T.S. Eliot dares disturb the universe

I love T.S. Eliot!

I’m not saying I understand his work. I’m not saying I recognise even half of the allusions and intertextual links he drops in his poems.

But, I love his stuff.

For me, the poetry of T.S. Eliot is like listening to music from a foreign country. You don’t necessarily know the lyrics but you might recognise some of the words. More importantly, you hear the emotion in the tone of the singer’s voice and in the chords played, and the rhythm controls your reaction. Eliot’s verse is the same – the meter and the imagery is enough to elicit an emotional response whether you fully understand the words or not.

A play should give you something to think about. When I see a play and understand it the first time, then I know it can’t be much good. – T.S. Eliot

One of the maxims of Literature is that meaning is not written but read. I get meaning from Eliot. It might not be aligned to his intentions when writing but I garner meaning from his poetry.

Take “The Waste Land”. It opens with descriptive verse that creates an atmosphere of desolation and decay. While some people will try and pin this down as being representative of the deterioration of English society/cultural values/Eliot’s marriage using WWI or Eliot’s nervous breakdown as evidence, these influences are superfluous to a dominant reading that speaks solely of concern for a ‘broken’ world.

Eliot asserts that “April is the cruellest month” and employs a motif of lifeless imagery through phrases such as “dried tubers”, “dull roots” and “dead land”. Automatically, readers are invited to adopt a critical viewpoint as each line is couched in negativity. The use of enjambment in this section also forces the reader to continue through the text without rest, suggesting that there is no relief for the people affected by this environment.

In his notes, Eliot attributes his opening lines to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales but I’ve never read it so I don’t recognise the allusion. I still resonate with the imagery on an emotional level but, aside from using what Google tells me, I lack the intertextual knowledge to juxtapose these lines with Chaucer’s ‘sweet’ rains. So what? The allusion simply adds to the meaning made, it doesn’t construct the meaning on its own.

The same can be said of the references to the Bible, Wagner, Baudelaire, Huxley, Webster, Milton, Middleton, Alighieri, Shakespeare, Ovid, Spenser, Marvell, Weston… the list goes on. Beyond these literary allusions there are also nods to historical events, places and pop culture. If you get caught up in all of this you’d probably walk away feeling pretty dumb. So don’t. Reader response theory exists for a reason.

For the uninitiated, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

“Reader-response criticism is a school of literary theory that focuses on the reader (or “audience”) and their experience of a literary work, in contrast to other schools and theories that focus attention primarily on the author or the content and form of the work.”

That’s the beauty of Lit theory. If you can’t interpret a text one way, you can always adopt another lens and use that to decipher it.

As for why I love Eliot… he knows his stuff. Sure, he probably knows too much stuff but there’s no denying his ability. His work is the poetic equivalent of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”. These songs, like Eliot’s verse, are a pastiche of genres and influences, and it is this demonstrated mastery across styles and forms that makes them enjoyable.

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