Breaking the Mold

I’m interested in the publication history and reception of Eliot’s poetry — as presented by Ackryod. To have the support of minds such as Bertrand Russell and Ezra Pound shows the early promise Eliot had, but it seems that during the period of chapters 3 and 4, the public wasn’t fully convinced of Eliot’s modernist poems. I wonder if the same is still true for The Waste Land today? I meet a lot of people who don’t ‘get’ poetry, whether traditional or modernist, and I know a lot of poets who don’t desire to understand or like The Waste Land. Ackryod points out in ch. 3, “The little volume provoked such a [little] response in part because of its unappealing or at least ‘unpoetic’ subject matter, but also because the poetry had no identifiable single voice behind it. […]  [I]n late nineteen- and early-twentieth-century English poetry the idea of a sustained ‘tone’ was still central. That is precisely the reason why the poetry of the years before Eliot seem so unsubstantial or simply decorative” (79). Though Ackryod is discussing Eliot’s first volume of poems — Prufrock — the same lack of a singular voice and sustained tone is true of The Waste Land.

Ezra Pound notes that Eliot’s development as a modern poet was individualistic, and though his first volume was published under Pound’s supervision, as The Waste Land would later be edited by him as well, Eliot broke from traditional English poetics on his own. Pound recounts: “‘He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own’” (56). I wonder if Pound’s influence on Eliot accounts for some of the aspects many dislike about The Waste Land, such as the classicist elements. Eliot was never a true imagist or vorticist, so I question if Pound and Wyndham Lewis fully convinced him that modern literature needed to be reimbued with classical Europe ideals — though these aspects are certainly present in The Waste Land. It’s certainly clear now that Eliot’s sexual frustration, over intellectualization, and unhappiness shaped his writing. I find it interesting that once he settled at the bank he found creative freedom. It also seems he might have not made it without Pound. He was a truly individual man in his ideas and writing, and I’d bet that’s why his work not only survives, but stands out among the other modernist poems.

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