“Sunlight on a broken column.” It’s T.S. Eliot’s birthday.

Poets like William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane both said that they needed to forcibly divorce themselves from Eliot’s influence in order to be able to write. His language and influence had that strong a pull. Too much pull. His voice, his way, became THE way. (Interestingly enough, Eliot felt that way about Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, same year as The Waste Land was published. Eliot said about Ulysses: “I wish for my own sake that I hadn’t read it.”)

I went through an Eliot phase in high school, mainly because my drama class had gone to see Cats in New York (I love how culture works, especially with young people: EVERYTHING gets in), and also we had had to read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in English class: this all happened around the same time, and there was something about his descriptions (the yellow fog and I loved the part about the yellow smoke rubbing its back against the window panes) that I really liked. I was very into adjectives back then, and maybe one day I will write about my whole “adjective thing” because it took a truly obsessive form (I had to break myself of the habit, which lasted well into adulthood) and I’m not sure what it was all about. Perhaps it was part of my obsession in capturing beauty, because I knew beauty was not built to last. Eliot’s work was rich with adjectives. I kept lists. I was afraid I would forget.

Eliot had a struggle committing to be a poet. His parents thought it was a waste of energy, and they wanted him to have a “real” job. For a while he kept up the pretense, studying philosophy, going for his dissertation, but all the while, poetry was growing in him.

So guess who entered the picture around this time?

Ezra Pound. What a shock.

Pound read early drafts of Prufrock and browbeat Harriet Monroe (editor of Poetry) to publish it. Monroe didn’t want to at first. Pound tried again. And again. Until finally she caved in 1915.

This is why Ezra Pound was such an important figure (fascism and treason and anti-Semitism notwithstanding). He was a ferocious ADVOCATE of other writers, especially writers who were doing something new, who were changing the rules.

More – much more – on T.S. Eliot after the jump.


I don’t think I knew that T.S. Eliot was American until, oh, yesterday. Kidding, but not really. Cats felt really British to me as a teenager, especially because the composers of the musical were British (not that that has anything to do with anything, just describing my own putting-it-all-together journey) and then “T.S. Eliot” the name sounds oh so British. But no, the man was born in St. Louis. Eventually he became a British citizen, and he lived in Europe for most of his life. Interesting, though: his family was originally from Massachusetts, but T.S. Eliot was raised in St. Louis. Eliot ended up going to Harvard and while there, he felt himself to be a Midwesterner. During his time in St. Louis, he felt like a Northeasterner. There was geographical displacement in him from the start, a sense of alienation that would overwhelm his most famous poems, when he was an American living in war-torn or war-recovering Europe. He was not a “local” guy.

He said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1948:

In the work of every poet there will certainly be much that can only appeal to those who inhabit the same region, or speak the same language, as the poet. But nevertheless there is a meaning to the phrase “the poetry of Europe”, and even to the word “poetry” the world over. I think that in poetry people of different countries and different languages – though it be apparently only through a small minority in any one country – acquire an understanding of each other which, however partial, is still essential.

That all sounds very nice and grown-up, doesn’t it? But Eliot had witnessed the fracturing of “understanding”, in World War I and World War II, and his later poems express the fear and anxiety of that desolate time in Europe (and let’s not forget his good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, which can’t really be denied). In the ‘teens, Eliot went through a lot: he had a troubled first marriage, and lost a dear friend in World War I. His father died. It was a terrible time for him, a terrible time for the world. The result was The Waste Land. Like Yeats’s Second Coming, the poem expresses the overwhelming sense of doom and fear in the world, evil stalking the land, slaughter, carnage, chaos.

Interestingly enough, the form of The Waste Land represented a break with Pound. “Breaking with Pound” was a rite of passage for the writers he championed, and often the symbolic moment when the artist outgrew his teacher/mentor/pusher … and had to go his own way. The poets Pound promoted found themselves eventually having to ‘break’ free of his enormous influence. He pushed them all towards a certain kind of expression. He was responsible for many of their artistic breakthroughs.

Eliot had suffered a nervous breakdown, and needed help with putting together all the drafts of this thing he had been writing, The Waste Land. Pound stepped in. Pound took all of the different drafts and acted as an editor, piecing it together. (It says a lot about Pound that he saw what Eliot was working towards–and although Pound’s goals–and, in some cases, taste–differed from Eliot’s–he put all that aside and honored Eliot’s intentions. Perhaps Eliot would have leaned towards a more streamlined approach, perhaps Pound sensed the poem needed its fractured format.

Eliot said later, about The Waste Land:

In The Waste Land I wasn’t even bothering whether I understand what I was saying.

My Norton Anthology says:

When [The Waste Land] itself was first published, in 1922, it gave Eliot his central position in modern poetry. No one has been able to encompass so much material with so much dexterity, or to express the alienation and horror of so many aspects of the modern world. Though the poem is made of fragments, they are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that might be joined if certain spiritual conditions were met. In this way, Eliot’s attitude toward fragmentation was different from Pound’s – Eliot wanted to recompose the world, whereas Pound thought it could remain in fragments and still have a paradisal aspect that the poet could elicit. In other words, Pound accepted discontinuity as the only way in which the world could be regarded, while Eliot rejected it and looked for a seamless world. He began to find it in Christianity.

Eliot was quick to dismiss his own importance (you can see it in his Nobel speech), and he said, at one point, that The Waste Land wasn’t so much a treatise on the alienation and fragmentation of modern man, but just a piece of “rhythmical grumbling”.

Here is the poem that started it all (for him and for me).

I fell in love with many things when I was 14, things which I then outgrew, things like colored legwarmers and Rick Springfield. But “Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” I will never outgrow.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
. . . . . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
. . . . . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.


George Orwell, “Inside the Whale”, March 1940

The first test of any work of art is survival, and it is a fact that a great deal that was written in the period 1910-30 has survived and looks like continuing to survive. One has only to think of Ulysses, Of Human Bondage, most of Lawrence’s early work, especially his short stories, and virtually the whole of Eliot’s poems up to about 1930, to wonder what is now being written that will wear so well.

Edith Sitwell, Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell:

With the publication of Prufrock, a new era in poetry began.

