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The Poetry and Culture of T. S. Eliot Haymond Southall It is peculiarly significant that T.S. Eliot, whose standing as a poet is so dependent upon our appreciation of what it is to be modern, should have argued so successfully for the rehabilitation of Donne and that in doing this should have presented him as a poet of unified sensibility. Sometime after (or maybe about) the time of Donne, Eliot came to believe, a 'dissociation of sensibility' set in from which we have never recovered'. He claimed later that he was surprised that this phrase, 'dissociation of sensibility,' had attracted so much attention, but he was probably being coy~. The attention the phrase received expressed a deep concern for cultural collapse in the twentieth century far more than it revealed any widespread interest in the social and artistic psychology of the seventeenth century. That concern was certainly felt by Eliot and is central to his poetic achievement. Yeats, who also felt that the social order was falling apart, observed in one of his poems that 'the centre cannot hold.'·' That remark sums up the initial impression left by Eliot's poetry. Eliot's early and most important poetry seems to lack a central, unifying point of view. There is a vision evident in it, but it is a vision of the fragmentary character of modern life, which renders the poems themselves fragmentary. Indeed, his poetry repeatedly concen· trates our attention upon fragments; it seems to record what one poem calls 'a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends' and to be made up of what another poem calls 'these fragments I have shored against my ruins' . 1 So that one's first recollection of Eliot's poems is impressionistic: the memory 'throws up high and dry A crowd of twisted things.' 'A heap of broken images' 5 One remembers the poems as a patchwork of lines such as those which became so fashionable in the 'twenties and 'thirties: Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table ..... ('Prufrock') I have measured out my life with coffee spoons . 146
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The Poetry and Culture ofT. S. Eliot 147 This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper. ('The Hollow Men') The impression created is that of clever but inconsequential conversation, pervaded by boredom, disillusionment and a general despair of modern life:" 'My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. 'Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. 'What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? 'I never know what you are thinking. Think.' ('The Waste Land' II, 111-4) Those lines from The Waste Land illustrate what I mean by inconsequential conversation. A few lines later the same neurotic female character expresses the tedium which Eliot presents as typical of modern life: 'What shall I do now? What shall I do?
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