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TS Eliot and the death of poetry

“Intimations of the transcendent”: Albert Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains (1863)

One hundred years after the publication of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, it is time to admit something rather sad, says Matthew Walther in The New York Times. “Poetry is dead.” And it is dead, in part, because “Eliot helped to kill it”. For centuries, nature and poetry had a “basic and elemental” relationship: the natural world was “alive with intimations of the transcendent”. When Milton described the fallen bodies of rebel angels – “Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks / In Vallombrosa” – he was borrowing imagery from Dante, Virgil and Homer. But modern life, shaped so entirely by science and technology, has “demystified and alienated us” from nature. The natural world is no longer a “dwelling place of unseen forces” – it is a “mass of resources to be either exploited or preserved”.

Of course, poets can write about subjects other than nature – and Eliot was the master. His “poetic revolution” began with the opening of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table”. Comparing the evening sky to an anaesthetised human body was, to the likes of CS Lewis, a “grotesque” simile. But that was the point. Eliot was conveying the sense of “mechanised horror that had overtaken an entire civilisation”. And he was so successful that he remade English poetry in his image. The “clipped syntax, jagged lines, the fixation on ordinary, even banal objects and actions, the wry, world-weary narratorial voice” – Eliot’s style has been the “default register” of most poetry in the past century. This isn’t to say he put the medium “on the wrong track”. But he “went as far down that track as anyone could”, and today’s poets can’t write in any other way. I’m totally convinced: “Eliot finished poetry off.”