T.S. Eliot on Ezra Pound:

Then in 1914, I think, we were both in London in the summer. He said, “You go to Pound. Show him your poems. He thought Pound might like them. Aiken liked them, though they were very different from his…I think I went to call on him first. I think I made a good impression, in his little triangular sitting room in Kensington. He said, Send me your poems. And he wrote back, This is as good as anything I’ve seen. Come around and have a talk about them. Then he pushed them on Harriet Monroe, which took a little time… When I went to see Pound, I was not particularly an admirer of his work, and though I now regard the work I saw them as very accomplished, I am certain that in his later work is to be found the grand stuff… He was a marvelous critic because he didn’t try to turn you into an imitation of himself. He tried to see what you were trying to do… There was a long section about a shipwreck. I don’t know what that had to do with anything else, but it was rather inspired by the Ulysses canto in The Inferno, I think. Then there was another section that was an imitation Rape of the Lock. Pound said, It’s no use trying to do something that somebody else has done as well as it can be done. Do something different.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

In 1922 came The Waste Land which seemed to change English poetry for good.

Ezra Pound, letter to Harriet Monroe, September 30, 1914:

[Eliot] has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

At first, Eliot and Pound seemed to be moving in the same direction. They both wrote about the modern world as a group of fragments, Pound in the first Cantos that he published in Poetry and Eliot in The Waste Land, which Pound had helped Eliot complete. Only gradually did it become clear that these poems embodied divergent views: for Eliot, the disjunctiveness of the world was intolerable, and he was determined to mind it (as his eventual conversion to Anglican Christianity helped him do). Pound preferred to accept and exploit this disjunctiveness.

Ezra Pound:

Eliot and I started diverging from the beginning. The fun of an intellectual friendship is that you diverge on something or other and agree on a few points. Eliot, having had the Christian patience of tolerance all his life and so forth, and working very hard, must have found me very trying. We started disagreeing about a number of things from the time we met. We also agreed on a few things and I suppose both of us must have been right about something or other… There’s the whole problem of the relation of Christianity to Confucianism, and there’s the whole problem of the different brands of Christianity. There is the struggle for orthodoxy – Eliot for the Church, me gunning round for particular theologians. In one sense Eliot’s curiosity would appear to have been focused on a smaller number of problems. Even that is too much to say. The actual outlook of the experimental generation was all a question of the private ethos…. I should think the divergence was first a difference in subject matter. He has undoubtedly got a natural language. In the language in the plays, he seems to me to have made a very great contribution. And in being able to make contact with an extant milieu, and an extant state of comprehension.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Much of The Waste Land was written by early 1921. Then Eliot had a breakdown and was advised by a prominent neurologist to take three months away from Lloyd’s Bank. He went first to Margate and then to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he underwent psychiatric treatment. In Paris, with Pound’s brilliant editorial aid, he pieced The Waste Land out of various truncated drafts.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

I confess a lifelong hostility to T.S. Eliot, whose literary criticism did real harm, and whose cultural criticism showed, at times, a vicious proto-Fascism.

George Orwell, As I Please, Poetry, October-November 1942

If one wants to deal in antitheses, one might say that the later poems express a melancholy faith and the earlier ones a glowing despair. They were based on the dilemma of modern man, who despairs of life and does not want to be dead, and on top of this they expressed the horror of an over-civilized intellectual confronted with the ugliness and spiritual emptiness of the machine age.

Ted Hughes on “form”:

Take any passage of “The Waste Land,” or maybe a better example is Eliot’s poem “Marina.” Every word in those poems is as formally fixed, as locked into flexible inner laws, as words can be. The music of those words, the musical inevitability of the pitch, the pacing, the combination of inflections – all that is in some way absolute, unalterable, the ultimate perfect containment of unusually powerful poetic forces. You could say the same of many other examples: Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” any passages in Shakespeare’s blank verse, Shakespeare’s prose. To my mind, the best of the kind of verse usually called free always aspires towards that kind of formal inevitability – a fixed, unalterable, musical, and yet hidden dramatic shape….If the laws are actually there, as they are in the Eliot, the Smart, the Shaksepeare, sooner or later they assert their inevitability in the reader’s mind, and the reader begins to recognize the presence of some absolute, inner form. Of course if those laws aren’t there, they can never assert themselves. The piece never gets a grip on the reader.

Elizabeth Hardwick, “Memoirs, Conversations, and Diaries”, 1953

The fear of toadying is so great nearly everyone celebrates T.S. Eliot’s birthday as he would celebrate his own, quietly, secretly, hardly mentioning it for fear someone would think he wanted something.

Marianne Moore:

If you have a genius of an editor, you are blessed: e.g. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Even Pound and Eliot did not break completely with nineteenth-century poetry: they were indebted to Whitman … But since Pound and Eliot sought to distinguish themselves from the Romantics and Victorians, their modernist emphasis on rupture and on formal invention colors the overall picture of what is new and distinctive in modern poetry as a whole.

T.S. Eliot:

Poetry is not a turning loose of an emotion, but an escape from emotion, it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Michael Schmidt:

His forcefulness as a critic, the patrician authority of his style, defined one possible way for English literature this century to go; but when he was established, he began a gradual recantation, manifested in his plays, later poems and criticism, and in the poetry list he published at Faber and Faber with its notorious sins of omission and commission. He qualified and undermined the radical challenge he threw down in his early works. He changed ground subtly on Milton and on Goethe, poets he had earlier criticized with stupendous severity. The change was dictated by the occasions for which the later appraisals were prepared, and yet change there was, of a kind that smacks of disingenuousness. The later Eliot hardly diminishes the early firebrand. Prufrock may have grown into the elder statesman, but it is Prufrock who is our contemporary, while the elder statesman of Eliot’s last two decades is unreal. Eliot was assimilated into the culture he adopted.

Lytton Strachey on T.S. Eliot, May 14, 1919:

Rather ill and rather American … But by no means to be sniffed at.

