Examination of Influences on Eliot's Poetry

Thomas Stearns Eliot, considered by many to be the greatest poet of all time, wrote some of the most beautiful yet complex poetry in history. For decades critics have argued about the smallest details of Eliot’s works. This is mostly because of the wide range of influences that he used, both old and new. In addition to being a superb writer, Eliot was also one of the most well informed literary historians of his time, and possibly ever. His poetry is riddled with allusions and quotes from such a vast number of historical literatures that it may be impossible to fully discover the number of references he used. However, there are some influences that always stayed with Eliot. The works of Dante, the Bible, and the ideas of Ezra Pound would continuously help to shape Eliot’s poetry throughout his entire life.

Eliot’s use of allusion is one of the most prominent and reoccurring trademarks of his work. In fact, it can be said that “Eliot’s sense of literary past has become so over-mastering as to almost constitute the motive of his work (Selby 23).” The most preeminent of all Eliot’s influences is Dante Alighieri, the famous and influential Italian poet of the thirteenth century and author of the Divine Comedy. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the first of Eliot’s major works and one of the most prestigious, begins with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno. The translation of the line reads: “If I thought my reply were to one who could return to the world, then this flame would waver no longer. But, since I'm told, no one escapes from this pit, then I'll tell you without fear of infamy.” The Dantean epigraph helps to set the mood of the rest of the poem, in addition to helping define the character by whom it is told. It helps to portray a situation with a feeling of hopelessness where turning back is impossible. The theme of not being able to turn back is echoed later in the poem within the lines “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” “In Eliot’s poem, Prufrock is confessing to the Dante-like poet his own sin of evil-counseling (Headings 26).” Although not part of the actual poem itself, the epigraph is essential in that it prepares the reader for the experience of the poem and, along with the title, can help lead the reader to a better understanding of the work.

Not all of Dante’s influences are as easily discovered as the direct quote from his works. His mark can be found on Eliot’s titles and style also. “The word observations, like the epigraph to the volume, is a Dantean allusion; the poet is paralleling the observer of those poems to Dante the Pilgrim…(18)” Even in a seemingly irrelevant title, Dante’s influence can be found. Once inside the poem itself, one can find even more similarities. “Prufrock, like Dante, is beginning a journey in forbidding terrain whose meaning and significance he cannot fully grasp (21).” The characters that Eliot creates all throughout his life are very similar to those conceived by Dante. In addition to his characters, Eliot uses a writing style similar to that of the great Italian author. “Eliot, like Dante, tries to stimulate his reader by first using language to communicate to the readers the feel of the Inferno…(91)” Dante wrote in vernacular, the language of the people at the time, instead of in the typical Latin because language was very important to him; he wanted the common man to be able to read his writing. Eliot also focuses on his language. “He writes in various modes of dramatic speech and makes regular use of the formal artifices of style such as alliteration, repetition, rhyme, assonance, and play on words (Pearce 74).” Through his colorful writing, he tries to make the readers themselves feel like part of the poem. His belief in enriching the texture of his poetry in order to better help the reader conceive the image he is presenting mirrors that of Dante, who also tried to make his works clearer to the common man.

In 1927, Eliot was confirmed into the Church of England. From that point on, the poetry that he composed followed “steps of a different tone from anything that precedes it, though there is not by any means a division between the two phases (Pearce 16).” Although the theme of his poetry henceforth became obviously and deliberately religious, there had always been religious influences in his works. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Eliot alludes to the New Testament in the line “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter / I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter.” He refers to John the Baptist, a symbol of heroism, whose head was brought on a platter to King Herod. “The Waste Land” is filled with religious allusions and themes. “Here Eliot uses traditional and biblical imagery of the seasons, of a spiritual wasteland (Headings 74).” In only the first section of the poem alone one can find allusions to the books of Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Luke, and Ezekiel. Both of these poems were written before Eliot’s conversion, proving that he had always been a religious man, mostly due to Dante’s influence through his use of Christian tradition, despite the lack of a formal religion earlier in his life.

The role of religion is more obvious in Eliot’s poetry after his conversion. “Ash Wednesday,” “The Hollow Men,” and “The Four Quartets” all have very heavy religious themes which are in contrast to the unconsciously religious aspects of his former poetry. These poems present to us the experience “of Eliot himself attaining faith (Pearce 105).” He even uses lines from formal Christian mass services in “Ash Wednesday” in the lines “Lord, I am not worthy / Lord I am not worthy / but speak the word only.” This poem differs from his earlier works in that it is a far more personal experience; it most clearly speaks about Eliot himself. Along with the change in subject, Eliot’s religion changed his writing style. The poems that were written following his conversion are “less striking than earlier poems, the vocabulary and syntax on the whole more straightforward (113).” In addition to this, Eliot practically abandoned his former startling imagery. However, with this abandonment he brought a new tone to his poetry, one that is more gentle and serene. The language is almost that of a person “thinking out loud, or musing (113).” This simpler, more streamlined style led to a very different type of poetry than his former works. In fact, it is almost in direct contrast to the complexity of his masterpiece “The Waste Land”.

