On Poetry

Eliot – On Poetry #

Thomas Stearns Eliot is undoubtedly the twentieth century’s greatest poet and literary authority. Highly influenced by American, French, German and British writers he was mentored by Donne, Hopkins, French and German writers and Ezra Pound.

Questions – not answers

Like all great literature, Dante asks the question, but fails to supply answers:

O you of sound minds,
Seek the doctrine that is hidden
Beneath the veil of verses strange.

Dante feels the secret is less important than looking for it.

Andre Gide:

“Don’t trust those who know the truth; trust those who are searching for the truth”.

Dante claimed his poem is an allegory about free choice; how we are rewarded or punished by Justice. We are free to think and choose for ourselves:

You yourself, make yourself ignorant/gross/stupid.

Gustave Flaubert reckoned that the function of great art is not to provide ‘answers,’ rather intransigent questions—personal, political, artistic—with which we struggle throughout life. Ezra Pound picked up on this and greatly influenced Yeats, Eliot and other modernist writers. Actually Socrates had already said as much.

As Eliot wrote in 1922,

“literature is chiefly in the hands of persons who may be interested in almost anything else; that literature presents the appearance of a garden unmulched, untrimmed, unweeded, and choked by vegetation sprung only from the chance germination of the seed of last year’s plants.”

This had been Pound’s position. It’s why they were comrades.

Yeats too, raised questions rather than providing pat simplistic answers. In Leda and the Swan, he asks three unanswered questions.

Robert Frost implies things and asks the right questions but refuses to give us his answers – perhaps because there are no absolute answers.

“My poems are set to trip the reader’s head most foremost into the boundless, into the dark.”

Eliot wanted to be a philosopher, but the outbreak of war brought him from Germany to London where he taught school for a short time, then into the banking system before joining Faber Press where he took over as the literary editor. As in the case of most writers, ie: Ovid, Eliot faced his father’s disapproval (“Even Homer died penniless!”)

While he admired Tolstoy, Eliot confessed he was classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion, while Tolstoy was romantic-realist in literature, anarchist in Politics, and Atheistic.

About thirty years later Eliot commented on his religious views that he combined:

“a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.”

I.A. Richards commented:

Eliot enjoyed pondering a discrimination rather than formulating or maintaining it. His poems are dramatised meditations rather than philosophical treatises.

Dr Samuel Johnson made much the same criticism of Donne.

Decadence #

John Maynard Keynes observed

‘We are at the dead season of our fortunes …. Never in the lifetime of men now living has the universal element in the soul of man burnt so dimly.'

“Eliot disapproved of Shakespeare for not taking a maturely dim view of human nature.”

Eliot cared for the state of the world, decrying the deadness of modern life. Martin Heidegger expressed it as:

“To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.”

Heidegger also claimed:

“The poets are in the vanguard of a changed conception of Being.”

Outwardly, Eliot’s poetry is a damning critique of life in the West today – democratic hypocrisy, ailing economies, treadmill consumption, aggressive secularity and ageing lonely populations – but it is much more than this.

Nostalgia recalls what we now take for granted - values that made the West the world’s pre-eminent civilisation for more than 300 years.

However, Nostalgia can be the pang we feel upon realising the impossibility of returning to an idealised past.

Oscar Spengler presented a worldview that resonated with post-WWI German culture. His grim view of an inexorable doom for western civilization implied acceptance of fate, but also offered a sense of freedom from the past. His historical idea influenced artists and architects, who used it as a justification for abandoning the historic styles, now no longer valid for the new era.

His worldview also took a dim view of democracy as the type of government of the declining civilization. He argued that democracy is driven by money and therefore easily corruptible. Spengler initially supported the rise of a strong-willed leader type of government as the next phase after democracy fails.

Reviews of Eliot’s early work #

Review of Eliot’s Prufrock ,The Times Literary Supplement, on June 21, 1917 fortunately for the reviewer, revealing great insight - it was unsigned:

“The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry.”

The twist could be that Eliot, renown for writing anonymous reviews for the Times, could have written this one as a publicity stunt.

