T.S. Eliot and the Peak of Modernism

Exam Revision, 2005

11 Pages



1. Modernism
1.1. Definition and comparison to other literary periods
1.2. Characteristic perception and representation of reality

2. Progressive traits in Eliot's poetry vs. tradition
2.1. New tasks of the modern poetry
2.2. New themes
2.3. New forms and techniques
2.4. Tradition – religious and literary

3. Eliot's poetry and contemporary film (themes, motifs, techniques)
3.1. French Impressionism
3.2. German Expressionism
3.3. Neo-Realism
3.4. Soviet Montage
3.5. Montage in T.S. Eliot's work

1. Modernism

evoked through historical and cultural factors: industrialisation, democratisation, urbanisation, war, technological change, development of natural science, psychology and psychoanalysis; emancipation of women; Marx, Freud and Darwin respectively changed established notions of the social, the individual and the natural.

Romance – in modern literature, i.e., from the latter part of the 18th through the 19th centuries, a romance is a work of prose fiction in which the scenes and incidents are more or less removed from common life and are surrounded by a halo of mystery, an atmosphere of strangeness and adventure.

Realism – literature that attempts to depict life in an entirely objective manner, without idealisation or glamour, and without didactic or moral ends. Realism may be said to have begun with such early English novelists as Defoe, Fielding, and Smollett, and to have become a definite literary trend in the 19th century.

Modernism is the art of the tradition of the new. It is experimental, formally complex, elliptical, and tends to associate notions of the artist's freedom from realism, materialism, traditional genre and form, with notions of cultural apocalypse and disaster. It is disputable when it starts (French symbolism; decadence; the break-up of naturalism) and whether it has ended. It can be regarded as a time-bound concept (from 1890 to 1930) or a timeless one (including Lawrence Sterne, John Donne, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge). The best focus remains a body of major writers: James, Conrad, Proust, Mann, Gide, Kafka, Svevo, Joyce, Musil, Faulkner in fiction; Strindberg, Pirandello, Wedekind, Brecht in drama; Mallarmé, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Rilke, Stevens in poetry. Their works are aesthetically radical, contain striking technical innovations, emphasise spatial and rhythmic as opposed to chronological relations, tend towards ironic modes.

Postmodernism – the new avantgarde literature which partly carried modernism further, partly reacted against it – e.g., against its ideology and its historical orientation. What it consistently pretended to be and sometimes actually was was new. It was determinedly self-destructive and attempted to cut off its branch of the past, by proposing entirely new methods, a fresh canon of authors (Nietzsche, Freud, Saussure, Proust) and a new register of allusions.

Realism, according to many critics, is characterised by its attempt objectively to offer up a mirror to the world, thus disavowing its own culturally conditioned processes and ideological stylistic assumptions. It also, modelled on prose forms such as history and journalism, generally features characters, language and a spatial and temporal setting very familiar to its contemporary readers and often presents itself as transparently representative of the author's society. The hegemony of realism was challenged by Modernism and then postmodernism, as alternative ways of representing reality and the world. Realism itself was once a new, innovative form of writing, with authors such as Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) and Samuel Richardson (1690-1761) providing a different template for fiction from the previously dominant mode of prose writing, the Romance, which was parodied in one of the very first novels, Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605-1615).

Very broadly speaking, the vast majority of attempts to offer alternative modes of representation from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century have at one time or another been termed Modernist, and this applies to literature, music, painting, film and architecture. In poetry, Modernism is associated with moves to break from the iambic pentameter as the basic unit of verse, to introduce verse libre, symbolism and other new forms of writing. In prose, Modernism is associated with attempts to render human subjectivity in ways more real than realism: to represent consciousness, perception, emotion, meaning and the individual's relation to society through interior monologue, stream of consciousness, tunnelling, defamiliarisation, rhythm, irresolution and other terms. Modern writers struggled to modify if not overturn existing modes of representation, partly by pushing them towards the abstract or the retrospective, and to express the new sensibilities of their time: in a compressed, condensed, complex literature of the city, of industry and technology, war, machinery and speed, mass markets and communication, of internationalism, the New Woman, the aesthete, the nihilist and the flâneur.

