T. S. Eliot:   Personality

When I heard for the first time the poetry of T. S. Eliot, read aloud, I responded with an exuberance, a personal exhilaration, that I could not have explained. I had received no message, no revelation; I could not have articulated the sense of the poem at all. But some sub-state of consciousness had been engaged. I had responded cordially to a personal invitation.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table; …
Prufrock. ll. 1-3

It is probably first the sound of his own name (“you”) which engages the reader in a personal association with Eliot’s poet persona. The realization that the reader is not a referent for “you” or “we” does not eradicate the effect of personal engagement. It might do so if there were a clear other-character for the “you” to fall upon. It might do so if the poetry seemed impersonal, if the “you” were “one” or “any person.” It might do so if the poet were not so persistently an “I,” an other-self to the reader’s “you.” But Eliot’s use of personal pronouns is personal—and so extensive that personality is pervasive everywhere and not abstract personality, but particular personality, his, mine.

The Waste Land begins with a description of a cruel spring, cruel to disturb, dull, dry land content to sleep, to die. Life and, surely, personality are the moisture missing in this waste land. But why, then, am I haunted from the first line w1ith personality? There are several reasons, but one of them is that the base of personal pronouns awakens a sense of personal engagement. First the reader seems to be involved in “you” and “us” and “we.” The reader need not involve himself—the personal pronouns clearly refer to others instead. It doesn’t matter. The sense of participation persists. Besides, a personal aside: (“(Corne in under the shadow of this red rock)”) justifies the reader in his presumption.

Even Four Quartets partakes of this personality. The quartets are a more abstract statement than either of the poems above; still. from the very first movement of each. each involves the reader in “you” or “we.” “Burnt Norton” issues another direct invitation, “Shall we follow?” “East Coker” begins in the poet persona’s voice (“In my beginning is my end”) and involves a particular “you” from line 14:

Across the open field. leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes, …

The first section of “The Dry Salvages” contains the most formal, impersonal introduction of all the quartets, but it does speak directly (“I do not know much about gods; but I think. ..”); the poet and reader are involved together with all mankind in “us” and “our.” The first movement of “Little Gidding” offers a typical personal identification.

If you came this way.
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from ….
ll. 20-22

This personal encounter with a persona in Eliot’s poetry is achieved through more subtle effects than direct address. For example, there are references to common experiences. familiar places.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Prufrock, ll. 13-14

“The room” is a term and a place familiar in common to the poet and the reader. There will be time to descend “the stair.” He has known “the voices.” “the eyes.” “the arms.” which, of course. the reader has known as well.

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,…
l. 88

After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels. after the teacups. after the skirts
trail along the floor—
ll. 101-102

These references are implications of familiarity. The poet and the reader look out together on society. and every differentiation between subject and object becomes a closer identification of the reader with the poet.

In The Waste Land the same intimacy is implied. “Winter kept us warm: … Summer surprised us … ; we stopped in the colonnade.! And went on in sunlight…” (ll. B-10). In Four Quartets “Footfalls echo … down the passage … Towards the door .. ’; Into the rose-garden” (“Burnt Norton,” ll. 11-14)." References to certain moments are so particular that the fusion of poet and reader in memory is in effect absolute:

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
“Burnt Norton,” ll. B7-B8

[The river’s] rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.
“The Dry Salvages,” ll. 11-14

The power in these references is the power of the concrete image, the perfect, telling image that evokes the purest response.

There are numerous I-passages and I-effects in Eliot’s poetry. One effect is the sense of overhearing or participating in a thinking process. Particularly in such lines as the following, the reader receives an impression of unrehearsed personal thought and sensibility:

Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Prufrock, ll. 65-66

And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean,
But as if a magic lantern …
Prufrock, ll. 103-105

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
The Waste Land, 11. 62-63

In many such passages the poet discusses the writing of poetry. In the following lines from Four Quartets, the tone is so ingenuous, disarming, that the reader’s attention may be deflected from the fact of the writing before him:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years– … Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure …
“East Coker,” ll. 175, 177-178

… And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home, Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity, The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together) …
“Little Gidding,” ll. 216-223

In two ways this aspect of style works a personalizing effect. First there is the sense that the performer has laid aside his mask and is speaking “honestly” to the audience. Some sense of a real, no-pretense relationship is suggested. Second, the effect of the poetry in these sections is that of conversation, of prose. The diction’s simplicity, ease, unselfconsciousness, disguises the form of the poetry and gives the “natural,” direct, personal effect of prose. Here is a more remarkable discovery. In The Waste Landthe same sense of an interruption of the drama, and therefore a meeting of poet and reader, is given by the sudden interpolation of lines from other works. It is not the fact of interpolation that turns the trick. It is the choice of forceful lines at the perfect moment. For example, the dry, barren, fearful waste land is abruptly stopped against lines of poignance, the sadness of hope and desire:

Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein frisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
The Waste Land, ll. 31-34

And the lines about the hyacinth girl and the speaker’s impotence are followed by the haunted, yearning lines from Tristan and Isolde: “Oed’ und leer das Meer” (1. 42). Among the lines about the littered Thames runs recurrently “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.” And so on.

