Shaping of a Critic, T. S. Eliot: the Weight of both the Western and Eastern Mysticism and Literature


“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
U.S.-born British poet and playwright.
"The Hollow Men"

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), American-born writer, who is regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, carries the weight of both the Western and Eastern mysticism and Literature. A propounder of the depersonalization theory Eliot may be taken as the most autobiographical poet of the twentieth century in any language.

His early family life has great significance in the making of the poet. The primary channel of transmission of culture is the family no man wholly escapes from the kind, or wholly surpasses the degree, of culture which he acquired from his early environment. At any rate some of the pessimism which flourished in Eliot’s early poetry may have derived from his closer contact with New England’s Life in his youth. The child Eliot was also irked by the austerity of Unitarianism which lacked the picturesque elements of most Christian creeds.


T. S. Eliot
Eliot, taught in philosophy, literature and languages, recognized Dante as the most universal poet in the modern languages. He most valued in poetry Dante’s simplicity, his precision of diction and his clear visual image. Dante was the most profound and persistent influence on his life. Dante helped him to see the connexion between the Medieval Christian Inferno and modern life. In 1951 his ‘Talk on Dante’ revealed that after 40 years Eliot still regarded Dante’s poetry as the deepest influence on his own verse. Dante taught him three things; developing and refining the language of one’s nation seeking width of emotional range and being European. “The whole study and practice of Dante seems to me to teach that the poet should be the servant of his language, rather than the master of it. Dante is beyond all other poets of our continent, the most European”.




It is Ezra Pound who sharpened Eliot’s appreciation of Dante and the Medieval Latin poets. Pound had given him the nickname ‘Old possum’. Possum is an animal that shams death to escape. Ezra is the dean of ‘modern’ poets and it is he who groomed Eliot as a ‘modern’ poet. The original manuscript of “The Waste Land” passed through the sieves of pound and was reduced to one Third in volume, He wrote a witty poem on his’ role—that of a male midwife-in the birth of “The Waste Land”. “Sage Homme”. (“Ezra performed the caesarian operation”.) It was Pound who made Eliot see Yeats in a new light. Pound also took interest in Eliot’s material welfare. Pound got “The Love Song” published in ‘Poetry’, an American journal. Eliot’s earliest masterpiece, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” was published in Poetry magazine in 1915. Written as a dramatic monologue, the poem is an examination of the soul of a timid man paralyzed by indecision and worry about his appearance to others, particularly women. Anxious about becoming bald, and about his thin arms and legs, Prufrock hesitates in making even the smallest decisions or actions, wondering: 
“Do I dare 
 Disturb the universe?
 In a minute there is time 
 For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” 

Two other well-known early poems are “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” (1919), which features an aggressive, fun-loving hero who is the opposite of Prufrock, and “Gerontion” (1920), which was originally designed as a prologue to the longer poem “The Waste Land”. “Gerontion” is a glimpse into the soul of an old man whose dreamlike memories wander through Western history from the 5th century BC to the 20th century.

Midleton Murry’s influence on Eliot is apparent in the latter’s critical views.

The most important influence in his Harvard days was Prof. Irving Babbitt, an anti-romanticist. The centre of his philosophy is humanism, Buddhism, Sanskrit and Patanjili’s Metaphysics were other interests which- Babbit imparted to his disciple enduringly.

George Santayana taught in the philosophy department at Harvard. His philosophy based on disillusion, was primarily that of an aesthete. His stoic religion which he called naturalism, assumed that life had no meaning or metaphysical import.

At Harvard Eliot studied Sanskrit under Charles Lanman and Patanjali’s Metaphysics under James Woods. He read the Gita with relish.

Another of Eliot’s masters at Harvard was that extraordinary Philosopher’ Josiah Royce. Royce was one of the leading monists and post-Kantian idealists. It was Royce who led Eliot to take an interest in F. H. Bradley. In the field of philosophy Bradley was incomparably the most important influence on Eliot. Eliot, thoroughly assimilated his ‘Ethical studies’ (1876), The Principles of Logic’ (1883) and “Appearance and Reality” (1893). Bradley; who was partly inspired by Hegel and Lotze, was an exponent of the new Idealism, an opponent of the Utilitarian philosophy of Bentham and mill and a critic of the somewhat mechanistic psychology of Alexander Bain and others. According to Bardley human mind is opaque and each one is imprisoned in the cell of One’s self. Later, Eliot adopted a more critical attitude. T. B Hulme was an exponent of the concept of ‘original sin’. Man is essentially limited and imperfect. Man, can accomplish anything of value only by discipline, ethical and moral. Eliot earned international acclaim in 1922 with the publication of The Waste Land, which he produced with much editorial assistance from Ezra Pound. The Waste Land, a poem in five parts, was ground breaking in establishing the form of the so-called kaleidoscopic, or fragmented, modern poem. These fragmented poems are characterized by jarring jumps in perspective, imagery, setting, or subject. Despite this fragmentation of form, "The Waste Land" is unified by its theme of despair. Its opening lines introduce the ideas of life’s ultimate futility despite momentary flashes of hope: 
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
 Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 
 Memory and desire, stirring
 dull roots with spring rain.” 
The poem goes on to present a sequence of short sketches following an individual’s baffled search for spiritual peace. It concludes with resignation at the never-ending nature of the search. The poem is full of literary and mythological references that draw on many cultures and universalize the poem’s themes.