Although they are both American, Eliot met Ezra Pound while traveling abroad in England. Shortly afterwards, Pound referred to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as “the best poem I have yet had or seen from an American (Pound 40).” Ever since then, he had an omnipresent influence on Eliot’s writing. At the time they met, Pound was deeply involved in the Imagist movement. The goal of Imagist poetry is to capture a fleeting emotional experience in an image. Thus, they believe in a simple style, with great economy of words. Partly due to Pound’s influence, Eliot’s writing is in common speech and is sometimes even colloquial, although complex in meaning and subject. Furthermore, Pound indirectly brought a slight Japanese influence to Eliot, since at the time Pound was deeply interested in the Japanese writing style. Pound also subsequently reinforced Eliot’s worship of Dante, as they each considered Dante to be the “greatest of poets (Headings 47).” If nothing else, he buttressed observations and beliefs that Eliot already held.

Ezra Pound also had a more direct influence on Eliot’s poetry by editing and revising “The Waste Land.” The original form of the poem was nearly twice as long as the version that was eventually released. Amazingly, Eliot “did not feel that violence had been done the essential form of the poem; certainly it was not maimed (Williamson 120).” In fact, Eliot “praised his performance (119).” This is surprising, since Eliot had been working on it for so long and many writers feel cheated when their works are heavily edited. Certainly Eliot would not have approved of anyone else dissecting his masterpiece. In return for his assistance in both writing and editing “The Waste Land” Eliot wrote a dedication before the poem, which reads “For Ezra Pound – il miglio fabbro the better craftsmen.” The Imagist influence of Pound is obvious through the drastic reduction of the poem, especially in “Part IV – Death by Water”, which was reduced into merely ten lines; the others contain between seventy-five and one hundred and fifty each.

These three influences (Dante, The Bible, and Ezra Pound) were the most prominent of all throughout Eliot’s life. Although they are not similar in any way, it is this wide range of influences that would define Eliot as a poet. While most people would choose a certain style to mimic and stick with it, Eliot tried to use the best of everything. His influences were taken from the different literatures of almost every culture in the world. The dissimilarity between his influences was covered up with ease by his smooth writing style and syntax. Because of this, Eliot became a revolutionary writer and one of the greatest poets the world has ever known.


Pound, Ezra. The Letters of Ezra Pound 1907-1914. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World Inc., 1950
Selby, Nick. The Waste Land: Essays, Articles, Reviews. New York: Columbia, 1999.
Gordon, Lyndall. T.S Eliot An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1998.
Bush, Ronald. T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. Oxfordshire: Oxford Press, 1954.
Eliot, T.S. The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1980.
Headings, Philip R. T.S. Eliot Revised Edition. Boston: G.K. Halls and Co., 1982.
Williamson, George. T.S. Eliot: A Poem-by-Poem Analysis. New York: Syracure University Press, 1998.
Raffel, Burton. T.S. Eliot. Washington D.C.: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982.

Samuel Johnson's great poem The Vanity of Human Wishes seems to hang over a lot of Eliot's poetry. In his essay "Samuel Johnson as Poet and Critic" he wrote admiringly of it. The title of Johnson's poem seems to be a continual concern of Eliot's (see, for example, The Waste Land and The Four Quartets, particularly the final section, Little Gidding). The difference is, I suppose, that Eliot would never have stated his case as explicitly as Johnson does:

Let Observation, with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru.

- in itself a vain wish. Remember Eliot's remark that "it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult...The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect..."? ('The Metaphysical Poets', 1921)

Eliot's mind, which Christopher Ricks compared to an "echo-chamber" of influences - his method is something akin to collage - seems to have soaked up many phrases from Johnson's poem, which he then reuses for his own purposes. Take, for example, Johnson's splendid lines:

"The festal Blazes, the triumphal Show,
The ravish’d Standard, and the captive Foe,
The Senate’s Thanks, the Gazette’s pompous Tale,
With Force resistless o’er the Brave prevail.
Such Bribes the rapid Greek o’er Asia whirl’d,
For such the steady Romans shook the World;
For such in distant Lands the Britons shine..."

In itself this is great poetry (note how the last three lines are linked - by whirl'd/World, shook/shine - so as to reinforce Johnson's notion of the homogeneity of human experience) but I would like to draw particular attention to the rhyming of whirl'd/World. This quibble is used by Eliot in the fifth section of his 1927 poem 'Ash Wednesday':

"If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word."

Like another poet Eliot greatly admired, George Herbert, the propinquity of 'world' and 'whirled' is a serious pun. It manifests one of the great possibilities of poetry: it appeals to both the ear and the eye.

Johnson's diction also seems to surface in Little Gidding. Compare:

"remember'd Folly stings" (Johnson)
"Then fool's approval stings" (Eliot);
"Now lacerated Friendship claims a Tear" (Johnson)
"the laceration/Of laughter at what ceases to amuse" (Eliot)

I am not suggesting that "The Vanity of Human Wishes" was a direct influence on Eliot's poetry in the way that Jules Laforgue informs his first volume, Theophile Gautier his second, Ezra Pound his third (and so on); instead, I am drawing attention to the ways in which phrases from a poem we know Eliot admired surface several times in his own poetry - intentionally or not.

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