The prophet of modern age: TS Eliot

By Aman Kanth | Last Updated: Saturday, September 26, 2009 - 08:51

Aman Kanth

‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’

‘The Waste Land’

TS Eliot or Thomas Stearns Eliot (26th September 1888 – 4th January 1965) was one of the significant literary figures in twentieth century - an age that not only witnessed two appalling World Wars, but also experienced rapid change in the social fabric, courtesy brisk mechanization, industrialization, urbanization and of course mass consumption. An age that underscored great technological developments – airplanes, films, tape recorders, plastics, engines and several other discoveries that all of a sudden coalesced the concepts of time and space. However, at the core of modern literature one finds a reaction against the emergent world order that ushered in a new wave of existence often emphasized by the phenomenal works of Nietzsche, Einstein, Marx and Freud thereby, giving birth to a whole new consciousness.

With the horrors of World War I already mocking humanity at large, modern prose and verse represent the fears of human race stuck in the impasse of religion, morality and tradition. TS Eliot represents the quintessence of an age riding on the waves of new-fangled ethos. An accomplished poet, playwright and literary critic par excellence, Eliot’s opus departed from the traditional ways of representation and dwelled upon a certain sense of disenchantment, alienation, loss and chaos. Indeed, TS Eliot embodies the very spirit of modern literature.

Born to Henry Ware Eliot, the treasurer and president of Hydraulic-Press Brick Company and social worker Charlotte Champe Stearns, Eliot was the youngest child of the couple who studied at the Milton Academy, the prestigious Harvard and Oxford Universities. Eliot was a keen student of philosophy and took exceptional interest in Indian and Hindu philosophy.

It was during 1908, when a young Eliot was taken by Arthur Symons’ ‘The Study of Symbolist Movement in Literature’ and started writing poetry. Post his Harvard years, Eliot went to Paris to study the French language and 1911 was the year when he came out with his first major poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.’ Meanwhile, it was during his university years that Eliot fell in love and married Vivienne Haigh Wood (a marriage that soon became sour with her alleged affair with Bertrand Russell and her emerging psychosis) and also took up several teaching assignments. The coming years showcase the literary talents of Eliot with the publication of poems like ‘Portrait of a Lady’, ‘Aunt Helen’, ‘Gerontion’, ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’, ‘The Hippopotamus’ during the 1920s and the celebrated ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), ‘The Hollow Man’ (1925), ‘The Journey of Magi’ (1927), ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930) and ‘Four Quartets’ (1945) along with plays like ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ (1926), ‘Murder In The Cathedral’ (1935), ‘The Cocktail Party’ (1949), ‘The Confidential Clerk’ (1953) and critical pieces such as ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’ (1920), ‘Dante’ (1929), ‘After Strange God’ (1934), ‘The Idea of Christian Society’ (1940), ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ (1956) to name a few.

In spite of enjoying a flourishing professional life, Eliot pined for harmony as he shared a raucous personal life with Vivienne, who struggled with her sanity. In the year 1927, Eliot dropped American citizenship in order to become a British national and further converted to Anglicanism. During 1932, the estranged poet made up his mind of leaving his wife and became the Charles Eliot Norton professor and thereafter left for America. Incidentally, a lot of Eliot’s poems reflect upon his estranged relationship with Vivienne and his scepticism on religion and God. However, Eliot’s second marriage with Esme Valerie Fletcher was a happy one which the poet conceded till his very death on 4th January 1965.

With prose and verse that departed from the Victorian era, Eliot’s poetics comprises a rare artistry which is hugely inspired by anthropology, psychology, occult and mysticism. A combination of fragmented life infused with symbols and images of suffering beautifully interwoven in blank verse - the narrative of Eliot’s poems reworks stream of consciousness technique often focusing on madness, ennui, guilt, remorse and breakdown of humanity.

Though Eliot was never a prolific writer, but whatever he wrote gave birth to unique prose and verse. Eliot himself accepted this fact and said, “My reputation in London is built upon one small volume of verse, and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year. The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.”

Whether it is the phenomenal ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufock’ that portrayed modern man’s dilemma while coming to terms with his intellectual and sexual sluggishness or the canonized ‘The Waste Land’ – a poem that encapsulates the predicament of the post war generation, Eliot was a sheer conjurer with words. Full of classical allusions, ‘The Waste Land’ is the touchstone of modern literature that beautifully evokes the fragmented human experience vainly striving for meaning in life. Post his conversion to Anglicanism, ‘Ash Wednesday’ is popular as his ‘conversion poem’ which borders on hope and salvation. Well, talking about Eliot’s great poems, who can forget ‘Four Quartets’ - one of the best lyrical works of Eliot which combines poetic imagination with philosophical thoughts. In spite of writing some of the greatest masterpieces of modern literature, there have been anti-Semitism charges against Eliot for poems like ‘Gerontion’ and ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’ which often vilified Jews.

Apart from poems, Eliot was a successful dramatist too whose plays such as ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, ‘The Family Union’, ‘Confidential Clerk ’, ‘The Cocktail Party and ‘The Elder Statesman’ enjoyed great commercial success.

Eliot firmly believed in the ‘impersonal’ poetry, where the poet and his literary works are separate entity as he said, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

Tracing Eliot in a few words is a Herculean task, nevertheless, his oeuvre is nostalgic and avant-garde in nature that often dissects man’s wretched existence in the modern universe.

26th September marks the birth anniversary of TS Eliot



First Published: Wednesday, August 3, 2011 - 19:39

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