Eliot as Dramatist

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T.S. Eliot as a dramatist


American-English poet, playwright, and critic, a leader of the modernist movement in literature. Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948. His most famous work is THE WASTE LAND, written when he was 34. On one level this highly complex poem descibes cultural and spiritual crisis.

"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." (from 'Tradition and the Individual Talent,' 1920)

As a Dramatist

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the seventh and youngest child of a distinguished family of New England origin. Eliot's forebears included the Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of Washington University in St. Louis. Isaac Stearns on his mother's side was one of the original settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Henry, Eliot's father, was a prosperous industrialist and his mother Charlotte was a poet. She wrote among others a biography of William Greenleaf Eliot.

Eliot attended Smith Academy in St. Louis and Milton Academy in Massachusetts. In 1906 he went to Harvard, where he contributed poetry to Harvard Advocate. After receiving his B.A. in 1909, Eliot spent a year in France, attending Henri Bergson's lectures at the Sorbonne and studying poetry with the novelist and poet Henri Alain-Fournier. He then returned to Harvard, where he worked on a dissertation on the English idealist philosopher F.H. Bradley. Eliot also studied Sanskrit and Buddhism.

In 1915 Eliot made England his permanent home. With Ezra Pound, his countryman and an advocate on literary modernism, he started to reform poetic diction. Pound was largely responsible for getting Eliot's early poems into print, such as THE LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK in the Chicago magazine Poetry in 1915. The title character is tormented by the uncertainty of his identity and the difficulty of articulating his feelings. Prufrock is a perfect gentleman and tragic in his conventionality. He has heard "the mermaids singing" but is paralyzed by self-consciousness - "I do not think that they will sing to me." Denis Donoghue has pointed out in Words Alone (2000) that in his early poems Eliot didn't start with a theme but with a fragment of rhythm, or motif. Prufrock has not the qualities of a person, he is a fragmented voice with a name. "Eliot's language here and in the early poems generally refers to things and simultaneously works free from the reference. He seems always to be saying: "That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all." When he gives a voice a name—Prufrock, Gerontion—he makes no commitment beyond the naming." (from Words Alone)

Pound also introduced Eliot to Harriet Weaver, who published Eliot's first volume of verse, PRUFROCK AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS (1917). Eliot taught for a year at Highgate Junior School in London, and then worked as a clerk at Lloyds Bank, where he wrote acticles for the monthly in-house magazine Lloyds Bank Economic Review on foreign currency movements. A physical condition prevented his entering in 1918 the US Navy. Eliot's second book, ARA VOS PREC (published in the U.S. as POEMS), which appeared in 1919, was hand-printed by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at the Hogath Press.

In an early essay, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1919), Eliot propounded the doctrine, that poetry should be impersonal and free itself from Romantic practices. "The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." Eliot saw that in this depersonalization the art approaches science. With his collection of essays, THE SACRED WOOD (1920), and later published THE USE OF POETRY AND...
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