The Themes and Techniques That T. S, Eliot Used in His Works

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T. S. Eliot, a father of modern poetry, is an American-Born English poet. Although Eliot has a very modern style, it also identifies with traditional poetry. Many of Eliot's devices are similar to those of Ezra Pound, provided that, he still sets himself apart through his low and conversational tone and subtle movement (Riley, "Eliot has Created" 135). Featuring many different themes throughout his works, Eliot establishes himself as untouchable. The reader can argue his work, but cannot prove him wrong, Eliot has looked ahead at every possible flaw in his writing and corrected it to the point where his works cannot be challenged (Riley, "Eliot has Created" 136).

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Eliot became very popular for the criticism found in his poetry. His criticism and poetry work as a unit, often times conveying his message in the most dramatic way possible (Riley, "Eliot has Created" 136). Eliot's poems convey the various positions that he holds on topics ranging from criticism of fellow poets to religious prejudice (Riley, "Eliot has Created" 136). Religious prejudice in his poetry provides an intersection between philosophy, politics, art, and psychology (Ricks, "Eliot" 110). One group attacked through much of Eliot's work is the Jews. Most of Eliot's prejudice is necessary in order for him to be able to convey the message he wants to. Without some of his antiSemitic passages his poetic style could not stay consistent. Unlike Eliot, in Pound's Cantos, if the anti-Semitic theme were taken out of the poem, it would not lose any poetic value (29). Critics often refer to T.

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S. Eliot as one of the greatest poets of all time because of his unique style, themes, and way of conveying his message.

Famous for the abundance of modernism in his works, Eliot detests originality. He claims that it provides an "irresponsible freedom." In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock" Eliot displays his unoriginality in style and content (Riley, "Eliot has created" 136). Riley call this Eliot's best poem even though it displays the same attitudes, rhythms, and sometimes lines as some Symbolist Poets. When taking into consideration his hatred for originality, this poem has become one of his most successful ones. Riley says that this rhythm provides for a much more dramatic poem (136). This self-mockery is very unoriginal simply because of the consideration Eliot took for the traditional English prosody (Riley, "Eliot has created" 136). In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock" the main character, Prufock, is viewed the same way today, as he was when the poem was first written. This displays Eliot's profound "accent on language" (Riley, "Eliot Learned" 89). According to Riley, if Eliot had not written any other poems, he would have been remembered for this poem alone because of Prufock intellectual, personal, and social crises (Riley, "Eliot has created" 136).

A popular topic discussed amongst critics within Eliot's theme of modernism is his modern "mythic" style. The best example of this is found in The Waste Land. In addition to this mythic style are the themes of isolationism and alienation (Riley, "Eliot Learned" 90). According to Riley, The Waste Land displays aspects of Christian imagery and mythical style. The anthropological aspects also help add to the projection of Eliot's idea of the modern dilemma ("Eliot Learned" 89). This poem is a collaboration between Pound and Eliot and it is considered to be the most important poem of the twentieth century. The form of this poem is said to be confusing to all who read it, including Eliot himself. In the majority of his quatrain poems, Eliot is very violent with his ideas, but in this poem, it is not he who speaks them, but his characters (Riley, "Eliot has Created" 136). According to Lehman, The Wasteland, before edited by Ezra Pound, was a fine example of Eliot's satire. In an attempt to manage literary history Eliot had used satire in the early drafts of The Wasteland. He attempted to balance the literary poles in his literature, the criticism of historical poetry with his creativeness and his traditional viewpoints with his innovations (66).

Many literary critics when reading Eliot's The Waste Land do not believe that his comedy is necessary for the poetry. In other words, he could have written a poem with the same meaning without the satire and comedic element (Lehman 65). Since Eliot looked up to Bradley, we are not only reading Eliot, but also Bradley, through Eliot's works. Bradley's Socratic irony and comedy come out in The Waste Land (Pratt 332). The Waste Land, according to Lehman, is a great culmination of English and American modernism. There are many potential studies that can be done that will yield great importance of Eliot's elitism. The critics of Eliot themselves are the ones limiting these studies by refusing to see the comedy in The Waste Land, as comedy, not just "raw data" for Eliot's poetry. This causes critics to believe that Eliot's poetry does not require satire (Lehman 65). Contrary to most critics, Lehman believes that this is one of Eliot's poems where satire is a key poetic element. In the early drafts of The Waste Land satire was used in the management of literary history. Satire is necessary because the management of literary history is necessary. Literary history can lead to selfawareness (Lehman 67).

