Does 20th century literature draws upon or departs from tradition to understand the present?

‘The best known English poem since the Rubaiyat’. Opening with this statement, Stanley Sultan takes Hugh Kenner’s words from The Invisible Poet (1959) and discusses them with specific reference to ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and explores literary history to discover Eliot’s development of tradition.
Sultan’s polemic suggests that ‘Prufrock’ was an act by Eliot and executed in the style of a historic leader to ensure that the moment of publication was at a time when English poetry was searching for a new direction. He draws attention to Eliot’s introduction to Pound’s Selected Poems, to demonstrate the historical context of ‘Prufrock’ in which Elliot retrospectively separates out poets who have developed, imitated or invented technique. Eliot declared that true originality is developmental and bad poetry ‘bears no relation to the world to which it appeals’ (Sultan, 1985, p.78). Sultan supports Eliot as a leader who inspired a new generation of poets by observing that he wrote ‘Prufrock’ three years prior to meeting Pound, providing evidence (Prufrock and Raskolnikov Again: A Letter from Eliot, quoted in Sultan, p.78) that the poet was embodied within the revolution of consciousness and allusion. In placing the poem first in each volume, Eliot had given it pride of place but this historic status was not recognised until an influential Pound persuaded Harriet Monroe to publish the work. Sultan claims this prodding signified a change in popular opinion confirming the radical shift in style that contrasts to Aiken’s earlier rejection with the remark that the poem was ‘bordering on insanity’. Sultan writes that ‘Eliot made the ‘modern’ artefact which Pound subsequently unearthed and wisely championed entirely on his own’ (Sultan, 1985, p.79) crediting Pound with persuasion and influence, evident in Pound’s letter to Monroe in which he remarks that Eliot had ‘modernised himself on his own’.

In order for the poem to both depart and draw from tradition, Eliot illustrates the relationship with Romanticism through the exploitation of imagery in ‘Prufrock’ which Sultan observes is typically ironic, noting that ‘it exemplifies the Modernists perpetuation of the central romantic commitment from the time of Novalis’ (Sultan, 1985, p.80). Dante and the affinity that Modernists felt towards Renaissance literature and lyrical poetry is undeniable, but Sultan suggests that these sources did not mould Eliot alone. Significant value is placed on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and ‘The Return’ and Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, drawing on Eliot’s comments in later life that he recognised the possibilities of developing an urban poetry after reading these texts. Sultan credits these two writers which showing Eliot the impress of urban industrial civilisation on the human spirit. Referencing Kenner again, Sultan draws on The Pound Era to show the extensive influence of Henry James. Sultan concludes that whilst James portrayed consciousness through subject experience, Eliot presented consciousness by relating the subject’s awareness of her or his experience both representing the pull of the past on Eliot’s present work but also the lure of departing from it to present something new.
Sultan brings his piece full circle by recognising that Eliot’s theft from the past equally influenced his successors. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Joyce’s Ulysses is an example of Eliot’s influence as the text is presented as a consciousness experience of the subject. Sultan presents a strong argument for the historical placement of this collection of poems but whilst his argument steers close to relegating Pound to an agent for Eliot, it is refreshing to hear such a strong case for Eliot’s individual talent with clear evidence.
Rabate, Jean-Michel. (1984) Tradition and T. S Eliot. The Cambridge Guide to T.S. Eliot ed. A. David Moody, London: Cambridge University Press. Printed book bought from, 4th January 2011.
Jean Michel-Rabate presents Eliot as man haunted by the past in his critical piece Tradition and T. S Eliot, published in the Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot (1984, p210-222). In the context of the period of reflection after Romanticism, Rabate’s polemic is how much control Eliot had in the past influencing his present work, presenting three examples to challenge Eliot’s later criticism on his own work and asks if we have to accept his opinion. Should we ‘critize the critic?’
