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Alexander Gonzalez on T. S. Eliot

Analysis of Eliot's Style
Home | Biography | Analysis of Eliot's Style | Themes of Eliot's Work | Themes, Analyzed | Eliot's Imagery | T. S. Eliot and the Modernist Movement | Eliot's Influence on Other Writers | T. S. Eliot's Influence on World Literature | Sample Work: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock | Literary Criticism for "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" | Quotes | Sample Work: Burnt Norton | Sample Work: East Coker | Sample Work: The Dry Salvages | Sample Work: Little Gidding | Favorite Links | Images | Works Cited


T. S. Eliot has a definite style which can be easily quantified, despite the difficulty of reading and interpreting his work.  His sentences tend to be long and oblique, extending a metaphor or a philosophical reflection over the course of a verse or even more.  A good example is the opening of Burnt Norton, below:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
Given Eliot's predilection for English culture, his use of long descriptive sentences is predictable, though it remains a signature and very special trait of his work.
Eliot's diction also shows a high level of erudition, and he makes no attempt to lower it to reach a wider audience.  He is particularly fond of using phrases and verses quoted from works in languages other than English--many verses in "The Waste Land" are in German, for example, while the opening verses of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" are the original Latin version of verses from Dante's Inferno:

S'io credessi che mia risposta fosse

a persona che mai tomasse al mundo,

questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma per cio che giammai di questo fondo

non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,

senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.


He chooses his words carefully, especially when he has a particular auditory effect in mind--"remaining a perpetual possiblity / only in a world of speculation."  The flow of prose is of paramount importance in Eliot's prose because the length of his works would otherwise make them extremely clumsy, and he goes through a great deal of effort to maintain this flow even between verses.  Where necessary, he breaks this flow with terminal sentences that are meant to remain with the reader longer than the rest--"Thus, in your mind."
As with most poets, Eliot makes liberal use of short metaphors and similes, particularly metaphors, in his work, when he avoids his more characteristic extended metaphors.  "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a prime example; in this selection, the protagonist Prufrock is comparing his life and his recent experiences to a number of less than complementary ideas:

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music from a farther room.


Eliot's metaphors tend to serve as particularly poignant images.  Though they are not often delivered in the form of epigrams, they serve the same function--to quickly and effectively crystallize and perpetuate the idea that Eliot is discussing in the piece.  When they are delivered so, it is most often at the conclusion of a poem--the conclusion of "Prufrock" is just such a verse:


We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.


Overall, T. S. Eliot's style is lengthy and laden with literary devices of one sort or another.  He uses his knowledge of literature and of the English language expertly to develop poetry with an amazing flow despite its length and use of elevated diction, and his figurative language has a profound effect on the reader no matter its nature or significance.


I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

--"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

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