September 26, 2014
The 1915 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by Missouri-born English poet T.S. ELIOT (Thomas Stearns Eliot, 1888–1965), is one of the pivot points via which a younger cohort of Modernists, like Eliot and Ezra Pound, assisted their immediate elders, like Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, in levering the English language from its Victorian strictures into new freedoms of form. But though Eliot’s meter, sound, and syllabic constellations breathe openly, existential liberation wasn’t necessarily his thing. The geography of his poetry is dark, troubling, internal: “April is the cruellest month,” and “This is the way the world ends / not with a bang but with a whimper.” Eliot published fewer poems than famous poets tend to do, and even his long poems — “The Waste Land” (1922), “The Hollow Men” (1925), “Ash Wednesday” (1930), “Four Quartets” (1945) — are sparse. His formality says what Eliot means in formal distillate content: There isn’t that damn much to say. As if an accuracy of perception is something achieved in adolescence, then dragged through life —threatening always to fly apart under the pressure of experience. Which is why experience itself is experienced as a threat: “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.
READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884–93).