More is accomplished here than the effect I am examining, but the effect I am examining is here. When the interpolated line is the true line, the preferred perspective of the poem, the sensitive nerve beside the deadened one, it serves as an aside. a private communication between the poet and the reader among the milieu or the alien; the relationship of poet and reader is thereby deepened, personalized.

Another means Eliot has of effecting immediacy for his reader is his use of present tense, sometimes indeed a sudden shifting of tense in a phrase, which gives the present a presence in whatever the poet’s occasion. Prufrockis set in the present, but time juxtapositions such as these reiterate the effect of immediacy:

The yellow fog that rubs its muzzle on the windowpanes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening ….
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, …
ll 15, 17-18, [italics mine]

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea …
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
ll. 129, 131 [italics mine]

The Waste Land is, among other things, a drama, a series of scenes; the early scenes are written in past tense. The first fifteen lines of the poem are followed by these two:

In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

There follows a description in present tense of the stony, ruined, almost hopeless waste land. The tense, the “you” references, and the personal invitation to “Come in under the shadow of this red rock” all give urgency to the matter. And the urgency is personal and immediate partly because the passage is set in present tense inside a frame of the past.

In the blazing throne room of the ersatz Cleopatra, a painting displays “the change of Philomel” into the nightingale. The pluperfect tense implied in the painting elides into the present:

And still she cried. and still the world pursues …
l. 102

Thus the present age is “rudely forced” into the scene (if I may “rudely force” the phrase).

The dialogue (if it is dialogue) in this scene gives a similar effect. The woman’s lines are printed in quotation marks; but the man’s are not, so that the man’s replies could be present tense poet-replies:1

What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think."

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
ll. 113-116

Again, this shifting of tense has more effects than the one I am treating, of involving the reader personally in the experience of the poem, but nevertheless, the effect I wish to show is achieved.

Here it is again in “Little Gidding” (quoted above):

If you came by day …
> It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
> And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
> And the tombstone ….
> ll. 27-30

This slipping again and again into the present and this mixing of past and present and future are more than tricks of idiosyncracy. The quartets are an exposition on the meaning of time, from “In my beginning is my end” (“East Coker,” l. 1) to “And to make an end is to make a beginning” (“Little Gidding,” l. 215). In “Burnt Norton” Eliot presents the present as “the still point of the turning world.” This point is a point of being, not involved in movement or action, but not fixed or static either. Past and future are involved in a point.

… Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
ll. 66-67

Later,where-one-has-been becomes memory, partakes in time, but at the point of the dance, one is not in time —one is conscious. “To be conscious is not to be in time.” To arrive at this point, one must go far enough or stay still enough to divest himself of “sense and notion.”

… After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.
ll. 133-135

The meaning of time is for Eliot love and self-surrender, “A condition of complete simplicity /(Costing not less than everything).” And the sense of time—of the present, a point of timelessness at the center of time—is a sense that affects and effects the immediacy and personality the reader senses everywhere in Eliot’s work.

But I must surface again. My investigation here is not primarily with themes, for I am stalking a ghost. Eliot’s themes are compelling, but they are not new themes, and he says nothing new about them. It is he himself who is new.

Eliot discusses personality of the poet and of poetry in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The poet, he says, has a medium of expression, “not a ‘personality’ to express.” The poet’s personal life of emotions and “personality” provides neither the source nor the correlative meaning of his poetry. Poetry creates its own emotion of a new kind, impersonal, conscious, concentrated. Poetry is “an escape from emotion; … an escape from personality.”2

But I proceed with my essay, my claim that Eliot’s first and final appeal to me is an appeal of personality. I am not analyzing a term; I am analyzing an experience.

Having established (perhaps) the claim that Eliot’s poetry engages the reader in a personal relationship in a particular moment, I wish to claim further that the reader’s attention and affection are rewarded and further involved through, at one level, a participation in a fascinating, unflagging exhibition of energy. Eliot’s poems (more than his plays, surprisingly) are dramatic. That is, they are full of shocks of shifts of scenes, sets, characters, voices, and tones. The first explanation for this style is that it is characteristic of modern poems. Like Pound’s and Joyce’s works, for example, these poems layer myths, motifs, and themes; they contain the living history of the race. The pattern in modern literature is fractured, scattered. No line of logic will satisfy the complexities in our experience, we say. There are too many pieces for any frame to contain; the frames are scattered, fractured, too.

