Eliot’s Intellectual Vanity?

Eliot, the young immigrant poet who believed the rejection of his poems to be disappointingly puritanical, goes on to become the most celebrated poet of the twentieth century. With the possible exception of  William Butler Yeats, no twentieth century poet has been held in such esteem by his fellow poets as Eliot. Herman Northrop Frye, a Canadian literary critic simply states, “A thorough  knowledge of Eliot is compulsory for anyone interested in contemporary literature.” Yet many of his critics have commented on his “Intellectual Vanity’’. Is that truly the case here?

The passing of the Victorian ideals and the trauma of World War I challenged cultural notions of masculine identity, and caused artists to question the romantic literary ideal of a visionary poet capable of changing the world through verse. Eliot realised that the poetic idiom available to him was exhausted and that it had to be changed. He incorporated different styles in his poetry, which were experimental, innovative and intellectually complex. His first remarkable poem “The Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock” demonstrates an almost total break with the conventions of romantic poetry, followed by “Gerontion”, “The waste Land”, “The Hollow Man” etc. The images in these poems are novel, striking and obscure which are drawn from a discordant urban life. Eliot suppresses certain direct connections between these images and as a result he reader has to work hard to connect the meanings.

Eliot’s ideas and his portrayals were too symbolic and abstract for the common people used to Romantic and Victorian poetry. Modern poetry involves, after all, a torturous intellectual process of creation. His poetry is marked with modern precision, intellectualism, sharp irony and philosophy, and infused with allusions to classical writings. There were originally written for a very specific group of readers, and not for the perusal of the common masses. So, there is no doubt that Eliot’s modern poetry is somewhat difficult for an average reader to understand. His works drew a sharp contrast with its Romantic and Victorian predecessors and gave rise to a distinct modernist style. Eliot made other poets realise the importance of an artist to rise above the realm of personal life and speak from the spirit and heart of the poet, to the spirit and heart of mankind.  His poems provided a vision of the modern chaotic world to the reader that the contemporary poems following the Victorian and Romantic ideals couldn’t reflect in the twentieth century.

An issue that most troubled Eliot was being a foreigner in a society (literary London), that was almost as incestuous and xenophobic as intellectual Paris. The writers he counted as comrades were looked upon by most of the literary establishment with distaste: Ezra Pound, an American; Wyndham Lewis, whose father was an American; and an Irishman, James Joyce. So, he wanted his work to leave a prominent mark, and a distinctive style of poetry felt like a true weapon, along with his vast knowledge regarding classical literature and philosophy (which is he frequently employed in his plays and poems). However, due to this deliberate attempt at proving a true avante-gardist, his genius often came off as intellectual vanity, as his friends would mockingly address him as the “Connoisseur of cheese”, simply for his preference to be precise. “He is obviously very ignorant of England and imagines that it is essential to be highly polite and conventional and decorous and meticulous.” – was how he was recalled by most of the Bloomsbury members.

In conclusion it can be said that for a better understanding about the poetic intricacies in  Eliot’s work, a detailed study of poetic idioms and references is an utmost necessity for the readers.  He incorporated a great many literary, historical and mythological references into his poetry, so knowledge of those references is imperative to understand the true meaning behind his works. The readers must analyse in an unbiased manner. They must come out of the imaginary beautiful world and should be able to see beneath all the beauty and ugliness, boredom, horror and glory. Intricacy is the backbone of Eliot’s poetry – his diction shows high level of erudition and he makes no attempt to lower it to reach a wider audience .  He was fastidious by nature and strove for perfection. But that simply doesn’t qualify his genius to be termed as intellectual vanity. One instance that can be stated here, is from his own poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, where the poet mocks the women discussing Michelangelo to simply sound as an intellectual lot.  Another instance is from his own life, where Eliot has admitted to have faced “writer’s block” much like any other writer, despite possessing an extensive knowledge regarding his field of practice. He took up penning poems in French to fight the block. His intention was never to merely showcase his knowledge but to use it to develop poetry with an amazing  flow, poetry which is distinctively modern (and voiced the modern dilemma). He had a profound effect on the reader and perhaps that’s what makes him unique amongst the twentieth century poets.

(Picture Courtesy- Poetry Foundation)


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