Other critics:

Some of the early reviews must have made depressing reading for a beleaguered poet. Everybody remembers that Arthur Waugh likened the work of Eliot to the Spartan custom of exhibiting a drunken slave to show young men ‘the ignominious folly’ of debauchery. (Pound replied that he would like to make an anthology of the work of drunken helots or Heliots, if he could find enough of them.)

One anonymous writer, here rescued from oblivion, divined that Eliot’s aim was ‘to pull the leg’ of the ‘sober reviewer’.

The New Statesman thought:

‘Prufrock’ was ‘unrecognisable as poetry’ but ‘decidedly amusing’, adding that ‘it is only fair to say that he does not call these pieces poems.’

The Waste Land #

Influenced by modern cubist painters and innovative musicians, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, where whatever the technical means, the score evolved a language which makes perfect, coherent sense on its own terms and defied easy analysis through recurrent themes, chords or even instrumental sounds. Rather than harmony, dissonance prevails.

Eliot thought that Stravinsky, in “The Rite of Spring,” had transformed:

“the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life.”

He had taken something primitive and recast it in a contemporary idiom. It was reported that at its first performance, audiences were outraged, many walked out and threw things at the orchestra.

Like Stravinsky, Eliot aroused strong opposition to his radical new approach, at the one time new, yet derived from past traditions.

From the heart of the London literary establishment Sir John Squire described The Waste Land as a poem for which:

‘a grunt would serve equally well.’

Eliot’s 1925 collection, which included ‘Gerontion’, seemed to Squire:

‘obscure so inconsequent . . . Why on earth he bothers to write at all is difficult to conceive; why, since he must write, he writes page after page from which no human being could derive any more meaning . . . than if they were written in Double-Dutch (which parts of them possibly are) is to me beyond conjecture.’ ‘Baudelaire without his guts,’

More positive were other artists such as Virginia Woolf:

“As I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously form bar to bar, I cry out for the old decorums….”.

She predicted that Eliot would arrive at a function in his four piece suit.

Louis Menand of the New Yorker claimed Eliot himself was happy to finish The Waste Land.

Accused of plagiarism, it tickled him.

“I should be glad to participate with a few quotations which the critic would perhaps not identify,”

he wrote to Monroe after she had reported a complaint. With “The Waste Land,” he approached the scandalous limits of the technique.

The poem is a collage of allusion, quotation, echo, appropriation, pastiche, imitation, and ventriloquism. It uses seven languages, including Sanskrit, and ends with several pages of notes, written in a sendup of academic citation:

“The fable of the meaning of the Thunder is found in the Brihadaranyaka—Upanishad, 5, 1. A translation is found in Deussen’s Sechzig Upanishads des Veda, p. 489.” Good to know the next time you are in a German library.

The notes don’t interpret the riddle; they are one more riddle to be interpreted. If Joyce had written them, no one would imagine they were merely what they appear to be.

“The Waste Land” was published in October, 1922 Eliot now told everyone that he was finished with that sort of thing. He began speaking of the poem as a kind of psychic reflux, “a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” He did not disown it, exactly, but he rarely discussed it again, except as the by-product of a bad marriage. He had been through a compositional experience that, whatever it was, he did not wish to go through again. By Louis Menand, The New Yorker, September 12, 2011

Looking back after Vivienne’s death, in 1947, Eliot wrote:

“To her the marriage brought no happiness . . . To me it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.

Following the publication of the Waste Land in 1922 a Times reviewer wrote:

“This poem was sometime very near the limits of coherency. It was widely felt to be a scandalous affair”. “wondered whether Eliot had ever composed three consecutive lines of poetry in his life?” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

Eliot himself admits:

“In ‘The Waste Land,’ I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying,”

In 1947, Cleanth Brooks accused him of plaigerising Rupert Brook, Eliot acknowledged that he may have read Rupert Brooke’s letter and it’s possible it was at the back of his mind when he wrote the opening section to The Waste Land.

However, Eliot also believed that the more immediate source for his opening lines was his own recollections: certainly Eliot was in Germany (in Marburg) when war was declared in 1914.

“It’s not where you take it from, it’s where you take it to.” Jean-Luc Godard.

