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Eliot 's Poetry Of A Divided Mind

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“Lips that would kiss | Form prayers to broken stone.” To what extent and in what ways is Eliot’s poetry testament to a divided mind?

W.B. Yeats famously said that poetry was born from a “quarrel with ourselves,” and Faulkner later added in his Nobel Prize Speech that good writing comes only from “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” These insights are no more apt than when applied to the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Exploding onto the poetic scene in 1915, Eliot and his friend Ezra Pound were at the forefront of the modernist movement. They reacted strongly against the traditional techniques of the Georgians and others who came before them, who seemed to the modernists to be attempting to represent the modern world in a
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In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919) Eliot controversially argues that “The emotion of art is impersonal,” and claims: “Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry.” And yet, ironically, his poetry is littered with impressions and experiences that were important to him: the similarities between Emily Hale and the lady in Portrait of a Lady; the references to his friend Jean Verdenal in The Waste Land; and the later reference to Margate Sands, where Russell and Eliot’s wife went on holiday, all demonstrate the personal nature of Eliot’s verse. Furthermore, Eliot later admitted that he was somewhat obnoxious in his earlier essays. He writes about Dante’s work that we “cannot afford to ignore Dante’s philosophical and theological beliefs.” Thus, we can infer that the beliefs and the quarrels within Eliot’s poems are beliefs and quarrels that he felt within himself.

In Eliot’s first poems, his mind seems to be focused largely on the conflict between a romantic and a realist view of life, if by romanticism we mean the hope of something better. Influenced by the anti-romantic teachings of Irving Babbitt, a Professor at Harvard, Eliot’s secular poems explore the possibility of a romantic or idealist worldview, which is then denied. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a perfect example, and indeed the “you and I” of the first line can be interpreted as the two dimensions of Prufrock’s character, the
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