George Orwell, As I Please, Poetry, October-November 1942

The qualities by which any society which is to last longer than a generation actually has to bbe sustained–industry, courage, patriotism, frugality, philoprogenitiveness–obviously could not find any place in Eliot’s early poems. There was only room for rentier values, the values of people too civilized to work, fight or even reproduce themselves. But that was the price that had to be paid, at any rate at that time, for writing a poem worth reading.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Throughout Auden’s career, Yeats and Eliot persisted as shaping figures of attraction and repulsion. Despite political differences, Auden was closely associated with Eliot, who, as director of a publishing firm, accepted Auden’s first regularly published books and warmly encouraged him. They were both active members of the Church of England, though Auden’s piety was in comparison much more earthy and unmystical. In pursuit of order and tradition, Eliot left America for England, and Auden, in pursuit of variegation and diffuseness, crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, May 8, 1963:

Randall [Jarrell] was here reading at the Y. Eric Bentley introduced him, said little about him except that he liked their common generation and loathed that before them, good art produced by hideous personalities such as Eliot, Pound and Wyndham Lewis, and also loathed the sewer of the “beats”…When Randall got up he said he had listened to Mr. Bentley and even tried to understand him, that Eliot said James had a mind too fine to be violated by ideas, and that he hoped his audience had such minds because the ideas they had heard would only confuse what they got from his (Randall’s) poems. Then he said Eliot had started out superior to everyone else but had become such a good man that he no longer needed to write poetry. I’m not probably giving the true impression, but Randall got rather gracefully out of a coarse simplification.

George Orwell, “Arthur Koestler”, September 1944

One striking fact about English literature during the present century is the extent to which it has been dominated by foreigners–for example, Conrad, Henry James, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, Pound, and Eliot.

T.S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets” (1923)

It appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. 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, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

Wallace Stevens:

I can’t read much of Eliot or I wouldn’t have any individuality of my own.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, February 15, 1960:

I do hope the wine I sent you was good. The red should have been equal to T.S. Eliot, I think. (I read a fascinating bit of gossip somewhere about his requesting still wines instead of champagne in Chicago–and he & his wife both not being able to eat shrimp, onions, etc.) I wonder if you had him to dinner again.

T.S. Eliot, For Lancelot Andrewes (1928):

[I am] a classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

[In “To Brooklyn Bridge”] Crane accepts the machine, though horrible, as part of this mode of intensity. Densely packed with vivid imagery, the poem as a whole projects future feelings of hope onto the Brooklyn Bridge, in contrast to Eliot’s Waste Land, which depicts London Bridge as the bleak site of modern alienation and dehumanization.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, June 21, 1958:

I must write you about Eliot and his new bride next letter. They danced so dashingly at a Charles River boatclub brawl that he was called “Elbows Eliot.”

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Eliot was an anti-Semite, though his variety of that spiritual illness never achieved the obsessive intensity of his close friend Ezra Pound. I mention this matter so as to get it out of the way, although I believe it was central to Eliot’s cultural polemic. The Anglo-Catholicism to which he converted in 1927 somehow had, for Eliot, an authorization for his anti-Semitism. Even the revelations of the Nazi Death Camps, after the fall of Germany in 1945, had little or no effect upon Eliot’s idea that too many “free-thinking” Jews would jeopardize an idealized Christian society.

Ezra Pound:

I like Eliot’s sentence: “No verse is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” I think the best free verse comes from an attempt to get back to quantitative meter.

George Orwell, “Propaganda and Demotic Speech”, Persuasion, Summer Quarter, 1944

Professor Harold Laski devotes a long passage in his last book, Faith, Reason and Civilization, to an attack on Mr. T.S. Eliot, whom he accuses of “writing only for a few.” Now Eliot, as it happens, is one of the few writers of our time who have tried seriously to write English as it is spoken. Lines like —

“And nobody came, and nobody went,
But he took in the milk and he paid the rent”

are about as near to spoken English as print can come.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

The Waste Land, with the poems by Eliot that became its sequels, and The Cantos, which Pound continued to write until his death, may be seen as rival eminences of early modern verse. The fragments that Eliot wished to reconcile and reintegrate Pound was willing to keep scattered and unchanged. Pound wrote Eliot that he envied him his sense of form, but he did not emulate it. For Pound, Eliot’s sifting and fusing ended in a surprisingly orthodox religious view that Pound regarded as based on too limited a number of particulars. Pound developed his own “ideogrammatic method,” as he called it, in which he heaped up the components of thought so that they would eventually cohere as if without artistic intervention. His image for this method was one of iron filings that, drawn toward a piece of glass for a magnet, assume the pattern of a rose. “Hast ‘ou seen the rose in the steel dust?” he asks. He realized that such a rose might serve him as the rose of beauty had served Yeats, the Christian rose had served Eliot. The Cantos gather slices of time and space, fable and fact, images from aboriginal tribes and effete cultures. The poet achieves his effect not by purifying, but by collocating diffuse materials. Eliot consolidated his innovations, while Pound restlessly extended his.

T.S. Eliot on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience:

The emotions are presented in an extremely simplified, abstract form. This form is one illustration of the eternal struggle of art against education, of the literary artist against the continuous deterioration of language… He is very like Collins. He is very eighteenth century.

Saul Bellow:

Modern literature was dominated by a tone of elegy from the 20s to the 50s, the atmosphere of Eliot in The Waste Land and that of Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Sensibility absorbed this sadness, this view of the artist as the only contemporary link with an age of gold, forced to watch the sewage flowing in the Thames, every aspect of modern civilization doing violence to his (artist-patrician) feelings. This went much farther than it should have been allowed to go.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

In Eliot’s poetry, the imagination conjures broken images of a fragmented world, but strives to reconstruct the symbols needed for survival, symbols that for him are not only imaginative, but spiritual, implying the interdependence of art and religion. In an age characterized by fragmentation, Eliot searches for a symbolic landscape of wholeness and radiance.

T.S. Eliot on Matthew Arnold:

Arnold — I think it will be conceded — was rather a propagandist for criticism rather than a critic, a populariser rather than a creator of ideas.

