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)

As with virtually all writers, Eliot was influenced not only by other writers, but also by his perception of the human conditions and by the harsh realities of the world around him. For example, as noted in the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

‘With the publication in 1922 of his poem The Waste Land, (a) Eliot won an international reputation. The Waste Land expresses with great power the disenchantment, disillusionment, and disgust of the period after World War I. In a series of vignettes, loosely linked by the legend of the search for the Grail, it portrays a sterile world of panicky fears and barren lusts, and of human beings waiting for some sign or promise of redemption.’

From  scholarly historical perspective, The Britannica essay also notes, “The men who influenced him at Harvard were George Santayana, the philosopher and poet, and the critic Irving Babbitt

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”

In Eliot’s overall approach to writing poetry, The Norton Anthology of English Literature in its introduction to Eliot’s poetry comments: “In the attenuated romantic tradition of the Georgian poets  who were active when he settled in London, in their quietly meditative pastoralism, faded  exoticism, or self-consciously realistic descriptions of urban life, [Eliot] saw an exhausted poetic mode being employed, with no verbal excitement, or original craftsmanship.  He sought to make poetry more subtle, more suggestive, and at the same time more precise…

…”Eliot’s real novelty, and the cause  of much bewilderment when his poems first appeared, was his deliberate elimination of all merely  connective  and transitional passages, his building up of the total pattern of meaning through the immediate juxtaposition of images without overt explanation of what they are doing, together with his use of oblique references to other works of literature ( some of them quite obscure to most contemporary readers ).   (4)

In his Notes on the Waste Land, Eliot devotes six pages of notes, referring by line, to his sources and influences both ancient and contemporary. On the first page of the Notes Eliot refers to two broad seminal sources:

“Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From  Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed so deeply indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do.”

Commenting on his other major source or influence, Eliot says, “To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.”

Referring to a line at 46, in the section The Burial of the Dead, Eliot comments:
I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience. The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways…” which Eliot goes on further to explain. 

Short biographical background:

The Paris Review introduction to the interview notes that “Thomas Stearns Eliot was born September 26, 1888, in St. Louis of a distinguished Boston family, deeply rooted in the New England tradition and in the Unitarian Church. He lived in St Louis until he was eighteen, and in 1906, after one year at Milton, entered Harvard, where he had a brilliant career and received his MA in four years…Eliot became a British subject in 1927. By 1933 he was able to call himself an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a royalist in politics.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica comments:  “Eliot was to pursue four careers: editor, dramatist, literary critic, and philosophical poet. He was probably the most erudite poet of his time in the English language. His undergraduate poems were “literary” and conventional. His first important publication, and the first masterpiece of Modernism in English, was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915):

(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) 

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