Rabate first draws evidence from early correspondence between Eliot and Mary Hutchinson as evidence for distrusting Eliot’s retrospective definitions of tradition. As a mature poet, Eliot alluded to tradition requiring the individual’s historic sense ‘to bypass too strict an opposition between the objective and the subjective elements in culture’ (Rabate, 1984 p.212). This is reflected in the mannerisms of his subjects as Eliot blends religious language with aesthetic worship before marrying the speaker’s rattled composure in ‘Portrait of a Lady’. However the letter to Hutchinson the poet reminds his correspondent that he is ‘metic’ and fears that he might be seen as a ‘savage’ for his development of English literature. Rabate argues that this confession is one of fear as reflected in ‘Prufrock’ contradicting Eliot’s later analysis and the confidence that Sultan’s critical piece alludes to. The theory that Eliot saw himself as a foreign occupant is one laboured by many critics and Rabate concludes that Eliot’s disorientation and allusion to metic is found in the fragmentation of his poetry and rendered by a Bergsonian stream of consciousness.
Rabate tackles ‘High Modernism and the Bifurcation of Tradition’ by contrasting Pound’s theories against that of Eliot’s. Whilst Sultan uses influence to promote his polemic, Rabate argues that a back to basics and simple approach that rejuvenated tradition, as advocated by Pound, caused tension in high modernism when placed against Eliot’s overcomplicated approach. Rabate uses an extensive example of this in a comparison of polis in the work of the two men. Whilst Pound was content to take the phrase in it’s Greek context, Eliot chose to delve into hidden meanings that incorporated influences from Virgil, Augustine and Dante. The conclusion is that Eliot felt he had to find tradition not around him but inside his soul and this philosophical approach divided him from Pound’s simplistic approach.
Eliot writes In Scared Wood that ‘The only cure for Romanticism is to analyse (quoted in Rabate, 1984 p. 217) and Rabate comments that Eliot is becoming frustrated with critical intellect and turning to synthesis, employing comparison and analysis to draw on Laforgue’s influence, arguably a source of inspiration to the poet in reinventing the past and redefining tradition. Rabate uses Eliot’s essay on ‘Hamlet and His Problems’ to observe that Eliot viewed history as a ‘fickle feminine agency that has to be passed on by a more comprehensive tradition founded on the symbolic realm of paternity and language’ a conclusion reached by Eliot’s frustration at the horror of the Queen’s sexual desire. Rabate compares this to Freud and recognises that the poet saw a tragic awareness of life based on tradition working through death to create a symbolic life.
Rabate concludes that Eliot draws from tradition to understand the past, but his evolution as poet, essayist and literary critic serves to remind us that Eliot had a broader and increasingly developed opinion of tradition that extended beyond his contemporaries.Eliot urges us to realise that modernism is haunted by voices from the past and in making it new, modernists were also able to leave a historical trace in their work.
Part 2: Essay
Tradition in the context of T. S. Eliot is related to his theory on culture. In order to understand how the poems ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’ draw upon and depart from tradition to understand the present, in the context of the year of publication, it is necessary to understand Eliot’s theory on tradition.
Whilst Eliot’s opinions are freely dispersed through his critical works it is Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) that he attempts to crystallise his definition in a complete statement. In summary, Eliot reminds the reader that culture can be comprised of civility (by which he encompasses manners); education through knowledge and crafts; philosophy and, lastly, the arts. If the word ‘culture’ had become lost and misused in the past, then Eliot was advocating a new meaning embracing concepts that were alive and existing across society. Within this concept Eliot included religion, social structure and the science of government (condensed into politics) and what becomes clear from his text is the importance of unity and diversity within social groups whether that be classes or countries. To reach the fundamentals on Eliot’s theory of tradition it is necessary to focus on his ideas of European and English literary tradition. Eliot’s view on the main element is that cultured Europe is a ‘shared tradition’. Writing in After Strange Gods (1934) the poet concluded that tradition was largely unconscious as we may agree that so is the culture from which it is born, but Eliot stressed that a ‘sense of the past’ or a ‘sense of history’ was essential and commented that ‘By losing tradition we lose our hold on the present’ (quoted in Lucy, 1960, p.6). In reinvigorating literature, as Stanley Sultan stated ‘at a moment when, on subsequent evidence, English poetry was ready for something new’ (Sultan, 1985, p.77),Eliot created a new era in literary history which embraces the past and elements of culture.
