Thomas Stearns Eliot, or T.S. Eliot as he is better known, was born in 1888 in St. Louis.
He was the son of a prominent industrialist who came from a well-connected Boston family. His family
was descended from one of the original Puritan settlers, and his parents were wealthy and fond of
culture (his mother was a poet while his father was an artist) Eliot always felt the loss of his family's
New England roots and seemed to be somewhat ashamed of his father's business success; throughout
his life he continually sought to return to the epicenter of Anglo-Saxon culture, first by attending
Harvard and then by emigrating to England, where he lived from 1914 until his death. He studied at
Harvard, Paris and Oxford universities, thus giving a cosmopolitan bent to his education. Though an
American by birth, his cultural background was at first English and then European. In fact he discovered
John Donne and the English Metaphysical poets; he learned Italian by studying Dante, whom he
devoted one of his most celebrated essays in 1929. Here Eliot stated Dante was the poet who best
expressed a universal situation and praised him “clear visual images”, “the lucidity” of his style and “his
extraordinary force of compression”, to come to the conclusion that “more can be learned about how
to write poetry from Dante than from any other English poet”. In 1910 when he studied in Paris at the
Sorbonne he attended Henri Bergson’s lectures, and where he started to read the works of the French
Eliot met Ezra Pound in 1914, as well, and it was Pound who was his main mentor and editor and who
got his poems published and noticed. During a 1921 break from his job as a bank clerk (to recover from
a mental breakdown), Eliot finished the work that was to secure him fame, The Waste Land. This poem,
heavily edited by Pound and perhaps also by Eliot's wife, Vivien, addressed the fragmentation and
alienation characteristic of modern culture, making use of these fragments to create a new kind of
poetry. Based on various legends, it portrays London as a sterile, waste land, and expresses the
depression and cynicism of the postwar period. The poem is built around several symbols, the most
important of which are drought and flood, representing death and rebirth. The highly allusive manner
and numerous references make the poem difficult to understand. Its true originally lies in its
presentation of man’s spiritual crisis and in its variety of style, rather than in its literary apparatus. In
writing The Waste Land Eliot was influenced by Dante, the English Metaphysical poets and the French
It was also around this time that Eliot began to write criticism, partly in an effort to explain his own
In 1925, he went to work for the publishing house Faber & Faber. Despite the distraction of his wife's
increasingly serious bouts of mental illness, Eliot was from this time until his death the preeminent
literary figure in the English-speaking world; indeed, he was so monumental that younger poets often
went out of their way to avoid his looming shadow, painstakingly avoiding all similarities of style.
Eliot became interested in religion in the later 1920s and eventually converted to Anglicanism. His
poetry from this point onward shows a greater religious bent, although it never becomes dogmatic the
way his sometimes controversial cultural criticism does. With the poem Ash Wednesday(1930)a new
phase began in the poet’s development: though the old attitude remains ,he finds hope in religious
belief and in the stabilizing influence of the Christian religion. This poem is more lyrical in spirit, and the
style is relaxed and musical with its repetition and assonance. Four Quartets, his last major poetic
work, combines a Christian sensibility with a profound uncertainty resulting from the war's devastation
Eliot finally decided to separate from his wife, who was committed to a mental asylum, where she died
nine years later in 1947. Her death, however, created a terrible sense of guilt within the soul of the
poet and unhappiness led him to write in a letter of his: “I have always known hell- it is in my bones”.
T.S. Eliot had by this time become internationally acclaimed, and in 1948 he was awarded the Order of
Merit and the Nobel prize for literature.
Eliot died in 1965 in London.
THE CONCEPT OF HISTORY
The past appears in the references to and quotations from many literary works belonging to different
traditions and cultures, and religious texts and also languages. And if this last fact emphasized the
character’s inability to communicate because they cannot understand what is being said to them, it also
makes his verse difficult to read. But it is also true that the quotations and allusions have great evocative
power, and add a further dimension to the poem. Poetry does not have to be understood to convey its
message; it can be enjoyed without a full understanding of it, in the same way as a music, or art, does not
to be translated into words. This use of quotations reflects the concept Eliot had of tradition and history,
that is, the repetition of the same events, and of “classicism”, that is, the ability to see the past as a
concrete premise for the present and “the poetic culture” as a “living unity” of all the poems written in
different periods. Thus present and past exist simultaneously in The Waste Land, just as they do in the
mind, and the continuous shifts of time and space are caused by the free associations of ideas and
thoughts, as in Ulysses by James Joyce.
THE MYTICAL METHOD
In his evaluation of Western culture, Eliot went back to its origins, when legends were symptoms of
spiritual attitudes which he regarded as extremely important. In modern society, however, old myths are
present, but they have lost their deep meaning and have been betrayed, and it is especially through these
mythical allusions that the contrast between present and past appears. Eliot contrast the present
meaningless of life with allusions to Arthurian legend and the Quest for the Holy Grail. There are
references also to the May festivities celebrating the rebirth of nature, and the Celtic myth, linked to the
paradigm of fertility. Eliot found myth the framework for his own fragments.