Jude Rogers, writing for The Guardian, in 2022, claims it became a landmark for modernism, delving deeply into how fragile people felt in a fast-changing world of shattering empires and realities, especially after the horrors of the first world war.

It also reflected Eliot’s state of mind, tortured by the sudden death of his father in 1919, a troubled marriage and his desperation to become an established literary figure (he was still working in a City bank at 33 when he had a breakdown, going to Margate, then a sanatorium in Lausanne, to get treatment and finish writing The Waste Land).

The Role of the Critic #

Eliot’s greatest contribution to literature was to teach the critics.

The post war era gave rise to professional literary critics who became the gatekeepers of the “canon”.

Most artists like Eliot, Auden and Dylan Thomas advised to trust your own “pleasure”.

Joseph Heller in Catch-22 describes Clevinger as someone who:

“knows everything about literature, except how to enjoy it”.

Virgina Woolf writes:

“anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, and with extravagant enthusiasm.”

It is vitally important to realise that good works of art are complex, ambiguous, conflicted and problematic – they do not provide answers, merely raise important issues many of which are not resolved. No one is an absolute authority on interpretation of the text and each reader has as much entitlement to adopt a view as the next. T.S. Eliot put it thus:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

Eliot also claimed that “criticism is inevitable as breathing, and we we should be none the worse for articulating what passes through our minds as we read”.

Oscar Wilde pointed out:

“To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises”.

Also: The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.


“Reviewers are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers etc. if they could; they have tried their talents and failed so they become critics”.

Criticism is a pejorative misnomer for someone who describes, analyses and evaluates literature, food, art, music or any other human endeavour. Though they have been around since early times – even before Plato and Aristotle, professional critic’s heyday began in the 1920’s to about the 1990’s when their influence was eroded by the proliferation of commentary on the internet.

Many scholars feel we suffer from an implosion of opinion that has smothered authoritative and informed criticism.

During the fifties and early sixties some literary critics enjoyed the exalted position of undisputed or infallible authorities on selected works of art. Students merely had to cite and conform to their views to receive top marks. Since the seventy’s views have broadened and today students are expected to seek a more wide-ranging view, look at contrasting or dialectical points of evaluations and then “think for themselves”. The purpose of education is not to teach students what to think, but how to think for themselves!

‘Nothing replaces the reader’s responses: the sound of poetry on both the outer and inner ear, the visions of fiction in the mind’s eye, the kinaesthetic assault of total theatre’ Handbook of Criticism – Guerin.

Regardless, the authoritative critic still fulfils an important role in our understanding of a work of art. Their training in acceptable standards, accumulated wisdom and insights can open new vistas to lead us to a greater appreciation of literature often triggering an original response. Though the creative power is considered superior to the critical, well informed criticism can illuminate subtle nuances, allusions or symbolism.

Matthew Arnold claimed that:

“the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society”.

Early critics were hard on Eliot: trying to outdo each other in deprecating callow poets:

A 1943 letter to Lord Alfred Douglas:

“It would be amusing to compile a sampling of the abuse this generation directed at Eliot about 1925 – 1945.

Eliot reaches darkly into the depths of emotional experience where the conscious mind cannot go. Northrop Frye

Eliot wrote: “human kind cannot bear very much reality” Echoing Kant’s “Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.”

Now that I have abandoned my search for truth, I’m looking around for a good fantasy. Ashleigh Brilliant

For survival, we need some self-deception and useful delusions.

Chaucer and Shakespeare adapted previous tales even plagiarizing their sources verbatim.

Language is not immutable. #

Poetry should be memorable speech; the spell of the words should resonate.

Eliot loved to play on repetitive sounds and turning cliches into fresh collocations. Like a ventriloquist, he projects his voice into many roles.

My words echo
​Thus, in your mind.

Poetry can resonate and hypnotise the responder.

He was well aware of changes to word meanings.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice.”

“What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

Clichés are dead metaphors - second hand values expressed in second hand language.

Tones: #

  • varied; whimsical, gently ironic, depicting degeneration.

  • Mixture of sharp critical observations/ sympathetic nostalgic, poignant.