The past is evident in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ with a title that indicates we are going to read a love poem, yet the text is exactly the opposite of love. Distinctively the poem is not encumbered with political or socialist agendas unlike the Romantics or indeed the message found in Auden and his contemporaries some twenty years later. Eliot omits these themes purposefully so that the most noticeable is the depth of culture and intellectual precision employed in the work and the exhausting breath of influences that he uses to compile the work that range from the Bible to Homer’s Odyssey in the use of the extended image. Eliot employs tradition from the start in crafting the Epigraph and the opening lines which establish the importance of Dante and lay down the structure of the poem. In The Metaphysical Poets (1973) Eliot’s defence on the accusation that his work was complicated was to explain that the modern poet had to become ‘more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning’. The epigram is perhaps good evidence for Eliot since whilst the poem gives the impression of confusing it becomes clear that the poem can be appreciated without an understanding of the heteroglossic voices as Eliot establishes a clearly delineated poet persona who is detached, superficial and urbane. The use of vocabulary is laconic, sharp and cutting. He draws on Shakespearian and other literary archetypes in order either to define who the persona is, or who he is most certainly not:
‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/Am an attendant lord……(Ll.117-118)
Almost at times, the Fool’ (L. 225)
Thus the subject is compared to a jaded observer, an archetypal Shakespearian character. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is significant to the theme of tradition for Eliot is evoking Laforgue’s reference to the scene which is a recurring theme in the work of the French Symbolist poet. Within these lines is a disagreeable contrast to the romantic yearnings of the Victorian lines ‘oh for the wings of a dove!’ The persona is certainly self-absorbed, even self-obsessed. Eliot presents the man as complete with all human vanities and foibles in place, and as such there is stark realism in the piece as well as a purely aesthetic edge. He is not a Romantic hero. There are occasional diversions which show his vanity and the self-doubt about the appearance he presents to those around him:
‘Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)’ (Ll.45-47)
Eliot takes the persona through the mocking emotions of death. The idea that we all have a time to be born and die is magnified in the persona’s obsession with time. Eliot’s poems ebb and flow with the transitory, insubstantial fragments of time and memory arguably a Bergsonian influence of the concept of ‘le temps’ as the persona finds it impossible to forget a single moment with echoes of Laforgue in the colloquial tone. Thus the reader is made aware of the ephemeral nature of time by a disorientating tendency of Eliot to confuse location and personality with seemingly irrelevant images arising from memory.
‘I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat,
and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid’ (Ll. -92
Eliot’s technique is to mix philosophical argument with the mundane is an influence of Bergson’s aspect of memory and it’s practicality. Eliot takes passionate traditions from the Romantic period and strips them to a life that is familiar for the human mind is daily distracted by external events. Equally pastoral meadows and ethereal beauty are challenged:
‘The yellow fog that rubs its back along the window- panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes…’ (Ll.21-22)
Rabate notes that the past haunts the present and here is the innovation of Eliot. Urban blandness was not considered to be appealing and yet here is presented as a poetic scene.
Herbert Howarth comments in Notes on Some Figures Behind T. S. Eliot (Southam, 1968, p.51) that the poet was already an urban dandy and this ‘primness of manner and speech’ (as recalled by Clive Bell, Southam, 1968, p.51) is reflected in the persona of the character and his insecurities of ageing. Such lines have clearly invoked speculation over the years on Eliot’s apparent misogyny in this and other works. It is interesting to note that poet persona was often confused with Eliot in this specific piece. Romantic tradition might have it that love poems are from the heart but there is no clear indication in the poem that the subject is called J. Alfred Prufrock or indeed is Eliot. There is no stream of self-conscious; or rather conscious of the self – this term, like culture, has become tinged with other definitions. Eliot’s doubters may be confusing the poet persona with the author, whose aim seems to be to represent the human condition as it actually exists, stripped of traditional poetic niceties devoid of the self impassioned pleas of the Romantic era.
