I’ve abused TS Eliot poetry in the last two-three months: read it incessantly in the spare moments. Wasteland, The Four Quartets and a handful of the shorter poems I always carry printed out in my backpack. It began to acquire a sense of a doctrine, sermon, mantra, call it what you will. I’m not the first to consider it in such terms.
Eliot vividly sketches the human condition, the ineffable passage of time, our follies, the social satire, the perversities of war, the multiple facets of the ecclesiastical sector, the minutiae of urban realism: much drawing on the 20th-century World-War period, yet applicable at any level of our existence.
Some of his poetry employs lyricism, even the ballad tradition. Much, however, if not the majority, comprises of free verse and appears to read like prose. But it’s unmistakeably poetic: evocative, impactful, and catering to ceaseless rumination.
Like the modernist literature of the contemporaries, Eliot’s poems can also seem raw, sometimes quiet explicit, abundant in experimentalisms for the time: subtle mode shifts, streams of consciousness, extravagant and cleverly placed allusions, and even segments of verse drama (which Eliot devotedly pursued later).
Concerning accessibility, I find most of Eliot’s work more approachable than, say, James Joyce’s prose. Some can appear unduly cryptic at first. However, being mostly compact works, they more invitingly encourage scrupulous repetition. It doesn’t overwhelm like the bulkier works of modernist prose akin Joyce or Woolf. (This poetry can thus aid in pursuing the works of these authors.)
A brief rundown of some short and longer poems from among my favourites:
The major opus of modernist poetry published the same year as Joyce’s Ulysses, 1922, it employs every trick - verse, prose, fixed meter, varied, drama, dialogue, streams, sketches, limitless allusions to everything from Dante, Shakespeare, to the ancient eastern philosophies.
Across the 400+ lines, you’ll encounter Madame Sostrosis, a Phoenician sailor, the one-eyed merchant, Teresius (that same blind prophet from the times of Oedipus Rex), bleak landscapes, crowds of forsaken souls, urban decadence, satirical sketches and downtrodden victims. It’s dark, but incredibly riveting.
The Four Quartets
The other major opus, written later during the WW2 period, consolidates four poems sharing a common framework: meditative treatise on the human condition, the philosophy of time, life, death, purgatory, and the symbolism embodied in the four elements respective of the four poems: air, earth, water, and fire. Far more approachable than Wasteland, the quartets could even serve as a starting point to Eliot’s works. Beautiful to read.
Four short preludes to be precise: four city sketches, some presence of rhyme, a lightly varied cadence. Like the Four Quartets, there’s said to be a musical character to it.
Portrait of a Lady
A combination of an ultra modernist sketch, a meditation on the societal pomp and a lyrical drama. Plain fun.
Rhapsody on a windy night
Possibly a developing followup to the Preludes, mixes an allegorical dialogue with a set of urban sketches.
Originally intended as a prologue to Wasteland, it follows the musings of an old, senseless, but not so senseless of a man.
Burbank with a Beideker: Bleistein with a Cigar
A clever ballad filled with whimsical allusions. It’s everything from esoteric, to lyrical, to downright hilarious.
Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service
Also a deceptively challenging ballad, it offers a satirical take on the clergy.
Sweeney Among the Nightingales
I can’t entirely comprehend a single quatrain of this lyrical poem, yet the language draws me every time.
Journey of the Magi
A short prosaic narrative with a moral. Meditative. Moving.
Once exposed to some of Eliot’s work, you can even more appreciate the shorter, humoristic sketches such as Conversation galante, La Figlia Che Piange, or Histeria.
Questions, comments? Connect.