Parallel to Eliot's traditionalism, he took a lot of his themes and styles from different sources, supporting his hate of originalism." The title "Portrait of a Lady" is a Henry James title, a source that well fits much of his poetry (Riley, "Eliot Learned" 90). Eliot was also very fond of A.C. Bradley, who was influential in Eliot's writing through "his curious blend of humility and irony" (Pratt 332). Later in Eliot's poetic career he did not get rid of many of James's ideas, but incorporated them into his work and show up in the later T. S. Eliot works. Many of Eliot's contemporary themed plays feature James influenced settings. One theme that Eliot borrowed from James is the man-woman relationship. In addition to this theme is individual isolationism. All of Eliot's poems display this theme of isolationism, whether characters are embracing it or attempting to get away from it (Riley, "Eliot Learned" 90).

According to Riley, Eliot's traditionalism is not only a collaboration of his sources, but also the "awareness of his predecessors" ("Eliot Learned" 90). Eliot used many techniques and styles of those poets he admired. Bradley influenced Eliot's "mature prose style," which is one of the most famous styles in modern English (Pratt 332). One example is his theme of isolationism. The subject has already been explored by preceding poets, which can be very easy for one to pass up on when writing, however Eliot did not ignore the fact that those sources were available to him. Riley states, "Isolation and alienation from the world become a stage in the discipline of religious purgation, an ideal to be further pursued" ("Eliot Learned" 90).

Eliot criticized literature just as much as the literary community criticized him. According to McCombe, Eliot was concerned that since he was an outsider to London Literacy he would be considered a "savage." This was later confirmed through "The Hollow Men" and other works. He had not always been an outsider to the literary culture. He just knew what was wrong with the culture and how to fix it (McCombe 23).

Eliot has had problems with identifying himself and where he fits in in the literary world. In the late nineteen teens Eliot had a bad writers-block and "MĀClange Adulter. De Tout" helped him come out of it (Jeffreys 395). This poem is partially an autobiography that Eliot used to help identify himself. By writing in French Eliot allowed himself to write in a very difficult time for himself. This poem is unusual in that it can be applied to every country and every town in the world. Each character is a reflection of a role that Eliot had played somewhere in the world. He was a book reviewer in England, a professor at Harvard, he had traveled to Germany and France where he studied and wrote under the influence of the various cultures (Jeffreys 395-6).

Even though he examines his personal identity in "Mélange Adultére De Tout" Eliot does not completely satisfy his problems. The poem actually caused him more anxiety than expected. He was satisfied that he could find himself in any situation, but he never felt as though he belonged. Eliot's middle class American family provided him with a comfortable and secure sense of pride. In spite of this, he never fully felt connected with a single place. His nomadic lifestyle influenced much of his writing. He felt as though he did not belong in any society (Jeffreys 397).

Jeffreys states, "his insecurity is the underside of the mask worn in "Mà lange Adultére De Tout': the persona is able to assume so many identities because it has no identity of its own" (398). His sense of lack of identity created a problem that led him to attempt to join the British Literary world, where he still failed to find an identity. This lack of belonging is not only conveyed through his poems, but also through his letters that he had written shortly after leaving the United States. According to many of Eliot's letters he displayed his preference of Oxford over Harvard. When asked about Oxford, Eliot said, "I like it quite well enough to wish that I had come here earlier and spent two or three years" (Pratt 327). Through these letters he indicates that he feels disconnected with his homeland, yet alienated from his new home in England. Even though Eliot was concerned with his alienation, he also embraced it and used his environment to shape his works. For example, in Germany Eliot often complained of being in "exile," but he used this German environment to characterize one of his characters in "Mélange Adultére De Tout" (Jeffreys 398-99).

