Saturday, October 1, 2011

T.S. Eloit

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T.S. Eliot (1888 - 165)

T(homas) S(tearns) Eliot was born in St. Louis in 1888 to a family with prominent New England roots. Eliot largely abandoned his Midwestern roots and chose to ally himself with both New and old England throughout his life. He attended Harvard as an undergraduate in 106, was accepted into the literary circles, and had a predilection for 16th- and 17th-century poetry, the Italian Renaissance (particularly Dante), Eastern religion, and philosophy. Perhaps the greatest influence on him, however, were the 1th-century French Symbolists such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephene Mallarme, and Eliots favorite, Jules Laforgue. Eliot took from them their sensual yet precise attention to symbolic images, a feature that would be the hallmark of his brand of Modernism.

Eliot also earned a masters degree from Harvard in 110 before studying in Paris and Germany. He settled in England in 114 at the outbreak of World War I, studying at Oxford, teaching, and working at a bank. In 115 he married British writer Vivienne Haigh-Wood (they would divorce in 1), a woman prone to poor physical and mental health, and in November of 11, Eliot had a nervous breakdown.

By this time Eliot had already achieved great success in 117 with his first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations (which included The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a work begun in his days at Harvard). Eliots reputation was bolstered by the admiration and aid of esteemed contemporary poet Ezra Pound, the other tower of Modernist poetry. During Eliots recuperation from his breakdown in a Swiss sanitarium, he wrote The Waste Land. A couple of months later he gave Pound the manuscript in Paris. Thanks to Pounds heavy editing, as well as suggestions (specifically about scenes relevant to their stormy, hostile marriage) from Haigh-Wood, The Waste Land, published in 1, defined Modernist poetry and became possibly the most influential poem of the century. Devoid of a single speakers voice, the poem ceaselessly shifts its tone and form, instead grafting together numerous allusive voices from Eliots substantial poetic repertoire; Dante shares the stage with nonsense sounds (a technique that also showcases Eliots dry wit). Believing this style best represented the fragmentation of the modern world, Eliot focused on the sterility of modern culture and its lack of tradition and ritual. Despite this pessimistic viewpoint, many find its mythical, religious ending hopeful about humanitys chance for renewal.

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Eliot was now the voice of Modernism, and in London he expanded the breadth of his writing. In addition to writing poetry and editing it for various publications (he also founded the quarterly Criterion in 1, editing it until its end in 1), he wrote philosophical reviews and a number of critical essays. Many of these, such as Tradition and the Individual Talent, have become classics, smartly and affectionately dissecting other poets while subliminally informing us about Eliots own work. Eliot defined his preference for poetry that does away with the poets own personality, and poetry that uses the objective correlative of symbolic, meaningful, and often chaotic concrete imagery.

Eliot joined the Church of England in 17, and his work afterward reflects his Anglican attitudes. The six-part poem Ash Wednesday (10) and other religious works in the early part of the 10s, while stellar in their own right, retrospectively feel like a warm-up for his epic Four Quartets (completed and published together in 14). Eliot used his wit, philosophical preoccupation with time, and vocal range to examine further religious issues.

Eliot continued his Renaissance man ways by writing his first play, Murder in the Cathedral, in 15. A verse drama about the murder of Archbishop Thomas à Becket, the plays religious themes were forerunners of Eliots four other major plays, The Family Reunion (1), The Cocktail Party (14), The Confidential Clerk (15), and The Elder Statesman (15). Religious verse dramas cloaked in secular conversational comedy, Eliot belied whatever pretensions his detractors may have found in his Anglophilia. He leapt ahead with this anti-pretension with Old Possums Book of Practical Cats (1), a book of verse for children that was eventually adapted into the Broadway musical Cats.

As one might expect from his work, Eliot was unhappy for most of his life, but his second marriage in 157 proved fruitful. When he died in 165, he was the recipient of a Nobel Prize (148), author of the centurys most influential poem, and arguably the centurys most important poet. Perhaps due to the large shadow he casts, relatively few poets have tried to ape his style; others simply find him cold. Still, no one can escape the authority of Eliots Modernism, one as relevant today as it was in 1. While Eliot may not have as much influence on poets today as some of his contemporaries, he has had a far greater impact on poetry.

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