T. S. Eliot: Contribution to American Literature

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      T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, though his Unitarian family had strong ties with Massachusetts. In 1906, he went to Harvard University and received the best education of any major American writer of his generation at Harvard College of Oxford University. George Santayana and Irving Babbitt were his teachers. At Harvard, he also became interested in Dante, Jules LaTorgue, and French Symbolism. His formal studies were philosophy and after gaining his B.A., and M.A., he began a doctoral thesis but chose not to take the degree. The thesis was eventually published Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley (1964). He declares that “(he) is a Classicist in Literature, Anglo-Catholic by religion, and a Royalist in politics.” He grew up in from his rigid Catholic atmosphere.

      He left America in 1914, after studying briefly in Germany at the Sorbonne and Merton College, Oxford, settled in London the following year. His troubled marriage with Vivien Haigh-Wood lasted from June 1915 until their separation in early 1930s. She died in 1947 and after 10 years later, Eliot married a second time to Valerie Fletcher. During his early years in London, he taught at High Gate School, reviewed books for Times Literary Supplement and from 1917 worked for Lloyds Bank. For a short time as an assistant editor of The Egoist, he next became the editor of newly founded quarterly review, The Criterion, in 1922, held the post until it ceased in 1939. He also worked as the director of Faber and Faber Company and groomed a new generation of poets. With help and encouragement of Ezra Pound, he began to publish poetry. Poems such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) embody this approach, when the ineffectual, elderly Prufrock thinks to himself that he has “measured out his life in coffee spoons,” to reflect a humdrum existence and a wasted life time. Eliot’s other major poems include “Gerontion” (1920), in which uses an elderly man to symbolize the decrepitude of western society; “ The Hollow Men” (1925), is a moving dirge for the death of the spirit of contemporary humanity, Ash Wednesday (1930), in which, he turns explicitly toward the Church of England for meaning in human life; and Four Quartets (1943) is more philosophical.

      The Waste Land (1922), was dedicated to Pound. At first attracting both praise and derision for its radically experimental technique. It became his most influential work and hence the most influential texts of the modernism. The title suggests by From Ritual to Romance, Jessie L. Weston’s study of the Grail Legend refers to a dry and desolate country which can be revived by a fertility ritual. Using this as his central symbol for European life, after World War I, Eliot explores the various facets of its sterility in five sections — The Burial of the Dead, ‘A Game of Chess’, ‘The Fire Sermon’, and Death by Water’, and ‘What the Thunder Said’. The poetic method throughout is deliberately fragmentary, abandoning traditional verse forms for free verse to juxtapose monologues or overheard snatches of conversation by the inhabitants of the wasteland with allusions, not merely from the Grail legend but to previous literature (Shakespeare and Dante in particular), religious teaching, (the Holy Bible, confessions and the Upanishads) and myth. The resulting ‘heap of broken images’, intensifies the portrait of spiritual decay and hints at the possibilities of redemption. With its repeated chant of ‘Shantih’, which Eliot himself suggested can be translated as ‘The Peace that passeth all understanding’, the ending is deliberately enigmatic. Much critical interpretation of The Waste Land has concentrated on gauging the extent of its pessimism.

      His study of Sanslcrit and Oriental philosophy influenced his poetry. Like his friend Pound, he went to England early and became a towering figure in the literary world there. One of the most respected poets of his day, his modernist, seemingly illogical or abstract iconoclastic poetry had a revolutionary impact. He also wrote influential essays and dramas, and championed the importance of literary and social tradition for the modernist poet. As a critic, Eliot is best remembered for his form illation of the “objective correlative” which he described, in The Sacred Wood, as a means of expressing emotion through “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events that would be the “formula” of that particular emotion. His poetry is complex, highly subjective, experimental meditation on transcendent subjects such as time, the nature of self and spiritual awareness. His symbolic poetry, especially his daring, innovative early work, has influenced generations.

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