The Poetry of T. S. Eliot


IT is common knowledge that in most circles where contemporary poetry or criticism is discussed no name carries with it more prestige than that of T. S. Eliot. Mr. Eliot has not published much, — about a hundred and fifty pages of verse, three or four small books or pamphlets of criticism, and one larger collection, — but these have been enough to give him a position, both in England and in America, which is unique at the present time.

To anyone acquainted with his writing, this can readily be understood. For nearly everything Eliot has written has about it that air of authority which other writers try, usually with small success, to achieve; the kind of authority which we unmistakably recognize in poets so apparently different as Villon and Wordsworth, and which is the result of the true poet’s special gift: the ability to perceive new emotional relationships, and to express them in language that is arresting and alive.

It is because he has this talent that Eliot’s poetry often seems so difficult to anyone reading it for the first time. When a man tries to say new things in new words, it requires a deliberate effort on the part of the reader to follow him; old emotional habits must be stretched and the new set of associations and references, like a new suit of clothes, must be worn before they feel as if they belonged to the person who is fitting them on. Eliot, instead of trying to overcome this difficulty, has gone in the other direction and has emphasized it. ‘Our civilization,’ he says in one of his critical essays, ‘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.’

The poet must go further than this. The audience he addresses depends, in the present day, so little on the vividness of the spoken word, its reading — of newspapers, magazines, and so forth — has tended to make its emotional responsiveness to words so sluggish, that a shock is necessary if attention is to be aroused. Eliot, particularly in his early poems, makes good use of this necessity; the well-known opening of his ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is a perhaps exaggerated example: —

Let us go then you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.

The violence of the image, the jolt the etherized patient gives to our usual set of associations with evening, is deliberately aimed for; it is not meant, of course, to be visualized — it is there to prepare us for a new attitude to experience. For the poem it introduces, though its form is somewhat like that of Browning’s dramatic monologues, is unlike anything we have had in English poetry before.

One of Eliot’s earlier poems (it was written shortly after his graduation from Harvard in 1910), it describes a shy, ineffective, semi-romantic character, who would like to make love but does n’t dare to, who moves in a rather cheaply sophisticated environment, whose shyness and general absence of vitality make him question, as a defense against his lack of daring, the value of the things he has not the courage to attain — the kind of elderly young man, in short, who, in many disguises, can to-day be found almost everywhere; too sensitive for action, and too self-conscious for wisdom, he is made miserable and pathetic by a world he can neither admire nor despise.

‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is representative of several of Eliot’s earlier poems, of a time when he was concerned with episodes and individuals, rather than the general contemporary situation. It is the title poem of his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations, which was printed in 1917. The word ‘Observations’ is significant, for all Eliot’s poems at this period are objective, with only the most indirect and occasional references to the writer’s personal feeling. Unlike most minor poets of our time (Eliot, with dubious accuracy, somewhere refers to himself as a minor poet), he has never been concerned with merely putting his own emotions into graceful language. He has been after something much more important — the accurate expression of the chief attitudes to experience of his generation. This is why he deserves, and repays, as careful a reading as possible. And, paradoxically, he has proved that he belongs to the authentic tradition of the great English poets by being, on the surface, most unlike them.


It was his method which puzzled his first readers, and made his poetry seem difficult and obscure. It consists chiefly of three things — impersonality, abundant use of quotation, and contrast. ‘One is prepared for art,’ Eliot states, ‘when one has ceased to be interested in one’s own emotions and experiences except as material. . . . The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’

That Eliot has tried to achieve this ‘extinction of personality’ in his own poetry I have already mentioned, and that he has succeeded, as a good poet must, will not be denied, I think, by any of his readers. But the second element of his method, his use of quotations from other poets, is one of the things which at first seemed most bewildering, and has since caused the most unfavorable criticism. It is, however, a very essential part of Eliot’s technique, and its effect is an important element in the particular tone we get from his poetry.

Though we can easily overemphasize the importance of this device, nevertheless it is interesting, as an example of the way Eliot composes, to look at one poem to see how it is done. I quote the first three stanzas of a short poem called ‘Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar.’

