The first and probably the definitive questioning of Eliot's American qualities took place in the 1910s and 1920s and involved a dialogue between William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Williams, a passionate admirer of Thoreau's concentration on the local and the here and now, was particularly offended by The Waste Land and the poems that preceded it, and lamented in his Autobiography that the publication of The Waste Land "wiped out our world.... Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form" rooted in "locality.... To me especially it struck like a sardonic bullet. I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years."
But Williams' notion of American poetry did not go unchallenged even then. Ezra Pound replied to an earlier expression of Williams's sentiments in no uncertain terms:
BALLS! My dear William. At what date did you join the
ranks of the old ladies? . . . You can idealize [America] all you
like but.... you have the advantage of arriving in the milieu with a
fresh flood of Europe in your veins, Spanish, French, English, Danish.
You had not the thin milk of New York and New England from the pap,
and you can therefore keep the environment outside you, and decently
AN AMERICAN POET
Pound's perception was acute. Whether we regard Eliot's literary self-consciousness, still unsettling, as the expression of an empowering tradition or a debilitating disease, it remains the distinctive trace of a New England sensibility, not a departure from it. Eliot himself recognized as much early on and caricatured himself in self-portraits in which he appears as a New Englander more comfortable in literature than in life · in his memorable phrase, a "Burbank with a Baedeker" on a permanent grand tour.
At the end of the twentieth century, Eliot's relationship with the past looked much more remarkable than his self-caricature or Pound's defense, and uncannily like that of Williams' principal American predecessor, Walt Whitman. Writing on contemporary poetry in July 1919 in the Egoist, for example, Eliot spoke of the way poetry affected him in erotic and occult terms that unmistakably recall the following from one of Whitman's "Calamus" poems, "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand":
Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
Without one thing all will be useless,
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.
Who is he that would become my follower?
Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?
The way is suspicious, the result uncertain, perhaps destructive,
You would have to give up all else, I alone would expect to be
your sole and exclusive standard
"There is a close analogy," Eliot writes in the Egoist, "between the sort of experience which develops a man and the sort of experience that develops a writer." To write is to be touched by a relation
of profound kinship, or rather of a peculiar personal
intimacy, with another, probably a dead author. It may overcome us
suddenly, on first or after long acquaintance; it is certainly a
crisis; and when a young writer is seized with his first passion of
this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks
even, from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person. The
imperative intimacy arouses for the first time a real, an unshakable
confidence. That you possess this secret knowledge, this intimacy,
with the dead man, that after few or many years or centuries you
should have appeared, with this indubitable claim to distinction; who
can penetrate at once the thick and dusty circumlocutions about his
reputation, can call yourself alone his friend: it is something more
than encouragement to you. It is a cause of development, like
personal relations in life. Like personal intimacies in life, it may
and probably will pass, but it will be ineffaceable.... The usefulness
of such a passion... [is] various. For one thing it secures us against
forced admiration.... We may not be great lovers; but if we had a
genuine affair with a real poet of any degree we have acquired a
monitor to avert us when we are not in love.... [For another] our
friendship gives us an introduction to the society in which our friend
moved; we learn its origins and its endings; we are broadened. We do
not imitate, we are changed, and our work is the work of the changed
man; we have not borrowed, we have been quickened, and we become
bearers of a tradition.
It is as if, finally, "dead voices speak through the living voice" · a real "incarnation."
Eliot's account suggests something fundamental about the way his poetry compounds exquisite sensitivity to verbal nuance with uncommonly direct access to unconscious power. This was what Randall Jarrell had in mind in an essay entitled "Fifty Years of American Poetry" when he wrote that, far from being an over-intellectualized poet, Eliot managed to convey raw unconscious power. "From a psychoanalytic point of view," he suggested, Eliot was "far and away the most interesting poet of [the] century" and perhaps "one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions [and] obsessions."
Nor is the psychological power that Jarrell describes the only quality that safeguards Eliot's allusiveness from the whiff of the classroom Williams ascribed. If Eliot's verse (especially his early verse) is saturated with earlier poetry, it is also instinctively and programmatically suspicious of the claims of the writing it invokes. In part this is because from the time he was very young Eliot temperamentally questioned everything about himself. Indeed his truest sense of himself, like that of Lord Claverton, his alter ego in his 1959 play, The Elder Statesman, seems to have included the feeling that
With myself, I suspect, very deep within myself
Has impelled me all my life to find justification
Not so much to the world · first of all to myself.
What is this self inside us, this silent observer,
Severe and speechless critic, who can terrorise us
And urge us on to futile activity,
And in the end, judge us still more severely
For the errors into which his own reproaches drove us?
This self-distrust forms Eliot's literary style, generating a characteristic self-reflexive irony that his philosophical studies deepened into a principled and radical resistance to positives of many kinds · propositional, stylistic, and emotional. Early in the century the force of this irony helped define writing in English and, more generally, the sensibility of the modern mind. For it is related to fundamental twentieth-century paradigms of thought. (As in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, for instance, for whom, as Richard Shusterman reminds us, "doctrines of the radical indeterminacy of aesthetic concepts and the logical plurality and essential historicity of aesthetic judgment... work to undermine the charm and credibility of both deductive and inductive models of critical reasoning.") Eliot's irony conditions not only his characteristic tone but also the structural procedures of his narrative verse, producing the jumps and fragmentation that caused so many of his first readers to associate his work with jazz.
Eliot himself articulated his intellectual skepticism in specifically American terms. Reviewing Henry Adams' autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, in the 1919 Athenaeum, he spoke of "the Boston doubt: a scepticism which is difficult to explain to those who are not born to it" · "a product, or a cause, or a concomitant, of Unitarianism" that "is not destructive, but it is dissolvent." And in examining Eliot's early life and writing, recent commentators (particularly Eric Sigg and Manju Jain) have pointed to peculiarly American contexts of his skepticism and of its poetic and intellectual products. Eliot's ironic attitudes were early associated with his membership in an American social elite in decline, and with the disdain of that elite for the forces of immigration and tolerance that were transforming the nation. From another perspective, both Eliot's religious leanings and his tendency to reformulate them in poetic terms derive, as his remarks about "the Boston doubt" suggest, from his family's Unitarian roots, and from the Unitarians' struggle to universalize traditional authority.
