T. S. ELIOT (1888-1965)

The publication in 1922 of The Waste Land in the British little magazine Criterion and the American Dial was a cultural and literary event. The poem’s title and the view it incorporated of modern civilization seemed, to many, to catch precisely the state of culture and society after World War I. The war, supposedly fought to save European civilization, had been the most brutal and destructive in history: what kind of civilization, after all, could have allowed it to take place? The long, fragmented structure of The Waste Land, too, contained so many technical innovations that ideas of what poetry was and how it worked seemed fundamentally changed. A generation of poets either imitated or resisted it.

The author of this poem was an American living in London, T. S. Eliot. He had a comfortable upbringing in St. Louis: his mother involved herself in cultural and charitable activities and wrote poetry; his father was a successful businessman. His grandfather Eliot had been a New England Unitarian minister who, moving to St. Louis, had founded Washington University. Eliot was thus a product of that New England-based "genteel tradition" that shaped the nation’s cultural life after the Civil War. He attended Harvard for both undergraduate and graduate work (1906-10, 1911-14). He studied at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1910 to 1911 and at Oxford from 1915 to 1916, writing a dissertation on the idealistic philosophy of the English logician and metaphysician F. H. Bradley (1846-1924). The war prevented Eliot from returning to Harvard for the oral defense required for the Ph.D. degree, and this delay became the occasion of his turning to a life in poetry and letters rather than in academics.

Eliot had begun writing traditional poetry as a college student. In 1908, however, he read Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature and learned about Jules LaForgue and other French Symbolist poets. Symons’s book altered Eliot’s view of poetry, as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (published in Poetry in 1915) and Preludes (published in Blast in the same year) clearly showed. Ezra Pound, reading this work, began enthusiastically introducing Eliot in literary circles as a young American who had "trained himself and modernized himself on his own." Pound helped Eliot over several years to get financially established. In addition, he was a perceptive reader and critic of Eliot’s draft poems.

Eliot now settled in England, marrying Vivian Haigh-Wood in 1915. The marriage was not a success. Separated in 1932, they never divorced; Haigh-Wood died in all institution in 1947. After marrying, Eliot worked in London, first as a teacher and then from 1917 to 1925 in the foreign department of Lloyd’s Bank, hoping to find time to write poetry and literary essays. His criticism was published in the Egoist and then in the little magazine that he founded, Criterion, which was published from 1922 to 1939. His persuasive style, a mixture of advocacy and judiciousness, effectively counterpointed Pound’s "battering ram" approach; the two together had a tremendous effect on how poetry of the day was written and how poetry of the past was evaluated.

Eliot began working on The Waste Land in 1921 and finished it in a Swiss sanatorium while recovering from a mental collapse brought on by overwork, marital problems, and general depression. He accepted some alterations suggested by his wife and cut huge chunks out of the poem on Pound’s advice. Indeed, although Pound’s work on the poem was all excision, study of the manuscript before and after Pound’s suggestions were incorporated has led some critics to suggest that we should think of The Waste Land as jointly authored. The poem as published in Criterion and the Dial had no footnotes, these were added for its publication in book form and added yet another layer (possibly self-mocking) to the complex texture of the poem.

The Waste Land consists of five discontinuous segments, each composed of fragments incorporating multiple voices and characters, literary and historical allusions, bits and pieces of contemporary life, myths and legends. "These fragments I have shored against my ruins," the poet writes, asking whether he can form any coherent structure from the splinters of civilization. Lacking narrative and expository shape, the poem is organized by recurrent allusions to the myth of seasonal death and rebirth that, according to much anthropological thinking of the time, underlay all religions. In Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance Eliot found a repertory of myths through which he could invoke, without specifically naming any religion, the story of a desert land brought to life by a king’s sacrifice. Although it gestured toward religious belief, The Waste Land was not all affirmative or religious poem; the desperate quest for regeneration in a cacaphonous, desolate landscape remains unfulfilled.

Many readers saw The Waste Land as the definitive cultural statement of its time, but it was not definitive for Eliot. In fact, for Eliot himself the poem may have been much less broadly conceived and, above all, an indirect confession of personal discord. Whatever the fate of culture, the individual needed to work for personal certainty. In a preface to the collection of essays For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) he declared himself a "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion." After The Hollow Men and the Sweeney poems, which continue The Waste Land’s critique of modern civilization, he turned increasingly to poems of religious doubt and reconciliation. The Journey of the Magi and Ash Wednesday are poems about the search for a faith that is desperately needed, yet difficult to sustain. The Four Quartets, begun with Burnt Norton in 1934 and completed in 1943, are poems written after his conversion to Christian faith; they are not so much reports of a faith already secure as dramatizations of the continual process of arriving at belief. In this process Eliot found a center for his own life as well as for his later poetry. The Four Quartets incorporate a good deal of the discursive and expository, elements that he had objected to in his earlier essays and rejected from his earlier poems.

