The Impulse toward Beauty in "Prufrock," the Waste Land, and Four Quartets: T. S. Eliot's Aesthetic Response to the Spiritual Collapse of His Era

By Boyd, Joshua T. | Yeats Eliot Review, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Impulse toward Beauty in "Prufrock," the Waste Land, and Four Quartets: T. S. Eliot's Aesthetic Response to the Spiritual Collapse of His Era


Boyd, Joshua T., Yeats Eliot Review


"Even now, in sordid particulars / The eternal design may appear." T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

T. S. Eliot, in a 1920 essay "Dante," writes this of the poet he most admired: "The contemplation of the horrid or sordid or disgusting, by an artist, is the necessary and negative aspect of the impulse toward the pursuit of beauty. But not all succeed as did Dante in expressing the complete scale from negative to positive" (SW 99). Thirty years later while presenting "What Dante Means to Me" at the Italian Institute in London, Eliot said of Dante's influence on his own life as a poet that The Divine Comedy expressed "everything in the way of emotion, between depravity's despair and the beatific vision, that man is capable of experiencing." As such, the Comedy reminds poets "to explore ... those feelings which people can hardly feel, because they have no words for them" (CC 134).

As readers know, traces of Dante's poetry appear often in Eliot's own. Perhaps less recognizable, however, is the similar pursuit of beauty from "negative to positive" or from "depravity's despair [to] the beatific vision" in Eliot's poetry. As does Dante, Eliot, in early poems such as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and The Waste Land, creates a world devoid of beauty. Yet, the horridness and sordidness that permeate the world of Eliot's early poems are "the negative aspect of the impulse toward the pursuit of beauty" (SW 99). That is a paradoxical statement. Just how does the absence of beauty suggest the possible existence of the same? In the world of the poems themselves, the absence of beauty in hell or in the world of Prufrock and those in the waste land is little noticed or, if noticed, seemingly so overwhelming as to preclude any alternative world. Through the poignancy and artistry of their very poetry, however, artists such as Dante and Eliot reawaken in their audience a sense that there remains the potential for beauty to exist in the world. Roger Scruton makes this claim of Eliot's The Waste Land. While Eliot's early poetry depicts the sordid and seedy, the depiction is done so well that Eliot, in his form and language, paradoxically affirms beauty by describing so poignantly a world in which transcendent beauty does not exist. "It [Eliot's poetry] describes," suggests Scruton, "what is seedy and sordid in words so resonant of the opposite, so replete with the capacity to feel, to sympathize and to understand, that life in its lowest forms is vindicated by our response to it.... And this is the paradox of fin-desiecle culture: that it continued to believe in beauty, while focusing on all the reasons for doubting that beauty is obtainable outside the realm of art" (168). Any survey of literature written in the years closely preceding or following World War I affirms Scruton's argument.

In addition to Eliot's "Prufrock" and The Waste Land, James Joyce's Ulysses (published in 1922),Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Noel Coward's Hay Fever (both published in 1925), Coward's Private Lives (1930), Graham Greene's England Made Me (1935), and Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart (1938) are so well written as to make their bleak outlook resonate with their readers all the more powerfully. One interesting relationship between all of these works is the corollary to the absence of beauty in the characters' world: the corollary is the diminishment or degradation of desire. The characters of these works experience to varying degrees love that is disordered, and the authors offer varying responses to the diminishment of desire. It is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze each of these works and the various responses of characters to the absence of beauty in their world and consequent disordering of love they experience. Therefore, I intend to analyze only Eliot's "Prufrock" and The Waste Land.

To speak of diminishment of desire or of lesser loves is to suggest that one may separate desires, or loves, hierarchically. …

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