Erudite and imbued throughout with a highly sophisticated wit, T.S. Eliot’s body of poetry undergoes a dramatic conversion in tone from a sense of pessimism regarding the disjointed state of the modern world in his early work to a humble realization that the ideal for which he longs is unattainable in this life. The poetic career that began with the bleak picture of J. Alfred Prufrock’s utter inarticulateness in the face of the “overwhelming question” of modern urban life ends with a sense of joyful anticipation of the “Still point,” the true fulfillment of the Bradleian “Absolute” that so enthralled him as a student of philosophy (“Prufrock” 10; “Burnt Norton” 2.16).
The sense of conflict in Eliot’s poetry derives from his acute desire for the unification of society in a coherent and meaningful whole and his equally acute awareness that modern life, as quintessentially demonstrated in the fragmentation of the modern city (one of Eliot’s primary images), fails to live up to this ideal. The dramatic quality of his poetry arises from this very tension and is perhaps most apparent in “The Waste Land,” where an essentially dramatic structure—the quest motif—underlies the lyric passages so that their meaning is only comprehensible in light of a certain action or (initially) lack thereof. Contributing to the sense of conflict is Eliot’s ability to ventriloquize a multiplicity of voices, a talent which adds to the dramatic quality of the poetry and which reaches its acme in “The Waste Land.” Not only does he make use of a variety of characters’ voices, such as that of Tiresias, the typist, or Madame Sosostris to drive home the sensibility of conflict; he also ventriloquizes other artists through his ubiquitous allusions to deepen the ambiguity of his images and even of his metric forms. These forms and images are revealed to be peculiarly multifaceted as we recognize allusions which layer the simple picture of the girl in the hyacinth garden with overtones of Tristan and Iseult’s tragic love, or which put the prose poem “Hysteria” in the context of Baudelaire’s similar experimentation with form that led to the exploration of the labyrinthine modern city in the prose poems of “Spleen de Paris.” Through this cubist method of fragmenting his images and forcing us to make unintuitive connections between, say, Sweeney and Agamemnon (“Sweeney Among the Nightingales”) or between Queen Elizabeth I and the mundane typist (“The Waste Land”), Eliot is pushing the reader to an acute perception of the modern world’s lack of cultural unity. His bathetic juxtaposition of images of grand cosmic significance with startlingly mundane, even sordid scenes of modern life reinforces the tone of pessimism with which he treats the emptiness of a world preoccupied with “the profit and the loss” and disconnected from tradition (WL.IV, 3).
A spectacular shift in tone characterizes Eliot’s post-conversion poetry. He continues to recognize the lack of cultural unity and accompanying societal malaise, but the quest of “What the Thunder Said” has been transformed into a more personal journey towards the emptiness which will allow God to fulfill him. Corresponding to this shift in tone is a move towards a more resolute, calm diction and imagery. Eliot retains his allusiveness, but the diction of the highly prophet of tradition almost arrogant in his education largely disappears in favor of one who, like his Magi describing their journey with a simplicity that lends conviction to their account, speaks in a more down-to-earth syntax about a truth which would make a mockery of mere eloquence. The form of his poetry consequently moves towards a more conversational accentually-based meter, imitating other metrical patterns rarely and, when doing so, drawing on a highly significant association in a manner that enhances the musicality of the sequence, as we see in “Dry Salvages” II. Moreover the allusions no longer shock the reader with a kaleidoscopic picture of the fragmented world. The words of Lancelot Andrewes (Journey of the Magi) or echoes of the Bhagavad Gita (“Dry Salvages”) do not aim at the violent juxtapositions of the Sweeney poems or “The Waste Land,” but are rather presented as objects of the poet’s meditation; they are not examples of the modern world’s dissolution, but rather form part of a conversation in which Eliot climbs to higher apprehension of his faith through the work of these “dead master[s]” (“Little Gidding). Eliot’s poetry reflects his realization that through the modern world suffers from this fragmentation, the Incarnation of Christ provides a real solution and puts mankind into contact with the ideal that is the whole of reality.