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Thomas Stearns Eliot ( 1888, St. Louis, Missouri - 1965, London, Eng.). American-English poet, playwright, literary critic, and editor, a leader of the modernist movement in poetry in such works as The Waste Land (1922) and The Four Quartets (1943). .

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Thomas Stearns Eliot ( 1888, St. Louis, Missouri - 1965, London, Eng.)


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    1. Thomas Stearns Eliot ( 1888, St. Louis, Missouri - 1965, London, Eng.) • American-English poet, playwright, literary critic, and editor, a leader of the modernist movement in poetry in such works as The Waste Land (1922) and The Four Quartets (1943).

    2. One of the most distinguished literary figures of the 20th cent., He studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford. In 1914 he established residence in London and in 1927 became a British subject. After working as a teacher and a bank clerk he began a publishing career; he was assistant editor of the Egoist (1917–19) and edited his own quarterly, the Criterion (1922–39).

    3. Eliot exercised a strong influence on Anglo-American culture from the 1920s until late in the century. His experiments in diction, style, and versification revitalized English poetry, and in a series of critical essays he shattered old orthodoxies and erected new ones. The publication of The Four Quartets led to his recognition as the greatest living English poet and man of letters, and in 1948 he was awarded both the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    4. The men who influenced him at Harvard were George Santayana, the philosopher and poet, and the critic Irving Babbitt. From Babbitt he derived an anti-Romantic attitude that, amplified by his later reading of British philosophers F.H. Bradley and T.E. Hulme, lasted through his life. In the academic year 1909-10 he was an assistant in philosophy at Harvard.

    5. He spent the year 1910-11 in France, attending Henri Bergson's lectures in philosophy at the Sorbonne and reading poetry with Alain-Fournier. Eliot's study of the poetry of Dante, of the English writers John Webster and John Donne, and of the French Symbolist Jules Laforgue helped him to find his own style. From 1911 to 1914 he was back at Harvard reading Indian philosophy and studying Sanskrit. In 1914 Eliot met and began a close association with the American poet Ezra Pound.

    6. Eliot was to pursue four careers: editor, dramatist, literary critic, and philosophical poet. He was probably the most erudite poet of his time in the English language. His undergraduate poems were "literary" and conventional. His first important publication, and the first masterpiece of "modernism" in English, was "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." • Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table. . . .

    7. Eliot’s early poetical works—Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1920), and The Waste Land (1922)—express the anguish and barrenness of modern life and the isolation of the individual, particularly as reflected in the failure of love. The Waste Land, whose published version reflects extraordinary editing by Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound, compelled immediate critical attention. His complex early poems, employing myths, religious symbolism, and literary allusion, signified a break with 19th-century poetic traditions.

    8. It represented a break with the immediate past as radical as that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads (1798). From the appearance of Eliot's first volume, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917, one may conveniently date the maturity of the 20th-century poetic revolution. The significance of the revolution is still disputed, but the striking similarity to the Romantic revolution of Coleridge and Wordsworth is obvious: Eliot and Pound, like their 18th-century counterparts, set about reforming poetic diction.

    9. Whereas Wordsworth thought he was going back to the "real language of men," Eliot struggled to create new verse rhythms based on the rhythms of contemporary speech. He sought a poetic diction that might be spoken by an educated person, being "neither pedantic nor vulgar." • For a year Eliot taught French and Latin at the Highgate School; in 1917 he began his brief career as a bank clerk in Lloyds Bank Ltd. Meanwhile he was also a prolific reviewer and essayist in both literary criticism and technical philosophy. In 1919 he published Poems, which contained the poem "Gerontion," a meditative interior monologue in blank verse: nothing like this poem had appeared in English.

