Julianne's Reviews > The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950

The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 by T.S. Eliot
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Sep 03, 2010

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bookshelves: poetry, drama

T. S. Eliot has been for me, for the last several years, the literary equivalent of a monster in the closet. I knew he was there and that some day I would have to face him, but seen through the darkness of my complete ignorance, he seemed a fearsome beast. So I put it off. Now, having finally read many of his most highly esteemed poems and plays, I regret not tackling him earlier—not because his stuff was so great, but because it just wasn’t worth that kind of awe.

Not that Eliot isn’t a great poet; even I can see that he is. But although he knows what he’s doing, and I know he knows what he’s doing, I have no idea what he’s doing. Without ready and constant access to a plethora of reference materials, including dictionaries in translation, I was completely lost at several points. I put off reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for two days until I’d managed to translate the epigraph (in Italian, from Dante). Perhaps Eliot couldn’t care less that I (and most of the English-speaking world) can’t read Italian and simply placed it at the beginning of his work to be ornamental, but I assumed that he meant for the reader to bear it in mind. In which case, translating it would not only have been courteous, but would have been the only way of ensuring that every reader had the same opportunity of reading “The Love Song” proper in the way he intended. However, Eliot clearly is not an “equal opportunity” author.

His work, as presented, is unsuitable for all who do not read and understand English, French, German, Italian, and Greek (in the Greek alphabet), and who have not read The Golden Bough, the Divina Commedia, and the works of Baudelaire (for starters). Though some might argue that this is evidence only that Eliot was writing for a highly educated audience, I believe it implies something else. I believe Eliot was writing primarily, and perhaps exclusively, for T. S. Eliot. I can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head (though I’m sure some examples exist) who fulfills all the requirements listed above.

Some readers might not have a problem with that, of course. Some might find that the ambiguity of Eliot’s symbolism is what contributes to their impression of his richness. However, I myself do not feel rich with a trunk full of treasure I have not the keys to open. I find the poems I like the best (“Little Gidding” and “The Hollow Men”) are those I feel I understood the most, and perhaps if Eliot had troubled to broaden his intended audience—that is, if he had troubled to write a little more for me and a little less for himself—I would be in a better position to commend the rest of his poems and plays. As it is, I feel as if I’d been invited to a dinner party at which my host spent the entire evening talking to himself—saying interesting and erudite things, perhaps, but nevertheless not saying them to me.
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message 1: by Emily (new)

Emily You're advocating a dumbing down of someone's art just because you aren't familiar with his references. People got it in the age before the internet, which makes it ridiculously accessible. No art is created for the viewer - or the reader. It's created for the author. I doubt you would say the same thing about other authors, who are more "accessible," but who unquestionably are still writing to explain some sort of personal metaphysical experience or understanding...I mean, Thoreau wrote, "I went to the woods..." not "You as an individual could also go to the woods..." but that's implied. He wrote it to describe his experiences, but the POINT of literature is that it becomes about a person and everyone else. I feel like you miss the point.

Julianne Hi, Emily. You defend T.S. Eliot with such passion, you clearly are a fan. So I apologize if my comments offended you or seemed to trivialize something you love. However, I am not advocating for the dumbing down of anything. The works of T. S. Eliot are what they are, and I would no more argue for their alteration than I would for painting the moon red. Even I am not so narcissistic as to assume a deceased author's works should be altered to suit me. Airing my opinion is not the same as campaigning for T. S. Eliot's collected works to be re-written.

That being said, T. S. Eliot's writing is so inaccessible, it struck me as snobby. I dislike snobbery. To rebuff the advances of those one considers to be inferior or to be convinced -- rightly or wrongly -- of one's own superiority of knowledge or taste is just not cool, in my book.

Perhaps you are correct in that I simply "miss the point" of T. S. Eliot. Quite likely, as I know he is a favorite of many. But perhaps he is best enjoyed by readers who believe books are not written for them -- a notion with which I, respectfully, 100% disagree.

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