Many poets and critics of his works provided Eliot with examples of the kind of writers that he admired, aspired to be, and the kind of writers that he wanted to avoid. He did not only consider the men themselves, but also their artistic work, such as poems, books, etc. In many of his critical essays he did critique the other men's lives and personalities. This often confuses readers because they expect Eliot to be like other critics and talk about the art as opposed to the characterization of the poets themselves (Jeffreys 399). Eliot was fond of his tutor, Harold Joachim, who stuck to the text when critiquing other poets (Pratt 327). His background in philosophy provided him a basis to critique the authors based on their intellectual development, phycology, and environmental impact (Jeffreys 399).

Even though Eliot was so critical of the men themselves, when it came to his idols and his sources, he focused on their works (Pratt 327; Jeffreys 399). He enjoyed critiquing the works of authors that he could relate to on a personal level in terms of finding his identity. Despite the lack of an autobiography, through his essays and works, one can see his admiration for his predecessors (Jeffreys 399).

For a while Eliot viewed himself as a philosopher before a poet, causing him to search for common themes amongst himself and other writers (Pratt 327). One artist who he felt that he could relate to was. He was not only a quality artist, but also related to Eliot through his alien themes. A theme that was important to Eliot was the idea of remaining a "foreigner with integrity", not assimilating. Eliot believed in community and the sharing of a central idea, but he much more appreciated the outsider who had the ability and resources and experience to transcend all ways of thinking and draw his own conclusion, not just conforming to the group as a whole (Jeffreys 399-400).

Another literary figure that Eliot admires is Henry James. James has a similar background to that of Eliot, they both were born in America and tried to establish themselves in Europe. Unlike his admiration for Bradley, which involved more poetic elements (Pratt 327), Eliot mainly admired James for their similar backgrounds. Eliot's admiration for Henry is seen in his Egoist "In Memory of Henry James." "It is the final perfection, the consummation of an American to become, not an Englishman, but a European -- something which no born European, no person of any European nationality can become," (Eliot qtd. in Jeffreys 400). Eliot viewed James as a pinnacle of success through "selfcreation." He was able to become a man of many nations, not just of England, but all of Europe. Jeffreys suggests that Eliot thought that it took an American to be a true European. (Jeffreys 400).

An example of a literary figure that Eliot opposed because he was a part of a group was George Wyndham. According to Eliot, Wyndham portrays the world as "an adventure of himself." Eliot also compares Wyndham to Leonardo da Vinci that portrays Wyndham as similar to James and Turgenev, which should not grant him the title of a "Renaissance Man" (Jeffreys 401).

Possibly the most modern of Eliot's contributions to the literary world was his control over the flow of poetry for a whole generation. As Riley describes:

...T.S. Eliot controlled the main current of poetry and criticism for a whole generation, largely through the hypnotic attraction his writings exercised in academic channels and, through acquiescent teachers, upon a multitude of students, including most of the apprentice poets. However much against his personal desire, he became the literary arbiter of the age. ("Eliot Learned" 90)

More surprising to critics is Eliot's poem "Columbo and Bolo." In this he picked and chose which pieces of the original "Christopher Columbo" he wanted to keep. Other parts of the Folk song he elaborated, stressing the effect of that verse or line. Eliot surprised many readers through the sexual violence, anal penetration, and the sexual fetish for feces even though these themes come form the original "Christopher Columbo." While Eliot replaced much of the original wording from the ballad, he also kept a lot. The one phrase that Eliot used nearly word-for-word was a verse that included the line, "was a bastard Jew named Benny" (Chitniz 332).

One of the more controversial topics that is prevalent in Eliot's works is prejudice, and most popularly anti-Semitism. According to Ricks critics should not be so concerned with just antiSemitism because it is such a small part of Eliot's prejudice. Ricks says, " entails the larger, though admittedly not more intense, question of prejudice in general" ("Anti-Semitism" 30). One of the prime examples of anti-Semitism can be found in Eliot's poem "Dirge." In this poem, one of the lines is "A dead Jews' eyes." When originally writing the poem, he contemplated using "man" instead of Jew but then realized that he would not be capturing his full intention (Ricks, "Anti-Semitism" 38). According to Ricks, "...the uglier touches are not only continuous with Eliot's greatness as a poet but are sometimes intimate with it..." as mentioned before, "... if you dropped the anti-Semitic passages from Pound's Cantos you would lose no poetry for which Pound deserves gratitude" ("Anti-Semitism" 38).