The style of The waste Land is fragmentary because of the mixture of different poetic styles, such as blank
verse, the ode, the quatrain, the heroic couplet, and free verse, thus reproducing the chaos of present
civilisation. The most effective analogies can be found in some “cubist images” or in some apparently
unconnected cinematic shots used to express a certain emotional state: the meaning is not in the single
fragment but in the whole. Instead of using simple, clear statements, Eliot requires the active participation
of the reader/public, who experiences the same world as that of the speaker/poet by employing the
technique of implication or by using quotations from different languages such as Latin, Italian, Sanskrit or
Metaphor and symbol replace direct statement; to this end, Eliot adopted the technique of the “objective
correlative”, that is the attempt at communicating philosophical reflections and feelings by means of a
simile, a description or a monologue by character in order to provide a vision of the world or a feeling of
the lyrical “I”. Poetry had to be objective, impersonal. Images are the “objective correlative” of the
emotions they aim to suggest; the language stimulates the imagination; exterior objects suggest feelings: “a
set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” will represent a particular emotion, and when they are given
to the reader the emotion is evoked. The phrase “objective correlative”(used also by Eugenio Montale),
was coined by Eliot himself, and became very fashionable. Today its validity is argued.From French
Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue, Eliot derived the technique of juxtaposition: squalid elements are
juxtaposed with poetic ones, trivial elements with sublime ones. Another device widely used by Eliot is the
repetition of words, images, and phrases from pages to page: they all give impression of completion
increasing the musicality of the poem.
T.S.Eliot is considered one of the greatest exponents of Modernism. The publication of The Waste Land in
1922 was a literary event, because it voiced the spiritual and moral confusion of a period which found its
appropriate definition in the title of a work by the poet W.H.Auden, The Age of Anxiety.
An American birth and a cosmopolitan by vocation and by education, Eliot possessed a wide and deep
knowledge of the masterpieces of world literature. He acknowledge a special debt to Dante, whom he
considered a model for his own poetry. What he admired in the Italian poet was the capacity to express a
wide emotional experience –based not on individualism but on the entire cultural reality of his time – and
at the same time the restraint, the perfect balance between the personal and the impersonal. Like Eliot,
Dante had witnessed the disintegration of an age, the fall of the Empire, and he voiced the hope for
Eliot was keenly aware of the emotional and spiritual sterility of his time, and when family financial
difficulties accumulated he was on the edge of nervous collapse. He found a way out in religion, and in
1927 this descendant of Puritan forbears became Anglo-Catholic. So while his early works are in the mood
of disillusionment and convey irony and disgust for a trivial, sordid, empty world, Ash Wednesday marks the
passage to a series of works which show growing concern with the supernatural and religion. If Dante was
to him the Poet per excellence, Eliot also acknowledged other influences: the Metaphysical poets, notably
John Donne, for the blend of emotion and though, immediacy and technical control( Eliot deplored the
division between though and feeling – the “dissociation of sensibility”-which, in his opinion, impoverished
English poetry from the 17th century onwards); the Symbolists, and Charles Baudelaire in particular with his
division of the sordid aspects of the modern metropolis and his capacity to place side by side the squalid
and the visionary, the images, for the concision in language and the freedom in versification. Ezra Pound
played a very important role for Eliot: he constantly helped and encouraged him, revised The waste Land
before publication, and advised Eliot to tighten his poem removing several explanatory and descriptive
The Waste Land, dedicated to Ezra Pound, “il miglior fabbro”, is a typical example of modernist art, and
such as very difficult to define. It is not a narrative poem, nor dramatic, nor lyric. The main difficulty for the
reader is to work out a meaning: there seems to be no beginning and no end; thoughts appear unfinished,;
there are abrupt shifts; the characters are not clearly defined and the events cannot be located at a
particular place; the past merges with the present, while fragmentation and juxtaposition challenge a
logical evolution. The impression one receives is that of “a hap of broken images”, that the poet puts
together using a criterion similar to the cinema technique of montage. Gradually, the reader is impressed
by certain themes and motifs.
For example, the theme of The Waste Land do no talk to one another: they recite monologues; sexual
relationships are either a manifestation of lust and violence, or mechanical and boring. Eliot’s Puritan
ancestry is evident in the association of sin with sexuality; the most recurrent symbols are sterility are
presented through cruel or unfilled sexual episodes. The barren land which must be restores to fertility, i.e.
saved, is the human heart, full of selfishness and lust; the search for the Grail is the search for truth.
