T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Major poetry: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917), "Gerontion" (1920), The Waste Land (1922), "The Hollow Men" (1925), The Four Quartets (1943).
Biographical notes:

Two points from Eliot's literary criticism
In the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" Eliot says that poetry involves an extinction of the personality of the author, justifying the use of an inscrutable persona.  Much of Eliot's poetry "hides" the personality of the author in dramatic monologue (see Robert Browning handout), and his claim also echoes Keats's idea of "negative capability."  Eliot's "removal" of the poet from the poetry parallels the "disappearance of the author" in modern fiction.  (Consider "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in this light of its being a dramatic monologue.)

In an essay on Hamlet , regarding the "objective correlative," Eliot implies that the work in its objective existence called for a collaborative effort which would be different for different readers so that it would suggest no agreed story or interpretation; its relationship to what went on in the poet's mind is impenetrably obscure and irrelevant.  Eliot suggests that each text has meaning only as it is constructed in the mind of the reader.

The poetry
No apparent internal logic—no transitions or logical sequencing as we're accustomed to find in poetry

The poetry is more subtle, more suggestive—themes are not stated, thereby requiring the reader's participation in the construction of "meaning"

Eliot's poetry typically blends the modern and contemporary with the traditional, particularly in allusions to the culture and literature of an eclectic array of historical periods and places

The poetry we're reading takes us "inside the poetic mind," in a sense, just as Joyce's Ulysses takes us into the "prosaic" mind.  The poetic mind, perhaps naturally, is less directly comprehensible, and it is often difficult to see the seams of thought or the paths of particular associations—or the reasons for them.  Eliot works mainly by presenting a series of images and/or symbols which are often not organized in the linear and logical order we find in most pre-modernist literature.  For the patient, willing, and open-minded reader, Eliot's poetry "works" when the reader lets go of traditional expectations about poetry and allows the various images collect or deliver meaning as a sort of modern-art "collage" or aggregation of images, symbols, and subtle suggestions and allusions.  

On The Waste Land
Eliot wrote the poem in a period of personal despair: problems with wife, parents, and work.  Mostly written
during a period of treatment for deep depression. 

The poem's finished state owes much to the editorial advice of Ezra Pound, a leading American modernist poet, who convinced Eliot to cut the poem's length nearly in half.

Eliot called his "explanatory" footnotes "a remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship," and said they were written to pad out original text.  He joked that the notes experienced "almost a greater popularity than the poem itself."

The primary motif in the poem is dryness and barrenness.  The complicated interplay of the present with traditional myths of fertility from the past work together to imply the barrenness of modern life.  Sex is unsatisfying and leads to abortion, there is no new life in the desert of modern life, no fertile growth.

The fruitful, rich past appears to beckon into the barren present, and in image, myth, and allusion, "The past fades into the present, and the present fades into the past."

The bottom line?
"Speaking of a French poet, Eliot once remarked that poetry uses the logic of the imagination, not the logic of concepts.  'People who do not appreciate poetry always find it difficult to distinguish between order and chaos in the arrangement of images; and even those who are capable of appreciating poetry cannot depend upon first impressions.  I was not convinced of Mr. Perse's imaginative order until I had read the poem five or six times (Preface to Anabasis: A poem by St. John Perse, with a translation into English by T. S. Eliot, 1930).  There is no doubt that he would have said the same thing about [The Waste Land].  It is offered as an arrangement of images; their order is not expository or narrative, and one is required not to extract that order but to enter the poem and inhabit it. . . .
    Yet the fact of the matter is that The Waste Land, for whatever reasons, is the central English poem of the twentieth century.  This means that many readers have, by reading it six times, somehow intuited its order, so that it is useless to insist on the nonexistence, or the cultural instability, of that order.  There can be no doubt that the best way to read it is any way that enables one to intuit its order.  For some readers this may mean ignoring Eliot's notes, ignoring the supplementary notes of his commentators, and letting the poem do its own work.  Others will need help.  Even if the background of myth and ritual to which the poem alludes is perfunctory or unnecessary or mere scaffolding, even if the network of allusions to occult materials and other poets is inessential, there is some comfort in having them pointed out.  These things are at worst useful fictions, instruments which can be thrown away once a true encounter with the poem itself is achieved. . . (Kermode and Hollander 473-74).