In 1930 Kipling wrote a response to Eliot's "The Wasteland" titled "The Waster". Ricks quotes Kipling on terms of the tension between the two poets, where Kipling attacks Eliot on his prejudice not only towards the Jews, but also towards the Huns and the British. Kipling cannot support Eliot's idea that the English are always being surpassed by inferior races because of their public-school code (qtd. in Ricks, "Anti-Semitism" 27). Throughout the poem, "the Jew" and "the Hun" beat them. Even though the English are the ones being criticized for being themselves, Eliot is prejudice against the Jews and the Huns by comparing them and alluding to their inferiority (Kipling qtd. in Ricks, "AntiSemitism" 27).

Ricks mentions Eliot's "complex xenophobia" of which anti-Semitism is only a small part. As Ricks quotes George Steiner's letter he states how the majority of Eliot's prejudice can be found in the heart of good poetry. Even in naming his characters Eliot is able to show his prejudice beliefs. For example, in "Gerontion", Ricks points out how Eliot uses his character Rachel Rabinovitch to allude to a Jewish woman (Ricks, "Anti-Semitism" 27). It is obvious that she is Jewish simply because of her name. The word is not an English word that can be found in the Oxford Dictionary. However, when the word references predating the OED were researched, née was found to be a word that leads to the woman' maiden name. Since when used in "Gerontion," Eliot eschews Rachel's married name, he is highlighting that he does not want to mention her Jewish name (Ricks, "AntiSemitism" 28).

Throughout his works Eliot also talks about religion. According to Riley, "Eliot is a poet of religion...he is thoroughgoing anarchism in the modern world, a poet of genius crippled by the lack of faith and want of joy" ("Eliot has Created" 136). Eliot features a lot of allusion in his poems, and it is often confusing trying to determine which characters are actually "in" the poem. "In", meaning that many of his characters are just characters that are a disguise for an allusion (Riley, "Eliot has Created" 137). Eliot is a poet who has tried to expand Christian orthodoxy in order to "comprehend" the problems of modern religion. This spread provides an example of the discontinuities in his works. This theme was not even fully recognized until "Little Gidding" completed the Four Quartets (Riley, "Eliot has Created" 138).

Eliot often criticizes modern culture and the splits between the ideal and the vice filled ways of life. He criticizes the distorting of our moral values and the radical degeneration. He believes that the twentieth century European civilization is slowly eschewing the church and our spiritual values. Saraf provides vices that Eliot specifically addressed:

For Eliot was thinking in terms of the great chasm that he was encountering almost everywhere in the society around him: the drastic erosion of moral values and the radical degeneration that has turned love into lust, one hand; and the spiritual sterility that has descended like a curse on the twentieth century European civilization, on the other. (Saraf 3)

In "The Waste Land" Eliot gives examples describing his beliefs. He says how Dukes have committed lust, murder, and rape, setting examples for the people. "The Waste Land" is lined with lines like this (Saraf 3).

Eliot was a very unique writer, who, through his various styles and techniques, was able to convey much of his autobiography. Not only is this important in the study of his works, but also in the study of the criticism of his works. Not able to identify himself with a group of people, he was always searching for his belonging (Jeffreys 398). He often looked to his predecessors for advice that he found through their writings. Of these role models included Henry James and Turgenev who he was able to relate with through their writings and their personal stories (Jeffreys 400). Many of Eliot's poems include vulgarity, which he picked up from the classic American folk songs (Chitniz 332).

Eliot's struggle to identify himself came out in many of his works where he was able to express himself as the "Renaissance Man" he was (Jeffreys 397). T.S. Eliot fathered modern poetry and helped to establish a new era in the literary world.

Works Cited

  1. "Eliot." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 1. N.p.: Gale Research International, n.d. 89-93. Print.
  2. "Eliot." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley and Barbara Harte. Vol. 2. N.p.: Gale Research International, n.d. 125-30. Print.
  3. "Eliot." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 3. N.p.: Gale Research International, n.d. 135-41. Print.


Updated: Sep 15, 2021
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The Themes and Techniques That T. S, Eliot Used in His Works. (2021, Sep 15). Retrieved from

The Themes and Techniques That T. S, Eliot Used in His Works essay
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