It is also possible to discern the motif of pilgrimage and of quest, following the course of the Thames as if
flows through London; the Thames is first associated with the Rhine, the great river of German mythology,
and finally the journey through The Waste Land concludes with powerful allusions to the Ganges, the
sacred river of India, thus uniting Western and Eastern cultures. Like the rest of Eliot’s early works, The
Waste Land presents affinities with other important works of Modernism: the structure which breaks away
with the canons of traditional poetry reminds us of Joyce’s bold experimentation in novel-writing, of
Picasso in painting and Stravinsky in music; the sense of emptiness, corruption, lack of communication,
meaninglessness of life, is a feature common to all modernist writers and artists, from James Joyce to
William Butler Yeats, from Ezra Pound to Guillaume Apollinaire, from Franz Kafka to Joseph Conrad, from
Thomas Mann to Marcel Proust, and so on. An example is provided by the comparison between the
description of the Thames at the beginning of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and in The Fire Sermon. Both
writers stress the commercialization, the degradation of the Thames, which is no more the Thames of the
age of Shakespeare. Like many of his contemporaries, notably Ezra Pound, Eliot saw English poetry of the
turn of the century as over-emotional, lacking vitality and intellectual rigour; he maintained that, to
express the complexities of reality, poetry could not be simple, and he did make his verse difficult: he
seemed to throw loose images and bits of dialogue at the reader, without a linking narrative or logical
sequence. Poetry had to be objective, impersonal. Images are the “objective correlative” of the emotions
they aim to suggest; the language stimulates the imagination; exterior objects suggest feelings: “a set of
objects, a situation, a chain of events” will represent a particular emotion, and when they are given to the
reader the emotion is evoked. The phrase “objective correlative”(used also by Eugenio Montale), was
coined by Eliot himself, and became very fashionable. Today its validity is argued.
The effect of great poetry –and of great art in general – is mysteriously powerful.
The Waste Land escapes any order or unity. It is an amazing anthology of indeterminate states of mind, of
impressions, hallucinations, situations, personalities. All the fragmentary passages seem to belong to one
voice pertaining to a multiple personality beyond the limits of space and time.
In his introductory note on The Waste Land Eliot stated that the title, the plan and large part of the
symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie Weston’s book on the Grail legend From Ritual
He also acknowledged the influence of another book, The Golden Bough, by Sir James Frazer(1854-1941),
Which deals with the development of magical, religious and scientific thought and gives vast information
about ancient religions and magical practices.
The poem, conceived as a monologue, basically presents a character going to a fortune-teller, receiving a
response, and reading manifestations of this response in various episodes.
The Grail legend, to which Eliot refers, tells about a land which is barren because its king –The Fisher King-
has been wounded by a spear thrust through his things, and sexually maimed. A young and pure knight
goes in quest of the Holy Grail –the cup which had been used to collect the blood from the body of Christ –
and reaches a Chapel where the Grail is kept. Only if this knight asks the meaning of the Grail and of the
lance that sees during a procession will the king be healed, and the land reclaimed fertility.
Miss Weston found close correspondence between the Grail legend and the ancient symbolism of fertility
rites. The Fisher King appears to be mediaeval version of the pre-Christian young men of young gods slain
or drowned in the springtime and then symbolically revived. The fertility of the land was associated with
their youth and strength (there are also the myths of Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Thiresias).
Moreover, Miss Weston found resemblance between this ancient fertility ritual and the Christian ritual, in
that the central moment was for both Eucharistic: taking the Food of Life from sacred vessels.
In this prospective Eliot inserted the description of this own waste land.
The Waste Land consist of five parts:
1. The Burial of the Dead. It begins challenging the traditional attitude to seasons: spring is not
welcome, because it awakes memory and desire, while winter brings “forgetful” snow. This part
deals with the opposites of life and death, fertility and sterility, hope and despair, which are the
main concern of the poem.
2. A Game of Chess. Its main theme is the emptiness of modern life, which suggests lack of love,
sterility, deceit. Eliot juxtaposes the present squalor to a past ambiguous splendour.
3. The Fire Sermon. This part develops the theme of lust: love is meaningless. The present alienation
is rendered through the description of a mechanical and squalid sexual encounter.
4. Death By Water. This is the shortest part(10 lines only),and is about the body of a drowned sailor
decomposing in the sea.
5. What the Thunder Said. Here there are all the main themes that have appeared in the previous
sections. After hinting at the death of Christ it presents a journey through the desert to an empty
chapel. The voice of the thunder echoes in the distance.
Thus the whole poem starts with a state of paralysis(sections I, II, III) and proceeds with an allegorical
journey(sections IV, V) towards the expectation of a symbolic rebirth, which is to come. All this fragmentary
parts are run through by one main theme: the contrast between the fertility of a mythical past and the
sterility of the present world, peopled by lost, alienated characters.