In his Homage To John Dryden Mr.T.S. Eliot points out that Nineteenth Century poets in England aimed, with their romantic attitude towards life, to create a dream world; their eyes covered with star-dúst, they sang of music, moonlight and love.
And Arthur O’Shaughnessey has described the romantic poets of the past century as:
“We are the music makers.
And we are the dreamers of dreams
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And siting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers.
On whom the pale moon gicams.”
Even in the first years of the present century poets show a distinct reaction against the romantic attitude and sentimentalism of the Victorian poets. A new probing into the mysteries of life with a corresponding melancholy is to be seen in the poets of the first decade of the century. Robert Bridges through a refined classicism and purity of form, Austin and Blunt through a Byronic individualism, were groping in the dark for models. Housman gave expression to a: concentrated melancholy not unlike Hardy. Hardy’s ‘full-look at the worst he himself justified. “And what is to-day alleged to be pessimism is in truth, only such ‘questionings in the exploration of reality and is the first step towards the soul’s betterment and the body’s too.”
From his experiment of life Hardy knew poverty, selfishness, dissatisfaction and disease among men around him. ‘And when he searched the hearts of his fellow-beings he knew that selfish thoughts can ever cloud the mind of a woman, while she sees her husband dying in spite of her efforts to suppress them.
So he wrote ‘The Pink Frock’!
“O my pretty pink frock
I sha’n’t be able to wear it;
Why is he dying just now?
I hardly can bear it.”
This tendency to study the futility of contemporary life and the inner workings of the mind among the people around, is to be seen in the poetical work of Mr.T.S.Eliot.
Mr. Eliot is a difficult poet for most of the readers who have not attained that intellectual height and erudition with which he invests his spontaneity in free verse, while he probes deep into his own subconscious to release his personality in poetry. Raleigh says that a true appreciation of Milton is the highest consummation of scholarship; so also the task of appreciating Mr. Eliot’s poetry entails a scholarship which may turn the head reeling for an ordinary reader, grappling with the abstruse metaphysical speculations of the greatest poet of modern England. Again, Mr. Eliot in The Sacred Wood asserts: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality.” Now what is the personality from which the poet must escape to give expression to ‘one idea jumping to meet another in the freest of Free Verse? Sigmund Freud has analysed this personality.
According to Freud, in every individual, there is a coherent organization of mental processes which we call his ‘ego’, identical with the conscious flow of our thoughts, the impressions we receive, the sensations we experience.
This ‘ego’ is passive in its conduct and proceeds from repression a state in which ideas exist before being made conscious and are capable of resistance. Yet this ‘ego’ is a synthesis of sensations and is generated by conscious experience. The internal monologue which Mr. Eliot affects in his poems is the stress he puts on the subconscious. In his psycho-analysis, Freud finds also id fermenting beneath our ego colored by education, social, condition and family life. Thus personality becomes “a bubble over a dark deep stream of life-energy, bloodstream, and race memories.” Our sentiments and thoughts are controlled by the Id. When Mr. Eliot. passively surrenders his reason to spy the flow of the subconscious in him, apparent chaos of ‘unbidden day-dreams, lunatic fears and desires and records them in free verse, with intellectual wrestling of a mind saturated with best literature, philosophy and religion, he has fulfilled his mission as a poet. The mind released from old forms of verse turns ‘word pictures into entaglios’ in the process of which ‘words are born and reborn in the act of thinking.
Thus with the release of the subconscious, and preconscious in his personality in bis poetical works, Mr. Eliot holds a direct challenge to our literary habits. And to convince us that this is the way .. of poets, he tells us: “A poet has not a personality to express but a particular medium in which impressions and experiences combine in a peculiar and unexpected way!”
So the Id working passively in the poet’s mind leads the poet into folklore and mythology through the dormant race memory to “passion and beliefs of ancient times. Thus the poet will be nearer to the primitive throb of life which Fraser in his Golden Bough has shown in prehistoric civilization. Meredith demanded an equilibrium of blood, brain and spirit; Nietzsche pointed out the Dionysian impulse-a chaos of urges and impulses in the primitive man, still hidden in the soul of civilized man, and Sir James Fraser with Edward Carpenter interpreted primitive life in terms of civilized institutions and values of man.
