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T. S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination

            One of reasons that the early poetry of T. S. Eliot resonated (and continues to resonate) with so many people is that in revealing what was essentially a personal dilemma, he dramatized an issue that has haunted thinking individuals for eons. In The Philosophy of Language, the nineteenth-century thinker Friedrich von Schlegel puts it this way: “So profound, and so lasting, is our intrinsic dualism . . . psychological and metaphysical, so deeply is this dualism rooted in our consciousness, that even when we are . . . alone, we still think as two.”  The awareness of a disjunction between intellect and feeling, logic and longing, thought and action, is particularly acute for intellectuals. One of the most brilliant representations of the war within can be seen in Hamlet, an intellectual who thinks himself into paralysis. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot draws on Shakespeare to create an ironic kinsman of the Danish Prince. “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” With this denial, which is also a confession of identity, Eliot paints a portrait of the artist as a young man, a self-portrait of the poet at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two. As documented in letters to intimates in 1914 and 1915, Eliot was hopelessly divided between mind and body, refinement and desire.” In Oxford, I have the feeling . . . that my body is walking about with a bit of my brain inside it, and nothing else. . . . [In London] one walks the street with one’s desires, and one’s refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches.”  The purpose of this book, which is anchored in an analysis of virtually all of Eliot’s prose and poetry, is to document his psychophysical (mind/body) and epistemological (subject/object) dualism, to illuminate its roots in his life, and to explore its currents in his poetry, from “Prufrock” to The Waste Land and Four Quartets.     


Drawing of T. S. Eliot by Simon Fieldhouse

     My argument has several elements. The first is that the stages in Eliot’s work as an artist correspond to three overlapping stages in the development of his intellectual and spiritual life – disjunction, ambivalence, and transcendence – with bursts of creativity followed by exhaustion and then by revitalizing interventions. The first block in his poetic oeuvre dates from 1909 to 1911, the second from the end of the Great War in 1918 to the mid-1920s, and the third, from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. The second part of my argument is that these stages are dialectically related. In the early phase, Eliot’s poems are dominated by entrapment in binaries, by “either / or” thinking; in the second, by the “both / and” thinking of relativism; and in the third, by triadic thinking that reformulates both, resulting in a pattern that is “new in every moment” (East Coker II.35). The first phase, which emphasizes feeling and self-consciousness, is deeply personal; the second, which privileges analysis and detachment, includes an attempt to depersonalize his poetry and criticism; and the third, which includes the unification of flesh and spirit in the Incarnation, is both impersonal and ultra-personal at the same time. These stages evolve organically, with each both including and transcending those previous. The third element in my argument is that the stages are punctuated by ideological interventions that in retrospect can be seen as decisive in that they become the means of recovery in life and renewal in art. The primary intervention between the first and second stages is his graduate work in philosophy, a break supported by the disruptions of war and marriage. The primary intervention between the second and third stages is his conversion to Christianity, an event clarified by his return to America in 1932. The heart of my argument is that the invisible hand shaping Eliot’s poetry is the tension between his personal life and his philosophical and religious inclinations, with the two principles – dialectic and relativism – serving as the instruments for a continuous process of invention and finetuning.

Jewel Spears Brooker is emeritus professor of literature at Eckerd College in Florida. She is the author of T. S. Eliot's Dialectical ImaginationReading “The Waste Land”: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation and Mastery and Escape: T. S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism, and the co-editor of volumes 1 and 8 of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition.

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