The very formidable Thomas Stearns Eliot or endearingly known T. S. Eliot was a “morally, intellectually and sartorially fastidious man” as justly put by The New Yorker. A multi-hyphenated figure in the assiduously effervescent epoch of Modernism—he was a poet, essayist, publisher, playwright, editor, critic all at once. To try to gauge the voluminous repertoire of Eliot’s Cadeau to poetry would be a vaguely unproductive and futile endeavor. An avant-gardist in his own right, he shapeshifted the trajectory of poetry, re-evaluated postulations of literary criticism, and assumed the role of a paradigmatic quintessence who happened to have launched a revolution.
In his memoir about Eliot, Robert Sencourt, a friend, asserts that young Eliot
“would often curl up in the window-seat behind an enormous book, setting the drug of dreams against the pain of living.” Through the annals of the collected records it is limpidly understood that Eliot attributed his hometown; St. Louis, that has entitled him to the joys of literary vision. “I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London.”
On being familiarized with the epoch-making avant-gardist, Ezra Pound; who would happen to be Eliot’s precocious mascot—had instantly deemed him “worth-watching.”
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is haply his first professionally published poem, still as a college student, in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of verse. Through a dramatic interior monologue Eliot laments a mocking age of blotted conscience, intellectual and spiritual decay, weary and hackneyed faculties of the mind, copious lost opportunities, unreciprocated carnal love and undertones of outlandish indecisiveness throughout Prufrock.
Later goes on to compose his landmark poem, ‘The Wasteland”; still disillusioned and distraught–its idiosyncratic and disjunctive structure is indicative of the Modernist tradition, much like Joyce’s Ulysses, where amid the sonorous echoes of a thousand voices, one can verily hear a tenuous voice of solitude; the inherent obscurity of the unknown.
DISSOCIATION OF SENSIBILITY
The fabulously charming poet of Prufrock, or the vacillator in Wasteland, was an outsider to the literary tradition of England, but becomes more English than the English—much to the reproach of William Carlos Williams. Professor Langdon Hammer of Yale University enquires, how a young American, can go and win a place in the English Literary Culture; insert himself in a tradition that includes Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson—not only as a member of that tradition but as a central explainer and a tastemaker.
Eliot’s vast panoply of literary criticisms has been deeply vetted and venerated; the ‘Dissociation of Sensibility’ has gained rife currency, suffusing through the domains of axiomatic logic. In reviewing an anthology of the Metaphysical Poets or the poets of Wit (considered an anomaly in English poetry owing to their extreme intellectuality and use of conceits) in 1921; Eliot comes up with his own alternative annal of poetic propositions. He asserts:
“It’s the difference between the Intellectual poet (good) and Reflective poet (bad). Tennyson and Browning are poets and they think. But they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odor of the rose. A thought to Donne was an experience, it modified his sensibility. The poets of the 17th Century, the successors of the dramatists of the 16th possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience.
In the 17th century however, a dissociation of sensibility set in—from which we have never recovered. (Thought and Feeling have somehow come apart.) The sentimental age began in the early 18th Century and continued. The poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive-they thought & felt; by fits unbalanced- they reflected. In one or two passages of Shelley’s Triumph of Life, in the Second Hyperion of Keats—there are traces of a struggle towards the unification of sensibility. But Keats and Shelley died, and Tennyson and Browning ruminated.”
Limpidly and with remarkable zaniness, Eliot puts forward a polemical claim, that Thought and Feeling have been dissevered since the Age of Enlightenment and so Dryden and Pope’s approach was aridly rational and neoclassical. However, in the Romantic epoch, Wordsworth and Coleridge merely felt. Whereas in the Victorian age one can again observe feeling being divorced from thought in the writings of Tennyson and Browning. And so, it is only John Donne; the chief of the metaphysical coterie, ever successful in uniting thought and feeling against the others who remained somehow deficient and aberrant. Dissociation of Sensibility creates an intellectual malaise and hinders the progress of poetry.
TRADITION AND INDIVIDUAL TALENT: THE ESSAY
Among Eliot’s inexhaustible cornucopia of contributions; Tradition is a durable milepost. Arguably, one of the most influential Literary essays/criticisms of the thriving Twentieth Century. First published in 1919 in the Egoist journal, it later witnessed exponential growth and attention, being included in Eliot’s first critical collection ‘The Sacred Wood’, published in November 1920. Eliot popularly endorses Modern poetry as a backhanded defense of his own poetry and pejoratively declares that the great epoch of Romanticism is dead and gone. It is Modernism that assumes the role of a new Deus ex machina. The essay can be dissected into the following trifecta, in the order of context:
Concept of Tradition
Theory of Impersonal Poetry
Eliot affirms that ‘Historical Sense’ sternly makes a writer professional. Entrusting poets with the duty to bear an indomitable sense of history, he asserts that the most valuable parts of a poet’s work are those in which the dead poets, his ancestors assert their immortality vigorously.
This faithful sense of tradition would compel the poet to write with a feeling that whole of former literature of Europe—starting from Homer is written with him. Tradition would venture on to establish a dynamic, steadfast, eternal and timeless conjunction of the past and the present.
William Wordsworth; the shepherd of the Romantic cohort, in his ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ had urged that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions…recollected in tranquility.” Albeit, T. Stearns Eliot found this idea of self-expression to be arrantly preposterous and quite explicitly calls it “inexact.” He fixates that poetry is not turning loose of emotion; its an escape from emotion. An escape from personality. Thereby dismissing the theory entirely and putting out his own fiery rhetoric. He avows:
“In order to create a great poem. One should sacrifice oneself. The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual self-surrender.” And we remain heartily acquiescent to his desires in professing that emotion of art is objective and impersonal.
Eliot remains behind, between, and beyond his creation. He bears Hamlet’s hackneyed mind in Prufrock’s eternal equivocations, he remains indulged in endless contemplation in The Wasteland, while wandering placidly amid the pragmatic pandemonium of the urban void in the Preludes. And in the denouement, one hears what he heard; a final chant of eternity..
Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.
Dettmar Kevin. “A Hundred Years of T.S. Eliot’s
“Tradition and the Individual Talent”: The New Yorker. 2019.
Essay on Poetic Theory: Tradition and the Individual Talent. Original Publication. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. 2009.
T.S. Eliot: Wikipedia. Main article: T.S. Eliot Bibliography. Retrieved 25 February 2012.
Roy Hareshwar. “Dissociation of Sensibility”: englitmail. 2017.
(Picture credits: Pexels)
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