And yet Unitarian universalism, from the perspective of traditional New England Calvinism, seems inadequate, and behind Eliot's questioning of Unitarian universalism stands a substantial literary history that includes the critiques of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. Some if not all these issues played themselves out in the development of pragmatist philosophy at Harvard in what has been called the golden age of American philosophy, and as a graduate student in the discipline trained there at that moment, Eliot honed his skepticism in a climate that both encouraged radical thinking and disapproved of it when it overstepped the bounds of humanitarian meliorism.
BACKGROUND AND YOUTH
But such matters are better considered in relation to the particulars of Eliot's life. Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, the youngest member of a family that took pains to impress on him the importance of its history and achievement. His paternal grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, was distantly related to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Herman Melville, and had been a protégeé of William Ellery Channing, the dean of American Unitarianism. William Eliot graduated from Harvard Divinity School, then moved toward the frontier. He founded the Unitarian church in Saint Louis and soon became a pillar of the midwestern city's religious and civic life. He helped start the Academy of Science and Washington University (where he taught metaphysics) as well as Smith Academy for boys and the Mary Institute for girls. Because of William's ties to these schools, the Eliot family chose to remain in their urban Locust Street home long after the area had run down and their peers had moved to suburbs.
William Greenleaf Eliot dearly wanted his son to enter the clergy, but Henry Ware Eliot resisted. In 1865 (after his father had alienated a substantial part of his congregation by his Unionist loyalties), Henry arranged for a commission as lieutenant in the Union army, but the war ended before his commission arrived. He thereafter made a life in business, starting in wholesale grocery and going bankrupt manufacturing acetic acid. By the time Thomas Eliot was born, however, Henry was the prosperous president of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company. Eliot's mother, Charlotte Champe Stearns Eliot, was a former teacher, an energetic social work volunteer at the Humanity Club of Saint Louis, and an amateur poet with a taste for Emerson. She augmented her husband's sense of duty and industry with an idealism and humanitarianism that T. S. Eliot resisted all his life.
Eliot was by far the youngest of seven children, born when his parents were secure in their mid-forties and his siblings were half grown. Afflicted with a congenital double hernia, he was in the constant eye of his mother and five older sisters, when he was not left in the care of an Irish nurse, Annie Dunne. Dunne sometimes took him with her to Catholic mass. In his youth, Eliot passed through the city's muddy streets and its exclusive drawing rooms. He attended Smith Academy until he was sixteen. The year he graduated he visited the 1904 Saint Louis World's Fair and was so taken with the display of native villages from around the world that he wrote short stories about primitive life for the Smith Academy Record. In 1905 he departed for a preparatory year at Milton Academy outside of Boston, prior to following his older brother, Henry, to Harvard.
Eliot's attending Harvard seems to have been a foregone conclusion. His father and mother, jealously guarding their connection to Boston's Unitarian establishment, brought the family back to Boston's North Shore every summer and in 1896 built a substantial house at Eastern Point in Gloucester. As a boy, Eliot foraged for crabs and became an accomplished sailor, trading the Mississippi in the warm months for the rocky shoals of Cape Ann. This seasonal migration deprived him of regional identity and reinforced his social alienation. Looking back in 1928, he wrote his friend, the English critic Herbert Read, that he had always wanted to write
an essay about the point of view of an American who
wasn't an American, because he was born in the South and went to
school in New England as a small boy with a nigger drawl, but who
wasn't a southerner in the South because his people were northerners
in a border state and looked down on all southerners and Virginians,
and who so was never anything anywhere and who therefore felt himself
to be more a Frenchman than an American and more an Englishman than a
Frenchman and yet felt that the U.S.A. up to a hundred years ago was a
Beginning Harvard in the fall of 1906, Eliot impressed many classmates with his archness and his cosmopolitan social ease. Like his brother Henry before him, Eliot lived freshman year in a fashionable private dormitory in a posh neighborhood around Mt. Auburn Street known as the "gold coast." He joined a number of clubs, including the literary Signet. And he began a romantic attachment to Emily Hale, a refined Bostonian who once played Mrs. Elton opposite his Mr. Woodhouse in an amateur production of Jane Austen's Emma. Among his teachers, Eliot was drawn to the forceful moralizing of the scholar of world literature Irving Babbitt and the stylish skepticism of the philosopher and critic George Santayana, both of whom reinforced his distaste for the reform-minded, progressive university shaped by his cousin, Charles William Eliot, who was then in the final years of his long, distinguished presidency. His attitudes, however, did not prevent him from taking advantage of the elective system that President Eliot had introduced. As a freshman, his courses were so eclectic he soon wound up on academic probation. He recovered his academic standing and persisted in his studies, attaining a B.A. in an elective program best described as comparative literature in three years, and an M.A. in English literature in the fourth.
In December 1908 a book that Eliot found in the Harvard Union library changed his life: Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature introduced him to the poetry of Jules Laforgue. Laforgue's combination of ironic elegance and psychological nuance effected the literary communion with the dead Eliot describes above, convincing Eliot that he was a poet and giving him a voice. By 1909-1910 his vocation had been confirmed: he joined the board and was briefly secretary of Harvard's literary magazine, the Advocate, and he could recommend to his classmate William Tinckom-Fernandez the last word in French sophistication · the vers libre of Paul Fort and Francis Jammes. (Tinckom-Fernandez returned the favor by introducing Eliot to Francis Thompson's "Hound of Heaven" and John Davidson's "Thirty Bob a Week," poems Eliot took to heart, and to the verse of Ezra Pound, which Eliot had no time for.) At the Advocate, Eliot started a lifelong friendship with Conrad Aiken.
