Creative process in poetry: T.S. Eliot: Poetic purpose and influences

Learning the sources of a poet’s inspirations and insights into how poets were, or were not, influenced by other poets or “schools” of poetry has historically been a subject of keen interest to literary critics as were perceptions of the what the poet was trying to accomplish poetically.

What were the inspirational or seminal sources, for example, of such lines of the poet T.S. Eliot as in the following, and what was Eliot trying to accomplish poetically:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
headpiece filled with straw. Alas! (1)


April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. (2)

In an interview of Eliot with The Paris Review** Eliot the interviewer asked a number of questions about possible influences on his poetic development. Eliot responded that he began to write poetry around the age of fourteen at which time he was influenced heavily by Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam; an influence which he subsequently outgrew.

Eliot said that while at Harvard, he began to be interested and influenced by French poets, and said, “I have admitted my source, I think; it’s Arthur Symon’s book on French Poetry. (3)

Asked if he had any other particular literary influences, Eliot said,”I think it was rather an advantage not having any living poets in England or America in whom, one took any particular interest. I don’t know what it would be like but I think it would be a rather troublesome distraction…”

In a part of the interview concerning the influence of Ezra Pound on Eliot (in Pound’s role as an editor of Eliot’s poetry , particularly The Waste Land) it was noted that Pound removed or advised strongly on the wording and construction  of some sections.

In one section Eliot was trying to do write a passage in The Waste Land which was an imitation of Rape of the Lock, and Pound said, “It’s no use trying to do something that somebody else has done as well as it can be done. Do something else”

Short biographical background:

(1) T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, Selected Poems: T.S. Eliot, Faber and Faber, London, mcmlxii
(2) The Waste Land, op. cit.
(3) The Symbolist Movement in Literature
** The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work; edited by George Plimpton, Second Series, Penguin Books, 1979
(4) The Norton Anthology of English literature, Volume 2, third edition, M.H. Abrams, general editor, W.W Norton & Company Inc, New York, 1974
(a)  The Notes I am quoting here are from Selected Poems: T.S. Eliot, Faber and Faber Limited, London, cited above in footnote (1) 

About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
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