Another direct influence on Mr. Eliot to mould his genius ‘must have come from the aesthetic of Croce. For Croce found that beauty is intuition in primitive man. By sheer instinct unaided by reason, when the primitive man opened his eyes to his environments, he saw Beauty. It is a state of mind, not sentiment, an intuition, pure and simple, which when translated into creative activity became poetry vision and fantasy-the elementary effort of the human mind before it has anything to do with knowledge and culture. Poetry, thus, is the expression, the expression of a spontaneous personality of the dreamer on the act of realising his dreams. But as no impression can be recaptured in poetry, it can only record the significance of the dream to the poet and it can achieve its end only by matching with the first impression an image with exact words. Thus Fraser, Freud and Croce contributed their mite in the formation of Mr. Eliot’s poetic genius!
Besides, Mr. Eliot identified himself with the cause of imagisme imported from France during the first decade of the twentieth century. We know, as assistant editor of the Egoist he took up the cause of English Imagistes like Hume, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell and James Joyce. All these poets wanted to free themselves. from the fetters of older forms of verse. And these poets with strong individuality could not conform in one set standard and drifted themselves into newer modes of expression, curiously known as Vorticism, cubism, surrealism and so on. With them also came the emancipation of Mr. Eliot which fitted his genius to the medium of Free Verse.
Now that we have seen the forces working behind the genius of Mr. Eliot, we may consider the reaction of the poet to the Zeitgeist of his time. The reaction of the War, frustration and futility of life, the changing ideas about the Universe with the theory of Relativity of Einstein, the theory of indeterminate quantum and Fritzerald’s ideas of contraction of masses on earth, caused in the intellectual mind of the poet as much despondency and despair as it affected the mind of.. the great metaphysical poet, John Donne when once the first flush of Renaissance in Elizabeth’s England was over with the turn of the century.
With the disintegration of life and moral values, poet’s penetrative study of his environment must lead him to express his reactions in satire. And Mr. Eliot published his profrock and other Observation in 1917 a collection of satirical verses on subjects not worth the waste of good ink, describing ugly and sordid episodes of modern life, with a succession of images, warranted to be genuine intuition as sanctioned by Croce and the School of Imagistes. Like Dante, but without the sure guide of a Virgil; he was visiting the inferno of modern civilization. In Gerontion the poet has better control of the image and they become truly, ‘the word within a word’ unable to speak a word.’ The great poem The Wasteland, on which much of Mr. Eliot’s reputation as a poet depends, was published in 1922. The poet here goes to the very roots of the abuses of our modern civilization. And he shows the aridity of modern life in the West, existing under the shadow of a future war without hope and without values this modern disease with its sick hurry and divided aims or no aims at all. And he shows in successive images or confusion of images this frustration of modern civilized existence with adulterers, people behind high finances, and men visiting public bars. One truth emerges out of this vision of the Wasteland. His mind’s sụbconscious processes were coloured by Sir James Fraser’s observations in the Golden Bough about the primitive people and their nature rooted in propagation of the species, obsessed with powers of life and death. That is why Mr. Eliot’s subconscious mind goes back to fertility rites of primitive men when groping his way in the arid sands of the Wasteland!
His Hollow Men, published in 1925 deals with the same frustration and importance of civilized people. The feeling about life’s emptiness with the shadow of death casting its dark spell on it, is increasingly becoming the obsession of the poet’s mind.
“This is the dead land
This is the cactus land “
“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow
For thine is the kingdom.”
The exhalations of the Wasteland and the frustration of the Hollow Men find their place in added gloom and murkiness of folly and futility in Ash Wednesday published in 1930.
Murder in the Cathedral came out in 1935, in which Mr. Eliot seems to have caught the spirit of Greek Tragedians with as much fidelity and power as Milton did in his Samson Agonistes. Behind the Catholic spirit of devotion in the atmosphere where Thomas-‘a- Becket courts his martyrdom in the Canterbury Cathedral is the one truth which Mr. Eliot emphasizes that ‘true martyrdom is the sacrifice of our will, not our life to the will of God.?
The four short elegies East Coker, Burnt Norton, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding published after the poet has reached his fiftieth year show the maturity of his genius which has passed through hard contemplation and rigorous self-discipline. He could now come with positive assertions. He had realized after long struggle with himself that ‘human spirit exists in one eternal. Now, in which past, present and future are blended together.’ This revelation he compares to just like listening to music, heard so deeply that it is not heard at all! And our fears and hopes for the future are like ‘a lavender spray pressed between the yellow leaves of a book which has never been opened.’
Even to-day his poetry, in spite of its restrained emotionalism and high seriousness of purpose and religious meditation, remain for us as well as for the poet ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings.
Still like John Donne, before he found soul’s refuge in Christ, Mr. Eliot is trying to discover for himself through honest doubt his true bearing in Space and Time and ultimate relation of his soul to his.