In May 1910 a suspected case of scarlet fever almost prevented Eliot's graduation. By that fall, though, he was well enough to undertake a postgraduate year in Paris, where he felt as if he was alive for the first time. (Lyndall Gordon, in Eliot's Early Years, notes that his handwriting even changed its shape.) He lived at 151 bis rue St. Jacques, close to the Sorbonne, and struck up a warm friendship with a fellow lodger, Jean Verdenal, the medical student who died in the battle of the Dardanelles and to whom Eliot dedicated "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." With Verdenal he entered the intellectual life of France, which Eliot later recalled, was then swirling around the figures of Émile Durkheim, Pierre Janet, Rémy de Gourmont, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Bergson. Eliot attended Bergson's lectures at the College de France and was temporarily converted to Bergson's philosophical interest in the progressive evolution of consciousness. Characteristic of a lifetime of conflicting attitudes, though, Eliot also gravitated toward the politically conservative (indeed monarchistic), neoclassical, and Catholic writing of Charles Maurras. Warring opposites, these enthusiasms worked together to foster a professional interest in philosophy and propelled Eliot back to a doctoral program at Harvard the next year.
INVENTIONS OF THE MARCH HARE
In 1910 and 1911 Eliot copied into a leather notebook he entitled "Inventions of the March Hare" the poems that would establish his reputation: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Portrait of a Lady," "Preludes," and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." Combining some of the robustness of Robert Browning's monologues with the incantatory elegance of symbolist verse, and compacting Laforgue's poetry of alienation with the moral earnestness of the "Boston doubt," these poems explore the subtleties of the unconscious with a caustic wit. Above all they express Henry James's lament that Americans living in the confines of their gentility and idealism never seem to live at all. Eliot's expression of this lament can be found in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
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.
What universalizes the upper-class angst of these poems is Eliot's ability (as in the following extract from "Portrait of a Lady") to translate social claustrophobia into images of life and death, vitality and asphyxiation, and most interestingly into a verbal struggle for existence between fleeting moments of authentic expression and a conventional and suffocating rhetoric.
And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression... dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance ·
The combined effect of Eliot's early poems was unique and compelling and their assurance staggered contemporaries who were privileged to read them in manuscript. Conrad Aiken marvelled at "how sharp and complete and sui generis the whole thing was, from the outset. The wholeness is there, from the very beginning."
Eliot's youthful notebook, including some poems he never published, has recently been edited and annotated by Christopher Ricks. Ricks's annotations confirm Eliot's scattered remarks about his debt not only to Laforgue and Charles Baudelaire but also to the British poets of the 1890s who first began to explore the French symbolists · the group of writers including Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud. To Ricks's account one must add Eliot's most interesting assessment of the situation in English letters at the time of his first composition. Writing in French in La Nouvelle revue française in May 1922, Eliot confessed that his generation of American poets owed its opportunity to an accident of literary history. The British poets of the 1890s, who had just succeeded in emancipating themselves from the worst insularities of Victorian poetry, died before they could fully exploit their French inheritance. Symbolism, with its appeal to the suggestive rather than to the explicit, its appeal to the unconscious, and its daring manipulation of syntax in the service of hermeticism was an untapped resource.
His own generation, he said, owed a special debt to Oscar Wilde, the most talented writer of that generation. For not only had Wilde showed them the way and then died, but the disgrace of his trial and subsequent imprisonment for homosexual offenses eliminated any influence his British friends had on English culture, and required their successors to disguise affiliations with aestheticism the public would probably never have accepted. Wilde's criticism, as collected in his book called Intentions, Eliot said, was the focus of a new movement, and the source of a genuine moral value · the indifference to worldly consequences · that might have revolutionized British literature in the 1890s, and would revolutionize it in the next generation. With Wilde's fall, the link of Eliot's generation to the tradition of fine writing in English represented by Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and Walter Pater had been effaced, and remained to be reestablished by three literatures isolated by the break and rendered "provincial" · British, American, and Irish.
Though Eliot's notebook poems suggest only in part his involvement with British aestheticism, they do reveal crucial interests associated with the decadents (the group of late-nineteenth-century French and English writers) to which Eliot was unable himself to give poetic form in 1910-1911, but that would condition the poetic and intellectual preoccupations of the next part of his life. Among these was a fascination with insanity and unmoored perspective, like that in a suppressed section of "Prufrock" called "Prufrock's Perivigilium" (not published with the original edition of the poem but included in Ricks's edition):
And when the dawn at length had realized itself
And turned with a sense of nausea, to see what it had stirred:
The eyes and feet of men ·
I fumbled to the window to experience the world
And to hear my Madness singing, sitting on the kerbstone
[A blind old drunken man who sings and mutters,
With broken boot heels stained in many gutters]
And as he sang the world began to fall apart...
In the fall of 1911 Eliot returned from France, and as part of his graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard began to examine border states of consciousness of many kinds, from insanity in Janet's studies of hysteria, to the "primitive mind" as it had been adumbrated by Durkheim and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, to the literature of mystic vision, both Western and Eastern. (He took almost as many courses in Sanskrit and Hindu thought as he did in philosophy. He had, as Cleo McNelly Kearns points out, inherited this interest from Emerson, but he pursued it with a scholarly rigor that far surpassed the American poets of the previous century.)
Working in a faculty that included Santayana, William James, the visiting Bertrand Russell, and Josiah Royce, Eliot eventually undertook a dissertation on Bergson's neo-idealist critic F. H. Bradley and produced a searching philosophical critique of consciousness. Acute especially about the way interpretation constitutes and constructs mental objects and discourses, Eliot's philosophical work was highly critical of the platitudes of the nascent disciplines of pyschology and the social sciences. Using Bradley's skepticism to question vast areas of the contemporary intellectual landscape, he finally turned it even against its source, attacking especially Bradley's suggestion of the possibility of a synthesis or harmony of momentary perspectives.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that much of his poetry from these years has to do with madness and disconnection. In a letter to Conrad Aiken in September 1914 he speaks of three years of worry and nothing good written since "Prufrock," but also shares this uncertainly hopeful thought: "It's interesting to cut yourself to pieces once in a while, and wait to see if the fragments will sprout." This is what he tried to do in a long fragmentary work ("the ‘Descent from the Cross’ or whatever I may call it"), part of which he sent to Aiken. This work was intended to include the sado-masochistic "Love Song of St. Sebastian":
You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy.
