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Quotable: T.S. Eliot on Poetry and the Poet

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) remains a timeless voice of wisdom in the midst of the self-destruction of post-Great War modernity. Fusing the disciplined anti-romanticism of his teacher Irving Babbitt with the provocative Imagist power of his mentor and friend Ezra Pound, Eliot forged a poetic oeuvre that reflected the complexities of the modern age with jarring allusiveness and keen irony, gifts which continue to haunt us in the crackling eeriness of his own sound recording of The Waste Land and in Colonel Kurtz’ recitation of “The Hollow Men” in Apocalypse Now.

David Daiches (1962) grants Eliot’s poetry the highest regard when he observes that, “[T]he nature of his imagery together with the movement of his verse generally succeed in setting the tone he requires, in establishing the area of meaning to be developed, so that even a reader ignorant of most of the literary allusions can often get the ‘feel’ of the poem and achieve an understanding of what it says.”

Here, in his own words, is T.S. Eliot on the past, the poet, and the personality:

  • “We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s differences from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach the poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”
  • “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”
  • “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”
  • “One error…of eccentricity in poetry is to seek new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not actual emotions at all.”
  • “The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”

Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919)

  • “Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”

The Metaphysical Poets (1921) A statement that is closest to depicting Eliot’s own poetry

  • “To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.”

The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)

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