  • Are we are not living in an oppressive patriarchy?

Brits had a television show called That Was The Week That Was. It was a confected catalogue of absurdities, mischiefs and embarrassments delivered with all that sarcasm and parody could provide.

People with mental disorders lose the defence mechanisms to deal with their fears or to mask their condition. They “fail to prepare a face to meet the faces they meet”. Eliot on Prufrock

Modern detachment #

Modern poetry differs from Romantic in that it is much more impersonal and aspires towards objectivity.

Eliot is renown for the phrase – objective correlatives. Personal issues must not only be universalized, they need to be masked – distanced. “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”.

  • Poetry is not the turning loose of emotions, but an escape from emotion.

  • Not the expression of personality, but the escape of personality.

The progress of an artist is the continual extinction of personality. The more perfect the artist, the more separate the man who suffers and the man who creates.

Like Flaubert’s God, Eliot is everywhere present in his work but nowhere apparent. (Vijay Seshadri)

Eliot’s later works reveal a bit more of the personal.

To fully comprehend the poem, the astute reader must understand the personal and historical context of a work of art. To understand Shakespeare’s darker works, Macbeth, Lear, … it helps to know the reign of King James I.

Atempting to equate the voice of the persona in the poem with the poet is dispaaraged as “intentional fallacy”. Yet many critics assert that all art starts with individual experience.

Eliot had a number of disciples. Elizabeth Bishop was vigilant about giving nothing away in her poetry about her harrowing personal life, thoroughly disinviting private scrutiny. Admirers of Bishop’s early work—Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell—praised its cool objectivity, its calm impersonality, what Moore described as its:

“rational considering quality” (hardly the usual praise for poetry), its “deferences and vigilances.”

What the young poet deferred to was poetic form and an increasingly old-fashioned sense of manners and discretion. She was vigilant in giving nothing of herself away. Her poems convey a surface composure the poem means what it means, on its own. Bishop’s withholding is less a matter of Marianne Moore-like modernist obliquity.

Elizabeth Bishop was chosen to interview T. S. Eliot when he came through during her junior year, in 1933. Her own poems at the time tended toward imitations of Gerard Manley Hopkins or of the English Baroque: elaborate, archaic in tone, wilfully artificial.

Hopkin’s and Emily Dickson’s poetry, of course, is profoundly personal – almost confessional revealing a bi-polar mind (manic/depressive) of “agony and ecstasy”.

Robert Lowell led a school of confessional poetry, including Sylvia Plath.

Eliot – On Poetry #

Eliot’s poetry appears self-conscious of it purpose, techniques and effects. It could be called meta-poetry.

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

“Art to express the world as it is - its purpose to understand ourselves.”

​ > “to purify the dialect of the tribe”.

Emotions are sometimes too complex for simple rational language and the thoughts too deep for intellectual articulation. For this reason, Poets resort to metaphor, images, rhythm, style and myth.

…… words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still ………. Brunt Norton - 1936.

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still. Ash Wednesday

Not the expression of personality, but the escape of personality.

The progress of an artist is the continual extinction of personality.

Art cannot be interpreted, only judged according to standards.

The more perfect the artist, the more separate the man who suffers and the man who creates.

“Good poets borrow; great poets steal”

“I wish I could attain the same kind of suffering as Beethoven’s last Quartets”.

Other works of art likely influenced by Eliot is Picasso’s


Eliot later examined the ineffability of communication in The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock where he has his persona admit:

“That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all.”

And this, and so much more? —
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen

Poetry has no message; it merely records time and events with great verse.

All noble human endeavor should be in pursuit of true Judgment.


Words are inadequate to express extreme sorrow, pain, rage or the horror of war in the trenches, the holocaust, Hiroshima…

[TS Eliot] talks about ‘the stillness of a work of art’.

“Poetry can communicate before it is understood”

This is illustrated by Robert Cormier in The Chocolate War (p. 96)

Jerry opened his locker. He had thumbtacked a poster to the back wall of the locker on the first day of school. The poster showed a wide expanse of beach, a sweep of sky with a lone star glittering far away. A man walked on the beach, a small solitary figure in all that immensity. At the bottom of the poster, these words appeared — “Do I dare disturb the universe”? by Eliot, who wrote the *Waste Land* (?) thing they were studying in English.

Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.


The suggestive, sub-conscious, emotional and intuitive power of images appeal to us, rather than rational meaning. Through stream of consciousness and the free association of ideas exploring the psychological effects of unexpected random thought we come to appreciate the complexity of life and its lack of coherence.

In a letter to a young aspiring blind poet, Alice Quinn, Eliot advises:

“Don’t write at first for anyone but yourself”.

Discipline and restraint save Eliot from sentimentality.

Like Donne, his images are unusually startling.

“It is impossible to say just what I mean.” Prufrock.

Poetry should be measured not by external standards or surface experiences, but by the deepest experience of what it means to be a human being and to be ourselves.

Words within words, the eternal word not able to speak a word. Archbishop Lancelot Andrewes 1618.

Gerontion – words which baffle us with their self-repeating, as they echo back and forth. Language can never show what it has to say, an incapacity to express the full range of emotions in the human condition. Robin Grove

As did the Metaphysicals, Modernists attempted to make rational sense of our complex emotional and irrational psychological needs and desires, objectively. Needs are instinctive, demanding and implacable – if we try to suppress them, neurosis can result. Desires, cravings, longings, yearnings… should be controlled and mastered, but never repressed.

“O Light invisible we praise thee, too bright for mortal vision”.

T.S. Eliot reading: O light invisible from the Rock on Youtube.

Death frees us from mortal limits of human wisdom, offering us the ineffable mysteries of the divine.

Eliot’s poetry reveals a troubled soul. Much of it can be seen as self-discovery like Elizabeth Bishop’s, an admirer, following his example, it disinvites private scrutiny, because of its detachment, cool objectivity, its calm impersonality, what Marianne Moore described as its “rational considering quality” (hardly the usual praise for poetry), its “deferences and vigilances.” What the young poet deferred to was poetic form and an increasingly old-fashioned sense of manners and discretion. She was vigilant in giving nothing of herself away. Eliot seldom reveals his true self, but we can discern it by looking at recurrent portraits.

A picture emerges of an acute mind, but physically and socially awkward. A superior/inferior complex?

There is a prevailing subterranean inadequacy – almost masochistic, near self-loathing thread evident in Prufrock, socially unsure; Gerontion - abjectly insignificant but especially in The Waste Land sexually frustrated. He appears sexually attracted to, but also repulsed by women and censorious of men’s predatory pursuit of sex. The fact he suffered a congenital hernia and was rejected by the army may have added to his physical inadequacy.

The fact that is idol, Bertrand Russell shares his wife may have tipped him over the edge to a mental breakdown. Who knows?

  • Good poets borrow; Great Poets steal

  • ‘Everything is copy’ – Nora Ephron’s famous dictum.

  • Poetry: the best words in the best order. Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • Poetry is music, and nothing but music. Words with musical emphasis. Amiri Baraka

  • Poetry is a matter of life, not just a matter of language. Lucille Clifton

  • Poetry is not a matter of feelings, it is a matter of language. It is language which creates feelings.

  • If I understand a play the first time I see it, I become suspicious. It must not be a good play. Umberto Eco

  • Love is the poetry of the senses. Honore de Balzac

  • In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all. Wallace Stevens

  • Eliot reaches darkly into the depths of emotional experience where the conscious mind cannot go. Northrop Frye

  • human kind cannot bear very much reality”

Echoing Kant’s “Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.”

Now that I have abandoned my search for truth, I’m looking around for a good fantasy. Ashleigh Brilliant

“I feel so intensely the delights of shutting oneself up in a little world of one’s own, with pictures and music and everything beautiful.” Virginia Woolf

His second wife, Valerie:

There was a little boy in him that had never been released. Cats may have released it.

For survival, we need some self-deception and useful delusions.

Chaucer and Shakespeare adapted previous tales even plagiarizing their sources verbatim.

Eliot digs up the past, incorporates it into his poetry, preserving nuggets of gold for posterity.

All books come from other books.