Elizabeth Bishop:

All the intellectuals were communist except me. I’m always very perverse so I went in for T.S. Eliot and Anglo-Catholicism.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

As editor of the leading literary journal, as a director of a publishing firm, and as poet and critic, he became the principal figure in English letters. His work was translated into many languages, and for decades the latest verses in Arabic, Swahili, or Japanese were far more likely to sound like Eliot than like earlier poets in those languages or like other poets in English. Eliot’s eminence became a hazard to poets such as William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane, who felt that their fundamental aesthetic problem was not to write like him.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

This impressive dramatic monologue [“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”] has a clear debt to Browning, but takes many of its surface procedures from the minor French poet Jules Laforgue, who died in 1887. Laforgue’s personages, like Prufrock, have no inwardness, unlike the great charlatan-questers of Browning. Prufrock is erotically timid, Hamlet-haunted (as Laforgue was), and only too aware of his own comic debasement. As an ironic study of crippling self-consciousness, this is perhaps the slyest and oddest “Love Song” in the language.

T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare’s sonnets:

[Like Hamlet, they are] full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art. And when we search for this feeling, we find it, as in the sonnets, very difficult to localise.

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

Love poetry of the twentieth century is the most varied and sexually explicit since classical antiquity. T.S. Eliot diagnoses the sexual sterility or passivity of modern man.

T.S. Eliot, in condescending mode:

We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy … that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, April 26th, 1962:

I think it would be a good idea to have mimeographed copies of the poems you speak of, to hand out…In general [the Brazilians] know Frost and Millay and E. Dickinson–Pound, Cummings–And Eliot, well.–He has been a great influence on some of them, like Vinicius de Moraes, in his early books (The “Black Orpheus” poet). (D. Thomas–yes–but they don’t really understand him.) Wallace Stevens, vaguely, and Marianne not at all–at least until I got here, and I certainly have done very little propagandizing.

Wallace Stevens:

[Eliot is] a negative rather than a positive force.

Robert Lowell:

In Eliot, the Jew spelled with a small j in “Gerontion,” is that anti-Semitism or not? Eliot’s not anti-Semitic in any sense, but there’s certainly a dislike of Jews in those early poems. Does he gain in the fierceness of writing his Jew with a small j? He says you write what you have to write and in criticism you can say what you think you should believe in. Very ugly emotions perhaps make a poem.

“Eliot’s not anti-Semitic in any sense, but there’s certainly a dislike of Jews in those early poems.” … Uhm …

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language, on The Waste Land:

Eliot never asserted that his major poem was a vision of a world stricken by the absence of Christian culture, but the Eliotic critics always interpreted the poem as a voice in the wilderness, crying out for the return of Christian, classical, and conservative ideas of order.

Ralph Ellison:

The use of ritual is equally a vital part of the creative process. I learned a few things from Eliot, Joyce, and Hemingway, but not how to adapt them. When I started writing, I knew that in both The Waste Land and Ulysses, ancient myth and ritual were used to give form and significance to the material; but it took me a few years to realize that the myths and rites which we find functioning in our everyday lives could be used in the same way.

T.S. Eliot, famously:

[Henry] James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.

William Carlos Williams:

Eliot was trying to find a way to record the speech and he didn’t find it. He wanted to be regular, to be true to the American idiom, but he didn’t find a way to do it. One has to bow down, finally, either to the English, or to the American.

Donald Davie:

The chief advantage of looking at modern poetry from the point of view of the Imaginary Museum is that only from this standpoint do poetic styles as various as those of Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, of Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats, appear as so many different (yet related) answers to one and the same problem – the problem of a radically changed relationship to the poetic past, a relationship which must be different from Tennyson’s or Pope’s.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1949, on a planned satire of T.S. Eliot:

Nothing coarse, obscene, as there sometimes is in the work of Auden and Pound, and nothing so silly as the childish horsing around of Eliot, when he is trying to be funny. He has no sense of humor, and so he is not a true Englishman. There is, I think, in these poems of mine against Eliot nothing which could be considered abusive; they are merely murderous.


Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language, on The Waste Land:

Lingering in the poem (and unmentioned in Eliot’s “Notes”) are traces of Tennyson’s monodrama, Maud, where the neurasthenic young narrator-protagonist is reduced to complaining: “And my heart is a handful of dust.” “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” Eliot proclaims, and the fear is the loss of potency, both sexual and poetic.

Michael Schmidt:

The Waste Land is inexhaustible because of the way in which it evokes a particular social, moral, historical and aesthetic moment, freighted with an abundant past, wrecked on a sterile present. To ask for a coherent “solution” to the poem is to misread the very technique. There is a solution, but there is a cultural and historical gap between the mad prince and the thunder’s counsel.

George Orwell, “Literature and the Left”, Tribune, June 1943

For it should be noted that in its attitude towards “highbrows”–that is, towards any writer or artist who makes experiments in technique–the Left is no friendlier than the Right. Not only is “highbrow” almost as much a word of abuse in the Daily Worker as in Punch, but it is exactly those writers whose work shows both originality and the power to endure that Marxist doctrinaires single out for attack. I could name a long list of examples, but I am thinking especially of Joyce, Yeats, Lawrence and Eliot. Eliot, in particular, is damned in the left-wing press almost as automatically and perfunctorily as Kipling–and that by critics who only a few years back were going into raptures over the already forgotten masterpieces of the Left Book Club. If you ask a “good party man” (and this goes for almost any party of the Left) what he objects to in Eliot, you get an answer that ultimately reduces to this. Eliot is a reactionary (he has declared himself a royalist, an Anglo-Catholic, etc.), and he is also a “bourgeois intellectual”, out of touch with the common man: therefore he is a bad writer. Contained in this statement is a half-conscious confusion of ideas which vitiates nearly all politico-literary criticism.

You said it, George. Nothing has changed.

Jorge Luis Borges on Eliot as a critic:

At first I thought of [Eliot] as being a finer critic than a poet; now I think that sometimes he is a very fine poet, but as a critic I find that he’s too apt to be always drawing fine distinctions. If you take a great critic, let’s say, Emerson or Coleridge, you feel that he has read a writer, and that his criticism comes from his personal experience of him, while in the case of Eliot you always think – at least I always feel – that he’s agreeing with some professor or slightly disagreeing with another. Consequently, he’s not creative. He’s an intelligent man who’s drawing fine distinctions, and I suppose he’s right; but at the same time after reading, to take a stock example, Coleridge on Shakespeare, especially on the character of Hamlet, a new Hamlet had been created for you, or after reading Emerson or Montaigne or whoever it may be. In Eliot there are no such acts of creation. You feel that he has read many books on the subject – he’s agreeing or disagreeing – sometimes making slightly nasty remarks, no? … In the end, I suppose he thought of himself as being an English classic, and then he found that he had to be polite to his fellow classics, so that afterwards he took back most of the things he had said about Milton or even against Shakespeare.