Burbank crossed a little bridge
Descending at a small hotel;
Princess Volupine arrived,
They were together, and he fell,
Defunctive music under sea
Passed seaward with the passing bell
Slowly: The God Hercules
Had left him, that had loved him well.
The horses, under the axletree
Beat up the dawn from Istria
With even feet. Her shuttered barge
Burned on the water all the day.

The first stanza is merely expository. We gather that the scene is in Venice, that Burbank, with his Baedeker, is probably a rather serious-minded young man (later he meditates ‘on Time’s ruins and the seven laws’), and that he succumbs, through force of circumstances rather than because of his own volition, to the decadent charms of the Princess Volupine (her hands, we are told, are meagre, blue-nailed, phthisic). The poem is an impressionistic picture of contemporary Venice, its decline from glory to a haven for tired lovemakers and cheap sight-seers, such as the cigar-smoking Bleistein who turns up later, a Venice that is decayed and, like the Princess, morally phthisic, a Venice that is a symbol for the fatigued cheapness of contemporary civilization, only kept alive by vulgar cosmopolitan promoters, who, as far as art and taste and beauty are concerned, are still in the ‘protozoic slime.’ All this is brought out in the remainder of the poem. But in order to make this impression vivid, we need a contrasting picture, and we get it in the second and third stanzas, which are a patchwork of beautiful phrases from the past, the past to which the glory of Venice now belongs. To mention only the most obvious of these references, the phrase ‘defunctive music’ is taken from Shakespeare’s poem, ‘The Ph7#x0153;nix and the Turtle,’ and the barge which ‘ burned on the water all the day ’ is the barge of Cleopatra, as she moved in splendor down the Nile.


Now this may seem a thoroughly pedantic way of writing poetry, and it would be if the references were put there merely to show how learned and clever the poet was, and hence were not made an integral part of the poem. But in this case they are integral parts of the poem, and the effect they achieve could be achieved by no other means. Mr. Eliot is an extremely economical poet; he gets the maximum result from the minimum number of words. These echoes from the literature of the past, which, even if one does not recognize their origin (it is by no means essential to do so), have a remarkable beauty, bring out in only eight lines what it would otherwise take perhaps eight pages to convey.

The method is, to be sure, indirect; we miss any positive statement of what the poem is about, such as we are accustomed to in Victorian poetry, and the effect made on us by the poem, in spite of its sharp individual phrases, is consequently intangible and difficult to describe. But that is as it should be; if we can give an accurate paraphrase of a poem, it is sure to be a bad poem, for then its language is not inevitable. There are no poems harder to paraphrase than Eliot’s. He is aiming for a deeper level of our consciousness than most poets aim for; he does not so much make our associations for us as compel us to make them, under his direction, for ourselves; in other words, as we read his poems, we have to be poets too.

This indirect, allusive method is, of course, dangerous. The poet who employs it must be extremely sensitive to the difference between private and shared associations, or he will find himself, like some of Eliot’s imitators, writing poetry which he alone can understand. But if it is successful, and with Eliot it is nearly always successful (his most notable failure is at the end of The Waste Land), the method not only creates a new kind of poetry which is very stimulating to read, it also opens a wider field of awareness for the poet to exploit. The poem slips, to put it crudely, under the top layer of our consciousness and sets our associative processes to work in a new way: our responses are not dictated by a sharply defined statement of how the poet felt himself and hence wants us to feel; they are suggested to us, so that we must make the final synthesis ourselves.

The point comes out very clearly if we compare any of Eliot’s poems with such a poem as Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils.’ In the latter the poet does nearly all our work for us; we see the daffodils and we share Wordsworth’s emotion about them, for he guides us carefully, by explicit statement, over the ground he has prepared for us. Eliot also guides us carefully (he would be a poor poet if he did not), but by allusion rather than explicit statement. It is a method as difficult to use as it is stimulating for the reader to follow, and it is probably the only method which a poet who has to say what Eliot has can use with much effect.

