Thomas Stearns Eliot was not a revolutionary, yet he revolutionized the way the Western world writes and reads poetry. Some of his works were as imagist and incomprehensible as could be most of it in free verse, yet his concentration was always on the meaning of his language, and the lessons he wished to teach with them. Eliot consorted with modernist literary iconoclast Ezra Pound but was obsessed with the traditional works of Shakespeare and Dante. He was a man of his time yet was obsessed with the past. He was born in the United States, but later became a royal subject in England. In short, Eliot is as complete and total a contradiction as any artist of his time, as is evident in his poetry, drama, and criticism.
But the prevailing of his contradictions involves two major themes in his poetry: history and faith. He was, in his life, a self-described "Anglo-Catholic," but was raised a Midwestern Unitarian in St. Louis. Eliot biographer Peter Ackroyd describes the religion of Eliot's ancestors as "a faith [that] reside[s] in the Church, the City, and the University since it is a faith primarily of social intent, and concerned with the nature of moral obligations within a society. It place[s] its trust in good works, in reverence for authority and the institutions of authority, in public service, in thrift, and in success" (18). It is through Eliot's insistence of these "moral obligations" that his didactic poetry gives us a glimpse of both his outwardly rejected faith and his inability to shun its tenets. He becomes, through his greatest poetry, a professor of that which he supposedly does not believe.
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...In "The Waste Land," Eliot delivers an indictment against the self-serving, irresponsibility of modern society, but not without giving us, particularly the youth a message of hope at the end of the Thames River. And in "Ash Wednesday," Eliot finally describes an example of the small, graceful images God gives us as oases in the Waste Land of modern culture. Eliot constantly refers back, in unconsciously, to his childhood responsibilities of the missionary in an unholy world. It is only through close, diligent reading of his poetry that we can come to understand his faithful message of hope.
Ackroyd, Peter. T.S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Kenner, Hugh. T.S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1962.
Tate, Allen. T.S. Eliot: The Man and His Work. New York: Delacorte Press, 1966.
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