T.S. Eliot on Algernon Charles Swinburne:

We may take it as undisputed that Swinburne did make a contribution; that he did something that had not been done before, and that what he did will not turn out to be a fraud…Now, in Swinburne the meaning and the sound are one thing. He is concerned with the meaning of the word in a peculiar way: he employs, or rather ‘works,’ the word’s meaning. And this is connected with an interesting fact about his vocabulary: he uses the most general word, because his emotion is never particular, never in direct line of vision, never focused; it is emotion reinforced, not by intensification, but by expansion … It is, in fact, the word that gives him the thrill, not the object… Language in a healthy state presents the object, is so close to the object that the two are identified. Only a man of genius could dwell so exclusively and consistently among words as Swinburne.

T.S. Eliot:

You have to say the thing the difficult way. The only alternative is not saying it at all, at that stage … These things, however, become easier to people with time. You get used to having The Waste Land, or Ulysses, about.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Recognizing and interpreting allusions depends upon both the reader’s learning and her tact. T.S. Eliot, in his charmingly outrageous and frequently unreliable “Notes” to The Waste Land, charts some of his allusions while evading others. His famous line–“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”–clearly alludes to the morbid young protagonist of Tennyson’s Maud, who cries out to us: “And my heart is a handful of dust.”

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, September 8th, 1948

I’ve just been reading through that new collection of Eliot’s criticism (some books arrived, thank goodness) & he is one of the few poets now, I think, who can really write about it convincingly–& then I don’t even like him when he gets that oh-so-resigned tone.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

The initial reaction to The Waste Land was violently mixed. Most poets, while admiring its technical inventiveness and finish, found it hard to like. Yeats felt it was dour and despairing. Robert Graves clung to traditional forms, disparaging their disintegration by Eliot. John Crowe Ransom wrote an adverse review of the poem, to which his sometime pupil Allen Tate published a refutation. Hart Crane was moved by The Waste Land, but thought that Eliot’s despair was exaggerated and that his own mission, assisted by Walt Whitman’s example, must be to effect a redemption of Eliot’s disintegrated or corrupted world.

Michael Schmidt:

His work is immediately recognizable as his. It would be hard to confuse even the least-known of his lines with that of another poet. His images, cadences and tones are distinctive.

George Orwell, As I Please, Poetry, October-November 1942

But the trouble is that conscious futility is something only for the young. One cannot go on “despairing of life” into a ripe old age. One cannot go on and on being “decadent”, since decadence means falling and one can only be said to be falling if one is going to reach the bottom reasonably soon. Sooner or later one is obliged to adopt a positive attitude towards life and society.

Jeanette Winterson:

I had no one to help me, but T.S. Eliot helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at schools because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Ezra Pound

We are up against so many mysteries. There is the problem of benevolence, the point at which benevolence has ceased to be operative. Eliot says that they spend their time trying to imagine systems so perfect that nobody will have to be good. A lot of questions asked in that essay of Eliot’s cannot be dodged, like the question of whether there need be any change from the Dantesque scale of values or the Chaucerian scale of values. If so, how much? People who have lost reverence have lost a great deal.

Christopher Hitchens, in an essay about Evelyn Waugh:

I’ve done the best I can: Evelyn Waugh was a reactionary and that’s that. But he combined in the same person an attachment to modernism. (Lines from “The Waste Land” occur in the title of one of his novels, and in the text of another one.) Like Eliot, his prejudices were in some way his muse.

T.S. Eliot on Elizabethan-Jacobean poets:

In common with the greatest – Marlowe, Webster, Tourner, and Shakespeare – they had a quality of sensuous thought, or of thinking through the senses, or of the senses thinking, of which the exact formula remains to be defined.

Chinua Achebe on Eliot:

I had to study [Eliot] at Ibadan. He had a kind of priestly erudition – eloquence, but of a different kind. Scholarly to a fault. But I think the poem from which I took the title of No Longer at Ease, the one about the three magi, is one of the great poems of the English language. These people who went and then came back to their countries were “no longer at ease”…I think that that is great – the use of simple language, even when things talked about are profound, very moving, very poignant.

Robert Graves, on meeting Eliot in 1916:

A startlingly good-looking, Italianate young man, with a shy, hunted look, and a reluctance (which I found charming) to accept the most obvious phenomenon of the day – a world war now entering its bloodiest stage … I was due to return to the Somme any day, and delighted to forget the war too in Eliot’s gently neutral company.

Wallace Stevens (am I nuts or do I detect a note of anxiety here?):

Eliot and I are dead opposites.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language, on “The Waste Land”:

The major paradigm for The Waste Land is Walt Whitman’s majestic elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” though most of Eliot’s critics fail to see this. And yet all the major images and thematic clusters of The Waste Land derive from the “Lilacs” lament: the lilacs themselves that begin Eliot’s poem, the “unreal city,” the doubling of the self, the “dear brother,” the “murmur of maternal lamentation,” faces peering at us, and the hermit thrust’s song. Even Eliot’s “third who always walks beside you” is hardly the risen Christ, as The Waste Land notes assert, but is closer to Whitman’s companions as he walks down to the hermit thrush’s abode, the “thought of death” and the “knowledge of death.” Eliot’s song of death, or of death-in-life, follows closely the pattern of Whitman’s.

Hart Crane to Allen Tate, 1922:

I have been facing [Eliot] for four years, – and while I haven’t discovered a weak spot yet in his armour, – I flatter myself a little lately that I have discovered a safe tangent to strike which, if I can possibly explain the position, – goes through him toward a different goal. You see it is such a fearful temptation to imitate him that at times I have been almost distracted … In his own realm Eliot presents us with an absolute impasse, yet oddly enough, he can be utilized to lead us to, intelligently point to, other positions and ‘pastures new’. Having absorbed him enough we can trust ourselves as never before, in the air or on the sea. I, for instance, would like to leave a few of his ‘negations’ behind me, risk the realm of the obvious more, in quest of new sensations, humeurs.