And I should love you the more because I had mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me.
"Then," he wrote Aiken, "there will be an Insane Section, and another love song (of a happier sort) and a recurring piece quite in the French style.... Then a mystical section · and a Fool-House section beginning
Let us go to the masquerade and dance!
I am going as St. John among the Rocks
Attired in my underwear and socks..."
But Eliot was "disappointed" in the verses and wondered whether he "had better knock it off for a while." The stuff, he wrote Aiken in November 1914, seemed to him "strained and intellectual." "I know," he said, "the kind of verse I want, and I know that this isn't it, and I know why."
As John Mayer has pointed out in his 1989 work T. S. Eliot's Silent Voices, "The Descent from the Cross" with its associated poems (some of which were published in Inventions of the March Hare and some in " The Waste Land": A Facsimile and Transcript) represented an early staging of the great poems of the 1920s. Eliot's "descent" was a parody of the New Testament's, and the sequence described what Mayer calls "a parody hero engaged in a parody quest, his movement no longer physical and outward... but inward and psychic into the self and its nightmare world." For Eliot and for modern poetry, though, the important issue was not the subject but the treatment, with outrageous parody allowing Eliot to produce camp juxtapositions of wildly different tonalities. This was "cut[ting] yourself to pieces... and wait[ing] to see if the fragments will sprout" with a vengeance, but in 1914 it was, as Eliot said, still strained and intellectual. It lacked the disciplined representation of dramatic vignettes and ventriloquized voices that Eliot was soon to master. And beyond that it lacked a feeling for how to register and organize vision and voice as if extensions of a single sensibility.
ELIOT SETTLES IN ENGLAND
By 1914, when Eliot left on a traveling fellowship to Europe, he had persuaded a number of Harvard's philosophers to regard him as a potential colleague. However, as Manju Jain argues in T. S. Eliot and American Philosophy, his willingness to turn radical skepticism against the highminded humanitarianism of his colleagues alienated the department and would have cost him a position in it had he wanted one. Eliot spent the early summer of 1914 at a seminar in Marburg, Germany, with plans to study in the fall at Merton College, Oxford, with Harold Joachim, F. H. Bradley's colleague and successor. The outbreak of war quickened his departure from Germany. In August he was in London with Conrad Aiken, and by September Aiken had shown Eliot's manuscript poems to Ezra Pound, who, not easily impressed, was won over. Pound called on Eliot in late September and wrote to Harriet Monroe, the editor of the Chicago-based Poetry magazine, that Eliot had "actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own." Eliot and Pound initiated a collaboration that would change Anglo-American poetry, but not before Eliot put down deep English roots.
In early spring 1915 Eliot's old Milton Academy and Harvard friend Scofield Thayer (later editor of the Dial), also at Oxford (where Eliot had been since October 1914), introduced Eliot to Vivienne (also Vivien) Haigh-Wood, a dancer and a friend of Thayer's sister. Eliot was drawn instantly to Vivienne's exceptional frankness and charmed by her family's Hampstead polish. Abandoning twenty-five years of social tentativeness, on June 26, 1915, he married Vivienne on impulse at the Hampstead Register's Office. His parents were shocked, and then, when they learned of Vivienne's history of emotional and physical problems (and her associated history of taking opiates), profoundly disturbed. The marriage nearly caused a family break, but it also indelibly marked the beginning of Eliot's English life. Vivienne refused to cross the Atlantic in wartime, and Eliot took his place in literary London.
Eliot and his wife at first turned to Bertrand Russell, who shared with them both his London flat and his considerable social resources. Russell and Vivienne, however, became briefly involved, and the arrangement soured. Meanwhile Eliot tried desperately to support himself by secondary school teaching and with a heavy load of reviewing and extension lecturing. To placate his worried parents, he labored on with his Ph.D. thesis, "Experience and the Objects of Knowledge in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley." (Eliot finished it in April 1916, but did not receive his degree because he was reluctant to undertake the trip to Massachusetts required for a thesis defense.) As yet one more stimulating but taxing activity, he became literary editor of the avant-garde magazine the Egoist. Then in spring 1917 he found steady employment; his knowledge of several languages qualified him for a job in the foreign section of Lloyds Bank, where he evaluated a broad range of continental documents. The job gave him the financial security he needed to turn back to poetry, and in 1917 he received an enormous boost from the publication of his first book, Prufrock and Other Observations, printed by the Egoist with the silent financial support of Ezra and Dorothy Pound.
For a struggling young American, Eliot soon acquired extraordinary access into British intellectual life. With Russell's help he was invited to country house weekends where visitors ranged from political figures like Herbert Henry Asquith to a constellation of writers, artists, and philosophers from the influential Bloomsbury group that included such figures as Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and E. M. Forster. At the same time Pound facilitated Eliot's entry into the international avant-garde, where Eliot mixed with the aging Irish poet William Butler Yeats, the English painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, and the Italian futurist writer Tommaso Marinetti. More accomplished than Pound in the manners of the drawing-room, Eliot gained a reputation in the world of belles lettres as an observer who could shrewdly judge both accepted and experimental art from a platform of apparently enormous learning. It did not hurt that he calculated his interventions carefully, publishing only what was of first quality among his work and creating around himself an aura of mystery. In 1920 he collected a second slim volume of verse (Poems) and a volume of criticism (The Sacred Wood). Both displayed a winning combination of erudition and jazzy bravura, and both built upon the understated discipline of a decade of philosophical seriousness. Eliot was meanwhile proofreading the Egoist's serial publication of Joyce's Ulysses and, with Pound's urging, starting to think of himself as part of an international movement in experimental art and literature.
