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A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday

An introduction to Eliot’s great religious poem

T. S. Eliot’s 1930 poem Ash-Wednesday needs to be viewed as part of the shift in Eliot’s writing towards a more devotional aspect, a shift that would culminate in Four Quartets (1943). The poem, like The Waste Land and ‘The Hollow Men’ before it, had started life as shorter poems: Part II appeared in 1927, Part I in 1928, and Part III in 1929, with the other three sections being written around these. But the eventual six-part poem is one of the finest modernist religious poems in English, although its content requires some summary and analysis to be approachable and comprehensible.

Ash-Wednesday (note the hyphen) is perhaps, of all Eliot’s poems, the most heavily indebted to Dante. Eliot would write more essays on Dante than on any other poet, and the importance of Dante’s work to Eliot precedes his conversion to Christianity in 1927. The Italian medieval poet is known for his three-part epic poem The Divine Comedy, which describes the poet’s descent into the ‘inferno’ of hell, followed by his trip to purgatory, culminating in his arrival in the ‘paradise’ of heaven. Two of Eliot’s most famous earlier poems directly draw on Dante’s work: the epigraph to ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is from the poet, while the lines about the ‘Unreal City’ of London in The Waste Land (‘I had not thought death had undone so many’) are a loose translation from Dante’s original Italian. Read the rest of this entry


George Egerton: The Half-Forgotten Modernist Pioneer

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers the pioneering and half-forgotten writer of the modernist short story

A bridegroom waits in the hall, while his bride sobs upstairs in her mother’s arms. Married off to an older man against her wishes, the seventeen-year-old Flo leaves home to take up married life with Philip, her husband. Five years later, she makes the journey she has been putting off ever since she got married: she returns home by train and tells her mother that she leads a miserable life married to the repulsive adulterer Philip, who has recently taken off to Paris with a girl from the Alhambra. What’s more, Flo tells her mother that she blames her for this wretched existence she now leads: her mother failed to prepare her daughter for the realities of men and married life, and she had to find out the hard way. She announces her intention to leave her husband. The next day, having slept in her childhood bed, she departs for the railway station and leaves ‘in the opposite direction’ to begin a new life.

This much constitutes a brief plot summary of ‘Virgin Soil’ (1894), one of George Egerton’s most celebrated short stories. Not that any of them are that celebrated: although Egerton has begun to receive more attention and analysis from literary critics interested in women’s fiction and the history of modernism, she remains a little-known figure in English literature. Read the rest of this entry

A Short Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts

A reading of a late Woolf novel

Virginia Woolf’s classic modernist novel Mrs Dalloway (1925) is famously set over the course of just one day, in June 1923. But what is less well-known is that Woolf wrote a second novel also set on just one day: her last novel, Between the Acts (1941). The novel is an example of late modernism, which is a slightly different beast from the modernism seen in Woolf’s earlier novels, such as Mrs Dalloway but also To the Lighthouse.

Before we get to an analysis of the themes of Between the Acts, a brief plot summary – insofar as one can summarise the ‘plot’ of a Virginia Woolf novel – may be helpful. The action of Between the Acts takes place on the day of the village pageant held at the fictional house of Pointz Hall. The village pageant, organised by Miss La Trobe, is like a sort of ‘2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony’ in that it takes in the various periods of English literary history and presents them on the stage: Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Restoration comedies, the Victorian age of melodrama, and the present day (i.e. the 1930s). Read the rest of this entry