‘In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo’ (Ll.41-42)
The couplet seems to mirror the internal chatter within the mind of the poet persona, a casual put-down of women. Virginia Woolf and Conrad Aitken both noted Eliot’s shyness that lent him a discipline and his subject in ‘Love Song’ seems similarly afflicted by company as women are blamed for distracting him from reaching a coherent conclusion. When the subject comes close to an answer he is distracted:
‘Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?’ (Ll.71-72)
These feminine observations bring forward the most formal characteristics of the poem which is the use of the refrains as the persona returns to the women, worries over questions and has recurrent observations on his situation. This references earlier poetic techniques that are also found in the rhyme scheme. Whilst it may not appear a regular pattern and some parts resemble free verse, this poem is compromised several poetic forms which when combined with the rhyming structure enable Eliot to describe the mind of the persona and his neurosis. The poem also contains fragments of sonnets with the stanzas that rhyme as found in a Petrarchan sonnet but the world-weary language used makes them almost unrecognisable from the Romantic form; ‘I do not think they (the mermaids) would sing to me,’ (l.231) creates an anti-Romantic dose of realism in a bleak modernist society.
The second poem in the collection, ‘Portrait of a Lady’ offers a complementation to ‘Love Song’. J.C.C. Mays noted that it is ‘the same story told by two voices merge, allowing a more different but complimentary point of view’ (Moody, 1994 p.112). This denotes the thematic similarities of atmosphere, imagery and urban surroundings to draw out the inertia and alienation between the two subjects. The piece may have been based on Eliot’s meetings with an elderly literary lady whilst at university in America and the poem is remarkably Jameison with a similarity between tones, use of irony, dialogue and subtle observations. Whilst Eliot was a master of allusions there seems to be a clear draw from the past through James and with ample use of imagery and simile to convey the Lady’s dimly lit apartment, a technique heavily employed by past poets:
‘And four waxed candles in the darkened room,
Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb’ (lll.8-10)
Throughout, the persona is detached, supercilious and rather condescending towards his host. The obvious use of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is referencing the Bergsonian inspired theme of life in death and death in life as Juliet was assumed dead but actually in a coma, a cruel but accurate jibe by the persona in ‘Portrait’ on the timeless nature of his visits. Once again, as in ‘Love Story’, the conversations are disrupted by references to mundane reality – ‘I smile of course/And go on drinking tea’ (Ll.53-54).
The reference to nature is evoking the nature symbolism of the Romantics as Eliot uses lilac as a metaphor for love and friendships in the opening lines of the second stanza as the Lady admonishes the persona for letting life slip away. The lilac also tells the reader that time has moved to spring. Yet in a modernist twist, irony causes neurosis to counter the reflective moment. Just as the persona in ‘Love Song’ was invaded by internal philosophical debate so we find it affecting the persona in ‘Portrait of a Lady’ as his attentions wander to considering life outside the apartment:
‘I keep my countenance.
I remain self possessed.
Except when a street piano, mechanical and tired,
Reiterates some worn out common songs.
With the smell of hyacinth across the garden.
Recalling things that other people have desired.
Are these ideas right or wrong?’ (Ll. 77–83)
Melancholy and inertia again dominate the October scene as time creeps forward and the lady has no more than false hope to comfort her:
‘You hardly know when you are coming back.
You will find so much to learn.
My smile fells heavily among the bric a brac.’ (Ll. 90–92)
These lines draw a contrast with James’s Isabel Archer and the Lady in ‘Portrait’ as Eliot takes Archer’s strongest feature of independence and creates a new metaphor through the fake optimism:
We must leave it now to fate
You will write at any rate
Perhaps, it is not too late.
I shall sit here serving tea to friends. (Ll101–104)
Grover Smith’s views on the persona in ‘Portrait’ are worthy of attention:
‘By penetrating to the depth of the lady’s lonely and empty life, the young man has committed a psychological rape: this is for worse than fornication, for he has not respected her human condition. (Moody, 1994, p.14). Yet the narrator is made aware that the Lady was always knew that they had never been friends and his ego is deflated. Confronted by the truth the anti-hero struggles to maintain the illusion of control than face the collapse of his self-possession. In a twist to James’s Lady, Eliot’s narrator realises that he is all the traits that he mocked in the Lady and he has no right to place himself above her. This also highlights the dialogue from The Jew of Malta in the Epigram which represents double deception played out by Barabas and a Friar. Thus both the Lady and the subject deceive each other as the female becomes a metaphor for loss of vitality and lack of action making her the embodiment of Juliet in a coma. The tone of the epigraph contrasts starkly with the poem where there is no suggestion of fornication and no emotional contact between the narrator and the lady yet death and guilt of a crime committed prevail.
