Open Access Senior Thesis
Bachelor of Arts
© 2012 John Bedecarré
This thesis hopes to contribute to a reconciliation of the apparent conflict between Eliot's conservative outlook and his formally innovative poetry. I do not advocate stripping Eliot of his modernist label. I would rather amend the term "modernism." This qualification is important because the modernist label carries connotations that simply do not do justice to Eliot. For example, the label implies that modernists wanted to move forward, away from the past. Eliot wanted to move backwards, partly because he felt other artists had left the past behind. In an essay introducing the early twentieth-century modernists, the Norton Anthology of British Literature describes T.S. Eliot's critical and creative projects as "efforts to reinvent poetry."4 That is exactly the opposite of what he was doing. He wanted to stop people from trying to reinvent poetry, because he thought doing so would only lead to bad poems. How can the editors of the Norton Anthology, the closest thing I know to a record of the academic consensus, so completely misunderstand Eliot's project? They fail to appreciate the relationship between Eliot's literary ideas and his attitude toward modernity. I believe the best way to think about Eliot's intellectual project is as an effort to save poetry from the threatening forces of modernity and modernism.
The modernist movement and Eliot's ideas are both responses to the same set of dramatic historical changes. Europe transformed itself from 1890 to 1918. In the context of drastic political, technological and social changes described by historians as "the emergence of modernity," Europe's dominant artistic and intellectual value system reorientated itself in favor of newness and forward movement. T.S. Eliot had a different response to historical change. He felt the ongoing historical transformations, self-perpetuated by the resultant emphasis on progress, threatened to uproot and destroy England’s literary tradition. So he took it on himself to save that tradition.
4 Greenblatt, Norton Anthology, 1834.
Bedecarré, John, "T.S. Eliot's Anti-Modernism: Poetry and Tradition in the European Waste Land" (2012). CMC Senior Theses. 472.