An emphasis on "order," "hierarchy," and racial homogeneity emerged in his social essays of the late 1920s and 1930s, and nasty instances of anti-Semitism had appeared earlier in the Sweeney poems. It is clear that for Eliot and other poets who saw upheaval and breakdown in the modern world, the stability promised by hierarchical authoritarian regimes was often appealing. They did not form a unified group, however; Eliot’s versions of a better future involved an orthodox Christian faith in opposition to Pound’s secularism and the more or less ad hoc religious eclecticism of a poet like John Crowe Ransom. When World War II began, Eliot—again in contrast to Pound—retreated from politics.

In the world of the little magazine as well as in academia, Eliot’s conservative critical essays tended to carry as much weight as his poetry. His influential Tradition and the Individual Talent defined the Western poetic tradition as an organic, elastic equilibrium that constantly reformed itself as major new poets entered in. The essay argued that the proper context for understanding poems and poets was not social, historical, or political circumstances; it was entirely the context of other poems and poets. Literature was a world of its own. Other essays denigrated didactic, expository, or narrative poets like Milton and the Victorians while applauding the verbally complex, ironic, indirect, symbolic work of seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets like Donne and Herbert.

For the New Criticism, which approached each poem as a self-contained verbal artifact demanding careful analysis for imagery, allusion, ambiguity, and the like, Eliot’s essays provided theory, his poetry opportunities for practical criticism. But when critics used Eliot’s standards of difficult indirection to judge literary quality and made interpretation the main task of readers they often overlooked the simple lyricism, obvious didacticism, and straightforward humor of Eliot’s own poetry. And they failed to see the poems’ specific cultural and autobiographical content.

However elitist his pronouncements, however hostile to modernity he claimed to be, Eliot actually drew very heavily on popular forms and longed to have wide cultural influence. There are vaudeville turns throughout The Waste Land He admired Charlie Chaplin and longed to write "for as large and miscellaneous an audience as possible." He pursued this ambition by writing verse plays. Murder in the Cathedral (1935) as a church pageant; The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1953), and The Elder Statesman (1959), all religious in theme (though their symbolism was often hidden), were successfully produced in London and on Broadway. Although Eliot remained a resident of England, he returned to the United States frequently in the 1930s and 1940s to lecture and to give readings of his poems. On these visits he played the role of aloof English gentleman as though he had never known a city called St. Louis. He married his assistant, Valerie Fletcher, in 1957. By the time of his death he had become a social and cultural institution.

The text of the poems included here is that of The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot (1969).

(click on the arrow above to hear Eliot read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock")

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

S’io credessi che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza più scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats (5)
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . . (10)
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make out visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, (15)
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, (20)
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time2
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes; (25)
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days3 of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate; (30)
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go (35)
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair— (40)
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)
Do I dare (45)
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all–
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, (50)
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall4
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all– (55)
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? (60)
And how should I presume?
And I have known the arms already, known them all
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress (65)
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets (70)
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
. . . . . .
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! (75)
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? (80)
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,5
I am no prophet–and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, (85)
And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while, (90)
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: ‘I am Lazarus,6 come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’– (95)
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.’
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while, (100)
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor–
And this, and so much more?–
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen: (105)
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
‘That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.’ (110)
. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress,7 start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use, (115)
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence,8 but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous–
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old . . . I grow old . . . (120)
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me. (125)
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown (130)
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
(1915, 1917)


1. If I thought that my reply would be to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay without further movement; but since none has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy (Dante, Inferno 27.61-66). The speaker, Guido da Montefeltro, consumed in flame as punishment for giving false counsel, confesses his shame without fear of its being reported since he believes Dante cannot return to earth.

2. An echo of Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress (1681): "Had we but world enough and time."

3. Works and Days is a didactic poem about farming by the Greek poet Hesiod (8th century B.C.).

4. Echo of Duke Orsino’s invocation of music in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1.1.4): "If music be the food of love, play on . . . That strain again! It had a dying fall."

5. The head of the prophet John the Baptist, who was killed at the behest of Princess Salome, was brought to her on a platter (see Mark 6.17-20, Matthew 14.3-11, and Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, 1894).

6. The resurrection of Lazarus is recounted in John 11.1-44.

7. A journey or procession made by royal courts and often portrayed on Elizabethan stages.

8. Opinions, sententiousness.

from The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Fourth Edition (Nina Baym, General Ed.)