T.S. Eliot has a massive reputation that extends beyond poetry afficionados and into the larger world. Reading Adam Fieled's article, and re-reading Eliot's work recently, I can't help thinking that rarely has such a big reputation been built on so slender an achievement. I do value much of Eliot's poetry, and I wouldn't like to be without such poems as Prufrock, Ash Wednesday and Marina. But there are many other twentieth century poets whose work seems much more substantial, and some of Eliot's work, like the Sweeney poems, seems rather dated now. The concept of "The Waste Land" entered the popular imagination in the same way that the concept of "Waiting for Godot" did; but "The Waste Land" was co-authored with Ezra Pound, and, re-reading "Four Quartets" I can't help thinking that that poem would have benefited from Pound's red pen.
"The Four Quartets" has some striking images, and some fine passages, which are deservingly well-known: the passage with the thrush, the children and the pool in sunlight (forgive the paraphrase) in "Burnt Norton", or the opening of "The Dry Salvages":
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
is a strong brown god...
But much of the poem reads like a long-winded sermon, with way too much verbiage. "The Dry Salvages", following the passage just quoted, descends into line after line of this type of thing:
I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations - not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable...
I can't be persuaded that this is skillful writing; that last line reminds me of the unintentional bathos in some of Wordsorth's late poetry. Overall "The Four Quartets" reads like a series of
striking images and short, pleasing passages - usually when the poet uses concrete imagery - padded out with long sections that are simply verbose and badly written; including the version of Dante in "Little Gidding" which makes a mockery of Dante's fast moving and snappy dialogue. Is this a heresy? Or is Eliot's reputation not what it was in academia or elsewhere?
I re-read "Four Quartets" at the same time as re-reading Beckett's "Worstword Ho" - a piece written much later, but about the same length, and the contrast was marked. Beckett's poem espouses an outlook that's unredeemably bleak - no consummating final image ("the fire and the rose are one") for him; and yet, "Worstword Ho" is not depressing to read: the language is innovatory, and the poem, paradoxically, feels like a celebration of language, and thereby of human endeavour.