T. S. Eliot’s greatest poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
T. S. Eliot is widely regarded as one of the most important poets of the last hundred years. Here at Interesting Literature we’re devoted fans of his work, and this got us thinking: which ten defining poems would we recommend to people who want to read him? Although he didn’t write a huge amount of poetry (compared with, say, his contemporary Ezra Pound, whose The Cantos is nearly 800 pages), it can still be difficult for readers to pick out those works which most define him. And, of course, every Eliot fan’s choice of ten is likely to different. Here are our recommendations, in the form of a countdown, from 10 to 1 (1 being what we think is the best).
As we take you through our suggestions, we’ll drop in a few interesting snippets of information – the story behind the poem, or its surprising legacy, and so on. With the exception of number 9 on this list, which is from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, all poems are available in Collected Poems 1909-62. If you enjoy this list, discover more great poetry with our pick of the best poems by John Donne, a fascinating poet who meant a great deal to Eliot. So, let us go then…
10. ‘Morning at the Window’. This nine-line poem, probably begun in autumn 1914 shortly after the outbreak of WWI, describes the speaker’s impressions of the street outside as he peers from the window. The poem presents a series of miniature observations about modern urban life: the sound of dirty plates being rattled in basement kitchens, the housemaids hanging around outside the properties where they are employed, the brown fog (reminiscent of the dark fog in much nineteenth-century French poetry, and in fiction such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). The poem is strongly influenced by the French poets Eliot had been reading, notably Charles Baudelaire and Jules Laforgue. Baudelaire, in particular, had showed Eliot how the modern city could be a fitting subject for the poet, as Eliot later recorded in his essay ‘Baudelaire’. The key, Eliot said, was to elevate ordinary everyday details to a higher pitch – to bring out the quasi-transcendent qualities of modern life. We glimpse this in that fleeting smile which is ‘torn’ from that passer-by, which lingers for a moment before vanishing ‘along the level of the roofs.’ The scene of basement kitchens and the ‘damp souls of housemaids’ (once read, never forgotten) will linger long in your memory.
9. ‘The Naming of Cats’. Okay, we had to include something from Eliot’s ailurophilic 1939 work Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (the inspiration for Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical, Cats; ‘Old Possum’ was Ezra Pound’s nickname for Eliot). This poem is our favourite: its jaunty rhythms show just how metrically deft Eliot was, and the names of the cats are terrific – ‘Bombalurina’ was even taken up by children’s entertainer Timmy Mallett and his band, whose ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini’ still occasionally terrorises the airwaves. Meanwhile, Mungojerrie found themselves (as Mungo Jerry) enjoying a huge pop hit with ‘In the Summertime’.
8. ‘The Hippopotamus’. Sticking with animals, we’ve chosen this, one of seven ‘quatrain poems’ Eliot wrote for his second volume of poetry. The premise of this poem is a comparison between the large African mammal and the True Church. If that strikes you as odd, wait till you get to the image of the hippopotamus being lifted up to heaven, surrounded by a choir of angels… This is an unusual T. S. Eliot poem in that it is arch, ironic, and even absurdly comic.
7. ‘Preludes’. This is an almost imagistic portrayal of modern urban living with all is squalid and unseemly aspects. Although critic Hugh Kenner thought these poems were not imagist per se, they are perhaps the meeting-point between Eliot’s poetry and that of poets like Richard Aldington, T. E. Hulme (whose work we’ve discussed here), and F. S. Flint. Things don’t change, the world keeps turning, things largely remain constant. In this quartet of short Eliot poems there seems to be little escape from the everyday urban life of drudgery: you get up, you go to work, you come home, you sleep (or try to), you do it all again the next day. This picture of urban life makes ‘Preludes’ an important precursor – indeed, prelude – to T. S. Eliot’s later poem The Waste Land.
6. ‘East Coker’. This is one of the Four Quartets, which some critics – including Helen Gardner – have branded Eliot’s masterpiece. We could have included Four Quartets as a poem in its own right, but the sequence can also be viewed as a collection of four individual pieces. This is the second poem in the sequence, named after the small village in Somerset from which Eliot’s ancestors hailed. (Andrew Elliott had left East Coker for New England in the late seventeenth century; he was one of the judges at the Salem ‘witch’ trials of 1692.) Eliot also quotes from his sixteenth-century ancestor Thomas Elyot in the poem. The image (right) is of St Michael’s Church, where Eliot’s ashes are interred. Here is a recording of Eliot reading the poem.
5. ‘Journey of the Magi’. This was the first of Eliot’s popular Christmas poems, which he composed for special booklets/greetings cards published by the company he worked for, Faber and Faber. According to the poet himself, Eliot wrote the poem one Sunday after church (he converted to Christianity in 1927, the same year he wrote this), supposedly after imbibing half a bottle of gin. Told from the perspective of one of the Magi or ‘wise men’ visiting the infant Christ, the poem examines the implications that the advent of Christ had for the other religions of the time.