Especially in The Sacred Wood, Eliot took care to cover over his roots. The volume was originally conceived as a mixture of criticism and poetry under the title of "The Art of Poetry" and was intended as the expression of an American poet-critic aimed at an American audience. Eliot wrote in a July 1919 letter to the lawyer and patron John Quinn, who was attempting to place the book in New York, that he believed it "appropriate" to showcase the review of Henry Adams' Educationand another article on American literature he had written for the Athenaeum, and offered that Adams was "a type that I ought to know better than any other." But the volume was rejected first by Knopf and then by Boni and Liveright and John Lane. In revising it for a British press Eliot chose to emphasize abstract literary categories like "The Perfect Critic" rather than the cultural and moral categories that had characterized his recent articles on Adams, Henry James, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He also strategically placed himself in a context of European artistic endeavor. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," for example, he famously admonishes the aspiring writer to develop a "historical sense" that will compel him to write "not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order." The original, intended venue of Eliot's first collection of criticism would in contrast have sharply outlined his own social and intellectual setting and would have gone a long way toward clarifying the American background of his poetry from "Prufrock" to The Waste Land (1922).
Yet if Eliot was about to persuade the London literary world of his cosmopolitanism with the publication of The Sacred Wood, circumstances contrived to drive him inward and back as well. Eliot's father died in January 1919, producing a paroxysm of guilt in the son who had hoped he would have time to heal the bad feelings caused by his marriage and emigration. At the same time Vivienne's emotional and physical health deteriorated, and the financial and emotional strain of her condition took its toll. After an extended visit in the summer of 1921 from his mother and his sister Marion, Eliot suffered a nervous collapse and, on his physician's advice, took a three month's rest cure, first on the British seacoast at Margate and then at a sanatorium at Lausanne recommended by Bertrand Russell's friend Ottoline Morrell.
THE WASTE LAND
Whether because of the breakdown or the long-needed rest it imposed, Eliot broke through the limitations he had felt since 1911 and completed the long poem that he had envisioned in 1914 and had begun in earnest in 1919. Assembled out of dramatic vignettes based on Eliot's London life, The Waste Land's extraordinary intensity stems from a sudden fusing of diverse materials into a rhythmic whole of great skill and daring. Though from the 1930s onward it would be forced into the mold of an academic set-piece on the order of Milton's "Lycidas," The Waste Land was at first correctly perceived as a work of jazz-like syncopation. His friend Conrad Aiken insisted that Eliot's "allusive matter" was important primarily for its private "emotional value" and described the whole as "a powerful, melancholy tone-poem" · a work like 1920s jazz that was essentially iconoclastic and provocative.
Aiken's intuition is confirmed by the opening of The Waste Land's third section, "The Fire Sermon," which demonstrates how inappropriate it is to call Eliot's allusiveness imitative. Here it is clear that for Eliot literary borrowings represent sites at which eruptions of identification from below the level of one's own voice struggle for authenticity with the clichéd rhetoric of the quotidian self. In The Waste Land, Eliot's composite narrator is intensely aware of the literariness, the rhetorical quality, of his every utterance. Much of the poem's characteristic irony and punch comes from this self-consciousness. As in not only Eliot's own experience but also the fictional lives of Prufrock, Gerontion, and his other dramatic figures, one of the terrors of the narrator of The Waste Land is that he has forfeited life to books, and is trapped in ways of thinking and feeling acquired through convention. To use the bitter phrases of Eliot's essays contemporary with The Waste Land, his emotional life is a terminal victim of "the pathology of rhetoric" and the "pastness of the past." And so in the opening of "The Fire Sermon," the horrors of Eliot's vision are compounded by a self-consciousness that shadows every attempted escape from solipsism into the imaginative richness of poetry.
In the following passage, every allusion is set off by implied quotation marks and so renders a self-consciousness on the part of the speaker that poetry is only literature and that to quote poetry is less to express genuine feeling than to sink deeper into solipsism:
The river's tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept...
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother's wreck
And on the king my father's death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat's foot only, year to year.
But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Et O ces voix d'enfants, chantant dans la coupole!
These lines take their dominant tone from a series of surrealistic images in which subconscious anxiety, as in a bad dream or a psychotic delusion, is projected onto human and nonhuman objects. In them, emotional fantasies, sometimes of self-loathing, extend through a series of unconnected images in a medium where ego integration seems to be nonexistent. In synecdochic progression, a river, falling leaves, the brown land, bones, a rat, Ferdinand, his brother and his father (ll. 19-20 above, alluding to The Tempest), Mrs. Porter and her daughter all become extensions of a whole (but not continuous) state of anxiety. Eliot's narrator projects his feelings of isolation, vanished protection, and loss first onto the river, whose tent of leaves is "broken" (the inappropriately violent adjective emphasizes the feeling of grief behind the loss), and then onto the falling leaves, which animistically have fingers that "clutch" for support as they sink into decomposition and oblivion. Then defenselessness becomes a shrinking from attack as the leaves fade into the brown land, "crossed" by the wind. (Ten lines hence the crossing wind will become a "cold blast" rattling sensitive bones, and, metamorphosed, the insubstantial malevolence of a "chuckle spread from ear to ear.") Still later, after an interlude of deep-seated loss, isolation turns into self-disgust as the narrator projects himself onto a rat whose belly creeps softly and loathsomely through the vegetation. (Both rat and vegetation are extensions of the decomposing leaves.) The rat's living body merges with a corpse's, and the narrator apprehends himself first as rotting and sodden flesh, feeling "naked on the low damp ground," and then as dry bones, rattled by the rat's foot as he was rattled before by the cold wind.