    10. The Waste Land and criticism. • With the publication in 1922 of his poem The Waste Land, Eliot won an international reputation. The Waste Land expresses with great power the disenchantment, disillusionment, and disgust of the period after World War I. In a series of vignettes, loosely linked by the legend of the search for the Grail, it portrays a sterile world of panicky fears and barren lusts, and of human beings waiting for some sign or promise of redemption. The poem's style is highly complex, erudite, and allusive, and the poet provided notes and references to explain the work's many quotations and allusions

    11. "Tradition and the Individual Talent," appearing in his first critical volume, The Sacred Wood (1920), • Eliot asserts that tradition, as used by the poet, is not a mere repetition of the work of the immediate past ("novelty is better than repetition," he said); rather, it comprises the whole of European literature from Homer to the present. The poet writing in English may therefore make his own tradition by using materials from any past period, in any language. This point of view is "programmatic" in the sense that it disposes the reader to accept the revolutionary novelty of Eliot's polyglot quotations and serious parodies of other poets' styles in The Waste Land.

    12. in The Sacred Wood, “Hamlet and His Problems” sets forth Eliot's theory of the objective correlative: The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for that particular emotion; such that, when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. Eliot used the phrase "objective correlative" in the context of his own impersonal theory of poetry; it thus had an immense influence toward correcting the vagueness of late Victorian rhetoric by insisting on a correspondence of word and object.

    13. he effects a new historical perspective on the hierarchy of English poetry, putting at the top Donne and other Metaphysical poets of the 17th century and lowering poets of the 18th and 19th centuries. Eliot's second famous phrase appears here--"dissociation of sensibility," invented to explain the change that came over English poetry after Donne and Andrew Marvell. This change seems to him to consist in a loss of the union of thought and feeling. The phrase has been attacked, yet the historical fact that gave rise to it cannot be denied, and with the poetry of Eliot and Pound it had a strong influence in reviving interest in certain 17th-century poets. The Metaphysical Poets" and "Andrew Marvell," published in Selected Essays, 1917-32

    14. Eliot's masterpiece is The Four Quartets • , which was issued as a book in 1943, though each "quartet" is a complete poem. The first of the quartets, "Burnt Norton," had appeared in the Collected Poems of 1936. It is a subtle meditation on the nature of time and its relation to eternity. On the model of this Eliot wrote three more poems, "East Coker" (1940), "The Dry Salvages" (1941), and "Little Gidding" (1942), in which he explored through images of great beauty and haunting power his own past, the past of the human race, and the meaning of human history • This work led to the award to Eliot, in 1948, of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    15. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915) • The speaker of this ironic monologue is a modern, urban man who, like many of his kind, feels isolated and incapable of decisive action. Irony is apparent from the title, for this is not a conventional love song. Prufrock would like to speak of love to a woman, but he does not dare. The poem opens with a quoted passage from Dante's INFERNO, suggesting that Prufrock is one of the damned and that he speaks only because he is sure no one will listen. Since the reader is overhearing his thoughts, the poem seems at first rather incoherent. But Prufrock repeats certain phrases and returns to certain core ideas as the poem progresses. The "you and I" of the opening line includes the reader, suggesting that only by accompanying Prufrock can one understand his problems.

    16. Dedication: Dedicated to Jean Verdenal, a friend of Eliot's who was killed in 1915 on the Anglo-French expedition to the Dardanelles. • Title: Originally titled "Prufrock Among the Women". "J. Alfred Prufrock" follows the early form of Eliot's signature "T. Stearns Eliot".

    17. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock(1915) S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse A persona che mai tornasse al mondo, Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse. Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero, Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo. (Epigraph: These lines are taken from Dante's "Inferno", and are spoken by the character of Count Guido da Montefelltro. Dante meets the punished Guido in the Eighth chasm of Hell. Guido explains that he is speaking freely to Dante only because he believes Dante is one of the dead who could never return to earth to report what he says. Translated from the original Italian, the lines are as follows: "If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy." )

    18. Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question … Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit. In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.

