Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism

By Jewel Spears Brooker | Go to book overview

Common Ground and Collaboration in T. S. Eliot

The working man who went to the music-hall and saw Marie Lloyd and joined in the chorus was himself performing part of the act; he was engaged in that collaboration of the audience with the artist which is necessary in all art.--T. S. Eliot ( SE, 407)

T. S. Eliot is generally regarded as an elitist. Long associated with intellectual coteries, he flaunted in the early poems such polysyllabic monstrosities as "polyphiloprogenitive." Complex poems like "G0erontion" and The Waste Land, though providing fodder for generations of voracious critics, seemed inaccessible to ordinary readers. Not surprisingly, Eliot has often been accused of a deliberate attempt to outrage the common reader by cultivating complexity for its own sake. The conspicuous cerebration in his poetry, the sometimes pontifical tone of his literary and social criticism, his distrust for majoritarianism and modern democracy, his identification with the Anglican church, even (or especially) his ubiquitous umbrella and his elegant weariness--all these and more are part of the elitist image of this connoisseur of Stilton cheese and Cheshire cats.

Eliot's reputation as an elitist has obscured one of the most significant features of his thought. At the bottom of everything he wrote, including his greatest poems, is his search for common ground. The word "common" is repeated over and over in his essays. As Eliot uses it, "common" has no pejorative connotations; it carries, rather, the standard dictionary meaning of "shared"' or of "belonging to several or many." Eliot's influential critical doctrines, e.g., tradition, classicism, impersonality, wholeness, orthodoxy, are without exception a celebration of commonness; his great poems, from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to Four Quartets, constitute a pursuit of commonness. His innovations in poetric form are integrally related to a desperate attempt to secure common ground. Many other as

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