But the opening of "The Fire Sermon" is not simply an English version of the kind of French symbolist poetry that uses images to express the ambivalence of the subconscious mind. Eliot's poetry is self-dramatizing. In the way it echoes literature of the past and in its self-conscious use of elevated or colloquial language, it dramatizes a Prufrockian sensibility with a power and subtlety unavailable to the Eliot of 1911. In the passage we are considering, this sensibility is caught between two double binds: a yearning for the vitality of common life combined with a revulsion from its vulgarity, and an inclination toward poetry combined with a horror of literature. This vacillation, superimposed over the poetry's progression d'effets, brings the world of unconscious impulse into contact with the humanized world of language. In "The Fire Sermon," this drama begins as the literary word "nymphs" emerges from a series of more or less pure images. As it unfolds, the phrase "the nymphs are departed" suggests Eliot's desire to recuperate his lost sense of fullness in a world of pastoral poetry, and for a moment Eliot appropriates Edmund Spenser's voice: "Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song."
The immediate result is a disgust with modern life. Hence the following three lines, where that disgust can be heard in a series of jolting colloquialisms. But both Eliot's poetic nostalgia and his disgust with the quotidian soften in the ninth line: there is real sorrow in the speaker's statement that the "nymphs" and their vulgar friends have deserted him · a sorrow sounded in the repetition of "departed" twice in two lines. When the speaker reassumes the linguistic personae of the past in the glissando of the next three lines, therefore, it strikes us as a gesture taken faute de mieux. That is, we sense by this point that Eliot's speaker has some awareness that the great phrases of the past are as unreal as they are beautiful. As his reminiscence of Spenser's "Prothalamion" sounds, we detect a note of self-consciousness in the nostalgia, as if the voice inhabiting the lines were feeling its own inauthenticity. When yet a third quotation is added, to the Psalms and again to Spenser, this discomfort explodes in mid-flight. "But at my back," the speaker begins, and we expect to hear the rest of Andrew Marvell's immortal lines: "But at my back I always hear/ Time's wingéd chariot hurrying near." Instead, the feeling of desolation that had called up the line swells out into bitterness: even the cherished texts of the past cannot charm away the bleak realities of life. This realization shatters Eliot's poetic continuity, and causes him to interrupt Marvell's lines with a sardonic assertion of the primacy of the here and now ("the rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear"). This tune, like Mrs. Porter's, is not Spenserian and its leering swell only mocks. At which point the last line, from Paul Verlaine, combines the highest reaches of eloquence with an icy rejection of eloquence itself.
If Williams is right and this is poetry of the classroom, it must also be said that the classroom belongs in the kind of American school in which student back talk abounds. No less than Emerson in The American Scholar or Thoreau in the opening of Walden, Eliot here seems only able to respect that part of the past that genuinely comes alive in the present. And when it does, as for example in passages in which Dante seems to speak through Eliot's voice ("I had not thought death had undone so many"), one feels an uncanny power that has more to do with relations with the dead than with imitations of previous masters.
Moreover, the situations of The Waste Land are no less American than Eliot's characteristic attitudes and procedures. The poem presents a number of circumstances in which an Emerson-like consciousness, savoring its own transcendental insight, blunders into the web of human relations and is then shocked awake by the evil produced by withdrawing from a relationship it had entered half aware. This situation Eliot once described (in an essay on Thomas Middleton's Changeling) as "the tragedy of the not naturally bad but... undeveloped nature... suddenly trapped in the inexorable toils of morality... and forced to take the consequences of an act which it had planned light-heartedly."
From "Portrait of a Lady" to the stage play The Family Reunion (1939) and beyond, Eliot makes such situations his subject. As his youthful letters to Conrad Aiken suggest, he considered himself aloof, a cold observer of others, but a man who by that very condition understood the secret heart of humanity. His stance in Prufrock and Other Observations recalls Hawthorne's comment early in his career (in "Sights from a Steeple") that "the most desirable mode of existence might be that of a spiritualized Paul Pry, hovering invisible round man and woman, witnessing their deeds, searching into their hearts, borrowing brightness from their felicity and shade from their sorrow, and retaining no emotion peculiar to himself." And the self-disgust that pervades Eliot's observer's voice · most striking perhaps in "La Figlia che Piange" · resonates with Hawthorne's own ambivalent identifications with Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter or Holgrave in The House of the Seven Gables or Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance or Kenyon in The Marble Faun.
But Eliot's most important affinities with Hawthorne emerge in The Waste Land, where his representations of criminal-clairvoyant and observer-alien converge. The poem illustrates what Eliot meant when he said in a 1918 essay called "The Hawthorne Aspect [of Henry James]" that in Hawthorne character is always "the relation of two or more persons to each other." In the poem's different voices, we hear not solitaries but people striving for life's feast of relation, only to fall instead into ghoulish patterns of victim and victimizer. And the central observer, personified as Ovid's Tiresias, presents us with the archetype of these failed relations · a figure implicated in the situations he perceives and menaced by the truths they threaten to impart.
For the most part oblivious to the American resonances of these themes, postwar Britain claimed The Waste Land as its own. Pound, who helped pare and sharpen the poem when Eliot stopped in Paris on his way to and from Lausanne, praised it with a godparent's fervor not as an American but as a modern achievement. It did not hurt that 1922 also saw the long-heralded publication of Ulysses, or that Eliot in 1923 linked himself and Joyce with Einstein in the public mind in an essay entitled "Ulysses, Order and Myth." Meteorically, Eliot, Joyce, and to a lesser extent Pound were joined in a single glow · each nearly as notorious as Picasso.
CLASSICIST, ROYALIST, ANGLO-CATHOLIC
The masterstroke of Eliot's career was to parlay the international success of The Waste Land by means of an equally ambitious (and equally internationalist) publication of a different kind. With Jacques Rivière's La Nouvelle revue française in mind, in 1922 Eliot jumped at an offer from Lady Mary Rothermere, wife of the publisher of the Daily Mail, to edit a high-profile literary journal. The first number of the Criterion appeared in October 1922. Like The Waste Land, it took the whole of European culture in its sights. As the Criterion's editorial voice Eliot was placed at the center of first the London and then the Continental literary scene.