For during the first fifteen years of his poetic career — until, roughly, 1925 — Eliot had one very important state of mind to express. The subjects of ‘Prufrock’ and ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ are seen as the results of a civilization and a mental attitude which lead only to futility. And in The Waste Land, the culminating poem of this period, the environment, the civilization itself, is described. The waste land is contemporary life, where there is no great passion, but only sordid lust; where the self-abnegation and wonder of religious emotion have degenerated into cheap fortune telling; where there is no external grandeur, but only a flat, commercial cosmopolitanism that is as shoddy as it is ‘unreal’; where rich and poor alike find that their lives come nervously, wearily, to nothing; where futility and disillusionment are the result of all effort, and only in the memory of past visions of beauty and the far less certain hopes of some unity and order in the future can any satisfaction be found.

Now none of this could have been said directly and have carried any poetic conviction. Without specific details, the mere statement of the subject would have resulted in trite prose; to have elaborated the theme of futility in a poem the length of Paradise Lost would have been not only boring but inappropriate; a long poem needs action, which Eliot’s theme cuts out, and it needs a generally accepted convention, which the literary habits of our time disallow. To be brief, and at the same time panoramic, was the poet’s problem, and a method of indirect allusion, a kind of associative shorthand, was the best means to solving it.


Equally important was the third technical device of those I have mentioned — the method of contrast. I have already given an example of Eliot’s use of it in ‘Burbank with a Baedeker. ’ Contrast of one kind or another appears everywhere in his poetry. Very frequently, as the phrase I have quoted from the opening of ‘Prufrock’ shows, he uses the shock of verbal contrast to stimulate his reader, to produce that emotional surprise so important in all good writing. In the same poem we come across the phrase, ‘I have measured out my life.’ It starts conventionally enough, but it ends with a sudden twist: ‘I have measured out my life with coffeespoons.’ The words are as unexpected as they are appropriate to the poem in which they are placed.

Eliot, indeed, has done a considerable service in bringing the vocabulary of poetry back to the spoken word. It is a lesson he learned from the two poetic schools which were his chief masters: the late Elizabethans and the French symbolists of the nineteenth century. For poetic language at the time he began to write, some twenty years ago, badly needed revivification; it needed it almost as badly as in the time of Wordsworth. The combination of a desire for melodious sound and the lack of emotional intensity which distinguish the writing of Tennyson had left English poetry in a state of verbal anæmia.

Love doth give the whole;
His range being high as heaven, as ocean deep,
Wide as the realms of air or planet’s curving sweep.

We have only to compare these lines by Tennyson’s successor in the laureateship with any of Eliot’s poems to see what he has done for the poetic vocabulary. He has given a tang to poetry which can only come from words that are alive because they are in constant use, and though at first sight this may seem to contradict what I have said about his habit of employing somewhat recondite quotations, such is not really the case. To appeal to the average cultivated mind as a whole, which is what Eliot is trying to do, one must draw sparks from as many facets of that mind as possible. Andrew Marvell, advertising, a learned vocabulary, Dante and the subway are all parts of our consciousness, and Eliot brings together, by employing both everyday speech and literary allusion, objects like these which apparently (to our impoverishment) have little connection with each other.

Eliot is, to be sure, only one of a number of recent poets who have injected new life into language by remarrying it to the common speech, but he is the most important. For he produces, by using words not ordinarily associated with poetry, a kind of double effect which the work of his contemporaries lacks.

My smile falls heavily among the bric-à-brac. . . .
While the true church need never stir
To gather in its dividends. . . .
I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and

General ideas are tied to concrete objects, are pinned to the particular, in a way that gives the reader an intellectual as well as an emotional pleasure. Though the underlying rhythm, the ‘personality,’ is different, it is an effect which we can find in writers so apparently remote from Eliot as Emily Dickinson and Emerson, as well as Donne and Laforgue, who are avowedly his masters. Perhaps it is a way of writing which comes naturally to Americans, or at least to New Englanders, whose colony was founded at the time when this style, since called ‘metaphysical,’ was at the height of its popularity in England. It would give Yankee wit an interesting genealogy if we could prove that its father was the poetry of Donne and its descendant the poetry of Eliot.


But Eliot’s use of contrast is not merely verbal. Far more important is the way in which it is employed as a part of what I have called his ‘associative shorthand’ to make his meaning emotionally succinct. In The Waste Land the device is used again and again. For instance, near the beginning, we are given a remarkably beautiful passage describing a mystical experience arising, it would seem, from sublimated passion; immediately afterward follows an account of Madame Sosostris, who

Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards.

