Words for Images: T. S. Eliot’s Symbolist Art

ts-eliot-wallpaperT.S. Eliot (1888-1965), if compartmentalized into a literary stylistic category, would be one of the most heralded Symbolist and Modernist writers. He is one of the most prominent poets and essayists of the twentieth century. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Eliot attended Smith Academy and later, Milton Academy in Massachusetts. He went on to attend Harvard University in 1906, and was greatly influenced by his professors of poetry, philosophy and literary criticism, and they greatly shaped his writing. He spent three years, from 1911-1914 studying Indian philosophy and Sanskrit, which become extremely evident in his masterpiece, “The Waste Land”.

Eliot emigrated to England in 1914 and married Vivienne Heigh-Wood and took a job there as a school teacher. He soon started work at Lloyds Bank and stayed there till 1925.. Around this time, he met Imagist poet Ezra Pound, and it led to a lifelong friendship and a great literary relationship. In 1915, he published one of his most important works, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a collection titled Poetry. “Prufrock and Other Observations”, published in 1917, established Eliot as one of the most important poets of his day. In 1922, he published “The Waste Land”, which drew an intense, cult-like fan following from his already growing readership. In 1925 Eliot left Lloyds to join the publishing firm Faber and Faber, where published important English poets like W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Ted Hughes

9781614274315_p0_v1_s260x420“The Waste Land”, like much of his works, registers a profound disillusionment after the war, combined with Eliot’s disgust and distress with the squalor of urban life. Eliot’s most striking poetic feature is the spiritual barrenness and soullessness that is imbued in his works. In poems like “Journey of the Magi”, there is a sense of displacement and helplessness, and while the poem essentially describes a pilgrimage, what emerges from it is the disillusionment brought on by the nuances and complications of a spiritual journey. This poem can also be read in close conjunction with Eliot’s personal life, his journey from Massachusetts to England in search of spiritual and religious peace. There is always a certain dynamism that is characteristic of his work- there is a constant sense of incompleteness, and a search for an ideal destination that can offer some mental rest; a safe haven after a tiring and emotionally exhausting journey.

Eliot’s work is complex and psychologically rousing. He alludes heavily to philosophy and mythology, which is where some readers find cause for complaint. But Northrop Frye gets it right where he talks of the prominence of Eliot being unavoidable- whether one likes his work or not is irrelevant because he is just not ignorable.

Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948 for his exhaustive contributions to poetry, criticism and drama. He died in Kensington in London, leaving behind a goldmine of what is today exalted as some of the most important works of literary Modernism.

Ashmita Chatterjee

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