In 1923 Eliot, however, was too consumed by domestic anxiety to appreciate his success. In 1923 Vivienne nearly died, and Eliot, in despair, came close to a second breakdown. The following two years were almost as bad, and Eliot, disabled by his desperation was prevented from further exploration of his psychological situation, writing his friend, the English poet and critic Richard Aldington, that "The Waste Land... is a thing of the past... and I am now feeling toward a new form and style." One result was "The Hollow Men" (1925), concerned, as Eliot said about Dante, with "the salvation of the soul" rather than for human beings "as ‘personalities’":
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us · if at all · not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
In 1925, Eliot's material situation was relieved by a lucky chance that enabled him to at least escape from the demands of his job at the bank. Geoffrey Faber, of the new publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), saw the advantages of Eliot's dual expertise in business and letters and recruited him as literary editor.
At about the same time, Eliot reached out for religious support. Having long found his family's Unitarianism unsatisfying, he turned to the Anglican church. The seeds of his faith might have already been obvious in "The Hollow Men," but the poem was read as a sequel to The Waste Land's philosophical despair when it first appeared in Poems, 1909-1925 (1925). Thus few followers were prepared for Eliot's baptism into the Church of England in June 1927. And so, within five years of his avant-garde success, Eliot provoked a second storm. The furor grew in November 1927 when Eliot took British citizenship and again in 1928 when he collected a group of politically conservative essays under the title of For Lancelot Andrewes and prefaced them with a declaration that he considered himself "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion."
Eliot's poetry now addressed explicitly religious situations. In the late 1920s he published a series of shorter poems in the Faber "Ariel" series · short pieces issued in pamphlet form within striking modern covers. These included "Journey of the Magi" (1927), "A Song for Simeon" (1928), "Animula" (1929), "Marina" (1930), and "Triumphal March" (1931). Steeped in Eliot's study of Dante and the late Shakespeare, all these meditate on spiritual growth and anticipate the longer and more celebrated Ash-Wednesday (1930), a dialogue of self and soul:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
"Journey of the Magi" and "A Song for Simeon," Browningesque dramatic monologues, speak to Eliot's desire, pronounced since 1922, to exchange the symbolist fluidity of the psychological lyric for a more traditional dramatic form:
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
("Journey of the Magi")
KINDS OF DRAMA
Eliot spent much of the last half of his career attempting one kind of drama or another, with an idea of reaching (and bringing together) a large and varied audience. As early as 1923 he had written parts of an experimental and striking jazz play, Sweeney Agonistes, never finished but published in fragments in 1932 and performed by actors in masks by London's Group Theatre in 1934. The play contains some of Eliot's most striking lines, and perhaps his most explicit statement of the recurrent situations of The Waste Land:
I knew a man once did a girl in
Any man might do a girl in
Any man has to, needs to, wants to
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
He didn't know if he was alive
and the girl was dead
He didn't know if the girl was alive
and he was dead
He didn't know if they both were alive
or both were dead
If he was alive then the milkman wasn't
and the rent-collector wasn't
And if they were alive then he was dead.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When you're alone like he was alone
You're either or neither
I tell you again it don't apply
Death or life or life or death.
Some critics consider Eliot's decision to pursue West End drama rather than to follow up the jazz idiom of Sweeney Agonistes the biggest mistake of his career. To Eliot, however, the development was a natural and inevitable part of the public duties of his new spiritual life. In early 1934 he composed a church pageant with accompanying choruses entitled The Rock, performed in May and June 1934 at Sadler's Wells. Almost immediately following, Bishop Bell commissioned a church drama having to do with Canterbury Cathedral. The play, entitled Murder in the Cathedral, was performed in the Chapter House at Canterbury in June 1935 and was moved to the Mercury Theatre at Notting Hill Gate in November and eventually to the Old Vic. At its best, the dramatic poetry of Murder in the Cathedral incorporates the fraught tensions of self-examination in the rhythms of public speech:
You know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
You know and do not know, that acting is suffering,
And suffering action. Neither does the actor suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
In the plays that he wrote starting in the late 1930s, Eliot attempted to conflate a drama of spiritual crisis with a Noel Coward -inspired treatment of social manners. Though Eliot based The Family Reunion on the plot of Aeschylus' Eumenides, he designed it to tell a story of Christian redemption. The play opened in the West End in March 1939 and closed to mixed reviews five weeks later. Eliot was disheartened, but after World War II he fashioned more popular (though less powerful) combinations of the same elements to much greater success. The Cocktail Party, with a cast that included Alec Guinness, opened to a warm critical reception at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1949 and enjoyed a popular success starting on Broadway in January 1950. Eliot's last two plays were more labored and fared less well. The Confidential Clerk had a respectable run at the Lyric Theatre in London in September 1953, and The Elder Statesman premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1958 and closed after a lukewarm run in London in the fall.