“The Waste Land” draws much of its symbolism and narrative framework from the mythological story of the quest for the Holy Grail, the sacred cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper. “The Waste Land” appeared in the aftermath of World War I , which was the most destructive war in human history to that point. Many people saw the poem as an indictment of postwar European culture and as an expression of disillusionment with contemporary society, which Eliot believed was culturally barren. His work “The Hollow Men” (1925), based partly on unedited portions of “The Waste Land” manuscript, takes a similar view.

Following Eliot’s conversion to the Church of England in 1927, qualities of serenity and religious humility became important in his poetry. “Ash Wednesday” (1930) shows his sense of how emotionally destructive life can be, but also suggests that everyday suffering may have a purifying effect.

The volume “Four Quartets” (1943)  addresses love, justice, the problem of poetic creation, history, and time—both immediate and fleeting, eternal and repeated. Little Gidding opens with Eliot regarding both notions of time by observing a winter warming, which is both brief and individual, and yet like all winter warmings that have been before or will come after:
 “Midwinter spring is its own season 
 Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, 
 Suspended in time…” 
In these lines Eliot uses the word sempiternal to mean eternal or everlasting.

Baudelaire had been called a ‘fragmentary Dante’. In midnineteenth century he perceived that what really matters ii sin and redemption. This is really ‘sin in the Cbristia sense. Eliot says: “I think that from Baudelaire I learnt first, a precedent for the poetical possibilities, of the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis, of the possibility of fusion between the sordidly and the phantasmagoric, the possibility of the juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact and the fantastic.”

Eliot writes on Jules Laforgue: “He was the first to teach me how to speak, to teach me the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech”.

During the last years at Harward he studied the lives of saints and mystics like St. Theresa of Jesus, Dame Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross and St. Bernard.

Eliot was considerably influenced by the two James’s Henry and William, James Joyce, Conrad and Freud. Freud’s influence is seen in his ‘Hamlet’ criticism. Besides Eliot was a linguist. He knew six languages : English, French, Latin, Greek, German and Sanskrit. His defence of the Metaphysical poets proved to be both a defense of and an apology for his own poetry.

The reference to Eliot’s nostalgia for his youthful love and another life that might have been is inspired by Emily Hale, his American girl friend. To some extent she is the cause of poetic inspiration in Eliot.
Eliot’s indebtedness to Sir James Frazer and Miss Jessie, L. Weston needs no elaboration.

Eliot attended many lectures of the French Philosopher Bergson. Bergson advised people to discard solid intellectual supports and to admit the fluid consciousness. He preferred intuition to reason. Bergson’s influence is seen in “The Love song”. Later Eliot found some of the philosophies of Bergson suspect.

Vivien Heighwood too wrote poetry and was vivacious and devoid of cultural snobbery. Eliot was later disillusioned with the marital relationship. His sorrow was the secret Inferno that gripped underside of his life that he had to traverse before he ‘night be found worthy of the awakening which only Christianity could provide. The excised passages of The Waste Land contain evidence of better mysogeny. Eliot eventually turned from poems and essays to the more public art of plays, all of which he wrote in verse. He also began giving lectures. By 1943 Eliot had given up writing poetry altogether, and he devoted his last 20 years to other kinds of writing.

Eliot’s earliest play, “Sweeney Agonistes” (1932), is a modern, brutish, incarnation of a mythic Greek figure similar to Hercules and Agamemnon. In this work, Eliot used elements of vaudeville, combining slang language and slapstick songs with his more standard theme of the hopelessness of modern life.

Two of Eliot’s plays that examine religion are “The Rock” (1934) and “Murder in the Cathedral” (1935), which was based on the 12th-century English Saint Thomas à Becket, who was killed at Canterbury Cathedral.

Like his poetry, Eliot’s plays also incorporated ancient myth. “The Family Reunion” (1939) is a melodrama concerning a family curse. It draws on the Greek myth of the Eumenides, goddesses who are the guardians of justice. “The Cocktail Party” (1949), with which Eliot first won success as a playwright, explores the theme of salvation, but in the form of a modern comedy of manners (a play that satirizes social customs). Drawing on the play Alcestis by ancient Greek writer Euripides, “The Cocktail Party” presents a psychiatrist as an incarnation of Hercules, who rescued the princess Alcestis from the underworld.

In essays and lectures, Eliot profoundly influenced modern literary criticism. In the collection “The Sacred Wood” (1920), he contended that the critic must develop a strong historical sense to judge literature from the proper perspective, and that the poet must be impersonal in the creative exercise of the craft. As editor of The Criterion, he provided a literary forum for many prominent contemporary writers, including French writers Paul Valéry and Marcel Proust.


Eliot in ‘The Perfect Critic” says; “of all the modern critics perhaps Remy de Gormount had most of the general intelligence, of Aristotle An amateur through an excessively able amateur, in physiolopy, he combined to a remarkable degree sensitiveness, erudition, sense of fact and sense of history and generalizing power”.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Eliot and his poetry were increasingly criticized for elements of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism. Despite these unfortunate prejudices, most people continue to regard Eliot as one of the most important figures in modern literature. As Frank Kermode has noted, in his schismatic traditionalism, romantic classicism and his highly personal personality Eliot resembles John Milton.

References:

1. http://www.whatthethundersaid.org/
2. http://www.bartleby.com/198/index.html
3. http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1948/index.html
4. http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poet111.html
5.  Microsoft Student Encarta

Ardhendu De