T.S. ELIOT AND W.B. YEATS: THE EXAMPLES OF 20TH CENTURY ENGLISH POETS

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INTRODUCTION

The two poets, T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats contributed a lot to what is known as modernist poetry. Their works contain some fragments of the World War and the disillusionment that followed. Their biographies are briefly given and then their works are explicated.

A Brief Biography of T.S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in Missouri on September 26, 1888. He lived in St. Louis during the first eighteen years of his life and attended Harvard University. In 1910, he left the United States for the Sorbonne, having earned both undergraduate and master degrees and having contributed several poems to the Harvard Advocate.

After a year in Paris, he returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but returned to Europe and settled in England in 1914. The following year, he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood and began working in London, first as a teacher and later for Lloyd’s Bank. It was in London that Eliot came under the influence of his contemporary Ezra Pound who recognized his poetic genius at once, and assisted in the publication of his work in a number of magazines, most notably “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915. His first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, was published in 1917, and immediately established him as a leading poet of the avant-garde. With the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, Eliot’s reputation began to grow to nearly mythic proportions; by 1930, and for the next thirty years, he was the most dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in the English-speaking world. Eliot received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948, and died in London in 1965.

The Poetry and Style of T.S. Eliot

Eliot is well known for two of his poems, The Waste Land, and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. We are going to examine The Waste land. With its bewilderingly fragmented, imagistic evocation of a sterile and broken civilization, Eliot’s The Waste Land has long been considered an archetypal text of literary modernism, providing a conveniently concentrated example of almost all the major features associated with that label. Although the poem’s wide range of cultural reference suggests many other relevant contexts too (urbanization, popular culture and entertainment, and the developing fields of anthropology and comparative religion), the First World War is perhaps its most obvious shaping context.

The war is explicitly alluded to in the semi-comic repartee of the women in the pub in Part II of the poem, and literal echoes of the war can be head in lines like ‘Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air’ (Part V, 1, 373); but the impact and aftermath of the war is deeply embedded in the poem’s all-pervasive and many-faceted sense of death and loss, fracture and disorientation. The imagery of death and desolation is everywhere, from the very first section sub-title, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, through to the fourth, ‘Death by Water’. The land is dead, trees are dead, the bones of dead men lie in garrets and alleys, ‘Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year’ (Part III, 1.195):

He who was living is now dead

We who are living are now dying

(Part V, II. 328-9).

As this last line suggests, though, the poem is not in any simple way a memorial to the men who literally died in the war. It is also, if not more so, a lament for the living death that the war symbolically bequeathed to the world in marking the end of a cultural cycle and the shattering of its fundamental values, beliefs and aspirations. The city of modernity is now an “Unreal City’, a hellish ghostly waste land, full of ‘Falling towers’ and the walking undead –

‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death and undone so many’.

(Part I, II. 62-3)

As the recurrent imagery of dryness and sterility makes clear, the poem is in this sense actually about the spiritual death of western civilization, and the poem’s fragmented web of allusions to Christianity and to various other religions, myths and rituals is intended to evoke the anguished modern search for new sources of faith and meaning in the world.

The narrative disjunctions and the sudden shifts of location and language in the poem are clearly functional to this sense of profound spiritual disorientation in the modern world. Eliot’s waste land may probably be a spiritual one, nevertheless, it captures the meaninglessness and fragmentations of the twentieth century.

A Brief Account of W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865. His father, John Yeats was a painter. He spent his childhood in country Sligo, where his parents were raised, and in London. He returned to Dublin at the age of fifteen to continue his education and study painting, but quickly discovered he preferred poetry. Yeats became involved with the Celtic Revival, a movement against the cultural influences of English rule in Ireland during the Victorian period, which sought to promote the spirit of Ireland’s native heritage. Though Yeats never learned Gaelic, his writing at the turn of the century drew extensively from sources in Irish mythology and folklore. Also a potent influence on his poetry was the Irish revolutionary Mewed Gonne, whom he met in 1889, a woman equally famous for her passionate nationalist politics and her beauty.

Yeats was deeply involved in politics in Ireland, and in the twenties, despite Irish Independence from England, his verse reflected pessimism about the political situation in his country and the rest of Europe, paralleling the increasing conservatism of his American counterparts in London, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. His work after 1910 was strongly influenced by Pound, becoming more modern in its concision and imagery, but Yeats never abandoned his strict adherence to traditional verse forms. W.B. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 and died in 1939 at the age of 73.

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