Classicism in T. S. Eliot's Poetry

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      Eliot has been considered as a classicist because of the strong hold of his critical intellect on his creative imagination. As he stated that he is a classicist in literature, an Anglo-Catholic in religion and a Royalist in politics. He is a classicist of a different kind. Although he is a classicist, he has digested strong elements of romanticism. He asserts in his critical treatise namely Tradition and Individual Talent: "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality." In other words, the poet must exercise self-control and restraint. He universalise his emotions. His aim is to achieve "negative capability". The poet can achieve his goal if he releases from personal emotions and from personal sensibility. This poetic process is called 'objective co-relative.' Eliot himself uses this process which gives poetry a hard intellectual tone which is one of the chief characteristics of classicism. The following are the views on classicism by T.S. Eliot.

Eliot emphasised that the classical school of poetry achieved an elegance and a dignity.
Classicism in Eliot's poetry


      Subjugation of Romantic 'Inner Voice' (Subjectivity) : Eliot emphasised that the classical school of poetry achieved an elegance and a dignity. The romantic believes in the poet's own 'inner voice.' Thus he degenerates into chaos and license. He indulges in trivialities. Eliot has pointed out the difference between the romantic school and the classical school. While the classical poetry is complete, mature, orderly, the romantic poetry is fragmentary, immature, and chaotic. This indicates that Eliot has accepted the formula of completeness and formal perfection of the classical poetry.

      Eliot's kinship with Augustan classicism : There is a deep similarity between Eliot's poetry and the Augustan poetry. Eliot has stressed the importance of order and discipline of authority and tradition, and of organization and pattern of the Augustan poets. He has emphasised on the organised labour of intellect rather than on the romantic inspiration and institution. Maxwell remarks: "In this Intellectual bias, in the belief that authority rather than liberty is the guide to truth, and in his regard for formal details, is Eliot's kinship with Augustan classicism." Further this critic has pointed out: "Each accepts an existing poetic framework, the rules of an objective authority and makes a conscious effort to work within that framework. Satirical wit plays an important part in both, and with it goes a concern for the necessity of cultivating precision of form and word. This requires an intellectual rather than an emotional, instinctive approach to the task of selecting words, of relating them to each other and to the whole. Yet each of these similarities involves also a difference. The system to which Eliot relates his poetry has a greater scope than Augustan classical authority and becomes a more vital part of the poetry which depends on it. By its relationship with Eliot's poetry the traditional system acquires new significance and becomes a living part of the poetic experiences transcribed in the poetry."

      Eliot's aspiration for classical preciseness for his symbols and imagery : The romantics make use of symbols as centers of unlimited expansion, with the result there is vagueness and indefiniteness in their poetry. Eliot's images are clear-cut, concrete and precise. He draws his symbols from traditional sources. He does not alter their original significance. According to Maxwell, T. S. Eliot maintains the essential suggestive quality of all symbolism, while limiting the suggestiveness to a clearly defined range. Eliot's approach to symbol and imagery is classical. He retains the suggestiveness which differentiates poetry from prose. His poetry reveals economy of classical school; he has the epigrammatic preciseness, compactness and terseness. In this manner he achieves suggestiveness and elaboration by the help of his symbols and images which have he background of literary tradition.

      Eliot's concept of literary tradition : Eliot has stressed the importance of literary tradition. This literary tradition indicates the accumulated wisdom and experience of the ages. Let us take his critical essay Tradition and Individual Talent. In this essay he surveys European literature from Homer down to his own day as a single whole. According to him English literature must be scrutinised as a part of this literary tradition. Maxwell is of the opinion that a significant feature of classicism is "its acceptance of an already existing background whose function is to provide the poem's incidental symbolism." Pope draws his symbols from the world of classical mythology in his epic The Rape of the Lock. Similarly, Eliot draws his symbols from the traditional literature of Europe. In The Waste Land he blends the traditional European and eastern thought which renders a great purpose in his interpretation of the contemporary problem.

      The fertility myths, vegetation ceremonies and the Grail legend are all used by him in the same manner as Pope classical mythology in order to express his idea. In the section, The Burial of the Dead, he uses the literary tradition in order to elucidate the present against the background of tradition. The other term "the objective co-relative" is used in order to indicate the significance of the literary tradition in Eliot's poetry. Eliot's wit has an affinity with the classics Pope was witty because he wanted to entertain but Eliot's object is different. He uses wit as an instrument for commenting on modern life and its problems. It is not an end in itself. On the other hand, it is a hand-made of the serious purpose of his poetry. So, Eliot's life bears a resemblance with that of the Augustans because the latter were moralists whose aim was to satirise human frailties in their civilization. As with the classical poets, Eliot's wit has brevity, careful phrasing and clarity of thought and expression. Wit is one of the chief characteristics of classical poetry which has been used by T.S. Eliot very successfully to make us understand the human frailties of the 20th century.

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