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Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (1888-1965)

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Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (1888-l965), American-born English poet, literary critic, dramatist, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, who is best known for his poem The Waste Land, one of the most widely discussed literary works of the early 20th century. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, into a distinguished New England family, the son of a businessman and a poet. He was educated at Harvard University, the Sorbonne, and the University of Oxford. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he decided to take up permanent residence in England and he became a resident of London in 1915 and a naturalized British citizen in 1927. Between 1915 and 1919 Eliot held various positions, including those of teacher, bank clerk, and assistant editor of the literary magazine Egoist. As a young poet Eliot found inspiration in French Symbolist poetry, in the Metaphysical poets and in Dante and Bergson.

His long poem in five parts, The Waste Land (1922), is an erudite work that expresses vividly his conception of the sterility of modern society in contrast with societies of the past. Eliot believed that modern society lacked (mancasse) a vital sense of community. The waste land of the poem is modern European culture, which had come too far from its spiritual roots. In Eliot's poem, human beings are isolated, and sexual relations are sterile and meaningless. Because of the variety and relative obscurity of Eliot's allusions, readers must work through the poem's footnotes (note) several times (più volte) to appreciate it, but the general impression of isolation, decadence, and sterility comes through in every reading. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.

Eliot and Myth: Eliot uses myth, structuring his poem in terms of the Grail quest. Through the use of myth, he is able to make his poem more universal and give his subject the importance of an epic. The symbolism becomes steeped (immerso) in tradition and therefore (perciò) has more strength (forza) behind it and is less personally connected to the poet himself. The Waste Land is engulfed (sommersa) in myth, perhaps (forse) only because the Grail quest myth and the rituals happened to be in Eliot's 'receptacle'. However, it seems more likely that the use of myth is very deliberately used to elevate the stature of the work. It is especially through the Mythical allusion that the contrast between present and past appears: to the meaningless, to the "waste" life of the present, Eliot opposes allusion of the Holy Grail , a metaphor for men's search for spiritual salvation. Eliot alludes to various ancient religions as well as to the medieval legend of the Holy Grail, finding in them the common thread (filo) of the mythic cycle of the death and resurrection of gods. More specifically, he found the story of the Fisher King, a mythic ure whose loss of power or fertility produces a corresponding drought (siccità) in his kingdom. Only through the death of this king and his replacement by a new, young, and vigorous knight can the land be restored to fertility.

PART 1. The first part, 'The Burial of the Dead,' presents the voice of a countess (contessa9) looking back on her pre-World War I youth as a lovelier, freer, more romantic time. Her voice is followed by a solemn description of present dryness (aridità) when 'the dead tree gives no shelter (protezione).' Then the poem returns to a fragmentary love scene of the past, perhaps the countess's. The scene shifts (cambia) to a fortune-teller (cassiere) who reads the tarot cards and warns (avverte) of death. The final section of part 1 presents a contemporary image of London crowds (folla) moving along the streets blankly (distratta), as if dead.

PART 2. 'A Game of Chess' presents a neurotic rich woman frustrated by her male companion's reserve. This is followed by a gossipy barroom conversation about a woman who was unfaithful to her soldier husband during the war and who had an abortion to hide (nascondere) her guilt.

PART 3. The third section, 'The Fire Sermon,' mingles (mischia) snatches (brani) of an old marriage song celebrating the Thames River, with a contemporary image of the filthy (lordo), Thames. Then, starting at line 215, the ancient seer (profetessa) Tiresias narrates a banal and loveless scene of seduction of a typist (dattilografo) by her 'lover'. The scene is squalid and passionless; the sexual act is meaningless to both participants. This is followed by contrasting images of Queen Elizabeth I boating on the Thames with her lover, the earl (conte) of Leicester.

PART 4. The fourth section, 'Death by Water,' fulfils (compie) the prophecy made by the fortune-teller in part 1. It is a brief section, marking death as the end, or, death that must precede transformation and rebirth. PART 5. The final section, 'What the Thunder Said,' begins with images of a journey over barren (sterile) and rocky ground (suolo). The thunder is sterile, being unaccompanied by rain. Chaotic images of rot (putrefazione) and of a crumbling (sgretolante) city, at which time a cock (gallo) (a symbol of Christ) crows (canta), announcing the coming rain.

Imagism: Is an American current based on a combination of images (the poet must communicate not with words but with images, symbols. Juxtaposition: squalid elements are juxtaposed with poetic ones.

Objective correlative: Is an attempt to communicate feelings and sensation, not lyrically but by external object or situation, able to suggest elements not logically linked to them.


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