This lady represents, clearly enough, the degeneration of what had once been religious ritual (the cards she uses are from the Tarot pack, which have a religious origin) into the cheapest kind of vulgarity. The contrast between the two descriptions brings out the meaning without the necessity of direct statement.

Again, in the second section of the poem, called ‘A Game of Chess,’ we are given two contrasting and complementary pictures: one is of the most lavish room imaginable, full of the glitter of jewels ‘from satin cases poured in rich profusion,’ where strange perfumes lurk among rich tapestries; the other is of a scene in a cheap pub, where a cockney woman is telling about a sordid conversation she has had with a friend, while the barkeeper is trying to get her out because it is closing time. Both are pictures of emotional and spiritual emptiness, and they are put here together to show how this emptiness extends through all classes of society.

At the end there is a further contrast still. The pub is closed; people are saying good-bye to each other; they speak a little drunkenly, slurring their flatly spoken syllables: —

Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.

And then immediately afterward we are given the clear last words of Ophelia, sweetly spoken as she leaves the stage: —

Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good
night, good night.

But quotation and contrast not only appear in individual scenes of The Waste Land; they also form the fundamental structure of the whole poem. To give his work a unity of reference, Eliot uses the old myth of a land whose soil is barren and its people starving because its king has been made impotent by a wound. That is, he employs an old story in The Waste Land for the same reason that James Joyce, in Ulysses, employs the story of the Odyssey; to give the incoherent material of modern life the pattern which it does not appear to contain in itself, but which is essential if it is to be expressed in art. And the story of the waste land is particularly appropriate for what Eliot wants to say, because, since it is a survival of a vegetation myth, it unites sex and religion. In modern life these two most important passions, the physical and the spiritual, are separated, cheapened, and betrayed, and our land is laid waste because of it. The myth is useful both as background and as a mine for symbols, and it gives the poem a richness it could not otherwise have.

It is this richness of association, combined with Eliot’s customary condensation, that makes the poem difficult. But it does not seem to-day nearly as difficult as it did when it first appeared ten or eleven years ago. We have grown accustomed to the technique; more important, we have increasingly grown to share the point of view that technique is used to express. It is not for nothing that Eliot’s Poems have been on the shelves of all intellectual undergraduates, in England and America, ever since they have been published, for they describe, more wittily, more accurately, and more effectively than anything else, the disastrous and empty world that is apparently our heritage.


To have done this was an admirable achievement, but it made many people interested in poetry wonder what could follow. No poet can afford to ring changes on the theme of starvation and futility for long, and Eliot was too good a poet not to be aware of it. But it was some time before one could determine which direction he was going to take. The only poem he published for three or four years seemed to be a kind of coda to The Waste Land; it was called, in its final form, ‘The Hollow Men,’ and consisted of a set of five short pieces describing a condition halfway between death and life, as if the writer were still in the valley of the shadow of the waste land and were uncertain as to the authenticity of any light that might lead him out of it.

There is some beautiful writing in these little poems, and they show a definite change in Eliot’s technique. The verbal shock and the resultant wit of the earlier style have gone. The language depends more than ever on overtones for its effect, the style is richer and simpler, the rhythms more haunting and slow. I quote one of the most successful and one of the least known of these poems (it was not printed as part of ‘The Hollow Men’) to show the change: —

Eyes that last I saw in tears
Through division
Here in death’s dream kingdom
The golden vision reappears
I see the eyes but not the tears
This is my affliction
This is my affliction
Eyes I shall not see again
Eyes of decision
Eyes I shall not see unless
At the door of death’s other kingdom
Where, as in this,
The eyes outlast a little while
A little while outlast the tears
And hold us in derision.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to give an exact description of what Eliot is saying here, which, I imagine, is just as he would have it. The sonority, the repetitions, are there to appeal directly to our mind as a whole, but the attack is different from what it was in the earlier poems. Here Eliot is trying, more subtly, to satisfy not only our reason and our conscious associations, but also the subconscious store from which they spring. It is poetry the rhythm and tone of which, more than of most poetry, absorb us into it sell, and when we are pressed to explain why it moves us so much, we cannot answer satisfactorily, for all our faculties have been involved and analysis seems irrelevant in consequence.

