T.S. Eliot work is an increasingly popular prescribed text for HSC English Advanced: Module B. Here are five essential facts about Eliot to get you started:
Eliot was a modernist. Modernism was an artistic movement that existed between 1913-1939. The modernists thought that literature evolves, that poetry should be written differently to match the times, and not simply follow classical conventions. This explains experimental poems such as Rhapsody on a Windy Night, which departs from conventions of English poetry such as iambic pentameter. Influenced by the French symbolists, modernist poets like Eliot eschewed mimesis – the idea that art needs to represent nature accurately. Instead, poems like The Hollow Men convey an inner reality through symbolism (think about the symbols of aridity like ‘stuffed’, ‘straw’, and ‘dry grass’ at the start). Modernist techniques complement innovative, even transgressive themes. Think about allusion to red light districts in Prufrock and Rhapsody.
2. Eliot was highly educated
Although Eliot’s poems break from formal tradition, they are highly learned. You need to annotate the allusions to literary culture throughout his poems. You need to look up the allusions to the heavenly visions of Dante’s Paradiso alluded to obliquely in The Hollow Men. How do the repetition and fragmentation in this poem’s finale suggestion the theory of entropy? Prufrock is, despite Eliot’s best wishes, deeply influenced by Hamlet and Walt Whitman’s American free verse. Look into it and analyse it in your essay.
3. Eliot’s trajectory is from nihilism to Christianity
The despair of Eliot’s early poetry reflects the nihilism of secular Europe. Eliot’s personal and artistic solution was a cautious Christian faith, most clearly announced in The Journey of the Magi. You must understand this trajectory; it’s what Eliot’s poetry is about. Identify the Christian symbolism – often incorporated via allusions to Dante – in the pre-conversion poems. Study the detailed Christian symbolism of Magi, a poem your essay probably should consider.
4. ‘Selected Poems’ falls in the shadow of The Waste Land
Eliot’s most famous poem is The Waste Land, which is part of the definition of modernism. Although it is not set for study, you would do well reading this poem, including the Note that Eliot wrote afterwards, which gives you a good idea of the kinds of allusions Eliot tends to make, and the influence of Frazer’s Golden Bough, which is evident in his other poems.
5. Eliot was an unhappy young man
Biographical data aid interpretation. It has been speculated Eliot suffered sexual dysfunction: how does this reflect the anxious evasions in Rhapsody and Prufrock? Does this explain the ‘sordid images’ of Preludes? Eliot was a conservative: how does this show up in his poems’ allusions to ‘Western’ classics and his conversion to Christianity? If possible, read an authoritative biography, or part of one.