Twentieth century’s greatest poet celebrated

Modern man: TS Eliot captured the early 20th century’s changing world with his poetry.

A century after his first important poem and 50 years after he died, poets are paying tribute to TS Eliot, one of giants of 20th century literature. Why does his work define our age?

A century ago this month, a bright young poet was struggling to get his first poem published. The problem was that it left editors completely baffled. One even concluded it was the work of a man insane. The poem eventually made it into print in the back pages of a small magazine, where it was unlikely to cause much fuss.

The poem was The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and the poet, now regarded as the 20th century’s greatest, was TS Eliot. He went on went on to win the Nobel Prize and the Goethe Prize, among others, and to influence almost every English-language poet since.

Now, 50 years after TS Eliot’s death, poets and academics have gathered in London to honour his work and award the prize that bears his name. What gives his poetry such enduring power?

Eliot grappled with the rapidly changing world of the 20th century. The rise of the working class as a political force was challenging an old social order, and novel ideas in psychology drew attention to human fragility. While 19th century thinkers believed mankind was progressing, many in the 1910s feared humanity had become unstuck.

Eliot’s early work explores the self-consciousness and vulnerability of people alienated by this world. His language is simple yet his ideas are deliberately unsettling. One person looks back at his life and decides, ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas’. In another poem, voices sound ‘like rat’s feet over broken glass’.

‘The Waste Land’, often considered his masterpiece, was written as Europe lay in ruins after World War One. It is a series of confused fragments. It takes us from the pain as April showers revive life in dry soil to a description of a traumatised lover, to London as an ‘Unreal city’ of fog. It is regarded as one of the finest expressions of the horrors of war.

Later poems like ‘Ash Wednesday’ explore Eliot trying to grapple with religion, while ‘Four Quartets’ meditates on the nature of time itself. Yet he was not always so serious; his children’s poem, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, was turned into the hit musical Cats.

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Eliot was a good poet of his time, some say, but we are neglecting more accessible poets by focusing on him. His early 20th century world has little to tell us about our own time. Young people should focus on contemporary artists instead.

Others counter than Eliot’s themes of alienation and vulnerability are more relevant than ever. In our globalised world of gadgets and distractions, ever more of our lives takes place online, leaving many feeling lost. Even a century later very few writers have matched Eliot’s articulation of these ideas.

You Decide

  1. Are the problems troubling people today the same that troubled people a century ago?
  2. Can writers capture the spirit of an age?

Activities

  1. In pairs, pick a favourite poem of yours and list reasons why it is important to you.
  2. Write a poem exploring how modern phenomena like social media and mobile phones make people feel alienated from the world.

Some People Say...

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

TS Eliot

What do you think?

Q & A

TS Eliot’s poetry is too difficult to understand.
Poetry is often deliberately difficult because it expresses complex and often ambiguous ideas in few words. But remember that poetry is meant to be read slowly and to be reread many times. TS Eliot often uses bizarre and highly evocative imagery that does not make obvious sense, such as describing some dark stairs as the ‘toothed gullet of an ageing shark’. In these cases, just enjoy the strangeness of the poem.
Was TS Eliot as good a person as he was a poet?
TS Eliot was slightly snobbish and was a firm believer in social hierarchies, and that elitist culture was vastly superior to popular culture. There are almost no positive depictions of people in his poetry, but the bleakness of Eliot’s poetic world is part of its appeal.

Word Watch

Goethe Prize
Another recipient of the Goethe Prize was Sigmund Freud, who was one of the fathers of psychology. TS Eliot also won the distinguished awards the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit.
Working class
The Labour Party was founded in 1893. By the 1910s, it had grown into a powerful force and gave more representation to Britain’s workers. It came to power in 1924, with Ramsay MacDonald its first prime minister.
Progressing
This is a simplification, as 19th century writers like Thomas Hardy expressed doubts over whether the world was improving.
1910s
‘Modernism’ is the name given to the artistic movement that tried to explore this changing world through experiment in art. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound are often included with TS Eliot as the main practitioners of literary modernism in the English language.
Horrors
The Waste Land reverberated with Chinese citizens who saw their country torn apart by civil war and the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, as well as with the Japanese in the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

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