T.S. Eliot:

I’d rather have younger people to look at things first. If they like it, they will show it to me, and see whether I like it too. When you get something that knocks over younger people of taste and judgment and older people as well, then that’s likely to be something important. Sometimes there’s a lot of resistance. I shouldn’t like to feel that I was resisting, as my work was resisted when it was new, by people who thought that it was imposture of some kind of other.

Rebecca West, in an interview with Paris Review:

Goodness! T.S. Eliot, whom I didn’t like a bit? He was a poseur. He was married to this woman who was very pretty. My husband and I were asked to see them, and my husband roamed around the flat and there were endless photographs of T.S. Eliot and bits of his poetry done in embroidery by pious American ladies, and only one picture of his wife, and that was when she was getting married. Henry pointed it out to me and said, I don’t think I like that man.

T.S. Eliot on Milton:

After the erection of the Chinese Wall of Milton, blank verse has suffered not only arrest but retrogression.

from “Letter to Lord Byron”
By W.H. Auden

The vogue for Black Mass and the cult of devils
Has sunk. The Good, the Beautiful, the True
Still fluctuate about the lower levels.
Joyces are firm and there there’s nothing new.
Eliots have hardened just a point or two.
Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts.
There’s been some further weakening in Prousts…

You’ve had your packet from time critics, though:
They grant you warmth of heart, but at your head
Their moral and aesthetic brickbats throw.
A ‘vulgar genius’ so George Eliot said,
Which doesn’t matter as George Eliot’s dead,
But T.S. Eliot, I am sad to find,
Damns you with: ‘an uninteresting mind’.

A statement which I must say I’m ashamed at;
A poet must be judged by his intention,
And serious thought you never said you aimed at.
I think a serious critic ought to mention
That one verse style was really your invention,
A style whose meaning does not need a spanner,
You are the master of the airy manner.

Ted Hughes:

Eliot’s editorial hand on me could not have been lighter. In my second book of verse he suggested one verbal change, but I didn’t follow it. I should have. He made some very useful suggestions in a book of verse for children that I wrote. I certainly followed them.

Christopher Hitchens, in essay about Aldous Huxley:

In an article describing the “jazz age” in California in the late 1920s, [Huxley] had relished the profusion of nubile young girls and wrote that: “Plumply ravishing, they give, as T.S. Eliot has phrased it, ‘promise of pneumatic bliss.’ Eliot spent his critical and poetic energy in the attempt to revive, in a more specifically Catholic and conservative form, the values of Matthew Arnold. So it is again amusing to note that the coarse word “pneumatic,” used throughout Brave New World by both its male and female characters as a cheap synonym for good sex, derives from this rather disapproving source, as well as expressing Huxley’s own divided view on the subject.

T.S. Eliot on “intention”:

I wonder what an intention means. One wants to get something off one’s chest. One doesn’t know quite what it is that one wants to get off the chest until one’s got it off. But I couldn’t apply the word intention positively to any of my poems. Or to any poem.

George Orwell, As I Please, Poetry, October-November 1942

Eliot’s escape from individualism was into the Church, the Anglican Church as it happened. One ought not to assume the gloomy Petainism to which he now appears to have given himself over was the unavoidable result of his conversion. The Anglo-Catholic movement does not impose any political “line” on its followers, and a reactionary or austro-fascist tendency had always been apparent in his work, especially his prose writings.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Or we can remember Hamlet (as I suspect Eliot does): “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,” whereas our “conscience” as moral awareness or sense of guilt is later in provenance, and is only secondary to Eliot’s lines:

The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

In a sustained, brilliant irony, Eliot imputes consciousness to the street, which in “assume” mistakes itself for heaven. Reflecting on the irony of his images, the poet has a notion of what heaven indeed might “assume”: “some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing.” Earlier in “Preludes,” Eliot speaks to a waking soul:

You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands.

I know nothing better by Eliot than the “Preludes.” They so restored the strangeness of meaning that they became immensely fecund. The Waste Land founds its style upon them and so, in an intense agon with Eliot, does the lyrical genius of Hart Crane, who fought Eliot’s vision yet could not resist Eliot’s style and example, the “Preludes” in particular, where urban imagery is raised to an ironic glory.

Jeanette Winterson, “The Semiotics of Sex”:

The man who won’t read Virginia Woolf, the lesbian who won’t touch T.S. Eliot, are both putting subjective concerns in between themselves and the work. Literature, whether made by heterosexuals or homosexuals, whether to do with lives gay or straight, packs in it supplies of energy and emotion that all of us need.

Christopher Hitchens, “Joyce in Bloom,” Vanity Fair, 2004:

[T]ake the vast, continuing controversy over the bigotry of T.S. Eliot. In a notorious lecture entitled “After Strange Gods,” delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933, Eliot had said that the presence of “too many free-thinking Jews” was “undesirable” in a well-ordered society. Seeking to define what was meant by a traditional community, he proposed that we call it “the same people, living in the same place.” And the deceptively simple formulation is taken word for word from Leopold Bloom, who offers it in Barney Kiernan’s pub when challenged, and then challenged again, by a violently anti-Jewish Irish nationalist. Nobody knows why Eliot chose to quote Bloom, without attribution, in a public address designed to attack Jewish influence. All we know is that he admired Joyce extravagantly, and that a novel mined by Orwell and Eliot within a year or so of each other, when Ulysses was still a banned book, is a considerable literary force.

Jorge Luis Borges, in an interview with The Paris Review:

If you don’t mind my saying so, I think Frost is a finer poet than Eliot. I mean, a finer poet. But I suppose Eliot was a far more intelligent man; however, intelligence has little to do with poetry. Poetry springs from something deeper; it’s beyond intelligence. It may not even be linked with wisdom. It’s a thing of its own; it has a nature of its own. Undefniable. I rememer – of course I was a young man – I was even angry when Eliot spoke in a slighting way of Sandburg …

T.S. Eliot:

People find a way in which they can say something – I can’t say it that way, what way can I find that will do? One didn’t really bother about the existing modes.

