Thomas Sterns Eliot and William Butler Yeats' Poetry
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"The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways."
These exact lines were quoted from Thomas Sterns Eliot's (hereafter Eliot) essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" which was first published in Egoist, December 1920. This shows the kind of approach Elliot had towards poetry, an approach which most poets lacked; an approach with historical motifs; an approach which was shared by William Butler Yeats (hereafter Yeats) for he once stated "The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write."
Yeats and Eliot are two chief modernist poet of the English Language. Both were Nobel Laureates. Both were critics of Literature and Culture expressing similar disquietude with Western civilization. Both, prompted by the Russian revolution perhaps, or the violence and horror of the First World War, pictured a Europe that was ailing, that was literally falling apart, devoid of the ontological sense of rational purpose that fuelled post-Enlightenment Europe and America(1). All these similar experience makes their poetry more valuable to compare and to contrast since their thoughts were similar yet one called himself Classicist(Eliot) who wrote objectively and the other considered himself "the last Romantic" because of his subjective writing and his interest in mysticism and the spiritual. For better understanding of these two poets it is necessary to mention some facts and backgrounds on them which influenced them to incorporate similar (to some extent) historical motif in their poetry.
WB Yeats was born in 1865 in Dublin. His parents were John Butler Yeats, a portrait painter, and Susan Pollexfen. His family was upper class, Protestant and of Anglo-Irish descent. His ancestors were church rectors. His mother's famil, the Pollexfens, were known for their eccentricities manifested by an interest in astrology and magic. He was very interested in super sensual experiences and visions which came to him "from the back of his mind". Eventually, he became interested in Hinduism and the occult. During his life, he developed interests in theosophy, ancient civilizations, psychic power, spiritualism, magic, eastern religions and the supernatural which in due course led to the conception of "The Second Coming"(first published in November 1920).
It is a two stanza poem in blank verse. The first stanza is about the ailing of the civilization, describing the world as a place of chaos and disaster. In the second stanza, the narrator talks about how the present chaos must signal the second coming(of Jesus Christ), because 20 centuries have passed since the death of Jesus Christ. Since Christ's presence is still not felt, the narrator is afraid what grotesque creature will rule the next historical era for Yeats ends his poem by saying
"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?". (The Second Coming, line:21-22)
Most critics associated the poem with various contemporary calamities, such as the Easter Rising of 1916, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the rise of fascism, and the political decay of Eastern Europe. A similar theme of the world being a place of chaos and disaster is shared by Eliot who believes that humans find it hard to communicate; they are separated by misunderstanding or selfishness. People betray each other. Sometimes they live in their own world. This theme is well portrayed in one of his famous work "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock"(hereafter Prufrock), but before we analyze the poem, a synopsis of Eliot's background is necessary.
T.S Eliot was born into a privileged background in St. Louis, Missouri 1888. His father, who was president of a brick making company, and mother, who wrote poetry and was once a teacher and social volunteer, were determined to educate him well. As he grew up, he started to become aware of the contrasting lifestyles between the poorer St. Louis and the more elegant drawing room culture of its wealthy classes. This contrast instilled him to write poems like "Prufrock" where he distinguishes between the urban squalor and the drawing room manners. Before obtaining a British citizenship, he studied in Boston University where he was further able to learn the injustice done to humanity and the negative side of humanity. In 1917, with the encouragement of his friend and mentor, American poet Ezra Pound, he published his first major poem, The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock'. Eliot had written this poem in 1911, at the age of 23. In my opinion, Eliot tried to portray Prufrock as an ordinary individual who was given an opportunity to experience the elegant lifestyle of the rich. Prufrock being from the low-class, was unable to fit into such a crowd and he believes his presence is disrupting the balance of nature (rich vs poor) for he says,
"Do I dare
Disturb the universe?" [Prufrock,line:45-46]
The fact that his status is different from the others, he is not confident with himself mentally or his appearance, he believes everyone will talk behind his back because in the poem he says "(They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!')". Basically, Prufrock is suffering from indecisiveness whether to talk to the ladies(or one particular lady) because they might reject him because of his social standing. To Prufrock such feeling of complexity is like hell, for his love song uses an epigraph from Dante's "Inferno", and are spoken by the character Count Guido da Montefelltro. Dante meets the punished Guido in the Eighth Chasm of Hell. Guido explains everything freely to Dante because Dante is one of the dead who could never return to earth to report what he says. A similar situation is faced by Prufrock where he is speaking his feelings to the readers (I believe) because to him we are like the dead since we cannot
do much about his problems. The poem is written in no particular verse structure (free verse), which I believe is a reflection of the disorderly universe which Eliot experienced. This also resembles the fact that the poem is dedicated to no particular time period.
In contrast to these two poem, " The Second Coming" and " The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock", we can see both the writers shared similar motifs. For Yeat's theme of disintegration, chaos and sudden change can be viewed in the poem where he says,
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" [Second Coming, line 3-4]
The same motif can be seen in Eliot's poem where Prufrock says:
Certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels' [line:4-6]
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening' [24-25]
Is it perfume from a dress that makes me so digress?' [line:65-66]
The stated lines tell us for a fact that Eliot is trying to portray the seedy side of modern life, especially urban life. He figures that society has lost its traditional moral values and restraints. Life has become tainted.
Both the writers are worried about the ailing of the civilization and have tried to bring to the reader's attention. It is not surprising that both poets have similar historical motifs, for Yeats in one of his anonymous essays wrote how surprised he was whenever he found that an image that came "out of beyond [his] mind" was already described by some previous poet or writer (This phenomena was later studied by Jung who called in Collective Unconscious, or by Timothy Leary who explained it as product of our DNA, which contains the heritage of life's evolution from day one.
Elliot, Thomas Sterns. Tradition and Individual Talent. Egoist: December 1920
Yeat, W.B.The Second Coming. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran New York: Macmillan, 1989
Yeats, W.B. A Vision. London: Macmillan, 1937.
Eliot, T. S. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Collected Poems 1909-1962 . New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963. 3-7.
Loucks, James. "Prufrock Among the Women." 20 Feb. 1997. Posting to TSE Listserv. INT:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Southam, B. C. "Annotations for The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock." A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot . http://www-scf.usc.edu/~alozano/annotations.html 30 Oct. 2005.
Yeats, W.B. Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan, 1961