    19. The images of the opening lines depict a drab neighborhood of cheap hotels and restaurants, where Prufrock lives in solitary gloom. In line 12 he suggests making a visit, and immediately his mind calls up an image of the place he and the reader will go-- perhaps an afternoon tea at which various women drop in and engage in polite chitchat about Michelangelo, who was a man of great creative energy, unlike Prufrock

    20. The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, And seeing that it was a soft October night, Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

    21. The next stanza creates an image of the dull, damp autumn evening when the tea party will take place. In the rest of the poem Prufrock imagines his arrival, his attempt to converse intimately with the woman whose love he seeks, and his ultimate failure to make her understand him. Prufrock has attended such parties many times and knows how it will be, and this knowledge makes him hesitate out of fear that any attempt to push beyond mere polite conversation, to make some claim on the woman's affections, will meet with a frustratingly polite refusal.

    22. And indeed there will be time For the yellow smoke that slides along the street, Rubbing its back upon the window-panes; There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to murder and create, And time for all the works and days of hands That lift and drop a question on your plate; Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea. In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.

    23. So Prufrock simultaneously plans his approach and tells himself that he can put off the action. The phrase "There will be time," repeated five times between lines 23 and 36, represents his hesitation and delay. When he says in lines 44 and 45 "Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?," the universe he is referring to is his small social circle of middle-class acquaintances. He would disturb its equilibrium if he actually tried to sing a "love song" to one of them. He already "knows them all" and knows that they do not expect much from him. He tries, starting at line 70, to rehearse a speech he might make to one particular woman, but he gives up almost as soon as he has started, saying that it would be better to be merely a crab rather than a human being who has to make love speeches and ask for affection

    24. And indeed there will be time To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” Time to turn back and descend the stair, With a bald spot in the middle of my hair— [They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”] My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin— [They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”] Do I dare Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    25. For I have known them all already, known them all:— Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; I know the voices dying with a dying fall Beneath the music from a farther room.   So how should I presume? And I have known the eyes already, known them all— The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?   And how should I presume?

    26. Deciding not to try, Prufrock questions whether his efforts would have been worthwhile. He excuses his fear by rationalizing that his speaking to the woman would not have achieved any real response. In line 110 Prufrock contrasts himself to Hamlet, a hero who hesitated but finally acted decisively. But Prufrock sees himself as more like Polonius, the old fool from the same play. Prufrock will retreat into a solitary, dignified old age. He has gone past dreams of romance into the sober but empty existence of a passionless old man.

    27. And I have known the arms already, known them all— Arms that are braceleted and white and bare [But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!] It is perfume from a dress That makes me so digress? Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.   And should I then presume?   And how should I begin?      .      .      .      .      . Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?… I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.      .      .      .      .      .

    28. And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! Smoothed by long fingers, Asleep … tired … or it malingers, Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me. Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed, Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter, I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter; I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, And in short, I was afraid.

    29. And would it have been worth it, after all, After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me, Would it have been worth while, To have bitten off the matter with a smile, To have squeezed the universe into a ball To roll it toward some overwhelming question, To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”— If one, settling a pillow by her head,  Should say: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”

    30. And would it have been worth it, after all, Would it have been worth while, After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor— And this, and so much more?— It is impossible to say just what I mean! But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen: Would it have been worth while If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, And turning toward the window, should say:   “That is not it at all,  That is not what I meant, at all.”      .      .      .      .      .

    31. No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, Deferential, glad to be of use, Politic, cautious, and meticulous; Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, the Fool.

    32. For many readers in the 1920s, Prufrock seemed to epitomize the frustration and impotence of the modern individual. He seemed to represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment. Such phrases as "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons" (line 51) capture the sense of the unheroic nature of life in the twentieth century. Prufrock's weaknesses could be mocked, but he is a pathetic figure, not grand enough to be tragic.

    33. It is an examination of the tortured psyche of the prototypical modern man • --overeducated, eloquent, neurotic, and emotionally stilted. Prufrock, the poem's speaker, seems to be addressing a potential lover, with whom he would like to "force the moment to its crisis" by somehow consummating their relationship. But Prufrock knows too much of life to "dare" an approach to the woman: In his mind he hears the comments others make about his inadequacies, and he chides himself for "presuming" emotional interaction could be possible at all.

