The Poet T.S. ELIOT

Serious poetry was about to be eclipsed by fiction. He provided the stark salvation of The Waste Land

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In 1670 Andrew Eliot left East Coker in Somerset, England, for Boston. Two hundred and eighteen years later, his direct descendant, Thomas Stearns Eliot--who would become the most celebrated English-language poet of the century--was born in St. Louis, Mo., to a businessman and a poet, Henry and Charlotte Eliot. Although young Tom was brilliantly educated in English and European literature and in Eastern and Western philosophy and religion, he fled--in his mid 20s--the career in philosophy awaiting him at Harvard, and moved to England. There he married (disastrously), met the entrepreneurial Ezra Pound and, while working at Lloyds Bank, brought out Prufrock and Other Observations. Five years later, after a nervous breakdown and a stay in a Swiss sanatorium in Lausanne, he published The Waste Land. Modern poetry had struck its note.

Not everyone was impressed. Dorothy Wellesley, writing to W.B. Yeats, said petulantly, "But Eliot, that man isn't modern. He wrings the past dry and pours the juice down the throats of those who are either too busy, or too creative to read as much as he does." "The juice of the past" isn't a bad description of the lifeblood of The Waste Land; but it was a past so disarranged--with the Buddha next to St. Augustine, and Ovid next to Wagner--that a reader felt thrust into a time machine of disorienting simultaneity. And the poem had an unsettling habit of saying, out of the blue, "Oed' und leer das Meer," or something even more peculiar. It ended, in fact, with a cascade of lines in different languages--English, Italian, Latin, French, Sanskrit. Still, readers felt the desperate spiritual quest behind the poem--and were seduced by the unerring musicality of its free-verse lines.

The Waste Land was a deeply unoptimistic, un-Christian and therefore un-American poem, prefaced by the suicidal words of the Cumaean Sibyl, "I want to die." It is, we could say, the first Euro-poem. In its desolation at the breakup of the Judeo-Christian past, the poem turns for salvation to the Buddha and his three ethical commandments: Give, Sympathize, Control. But on the way to its ritually religious close ("Shantih, shantih, shantih"), it films a succession of loveless or violent or failed sexual unions--among the educated ("My nerves are bad tonight") and the uneducated ("He, the young man carbuncular, arrives"), and in the poet's own life ("your heart would have responded/ Gaily"). It speaks of an absent God and of a dead father; Eliot's recently dead father had left capital outright to the other children, but permitted his wayward son only the interest on his portion.

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