Change of the perception of reality and the function of art. The previous dominant modes were a poetics of mimesis, verisimilitude and realism. By contrast, Modernism marked a clear movement towards increased sophistication, studied mannerism, profound introversion, self-scepticism and general anti-representationalism. In art, Modernists progressively undermined realism in movements like Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Symbolism, Imagism, Dadaism, Futurism and Surrealism. Each presented a different way of viewing reality. In fiction new writers rejected several of the fundamentals of classic realism: a dependable narrator; the depiction of a fixed stable self; history as a progressive linear process; bourgeois politics, which advocated reform not radical change; the tying up of all narrative strands, or 'closure'. The Modernist inclination towards the subjective and the individual resulted from the recognised failure to provide comprehensive solutions for contemporary conflicts. This, in its turn, involved the shift from the portrayal of external events towards the subjective perception of individuals. The recipient gets the insight into the emotional and mental world of the character at a certain crucial moment of the character's life.

2. Progressive traits in Eliot's poetry

2.1. New Tasks of the Modern Poetry

Poetry regarded as craft with a poem as the object to work upon and to improve

Modern poetry should be the expression of the modern attitude – the observer is emphasised who perceives the world from different angles, the prevailing attitude is negative due to increasing isolation of people and loss of personal individuality

Attempt to express emotion directly

Objective correlative – “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an objective correlative – a set of objects, a situation, a chain if events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion”; in the objective correlative the experience loses its individual character and acquires universal application; a symbol explaining itself

The Waste Land gave expression to the modernism wave in England, which supported other arts, especially painting which had been caustically criticised before

2.2. New themes


City (Barthes – a discourse on itself, semiotic of the city), prototype picture of the city through certain signs: sights, famous buildings and streets, sounds (motors, voices), weather (fog), crowd – already one of these signs helps the reader create the illusion of the city

Sexuality – unattainable purity, lust prevails, lack of feeling and love; love is highly idealised by Eliot (higher love otherwise coupling)

The role of women in the society – discrepancy between Mother and Woman, emancipation

Failure of communication due to the WW1, development of the mass society and loss of individuality; passivity of people, stagnation, fear of misunderstanding


Subjectivity of perception

2.3. New forms and techniques

Estrangement techniques – arts should not be easy to conceive, arts should activate and challenge the recipient to make out the meaning on one's own

Inner monologue (from the classic dramatic monologue: Browning)

Use of symbols and metaphors

Fragmented depiction of events as opposed to chronological, montage/collage as form - reflects the content: communication failure, disconnectedness of people and longing for love, warmth and understanding; the pictures evoked are only scarcely illuminated/ elucidated (cut, dissolve, fade), no explanations/exposition, the host of allusions confuse/irritate the reader – activity of the reader, density of the texture, extreme depth of some passages

Polyphony – a number of different voices (angles, points of view) belonging not necessarily to one and the same speaker, the identity of the lyrical I is problematic

Lack of exposition – the reader is expected to actively participate

verse libré – blank verse, iambic pentameter without rhyme

Expansive references to other writers and their works

2.4. Tradition – religious and literary

Crisis of values, superficiality, vulgarity, selfishness, hypocrisy, sexual promiscuity

Degradation, degeneration

Lack of spirituality and loss of faith, nihilism – solution: return to religion and faith, conscious suffering of losses to achieve salvation (problematic solution, criticised)

References to earlier authors and works in order to revive them and the values they advocated. Such allusions allow to convey the spirit of these works in an abridged form (a line of the poem). Eliot's allusions are taken from: Dante, die Bible, ancient Greek authors, Shakespeare, Middleton, Marvell; “The Waste Land” - Frazer The Golden Bough, Weston From Ritual to Romance; “The Four Quartets” - Augustin, Bernard von Clairvaux. The point was not the tradition established by these authors but the lost values which they stand for.


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T.S. Eliot and the Peak of Modernism
University of Cologne  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
T.S. Eliot
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eliot, peak, modernism
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LL.M., MA Irina Giertz (Author), 2005, T.S. Eliot and the Peak of Modernism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/285211


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