Chaucer's Dante in Eliot's Waste Land & Other Observations

By Murphy, Russell Elliott | Yeats Eliot Review, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Chaucer's Dante in Eliot's Waste Land & Other Observations


Murphy, Russell Elliott, Yeats Eliot Review


CERTAINLY it is possible by now to speak no longer just of T.S. Eliot's contributions to the practice and interpretation of poetry but more of his legacy to same, by which one would mean how modernist technique has permanently altered the study of poetry and therefore its very efficacy as a social and cultural medium.

Indeed, thanks to the likes, in English, of poets like Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the later W.B. Yeats, we can now summarize the entire modernist movement as one that was motivated by and, in many ways, only served to further generate a crisis of meaning. Hon global that crisis was in terms of the fields of human knowing affected, let alone what its causes and other consequences were and may still continue to be, will not be the subject of the following considerations. Limiting considerations here instead to Eliot's canon alone, we find that the caliber of the poet and critic that he was challenged not merely his readers but himself as well with what has to be the ultimate epistemological question, and that is whether the meaning of any human experience, however it may be expressed, can in any way, manner, or form be satisfactorily derived from the resources of language. While this philosophical posture may be a commonplace with which we the living now happily cope, such a withering prospect had not been anywhere in view, except perhaps among the very well-closeted few--the so-called advance thinkers--before the advent of the 20th century, and the prospect most definitely found a secure locale for itself in the burgeoning of that aesthetic and critical movement called modernism, which then inoculated popularculture with the germ of an idea best kept to oneself: That nothing may mean anything, and anything may mean everything

We have lost the security of certainties that we did not know we had, and replaced them with the subtleties of persistent contradicting, very much like an Eliot quatrain.

So, then, the most puzzling aspects of Eliot's poetry for his contemporaries are now for us their most obvious: His questioning the meaning of meaning, both as the significance of an experience and as the significance that one can assign to experience.

Philosophical idealism, according to which being is not knowing is not being, and a symbolist aesthetic, whereby all things are merely infinitely translatable signs obscuring a singularly inchoate mystery, both gripped his imaginative and intellectual instincts as a young man. His turn ultimately toward the window of the noumenal, darkened though that glass may be, in his quest for a satisfactory vision of a human life as an event that is purposefully directed makes sense therefore not as any socio-cultural strategy on his part, or as a neo-conservative reversion to traditional orthodoxies, but as one made on the basis of a personal intellectual and spiritual necessity that then, quite simply, became reflected in his poetry, a poetry which groped rather than ruminated, lurched rather than flowed. In starts and stops he sought coherence in incoherence, sense in nonsense, meaning in manner, as if the inaccessible core of understanding was a stone in his shoe, a thorn in his side, a wound in his heart.

If we start and end there--with the age-old given that the poet, no matter how objectified by allusion and other public considerations the resulting compositions may seem to be, can write out of nothing more or less than his or her personal experiences--we begin and end where Eliot himself started when he famously argued for a separation between the man who suffers and the mind which creates. A separation, after all, is not a sundering; rather, it is a distillation.

Whether it was Pound's images or Yeats's symbols or Eliot's allusions, they were all devices intended to serve one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to conceal personal pain and hopes and fears and feelings, beliefs, opinions, and dislikes, so that they, as poets, might not appear to be merely continuing to lament human unsuccess as all of the preceding generations of poets have only ever done. …

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