Structurally the poem juxtaposes voices to determine who should have the loudest voice. The poem opens with the Lady as the speaker describes her room, her accent and then presents his own tone to make his voice distinct from hers. The theme is music as the Lady speaks as a violin and the speaker reminds us that it’s broken and out of tone compared to his ‘capricious monotone’. He uses intellect to exploit the irony and juxtaposition that makes him modern, referring to politics and current affairs. As with ‘Love Song’, there are elements of free verse and irregular pattern that show modern techniques but the use of Petarchan sonnets clearly indicate the influence of tradition in Eliot’s work. Once again fragmentation portrays the erratic mind of the subject as he fails to concentrate on the Lady:
‘With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
Recalling things that other people have desired’ (Ll. 81-82)
In conclusion I argue that Eliot cannot escape the tradition and by analysing tow poems in the ‘Prufrock’ collection I agree with the statement that Eliot drew upon and departed from the past to understand the present. Inspired by Rabate’s argument that the past haunts Eliot’s work then there is much to suggest in both poems that Eliot drew upon tradition to understand the present. Eliot makes clear references to James in ‘Portrait’ a nineteenth century novel, and The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe but also assumes the reader to have read Arnold’s ‘The Buried Life’ which occurs as theme in the poem since ‘Portrait’ is a modernist take on the suppression of the mysteries of the heart and containment of emotion found in Arnold’s text. Southam indicates in the introduction to A Student’s Guide to Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot (1968, p.7) that references and notes for much of Eliot’s work extend into compendiums for his later works as the poet continued his studies of anthropology. This indicates to me that Eliot expected his readers to appreciate the past and Sean Lucy’s assertion that the tradition must not be lost seems to be a reciprocal affair between Eliot and the reader.
Equally Eliot’s revolution was to do as Sultan has concluded in his critical essay and create a new era at a time of reflection. Whether Eliot and his contemporaries such as Woolf and Joyce were influenced by a social response to the advent of mass change, a reaction inherited from the Romantics, is still debatable. Nevertheless Eliot introduced a new definition of tradition in the cultured sense through the internal, philosophical argument, inspired once more by Laforgue’s ideas on metaphysics and abstractions. In both ‘Love Song’ and ‘Portrait’ these moments of introspection are interrupted by distractions of reality as well as by reflections on mortality. Eliot is softening altruism with a brutal take on reality. It is the marriage of the old and the new that invigorated a new approach to reading that challenged not only readers but also his contemporaries: ‘As I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously from bar to bar, I cry out, I confess for the old decorum’s…’ so remarked Virgina Woolf in 1924 (Southam, 1968, p.2), making a clear distinction between the past and Eliot’s new generation. The technique anticipates Joyce and is the true foundation of modernism as triumphed by both Rabate and Sultan. Eliot was a literary revolutionary – capable of preserving and developing poetic memories – a canonical achievement that earlier and later propagandists could only wish for.
Eliot, T.S. (1948) Notes towards the Definition of Culture Faber and Faber, London.
Eliot, T.S. (1969) Prufrock and Other Observations Faber and Faber, London.
Mays, J.C.C. (1984) Early Poems: from Prufrock to Gerontion. The Cambridge Guide to T.S. Eliot ed. A. David Moody, London: Cambridge University Press.
Menand, L. Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot 1987, Oxford University Press.
Sultan, Stanley (1985) Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 12, Issue 1, Open University library, Academic Search Complete database.
Smith, Grover (1951) T.S. Eliot: Poetry and Plays, Chicago: University of Chicago
Rabate, Jean-Michel. (1984) Tradition and T. S Eliot. The Cambridge Guide to T.S. Eliot ed. A. David Moody, London: Cambridge University Press.

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