Hart Crane to Allen Tate, 1922:

I take Eliot as a point of departure toward an almost complete reverse of direction. His pessimism is amply justified, in his own case. But I would apply as much of his erudition and technique as I can absorb and assemble toward a more positive, or (if I must put it so in a sceptical age) ecstatic goal. I should not think of this if a kind of rhythm and ecstacy were not (at odd moments, and rare!) a very real thing to me. I feel that Eliot ignores certain spiritual events and possibilities as real and powerful now as, say in the time of Blake … After this perfection of death – nothing is possible in motion but a resurrection of some kind.

T.S. Eliot:

I always feel it’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.”

Jeanette Winterson, “The Semiotics of Sex”:

The rebel writer who brings healing and pain, need not be a Marxist or a Socialist, need not be political in the journalistic sense and may fail the shifting tests of Correctness, while standing as a rebuke to the hollowed out days and as a refuge from our stray hearts. Communist and People’s Man, Stephen Spender, had the right credentials, but Catholic and cultural reactionary T.S. Eliot made the poetry.

T.S. Eliot:

Among the public there are always people who prefer mediocrity, and when they get it, they say What a relief! Here’s some real poetry again.

Michael Schmidt:

Eliot reaches a degree of experiential intensity unparalleled in modern poetry; it is natural, if regrettable, that he had to retreat into cogitation.

Philip Larkin:

I admire Murder in the Cathedral as much as anything Eliot ever wrote. I read it from time to time for pleasure, which is the highest compliment I can pay. I didn’t know [Eliot]. Once I was in the Faber offices – the old oens, 24 Russell Square, that magic address! – talking to Charles Monteith, and he said, Have you ever met Eliot? I said no, and to my astonishment he stepped out and reappeared with Eliot, who must have been in the next room. We shook hands, and he explained that he was expecting someone to tea and couldn’t stay. There was a pause, and he said, I’m glad to see you in this office. The significance of that was that I wasn’t a Faber author – it must have been before 1964, when they published The Whitsun Weddings – and I took it as a great compliment. But it was a shattering few minutes, I hardly remember what I thought.

William Carlos Williams, Autobiography (1948):

[The Waste Land was] a great catastrophe… [It stopped] the rediscovery of a primal impulse, the elementary principle of all art, in the local condition. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it … Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself–rooted in the locality, which should give it fruit.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

After the publication of The Waste Land, [William Carlos] Williams campaigned against it: its sinister merit was so powerful that it might well block the movement toward and indigenous American verse … Published a year after The Waste Land, the title poem of Williams’s Spring and All opens with a “waste of broad, muddy fields / brown with dried weeds,” but things that seem dead in Williams’s poem, unlike those in Eliot’s waste land, are slowly reborn into their particular lives: “clarity, outline of leaf.” Williams felt that Eliot had imposed a shape on material that should have been allowed to take its own shape.

Ted Hughes:

I’ve sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be a good idea to write under a few pseudonyms. Keep several quite different lines of writing going… What does Eliot say? “Dance, dance, / Like a dancing bear, / Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape, / To find expression.”

Edmund Wilson to John Dos Passos, May 11, 1933:

I heard T.S. Eliot read his poems the other night … He is an actor and really put on a better show than Shaw.

George Orwell, As I Please, Poetry, October-November 1942

I know a respectable quantity of Eliot’s earlier work by heart. I did not sit down and learn it, it simply stuck in my mind as any passage of verse is libel to do when it has really rung the bell.

E.M. Forster on Eliot’s early poems lack of “public spiritedness”:

They sang of private disgust and diffidence, and of people who seemed genuine because they were unattractive or weak…Here was a protest, and a feeble one, and the more congenial for being feeble…He who could turn aside to complain of ladies and drawing-rooms preserved a tiny drop of our self-respect, he carried on the human heritage.

T.S. Eliot, 1950:

The years between 50 and 70 are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things and yet are not decrepit enough to turn them down.

Jorge Luis Borges on Eliot and Joyce:

I think that Eliot and Joyce wanted their readers to be rather mystified and so to be worrying out the sense of what they had done.

T.S. Eliot on John Dryden:

Dryden appeared to cleanse the language of verse and once more bring it back to prose order. For this reason he is a great poet.

Ted Hughes:

I suppose [Auden] is not a poet who taps the sort of things I am trying to tap in myself. Eliot was. I met Eliot only rarely and briefly. Once he and his wife Valerie invited Sylvia and myself to dinner. We were a bit overawed. Fortunately Stephen Spender, who was there, knew how to handle it. What do I recall? Many small humorous remarks. His very slow eating. The size of his hands – very large hands. Once I asked him if the Landscapes, those short beautiful little pieces each so different from the others, were selections from a great many similar unpublished things. I thought they might be the sort of poems he whittled away at between the bigger works. No, he said. That’s all there was. They just came. It’s a mystery. He wins the big races with such ease – but how did he keep in trim? How did he get into form? He seems to me one of the very great poets. One of the very few.

Michael Schmidt:

Eliot effected a radical change in the ways in which the intelligentsia thought about poetry and literature generally, but the change – in Britain at least – was not as fundamental as it once seemed. There are forces of reaction, the most potent being those that present themselves as the most “liberal” and democratic.

T.S. Eliot:

The emotion of art is impersonal. [The poet experiences] a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

E.M. Forster on Eliot:

What he seeks is not revelation but stability.

George Orwell, As I Please, Poetry, October-November 1942

There is no saying whether Mr. Eliot’s development could have been much other than it has been. All writers who are any good develop throughout life, and the general direction of their development is determined. It is absurd to attack Eliot, as some left-wing critics have done, for being a “reactionary” and to imagine that he might have used his gifts in the cause of democracy and Socialism. Obviously a skepticism about democracy and a disbelief in “progress” are an integral part of him; without them he could not have written a line of his works. But it is arguable that he would have done better to go much further in the direction implied in his famous ‘Anglo-Catholic and Royalist’ declaration. He could not have developed into a Socialist, but he might have developed into the last apologist of aristocracy.

Edgell Rickword:

It is by his struggle with technique that Mr. Eliot has been able to get closer than any other poet to the physiology of our sensations … to explore and make palpable the more intimate distresses of a generation for whom all the romantic escapes had been blocked.