Eliot's reputation as a poet and man of letters, increasing incrementally from the mid 1920s, advanced and far outstripped his theatrical success. As early as 1926 he had delivered the prestigious Clark Lectures at Cambridge University (published posthumously in 1993 as The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry), followed in 1932-1933 by the Norton Lectures at Harvard (published in 1933 as The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism). Thereafter he won just about every honor the academy or the literary world had to offer. In 1948 Eliot received the Nobel Prize for literature during a fellowship stay at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. By 1950, his authority had reached a level that seemed comparable in English writing to figures like Samuel Johnson or Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The lasting achievement of the second half of Eliot's career · a poetry of introspective self-accusation · contrasted, however with his swelling celebrity. After 1925 Eliot's marriage steadily deteriorated, making his public success hollow. During his Norton year at Harvard he separated from Vivienne, but would not consider divorce because of his Anglican beliefs. For most of the 1930s he secluded himself from Vivienne's often histrionic attempts to embarrass him into a reconciliation and made an anguished attempt to order his life upon his editorial duties at Faber and the Criterion and around work at his Kensington church. He also reestablished communication with Emily Hale, especially after 1934, when she began summering with relatives in the Cotswolds. Out of an experience that inspired feelings of ‘what might have been’ associated with their visit to an abandoned great house, Eliot composed "Burnt Norton," which was published as the last poem in his Collected Poems, 1909-1935. With its combination of symbolist indirection and meditative gravity, "Burnt Norton" gave Eliot the model for another decade of major verse. In its first movement, the poem questioned the familiar through riddling negations and reaching for (and finally attaining) a hold on a mysterious reality by a semantic, syntactic, and prosodic mastery Eliot would never thereafter surpass:
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
In 1938 Vivienne Eliot was committed to Northumberland House, a mental hospital north of London. In 1939, with World War II impending, the Criterion, which had occupied itself with the deepening political crisis of Europe, ceased publication. During the blitz Eliot served as an air raid warden, but spent long weekends as a guest with friends in the country near Guildford. In these circumstances he wrote three more poems, each more somber than the last, patterned on the voice and five-part structure of "Burnt Norton." "East Coker" was published at Easter 1940 and took its title from the village that Eliot's ancestor Andrew Eliot had departed from for America in the seventeenth century. (Eliot had visited East Coker in 1937.) "The Dry Salvages," published in 1941, reverted to Eliot's experience as a boy sailing on the Mississippi and on the Massachusetts coast. Its title refers to a set of dangerously hidden rocks near Cape Ann. "Little Gidding" was published in 1942 and had a less private subject suitable to its larger ambitions. Little Gidding, near Cambridge, had been the site of an Anglican religious community that maintained a perilous existence for the first part of the English civil war. Paired with Eliot's experience walking the blazing streets of London during World War II, the community of Little Gidding inspired an extended meditation on the subject of the individual's duties in a world of human suffering. Its centerpiece was a sustained homage to Dante written in a form of terza rima dramatizing Eliot's meeting with a "familiar compound ghost" he associates with Yeats and with Swift.
Its effect is stunning, mesmerizing, and, unobserved by its first readers, it represents a culminating instance of the experience Eliot alludes to in the passage from the Egoist from more than twenty years previous, in which writing poetry approximates a submission of body and soul to the restless spirits of the dead:
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another's voice cry: ‘What! are you here?’
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other ·
And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
And so, compliant to the common wind,
Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
In concord at this intersection time
Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
Four Quartets (1943), as the suite of four poems was entitled, for a period displaced The Waste Land as Eliot's most celebrated work. The British public especially responded to the topical references in the wartime poems and to the tone of Eliot's public meditation on a common disaster. Eliot's longtime readers, however, were more reticent. Some, notably F. R. Leavis, praised the philosophical suppleness of Eliot's syntax, but distrusted his swerve from a rigorously private voice.
A SUMMING UP
Eliot wrote no more major poetry after the war, turning entirely to his plays and to literary essays, the most important of which revisited the French symbolists and the development of language in twentieth-century poetry. After Vivienne died in January 1947, Eliot led a protected life as a flatmate of the critic John Hayward. In January 1957 he married his secretary Valerie Fletcher and attained a degree of contentedness that had eluded him all his life. He died on January 4, 1965, and, following his instructions, his ashes were interred in the Church of Saint Michael in East Coker. A commemorative plaque on the church wall bears his chosen epitaph · lines chosen from Four Quartets: "In my beginning is my end." "In my end is my beginning."
At century's end, Eliot's reputation stood lower than at any time since 1922. Frequently criticized (as he himself · perhaps just as unfairly · had criticized Milton) for a deadening neoclassicism, Eliot in the eyes of post-structuralist critics is guilty of far worse. Suspicious of his conservative religious and political convictions, readers have reacted with increasing impatience to his assertions of authority · obvious in Four Quartets and implicit in the earlier poetry. The result, amplified by the intermittent rediscovery of Eliot's occasional anti-Semitic rhetoric, has been a progressive downward revision of his once towering reputation and an attack on his sophisticated irony from the position of a supposedly more sophisticated postmodernism. Thus Paul de Man (whose own wartime anti-Semitism, discovered after his criticism of Eliot, complicated the issue) in Blindness and Insight reduced Eliot's subject to a "nostalgia for immediate revelation." De Man's comments, reinforced by the influential judgments of Harold Bloom ("anyone adopting the profession of teaching literature in the early 1950s entered a discipline virtually enslaved... by the entire span of [Eliot's] preferences and prejudices") and of Terry Eagleton (who in Criticism and Ideology calls Eliot's modernist fragmentation simply a disguise for "totalising mythological forms"), have become staples of postmodernist criticism, and Eliot has acquired the status of a "bad eminence" (Bloom's term) on the contemporary scene.
However, multivarious tributes from practicing poets of many schools during the Eliot centenary year of 1988 indicate that at least some of the prevailing negative reaction has to do with the continuing intimidation of Eliot's poetic voice. In a period less engaged with politics and ideology than the 1980s and 1990s, the lasting strengths of his poetic technique will likely reassert themselves. Already the strong affinities of Eliot's post-symbolist style with such influential poets as Wallace Stevens (Eliot's contemporary at Harvard and a fellow student of George Santayana) have been reassessed, as has the tough philosophical skepticism of his prose. A master of poetic dissonance and poetic syntax, a poet who shuddered to repeat himself, a dramatist of the terrors of the inner life (and of the evasions of conscience), Eliot remains one of the twentieth century's major poets. And, as he himself affirmed at the end of his life, in a 1960 address entitled "The Influence of Landscape upon the Poet," his success cannot be dissociated from his New England origins. Acknowledging the Emerson-Thoreau Award and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Eliot said he had been forced to "as[k] myself whether I had any title to be a New England poet · as is my elder contemporary Robert Frost, and as is my junior contemporary Robert Lowell." And disarmingly · but firmly · he replied: "I think I have."
From: Bush, Ronald. "T(homas) S(tearns) Eliot." American Writers, Retrospective Supplement 1, edited by A. Walton Litz and Molly Weigel, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998.