    34. The poem moves from a series of fairly concrete (for Eliot) physical settings--a cityscape (the famous "patient etherised upon a table") and several interiors (women's arms in the lamplight, coffee spoons, fireplaces)--to a series of vague ocean images conveying Prufrock's emotional distance from the world as he comes to recognize his second-rate status ("I am not Prince Hamlet"). • "Prufrock" is powerful for its range of intellectual reference and also for the vividness of character achieved.

    35. The rhyme scheme of this poem is irregular but not random. While sections of the poem may resemble free verse, in reality, "Prufrock" is a carefully structured amalgamation of poetic forms. The bits and pieces of rhyme become much more apparent when the poem is read aloud. One of the most prominent formal characteristics of this work is the use of refrains. Prufrock's continual return to the "women [who] come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" and his recurrent questionings ("how should I presume?") and pessimistic appraisals ("That is not it, at all.") both reference an earlier poetic tradition and help Eliot describe the consciousness of a modern, neurotic individual.

    36. Prufrock's obsessiveness is aesthetic, but it is also a sign of compulsiveness and isolation. Another important formal feature is the use of fragments of sonnet form, particularly at the poem's conclusion. The three three-line stanzas are rhymed as the conclusion of a Petrarchan sonnet would be, but their pessimistic, anti-romantic content, coupled with the despairing interjection, "I do not think they (the mermaids) would sing to me," creates a contrast that comments bitterly on the bleakness of modernity.

    37. Prufrock" displays the two most important characteristics of Eliot's early poetry. First, it is strongly influenced by the French Symbolists, like Mallarme, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, whom Eliot had been reading almost constantly while writing the poem. From the Symbolists, Eliot takes his sensuous language and eye for unnerving or anti-aesthetic detail that nevertheless contributes to the overall beauty of the poem (the yellow smoke and the hair-covered arms of the women are two good examples of this). The Symbolists, too, privileged the same kind of individual Eliot creates with Prufrock: the moody, urban, isolated-yet-sensitive thinker. However, whereas the Symbolists would have been more likely to make their speaker himself a poet or artist, Eliot chooses to make Prufrock an unacknowledged poet, a sort of artist for the common man.

    38. The second defining characteristic of this poem is its use of fragmentation and juxtaposition. Eliot sustained his interest in fragmentation and its applications throughout his career, and his use of the technique changes in important ways across his body of work: Here, the subjects undergoing fragmentation (and reassembly) are mental focus and certain sets of imagery. The kinds of imagery Eliot uses also suggest that something new can be made from the ruins: The series of hypothetical encounters at the poem's center are iterated and discontinuous but nevertheless lead to a sort of epiphany (albeit a dark one) rather than just leading nowhere. Eliot also introduces an image that will recur in his later poetry, that of the scavenger. Prufrock thinks that he "should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Crabs are scavengers, garbage-eaters who live off refuse that makes its way to the sea floor.

    39. Prufrock" ends with the hero assigning himself a role in one of Shakespeare's plays: While he is no Hamlet, he may yet be useful and important as "an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two…" This implies that there is still a continuity between Shakespeare's world and ours, that Hamlet is still relevant to us and that we are still part of a world that could produce something like Shakespeare's plays. Implicit in this, of course, is the suggestion that Eliot, who has created an "attendant lord," may now go on to create another Hamlet. While "Prufrock" ends with a devaluation of its hero, it exalts its creator. Or does it?

    40. The last line of the poem suggests otherwise--that when the world intrudes, when "human voices wake us," the dream is shattered: "we drown." With this single line, Eliot dismantles the romantic notion that poetic genius is all that is needed to triumph over the destructive, impersonal forces of the modern world. In reality, Eliot the poet is little better than his creation: He differs from Prufrock only by retaining a bit of hubris, which shows through from time to time. Eliot's poetic creation, thus, mirrors Prufrock's soliloquy: Both are an expression of aesthetic ability and sensitivity that seems to have no place in the modern world. This realistic, anti-romantic outlook sets the stage for Eliot's later works, including The Waste Land.