Michael Schmidt:

In The Waste Land he demanded to be read differently from other poets. He alters our way of reading for good, if we read him properly. The poem does not respond to analysis of its meanings – meanings cannot be detached from the texture of the poetry itself. The idiom is synthetic, fusing (or collaging) voices, each with its own allusions and images and implicit life story.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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22 Responses to “Sunlight on a broken column.” It’s T.S. Eliot’s birthday.

  1. Brendan says:

    “There were many things that I fell in love with when I was 14 that I then outgrew, like colored legwarmers and Rick Springfield. But “Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” I will never outgrow.”

    This sentence is literally why your blog is popular in a nutshell.

  2. Paul H. says:

    Modern poetry is unthinkable without this poet, and this poem in particular. I never tire of it, and it always moves me.

    Most people in adolescence exhibit destructive behaviour of one form or another, but… adjectives? Wow! I prescribe a good dose of George Orwell twice daily.

    • sheila says:

      Paul – hahahaha I am too embarrassed to even describe my whole “adjective project”. It went on for years. I couldn’t stop myself and I still catch myself doing it, on occasion, if a book is particularly descriptive.

      Worse than a heroin addiction, this adjective thing, I tell ya!


    • sheila says:

      and yes: I never get sick of this poem either. You can almost hear the old forms crack apart, you can hear the birth of modernism in it.

  3. Bob Fergusson says:

    I hadn’t read the Love Song in years, what a jerk I am. Thanks for reminding me why this should be on my repeated reading list. Great post as usual.

  4. Gina in AL says:

    Pound was such an important figure in the careers of so many writers, and yet is so unknown? neglected? today. He was involved with helping Eliot edit The Wasteland too. Makes me want to go look at him, read a Canto or two, don’t think I could read them all! Thanks for Prufrock, drinking coffee in my cubicle, the line about coffee spoons really resonates. I can’t remember a time when this poem was not part of my life. I really must try and learn it by heart, for those dark nights when sleep refuses to visit.

    • sheila says:

      Gina – yes, I find Pound’s poetry sometimes incomprehensible – but boy, what a fascinating figure. He seemed to be everywhere during those years, championing, pushing, promoting. I think he was a better editor/promoter than he was a poet. Then of course there were his political views and his rather obvious mental illness which ended up causing him so many problems. But yes: he is such an influential figure!!

      My dad read the recent biography of him (last 5 years or so), and I have his copy. Still haven’t read it yet.

  5. Clary says:

    Hi Sheila
    Not being AngloSaxon, I didn’t read this poem at school, so when it came to me at 30 years old, I was just mad because I didn’t read it before. Such quiet force in the sentences. Such elegance in the rhyme. Such imagination in the contraposition of images. It has stayed with me forever. Thank you for making me read it once more.

  6. mutecypher says:

    I came across a list of quotes from Mr. Eliot. Here’s one that I thought would go especially well on your blog:

    • “The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man”

  7. Sheila! Mon semblable! Mon frere!
    I am so thrilled to have discovered you as I am reading Ulysses and am gobsmacked by how similar to the Waste Land it is and have been looking online to find others who say “omg, Eliot totally cribbed Joyce” but couldn’t find much. To me it is echo after echo, although they were both published the same year. If Eliot hadn’t written Prufrock so much earlier I would be super bummed because at least that validates that he was going in that direction and had major talent before he read the ms of Ulysses and finished/wrote The Waste Land. would love to connect with you over literature! (and movies). Big virtual hug from a fellow nerd who is also reading and blogging my way through my own library (selfishbookclub.com)

  8. Michael says:

    I never seek out Prufrock but every year or so it seems to find me one more time. So, thanks for the annual reintroduction. The poem is so rich that I have never been able absorb it at one go and instead take away a stanza or even a line to contemplate and ruminate over until the next time I bump into it. This morning “I should have been a pair of ragged claws” seems to be the line that will stick with me. Given the way things are going in the world, scuttling across the floors of silent seas sounds like a peaceful alternative.

    Reading it again, it reminds me that there were two movies from the mid-1980s with titles inspired by lines from this poem, “I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing” and “Eat the Peach.” The latter is about two Irish men who decide to become motorcycle daredevils after watching “Roustabout,” which, now that I think about it, sounds like it was designed in a lab to appeal to just you.

    • sheila says:

      Michael – I love your comment! and how have I never seen Eat the Peach?? Roustabout? I’m on it!

      I know what you mean about not being able to absorb the poem. I can’t have understood it at 15, 16, whenever I read it – but somehow I understood it was huge. You know how kids can kind of “get” that, even if they don’t GET it? I knew it was beyond me. What filtered into my consciousness was the vividness of the images – I could see it all – what he was SAYING was not all that clear.

      Life and experience and all the rest makes the poem reveal itself. But it’s still, as you say, difficult to absorb.

  9. gina in al says:

    All the years I have read, known The Love Song and yet this rainy morning I see it in images as though in a silent film, closeups and atmospheric pans, black and white, a little jerky as many of the early films seem to us (with the differences in technology). There is something Expressionistic in it, with a part for Louise Brooks (that Midwestern siren!). Ezra was born in Idaho, a Westerner. He and Ford Madox Ford were among the accoucheurs du modernisme.

  10. It seems to me that I recall an anecdote about Elliott returning to Harvard for a lecture or something and being greeted with a version of this:
    I’ve always liked that story

  11. Larry Aydlette says:

    Prufrock will always be my favorite poem. Wish I could get into the rest of Eliot as much.

  12. I think I always like Elizabeth Bishop’s insights best

  13. rae says:

    J Alfred Prufrock was also my gateway to Eliot, and remains the old familiar favorite! There’s something about it that always begs to be read aloud and pulls me along through far more verses than I intended to absorb…

    Two things stick with me the most: those inviting, engaging opening lines (that first English stanza!) and do I dare and do I dare, do I dare to eat a peach (I have no explanation; I even hate peaches, and yet the line lingers in my brain).

    • sheila says:

      Rae – great thoughts!! It really is a good gateway – the Michelangelo repetition – I barely even know what it means, but it creates such a specific and palpable image.

      and yeah … those first lines. I quote them all the time in my head – I didn’t even consciously memorize them. They’re just THERE.

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