The great modern poet T.S. Eliot is a model for poets and artists in our own chaotic world. Here are just a few things we can learn from him:
1. Great art demands that artists speak to their generation in a way they understand.
One reason Eliot became the spokesman for his generation is the fact that he spoke in a language and an art form that connected with people.
Eliot didn’t use an outdated forms like the epic poem, the sonnet sequence, or a masque. Instead, he wrote in a twentieth-century genre: contemporary poetry. He used the forms and the dialect of modern society. As he writes in “Little Gidding,”
last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.
Eliot knew that to connect successfully with the modern world, he had to speak in a way and in a form that the modern world could understand. Artists today who want to connect with their audience can follow his example.
2. Great art requires technical excellence.
Although Eliot wrote mostly in free verse, he knew the formal rules of poetry inside and out, and this made him a better poet. Sometimes he used rhyme and meter, and always with great power. Here’s an example from “Little Gidding”:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
This excerpt consists of two stanzas of iambic tetrameter, rhyming ABABACC. These lines also demonstrate a poet’s sense of how to use metaphor effectively. The image of a dove bringing fire speaks of the Holy Spirit, but Eliot also draws on the imagery of German dive bombers, which rained fire-bombs on London in World War 2. The many-layered symbolism of fire here is powerful—the fire of the Holy Spirit, the fires of judgment, the fires of repentance, the fires of spiritual refining, the fires of the explosions—and the overall technical excellence in this poem is mesmerizing.
It’s just another way Eliot demonstrates the technical excellence of a great artist.
3. Great art requires a knowledge of the tradition of the art form you are using.
In Four Quartets and his other works, Eliot shows an in-depth knowledge of the poetic tradition. He draws on Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, and even Eastern poetry. Eliot was also well-acquainted with the literature being produced in his own time. He was friends with writers like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. For artists to speak powerfully to their audience, a comprehensive knowledge of both the tradition and current state of their discipline will add great depth to their work.
When you read T.S. Eliot, you experience works of art that are nearly flawless from a technical perspective. You also see poems that draw from both contemporary poetry and the entire tradition of literature, and that, consequently, connected deeply with their audience.
As a result, his poems remain as powerful as they ever were, and provide a rich source of inspiration for artists to this day.
Cropped image by Nate Edwards via Flickr.
Nathan Huffstutler teaches college literature and writing in southern Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and their three daughters. He has published essays, book reviews, and poetry, and he loves bookstores, nature, and wonder.