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Monday, March 02, 2009

Extracts from 'The Art of T.S. Eliot'

These are a few extracts from “The Art of T.S. Eliot” by Helen Gardner. This might be of use for students who want to know more about the poet and understand the poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and his other works better. This is not from examination point of view but it might be very helpful for that too. Although the book has not been issued from the library since 1997, it is a very interesting book for all those who love literature and its criticism. It is available in the U.G. library of Christ University, Bangalore.


Our age with its undigested technical vocabulary, its misuse of metaphor, and its servitude to cliché, cannot be regarded as propitious for a poet. It is a part of Mr Eliot’s greatness as a poet that he has accepted for poetic transformation the idiom of his own day. He has done so deliberately, for he said:

I believe that any language, so long as it remains the same language, imposes its laws and restrictions and permits its own a licence, dictates its own speech rhythms and sound patterns. And a language is always changing; its developments in the vocabulary, in syntax, pronunciation and intonation-even, in the long run, its deterioration- must be accepted by the poet and made the best of. He is turn has the privilege of contributing to the development and maintaining the quality, the capacity of the language to express a wide range, and subtle gradation, of feeling and emotion; his task is both to respond to change and make it conscious, and to battle against degradation below the standards which he has learnt from the past (The Music of Poetry 1942).

Mr. Eliot was from the first a poet with a remarkable range of diction, and with a natural gift for the vividly memorable phrase. He was always consciously aware of the varied resources of English poetic diction and delighted to place an exotic word exactly, or to give us the sudden shock which the unexpected introduction of a commonplace word or phrase can provide. The development in his mature poetry is a development in naturalness: a more ‘easy commerce of old and new’; a mastery of transitions on the large and the small scale, so that change and variety now ‘give delight and hurt not’; and a capacity to employ without embarrassment the obviously poetic word and image. In his earlier poetry he showed a certain distaste for words with poetic associations, which suggested a limitation in his temperament and a certain lack of confidence in his art. Avoidance of the obvious is not the mark of the highest originality of the genuinely bold artist. The change in Mr. Eliot’s poetic style which begins with The Hollow Men in 1925 is accompanied by a change in his metric. The change is the metre is possibly the fundamental change, for it is the new metre that has made possible his new freedom with the language of poetry.

The characteristic metre of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) is as irregularly rhyming verse paragraphs in duple rising rhythm, with more or less variation in the length of the lines. Rhyme is used as a rhetorical ornament, not as part of a regular pattern; it is decorative and makes for emphasis, but it is not structural. There is, beside the variety in the number of stresses in the line, considerable variety in the amount of co-incidence between speech stress and metrical stresses; but all this we are accustomed to in verse from the seventeenth century onwards."
-From chapter 1-Auditory Imagination.

"Mr. Eliot is, in his own words, ‘occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meaning still exist’. Mr. Eliot has not at the back of his mind an idea or an argument which could have been expressed quite simply, and which he is purposely disguising. His poems do not begin from an intellectual position, or a truth. They begin with a place, a point in time, and the meaning or the truth is discovered in the process of writing and in the process of reading. Each poem gathers up into itself all that has been said before, and communication becomes easier as the whole poem proceeds.

Part of the difficulty of Mr. Eliot’s early works arose from what he has described himself as ‘an intense and narrow taste determined by personal needs’. this early taste let him to later Elizabethan dramatists for a style of great rhetorical force, and to the French symbolists for a manner that allowed him to express an intensely individual view of life with the minimum of direct statement. The personal need was in his temperament-ironic, diffident, at war with his surroundings; sceptical, preferring understatement, hints and suggestions; fastidious, reserved, acutely sensitive to beauty and ugliness, but even more to misery and happiness. This temperament made the symbolists congenial, for their method of finding an ‘objective correlative’ for emotional states gave him an opportunity to write with a clarity, precision and expressiveness which satisfied his poetic taste, while it allowed him to escape from the lyric poet’s necessity of speaking either for himself or for all men. J. Alfred Prufrock’s love song is neither personal, nor general, though in it the poet expresses a personal vision, and defines what is perhaps a general predicament. The originality, however, lies in the blend of this oblique manner with a highly passionate and dramatic style, which constantly escapes from the region of wit, irony and sensibility into a dramatic intensity if feeling. This tension between treatment and style, which gives the early poetry much of its disturbing power and beauty, was one of the things which made it difficult for the ordinary reader to see what the poet was ‘getting at’. The difficulty, however, lay not only in an unfamiliar manner and an unlimited linguistic daring. A more serious difficulty was the poet’s assumption that his readers could supply from their own experience, and particularly from their reading, what he chose to leave unsaid, or only hint at."
-From chapter 3-Poetic Communication

"In the early poems, as throughout Mr. Eliot’s poetry, images of taste and smell are remarkably frequent. Taste and smell are the most immediate of our senses, and the least translatable into intellectual terms by the conscious mind. They are also the most at the mercy of the external world, for we can avert our eyes, stop our ears and refrain from touching more easily than we can escape a smell which is haunting and pervasive. Such images are natural to a poet whose subject is something ‘beneath both beauty and ugliness’

The question that Mr. Prufrock dare not ask is only superficially the kind of question which one ‘pops’. there is another question all the time which every other question depends on:
Let us go then, you and I, When…………………………talking of Michelangelo.

Why not? One must talk of something and Michelangelo is a cultural topic. The absurdity of discussing his art, in high pitched feminine voices, drifting though a drawing room, adds merely extra irony to the underlying sense of the lines: the escape into nany kind of triviality, implied by the phrase: ‘Let us go make our visit’.

In Mr. Eliot there is a kind of prim pedantry, the pedantry of the New England lecture-room, suggesting not the bar, but the cultured voice and the card-index of the professor. Both works juxtapose boldly a modern world described with the most complete realism, and a world of romance, epic and high tragedy."
-From chapter 4-The Dry Season

"Although all Mr. Eliot’s poetry is the expression of a certain kind of apprehension, the change in his rhythms and style, which has been discussed, and the and the change in his imagery, is the result of a profound change within this apprehension. In the earlier poetry the apprehension is a kind of glass through which he views the world; it is a dark glass through which life is seen with a strange clarity, but drained of colour and variety."
-From chapter 5- The Time of Tension


Gardner, Helen. The Art of T.S. Eliot. Cresset Press, 1949.


Anil Pinto said...

Hats off, Satya.

satya said...

Thank you Sir.

Anonymous said...

satya congratulation for an excellent show for the play. it is an extraordinary talent.

satya said...

thank you so much anonymous! and thank you again for coming and watching the play!

nightrene said...

hey satya congrats.......... u did a wonderful job....... d play was really good....... enjoyed it......

Anonymous said...

Sir, could you please put-up sample questions for the end-sem exam?
- 1st JPEng

satya said...

thanks a lot nightrene!! glad you came and enjoyed it!