Nonsense. Our mentality may not be equal to the task of the moment, but such a circumstance is not new. What line of logic has ever satisfied more than one man for longer than one moment (while he carefully looked fixedly at his tablet). We have always turned our eyes away from “the heart of light, the silence.” But when we get nerve to approach it again, it is always with a line of logic. And Eliot’s approach is no exception. His pattern is Christian and so absolute that a theory of fracture cannot explain the form of his poetry. Perhaps, as Cleanth Brooks suggests, he wants to be read by the modern intelligentsia (whose sensibilities are fractured), who will be impatient with a pattern of cliche.3 The disguise, however, is only costume. The integrity of the body beneath the gown is secure.

No, while the complexity of layering and allusion brings depth and breadth to the poem, without proportional length, an important fact remains, that the dance-drama in this poem is wonderful choreography. The reader is involved in a flow of energy that does not let him rest, that may arrest him mid-line, that will without fail interest. On the street in one line, he is in the drawing room the next. Sense impressions punctuate abstract ruminations. From the tea table to the sea and back again and back again. From the dazzling hyacinth girl to the aging sorceress with a bad cold.

Sometimes the shock of movement is the change, not from setting to setling, but from one setting to two or more settings at once. The assimilation of extraneous materials that the poet has, it is presumed, effected, is to be felt if not fallowed by the reader. (“Marie./Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.”) This complexity of mind, of reality, is new only in poetry.

Together with the aspect of sudden change, departures, dramatic surprise in Eliot’s poetry, there is the aspect of humor to engage the personal affection of the reader. It is drawing room humor—arch sophisticated, dry. Prufrock carries a tone of this kind throughout—self-effacing, intellectual.

Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin.
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”
Prufrock, ll. 39-43

There are comic scenes in The Waste Land.Madame Sosostris is a comic character, for example. The cockney ladies in “A Game of Chess” are. And Eliot is a wonderful mimic. (Hear also his own reading of the poem.) The typist and “the young man carbuncular” are comic characters. Even in the most serious passages humor may spark in a word.

We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
The Waste Land, ll. 328-329

The effect of Eliot’s poetry is greater than any length of explanation I can gather together. Any excerpt above is evidence of this fact. The general impact is of beauty, of living force. This has been my thesis. I claim that this force is the force of living personality.

Eliot despised the romantics’ exploitation of individuality, their self-absorption, self-congratulation. He believed poetry should be purified of warped indiidual personality, in favor of a generalized, idealized Personality.

But each individual, Mr. Eliot not excluded, has clear access to only one individuality, one personality. And it is his own. Perhaps Mr. Eliot’s realization of general ideal Personality was actually a more and more conscious, concrete realization of his own personality. In this case, the claims of both of us are satisfied. If I claim that it is a personality, an indvidual personality, that attracts me to his poetry and continues to hold me in a personal engagement with it, Eliot can claim that he accomplished one task of poetry exactly as he prescribed it for himself. In engraving upon his work his own personality, he carved an objective correlative—for mine.


Brooks, Cleanth. T. S. Eliot. A Selected Critique. ed. Leonard Unger. New York. 1948.

Eliot, T. S.  Four Quartets. New York, 1943.

Eliot, T. S.  “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Revised ed. 2 vols. New York. 1968.

Eliot, T. S.  “On Hamlet”

Eliot, T. S.  “Tradition and the Individual TalenL” Norton Anthology of English Literature.Revised ed. 2 vols. New York. 1968.

Eliot, T. S.  “The Waste Land.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Revised ed. 2 vols. New York. 1968.

Kay, A.  Lecture. University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona, March 1982.

Matthiessen, F. O.  T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique. ed. Leonard Unger. New York, 1948.

Richards, I. A.  T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique P. Ed. Leonard Unger. New York, 1948.

Smith, Grover. T. S.  Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Chicago, 1958.

Unger, Leonard.  T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique. Ed. Leonard Unger. New York, 1948.

Wilson, Edmund.  T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique. Ed. Leonard Unger. New York, 1948.

  1. Professor Kay, Lecture, University of Arizona, Tucson, March 1982

  2. T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” The Norton Anthology of English literature, revised ed., II (New York, 19&8), 1812-1813.

  3. In T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique, ed. Leonard Unger (New York. 1948). p. 348