4. ‘Little Gidding’. The final of the four poems that make up Four Quartets, this one is named after a small village in Cambridgeshire which was the centre of a church community established by Nicholas Ferrar in the seventeenth century (and not, as one French critic believed, the name of a little boy the poet knew). History does not reside solely in the past, but in the present, at a place like Little Gidding where the traditions of seventeenth-century high Anglicanism are kept alive. This is close to what Eliot argued about poetic tradition in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: the modern poet and the poets of ages past coexist, in the here and now. So it is with ‘Little Gidding’ itself, in the last analysis: it is a poem about traditions in the present, and a present-day poem that absorbs past traditions. The poem did, as Eliot said, set a crown upon his lifetime’s effort. After this, he would never write another great poem.
3. ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock‘. The poem that launched Eliot’s career, this dramatic monologue spoken by the indecisive middle-aged Prufrock was first published in the magazine Poetry in 1915. It then opened Eliot’s first published volume of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917 – although amazingly, the original print run (500 copies) of this volume wouldn’t sell out for five years. Previously, one poetry bookseller had rejected the poem on the grounds that it was ‘absolutely insane’: Harold Monro, an influential publisher and owner of the Poetry Bookshop in London, was offered the chance to publish ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. He flung it back, labelling it ‘insane’, as Peter Ackroyd records in his lucid and informative biography T.S.Eliot. Prufrock attends social events (almost certainly in New England, such as in the Massachusetts area which Eliot knew well from his time studying at Harvard), probably in the hopes of finding a woman he can court and then marry. Prufrock talks of an ‘overwhelming question’ but does not state what this is (he tells us, or his unseen companion, not to ask ‘What is it?’, so we’re left to ponder what this ‘question’ might be – perhaps ‘popping the question’, i.e. asking a woman to marry him). He is indecisive, anxious, self-conscious (he worries that the women are muttering behind his back about his thinning hair) – perhaps a bit like the famously indecisive and delaying Prince Hamlet from Shakespeare’s play, except that Prufrock doesn’t consider himself important enough to be compared to Hamlet (‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet …’). He’s a bit-part actor or walk-on part … even in his own life. Listen to Eliot reading the poem here.
2. ‘The Hollow Men’. Published in 1925, ‘The Hollow Men‘ was something of a transitional poem for Eliot, coming between the success of The Waste Land (see below) and Eliot’s later, more religiously oriented poetry such as Ash-Wednesday and Four Quartets. Part of the poem is recited in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, which is quite apt since that film was a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the book that provided Eliot with the epigraph for ‘The Hollow Men’.
1. The Waste Land. Probably Eliot’s most famous work, this long poem is also, for our money, his best – though many devotees of Four Quartets would disagree. Although not the first long modernist poem written in response to WWI – Ford Madox Ford’s ‘Antwerp’ should probably get that title – Eliot’s would become the most definitive. The original title of the poem was ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ (a quotation Eliot took from Dickens‘s novel Our Mutual Friend), suggesting the polyvocal nature of the poem (it contains quotations from numerous other poets and playwrights, and even Wagner’s operas are quoted). The first recorded use of the word ‘moan’ to mean ‘grumble or complain’ is found in Eliot’s original drafts of the poem, which were originally twice as long as the final poem that was published. The opening line to the original draft was ‘First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place’, which isn’t quite as memorable as ‘April is the cruellest month’ (which is the first line of the final version – or rather, almost the first line, since the word ‘breeding’ follows it). This transformation was thanks largely to Eliot’s friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound, who helped to edit the poem (in thanks, Eliot dedicated it to him). ‘Complimenti, you bitch. I am wracked by the seven jealousies,’ Pound said to Eliot when the poem was finished. He had written a masterpiece – a poem that would go on to be one of the most influential poems written in English in the twentieth century. Indeed, we include The Waste Land in our pick of the definitive works of modernist literature and have analysed The Waste Land in a series of posts. Here’s our founder, Dr Oliver Tearle of Loughborough University, discussing the poem in a short documentary.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy our five fascinating facts about Eliot – including the everyday swear word he is credited with being the first to use in writing, and the rather unusual ways he liked to break up board meetings at Faber and Faber. Or, for a more detailed summary of Eliot’s life, see our interesting biography of T. S. Eliot. For more poetry suggestions, check out our pick of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s best poems, seven of Dylan Thomas’s greatest poems, and ten of the best Robert Burns poems.
T. S. Eliot’s complete poems have now been published in two definitive scholarly editions edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue: T. S. Eliot The Poems Volume One and T. S. Eliot The Poems Volume Two. They include previously unpublished poems, are beautifully produced and scrupulously edited, and are must-haves for the diehard Eliot fan!
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: St. Michael’s Church, East Coker, Somerset; © Oliver Tearle, 2014.