T.S. Eliot’s period of active literary production covers over forty-five years. During this long period, he wrote poems, plays, literary and social essays, as well as worked as a journalist and editor. He achieved distinction and wielded considerable influence in each of the fields he worked. His writings may, therefore, be studied under three heads. Poetry, Drama and Prose, the later including his literary and social criticism as well as his journalism.
Eliot’s career as a poet may conveniently be divided into five phases or periods:
1. The First Phase
Eliot’s Juvenilia 1905-9. Eliot began writing quite early in life while still a school boy at Smith’s Academy, St. Louis. The poems of this period are immature, juvenile productions, mere school boy exercises, yet showing signs of poetic talent. The poems were published in the various college and school magazines, as the Smith Academy Record and the Harvard Advocate.
2. The Second Phase
Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917. The collection includes poems written during the second phase of Eliot’s poetic activity, from 1909 to 1917. The poems were written in Boston, in Europe, and during his first year in England, and show considerable influence of Eliot’s reading of French writers, particularly Laforgue. “They are sophisticated observations of people, of social behaviour, and of urban landscapes.” The poetry is of urban streets, and houses and people, not of woods and fields and flowers. Eliot is frankly satirical of Boston society, and the love-theme, when it appears, receives an ironic treatment. The rottenness, the corruption and decadence of contemporary society, is exposed with a rare poignancy. The most important poems of this collection are:
1. The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
2. Portrait of a Lady
3. The Preludes
4. Rhapsody on a Windy Night
5. The “Boston Evening Transcript”
6. Mr. Apollinax.
The poet has found himself.
3. The Third Phase (1918-1925)
The most significant poems of this phase are:
2. Burbank with a Baedekar
3. Sweeney Erect
4. A Cooking Egg
5. Sweeney Among the Nightingales
6. The Waste Land, 1922
7. The Hollow Man, 1925.
The poems are strictly urban in character. They reveal a deepening of the poet’s distress at the corruption and decay of contemporary European civilisation. The range and scope of his poetry is now much enlarged. Uptil now he had dealt with particular people and places, but now he, “writes a poetry which belongs to what is called major or great poetry. It may be called epic poetry—and The Waste Land is a kind of compressed epic—for it portrays the state of the civilisation out of which it grows.” This is done in a limited way, but still The Waste Land stands in the epic tradition. The poems reveal a considerable maturity of the poet’s powers. The characteristic style and technique of Eliot are now effectively used. The Waste Land, specially, is fragmented in effect, lacking in cohesion, thus symbolising the breakdown of beliefs and values in the cultural life of the West.
The poems are bleak in tone, and have often been regarded as entirely pessimistic. Their gloom is the resultant of the poet’s inner gloom consequent upon over-work, ill-health, the continued mental-illness of his wife, and the harrowing, nerve-shattering impact of the world war on a sensitive temperament.
We are also introduced to such generic characters in Eliot’s poetry as Sweeney, Burbank, etc., who are not individuals but symbolic figures typifying the grossness and decay of contemporary society. Thus Sweeney is animal and unfeeling, who in his younger days might have been a professional pugilist, but in his old age keeps a pub.
4. The Fourth Phase (1925-1935)
This is the period of Eliot’s Christian poetry. Eliot joined the Anglican Church of England in 1927, and this change in his faith is reflected in the poems of this phase. The poet searches for a right way, a right solution to the human dilemma, and he does so through the traditional material and imagery of Christianity. The tone is rather optimistic, and there are indications of the solution which the poet is likely to reach. The more characteristic poems of this Christian period are:
1. Ash Wednesday, 1930
2. Journey of the Magi
5. Choruses from “ The Rock”
7. Anumber of minor and unfinished poems.
5. The Fifth Phase (1935-43)
This is the period of The Four Quartets, which are published as follows:
1. Burnt Norton, 1936
2. East Coker, 1940
3. The Dry Salvages, 1941
4. Little Gidding, 1942.
This is the phase, of Eliot’s religious poetry as contrasted with the previous Christian poetry. In both the phases Eliot is a religious poet—as he ever was—but in the previous period he used Christian imagery and tradition, while now he examines the eternal problems of men without reference to the Christian tradition. “The poems combine the drab and grim picture of modern society which had been prominent before with an intricate contemplation of the problems of space and time, life and death, past and future” (T.S. Pearce). The poet has cast his looks at the worst, and yet looks at life with faith and hope.
Eliot did much to bring about a revival of English poetic drama, both through his practice and critical pronouncements.
His dramatic production includes:
1. The Rock, a Pageant Play, 1914
2. Murder in the Cathedral, 1935
3. The Family Reunion, 1939
4. The Cocktail Party, 1950
5. The Confidential Clerk, 1954
6. The Elder Stateman, 1959.
As a dramatist, his range is narrower than that of his poetry. He began by writing purely Christian drama. The Rock is a pageant written in collaboration with E.M. Browne, and Murder in the Cathedral, one of his most significant plays, deals with the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. The dramatist tries to bring home to his audiences the real meaning and significance of martyrdom. The setting is medieval. The later plays also have a religious theme, but the setting is contemporary and social By the time of The Family Reunion, Eliot felt a need to appeal to larger and larger audiences, and hence his use of the verse-form is not esoteric or subtle, only for the learned few. These later plays are basically upper-class drawing-room comedies in the tradition of the Comedy of Manners, with a strong melodramatic element. They can be enjoyed as such by the unthinking, while for the more thoughtful there is the religious content—meaning of martyrdom to the modern world and the place in it of the saint.
Eliot’s plays suffer from a tinge of artificiality which has limited their appeal. They have been written according to a preconceived theory, and represent a reaction against the English dramatic tradition. Successful drama in England, with few exceptions, has never been written to rule; it has always been romantic, while Eliot tried to write according to rules and theories. He might have produced successful plays in the classical style, but they have always seemed artificial to English audiences.
Eliot stands in the long line of poet-critics beginning with Ben Jonson and including such names as Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge and Matthew Arnold. Such critics know the mysteries of their own art and so can speak with force and conviction.
Eliot’s critical pronouncements, first published largely in the form of articles and essays, in numerous periodicals and journals of the day, have now been collected in the following books:
1. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933
2. The Idea of a Christian Society, 1939
3. Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, 1948
4. Selected Essays, Third Edition, 1951
5. On Poetry and Poets, 1957
6. To Criticise the Critic, 1965.
Tradition and Individual Talent, Poetry and Drama, the Function of Criticism, The English Metaphysical Poets, The Frontiers of Criticism, etc., are among his more popular essays in literary criticism.
The value of Eliot’s criticism arises from the fact that he speaks with authority and conviction, and his prose style is as precise and memorable as, his poetry. He has been largely responsible for the revival of interest in the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century. His rare gift of crystallising his thought in striking, trenchant phrases, has gained for him, wide popularity and appeal. Phrases like, Dissociation of sensibility, Objective correlative, Unified sensibility, have gained wide currency.
Eliot worked as editor of The Criterion from 1922-1939. This literary magazine stood for the integrity of European culture. It had received contributions from all over Europe on a vide variety of subjects, and its contents reflect the Catholicity of Eliot’s interests. Eliot himself closed down the magazine when, with the outbreak of war, it became clear that the breakdown of communication with Europe was inevitable.