This is even more true of Eliot’s most recent collection of poems, Ash Wednesday (1930). This little book has been received, on the whole, with disappointment by most of Eliot’s admirers, for it seems, at first sight, less vigorous than The Waste Land, and its subject matter, which is religious, is apparently outside the central current of thought in our time. But I do not think that any careful reader will be able in the long run to agree with this opinion. These poems are not less vigorous than the earlier ones; on the contrary, they are more intense, they are more serious; if their passion is not at first recognizable, it is because it is a passion unfamiliar to most of us, the passion of humility.

The poems in Ash Wednesday, while apparently more personal than their predecessors, are in fact less personal than such a work as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which is, on the surface, not a personal poem at all. For Eliot’s position in Ash Wednesday is psychologically comparable to Dante’s in the Purgatorio (Ash Wednesday is full of ‘purgatorial’ images), and the ‘I’ who speaks, speaks in terms of something larger than itself, is viewed not as an individual, but as a humble and imperfect part of a spiritual whole. The background of reference in these poems is not a pagan ritual, but the Catholic Mass. The waste land has been crossed, and on the other side is the Christian religion.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the fig’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of
the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.
Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.

Quotation does not do justice to what I conceive to be the value of these poems; their rhythms are too subtly controlled and interdependent to be understood unless the whole poem is given. For, contrary to the general opinion, it seems to me quite clear that these poems represent a marked advance over The Waste Land. There is less wit, less sharp contrast, less vivacity, but there is a firmer mastery of language, a more sensitive control of rhythmic climax, and, as I have already implied, a greater intensity of feeling; and these things make good poetry.


I have written so far almost entirely in praise of Eliot’s poetry, for praise is what it almost entirely deserves. With the exception of W. B. Yeats, and it is hard to choose between them, he is undoubtedly the best of living English poets; his poetry will not only retain its validity for a long time to come, but future historians of our age, if they want to understand us, will have to refer to it for the finest emotional expression of our complicated and difficult situation.

But there are many people who think that Eliot’s style is affected, that his poetry is written for a clique that lives, emotionally and intellectually, in a hothouse, that it is broken, fragmentary, and incomplete. The first two objections I have already tried to answer; it is true that the reader must have a fairly wide background of reference to get the full value of Eliot’s writing, but in a final appreciation this background is forgotten. It is merely a scaffold; when one’s understanding is built, the scaffold melts into the building and is forgotten. This can be seen clearly enough if we compare Eliot’s work with that of another contemporary writer often associated with him — Ezra Pound. In most of Pound’s verse, especially his recent Cantos, the scaffolding does not melt into the building, but remains uncomfortably in sight to harass the admirer of otherwise very interesting construction.

The third objection against Eliot’s poetry, that it is incomplete, is less easy to deal with, for there is some justice to it. The end of The Waste Land is unsatisfactory; it attempts an answer when there are not enough materials for an answer, and we feel uneasy. Also the religious emotion of Ash Wednesday, regarded purely as religion, appears tentative, hesitant — a kind of last resort from despair. Perhaps this is true, but it does not affect the value of Ash Wednesday as poetry. The honesty of the emotion is selfevident; if that emotion includes doubt and hesitation as well as awe and belief, that is not the fault of the poet, but of the time in which he lives.

And one wonders if the religious subject matter of Ash Wednesday is as removed from the central current of our time as most critics would have us believe. Poets, says Mr. Herbert Read, bear the same relation to society as the antennæ of an insect to its body: they are ‘feelers’; their sensibility is more acute, more advanced, than that of their contemporaries, and what they feel to-day the rest of society will feel, in a more diluted form, to-morrow. Ten years ago, in The Waste Land, Eliot expressed a point of view which since that time has grown to be more and more widely held, until it is shared by any number of people who have never heard of Eliot or read a line of contemporary poetry. It is not by any means impossible that the attitude expressed in Ash Wednesday may be more common ten years from now than it is at the moment, and that Eliot has once more done his generation the service of clarifying and relieving its emotions by giving them permanent and convincing expression.