From childhood, Eliot knew the Boston Public Gardens that contained — and still contain — the weird and wonderful-sounding Ether Monument late 19th-century Boston was a pioneering centre for anaesthetic surgery ; but nobody until Eliot had put such modern surgery into a love song. Those three words initiate the acute self-consciousness of modernist poetry in English.
Every poet who writes in English inherits that self-consciousness that has insinuated itself into the language. The poem anatomises male anxieties about sex — anxieties that its author knew from experience and from inexperience; it hints, too, at how selves are constructed not just out of actions but also out of their lack, and out of language and reading, out of borrowed images. Prufrock, inhibitingly aware that, however indecisive, he is neither Hamlet nor Lazarus nor Salome, alludes a little stagily to all those roles.
His self seems made out of role playing, or attempted acting; and yet, freighted with irony, there is still a sense of vulnerability and pain. Wittily, Prufrock refers to literature, to roles, but the irony hints at hurt. Through allusion, quotation, echo and resonance, modern life is presented as a repeated ritual, one we can hear more deeply than we see it. To a greater or lesser degree, this is still how poetry works. Poetry manifests an awareness that language — in its play of sound as much as in its denotation, its meaning — spools and unspools the self. Though poets in the generations that followed Eliot might have denied it, his influence was unavoidable.
Heaney reacted against this. The TS Eliot of was just the sort of immigrant who today Theresa May would like to send back to his home country. He was more thoroughly educated than any other 20th-century poet — he had studied a daunting range of subjects, from Sanskrit and advanced mathematics to Japanese Buddhism and classical Greek. While most of us in later life screen out huge areas of our education, Eliot maintained that the artist should be very sophisticated intellectually — but also strikingly primitive. When, in our own era, the Australian poet Les Murray produces a poetry that articulates both a totemistic animal presence and an awareness of 21st-century stacked, screen-saturated lives, he inherits an understanding of what Eliot thought poets had to do.
Eliot became a global presence remarkably quickly. The Waste Land in particular made an impression on cultures very different from St Louis, Boston, Paris and London — the cities that shaped him most. Much of The Waste Land was written during the aftermath of the first world war. In Asia, though, the poem offered metaphors for quite different national catastrophes. Suddenly her translation could be seen to articulate modern Chinese cultural and political trauma. To English readers, it may seem strange to connect Robert Burns and TS Eliot; yet to Scottish or Chinese readers the juxtaposition can make sense: both these poets are tradition-bearers whose ideas blended continuity and disruption, fusing modern literary culture with oral heritage.
Having perforated the refined polite mask of Bostonian society, Eliot himself admired the poetry of a quite different New Englander, Robert Lowell , whose Life Studies managed to articulate in verse something that Eliot could not quite capture in his own greatest poetry — familial love. Eliot is a great love poet, but his sense repeatedly is of love frustrated, lost or gone wrong. Few poets have dealt so profoundly with the themes of childlessness, of longing, of ageing. Eliot remains one of the greatest religious poets in the language, and that, too, has added to his global reach as well as enriching his adopted and adapted European sensibility.
A lot are very emotional little poems about the war, about his great identification with the ordinary British soldier, and his anger with the authorities," said Linda Bree, arts and literature editorial director at Cambridge University Press. Bree agreed with Pinney that Kipling, who died in leaving behind books including The Jungle Book, Just So Stories and Kim, had been neglected by scholars until now.
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They are about simple situations, and perhaps for that reason scholars have steered clear a little," she said. And of course the imperial issue does make things more difficult. What's your last religion? Have you got a creed? Have you any morals?
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