cults were especially connected
– Grail-Legend
* Perilous Chapel (385-390): initiation-rite
* Fisher King (423-425): personal relationship of protagonist “Shall I at least set my lands in order?”
Thunder uses Sanscrit words to interpret oldest wisdom: give, sympathize, control: Means to regeneration of senseless life (see Miss Weston: fertility cults recorded in Sanscrit legends)
Form and Methods (cfr. 4 Quartets)
– Musical organisation : sonata-form
Ist: introduction of a diversity of themes
2nd: presents first poetically, then with less traditional circumscription the same area of experience
3rd: gathers up the central vision of the poem while meditating on themes of death
4th: brief lyric
5th: didactic and lyric culmination
– principle of complexity:
1. surface parallelisms = ironical contrast
surface contrasts = parallelisms
deeper relationships
2. echo-device: an item taken from one context and shifted into another in which it assumes a new and powerful meaning.
“Four Quartets” is evidentially based upon the form of a string quartet.
In each Quartet the five sections follow patterns which are sufficiently alike for the following general descriptions to apply in each case.
I. The movement of time, in which brief moments of eternity are caught.
II. Wordly experience, leading only to dissatisfaction.
III. Purgation in the world – divesting the soul of the love of created things – expressed mainly in terms of present movement, a journey which is freedom from past and future.
IV. A lyric prayer for, or affirmation of the need of, Intercession.
V. The problems of attaining artistic wholeness which become analogue for, and merge in to, the problems of achieving spiritual health.
I shall try to make clearer this basic similarity of each group of parallel sections ; but it should be noted that to set the pattern out as I have done below is to suggest a more rigorous mould than the poem in fact displays. My intention is only to indicate that the pattern is there, not to press my descriptions too far.
So here we go. There are…
Four themes: history, faith, poetry, love.
Four dimensions of time: past, present, future, eternity.
Four different kinds of style: philosophical, lyrical, colloquial, celebrational.
Four levels of meaning: literal, allegroical, moral, mystical (influenced by the Divine Comedy).
Four religious references: God the Father, Christ the Redeemer, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Ghost.
“East Coker” deals with his family history and also his own life in a circular movement (the cycle of the seasons). On p.24 he’s quoting from the book “The Governour” (1531), written by his ancestor Sir Thomas Elyot (it’s a treatise on education).
“In my beginning is my end”: a deliberate misquotation of Queen Mary’s motto “in my end is my beginning” brings on the theme of inevitable death.
On p.28 there are instances of moments of freedom from time, which have appealed to several senses:
“whisper”: sound
“lightning”: sight
“wild thyme, wild strawberry”: smell
Human beings have to accept the condition of their sickness before they’re fit for salvation (p.29). Compare also with p.56: “sin is behovely” (hint of calvinism? predestination?).
In the last part (“Little Gidding”, p.52, from 1.78 on) Eliot is echoing quite deliberately the style, the “terza rima”, of Dante’s “Divina Commedia”. He’s trying to evoke a comparison between Dante visiting the Inferno with the scene after an air-raid in London during the Second World War (he worked at that time as an air-raid warden). It is meant to be a scene of hallucination (for himself is was harder than any other passage in the poem).
“Uncertain hour”: light of dawn but also indicating an uncertain future (just as Dante’s starting point was his own state of mind as well as the political situation of its time).
“Had passed”: like changing from a major key to a minor key.
IV, 2 (p.57): reference to the myth of Nessus’ shirt. The shirt had been woven by the wife of Heracles, after she had been raped by the centaur Nessus. When Heracles was unfaithful to her, the shirt started to burn and could not be extinguished. In order to escape his torment, Heracles built a pyre and burned himself. The shirt became a symbol of physical love. But God also gives us shirts from which we cannot escape (hell, purgatory).
“Four Quartets” was probably one of the arguments for awarding him the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize in Literature both in 1948. Mrs. Eliot, from whom he was separated in 1933, died early in 1947, and ten years later, in 1957 Eliot married Valerie Fletcher, his secretary. He died on January 4, 1965, in London.

Ronny De Schepper

(*) In the movie “A star is born” (1954) Matt Libby’s “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, with a whimper” (after Norman Maine’s death) comes nearly verbatim from the last two lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper”.

The Englishman’s England, p.116.
Wim D’Haveloose, Eliot opgepoetst, De Standaard, 17 januari 1975.
James Frazer, The Golden Bough, A Study in magic and religion, London 1890 (abridged edition in 1922): examination of primitive belief in relation to religion; proved that certain arts were univresal; indicated an evolution from magic over religion to science.
Jessie Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920: study of medieval literature tracing folk-lore elements and the element of rebirth, human sacrifice.
F.R.Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry.
Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet: T.S.Eliot, London 1960.
Hubert Lampo, De Zwanen van Stonehenge. Een leesboek over magisch-realisme en fantastische literatuur, Meulenhoff A’dam, 1972.

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