Fifty years ago, at the time of T. S. Eliot’s death in January 1965, his reputation seemed unassailable. The Waste Land was the poem of the century, and Eliot stood in line with England’s great poet-critics: Dryden, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge and Arnold. In America, the poet had addressed 12,000 in a football stadium on the subject of Criticism. His judgements seemed to come from on high. Then, in the nineties, came a reaction, probing Eliot’s own flaws: the incitement to anti-Semitism in the early poetry; his misogyny; his elitism.
Now, half a century beyond his lifetime, there are signs that the old, embattled camps—on the one side his supporters who refused to hear a word against him, on the other, detractors who fixed exclusively on prejudice—are fading, to make way for a more nuanced view, one that will not ignore his flaws—as Eliot himself puts it, “things ill done and done to others’ harm”—but not permitting the man’s imperfections to undercut a renewed sense of the poet’s stature. How did he come to transcend his time?
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A final reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.