Thomas Stearns Eliot is not only a fundamental author because os his contribution to the european poetry of the twentieth century, but because of his understanding of the poetic creation, that has become in paradigmatic of an attitude, of a behavior faced with literature. Eliot is one of those writers that have eradicated, at least from his poetics and from his social manners, every grand gesture, every priestly attitude, every emotional hyperbole. Eliot represents uno of the highest examples of the most heterogeneous poetry in english language, that one that wisely combines the monological voice next to the abandonments of the stream of consciousness, together with the most refined lyricism; that one that knows how to administer the tone of philosophical nature and the reflexive essayistic voice with the intra-textual activity; that one that manages to measure out the purely hymnic together with the narrative.
'The Waste Land', one of his most influential works, is commonly regarded as one of the seminal works of modernist literature. In the place of a traditional work, with unified themes and a coherent structure, Eliot produced a poem that seemed to incorporate many unrelated, little-known references to history, religion, mythology, and other disciplines. He even wrote parts of the poem in foreign languages, such as Hindi. In fact the poem was so complex that Eliot felt the need to include extensive notes identifying the sources to which he was alluding, a highly unusual move for a poet, and a move that caused some critics to assert that Eliot was trying to be deliberately obscure or was playing a joke on them. Yet, while the poem is obscure, critics have identified several sources that inspired its creation and which have helped determine its meaning. Many see the poem as a reflection of Eliot’s disillusionment with the moral decay of post–World War I Europe. In the work, this sense of disillusionment manifests itself symbolically through a type of Holy Grail legend. Eliot cited two books from which he drew to create the poem’s symbolism: Jessie L. Weston’s 'From Ritual to Romance' (1920) and Sir James G. Frazer’s 'The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion' (1890). The 1922 version of 'The Waste Land' was also significantly influenced by Eliot’s first wife Vivien and by his friend Ezra Pound, who helped Eliot edit the original 800-line draft down to the published 433 lines. The title of the poem refers to a myth from 'From Ritual to Romance', in which Weston describes a kingdom where the genitals of the king, known as the Fisher King, have been wounded in some way. This injury, which affects the king’s fertility, also mythically affects the kingdom itself. With its vital, regenerative power gone, the kingdom has dried up and turned into a waste land. In order for the land to be restored, a hero must complete several tasks, or trials. This ancient myth was the basis for various other quest stories from many cultures, including the Christian quest for the Holy Grail. Eliot says he drew heavily on this myth for his poem, and critics have noted that many of the poem’s references refer to this idea.
In 1915, Ezra Pound published a slim volume of poems which he called 'Cathay' and which contained, according to its title page, “translations by Ezra Pound for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku.” Yet in writing the poems contained in 'Cathay', Pound set out to do much more than transcribe Chinese poems word-for-word or line-for-line into English. He set out to redefine poetic translation itself, replacing long-held ideals like “accuracy” and “faithfulness” with a conviction that one could use old—even ancient—texts to make English poetry look and sound quite new.
Critics have spilled a good deal of ink identifying the numerous inaccuracies of 'Cathay'’s translations, many of which stem from Pound’s almost complete dependence on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, an American scholar who studied the Chinese poems while living in Japan. (Pound was not himself proficient in Chinese.) Fenollosa’s notes on the poems are terse, occasionally cryptic, and easy to misinterpret. For instance, Pound’s conflation of two distinct Chinese poems into one English piece, “The River Song,” most likely arose from a misreading of Fenollosa’s notebooks. Yet, even when Fenollosa’s notes on a poem’s content are unmistakably clear, Pound shows a remarkable willingness to alter that content in order to craft, in his judgment, a better English poem. Thus Pound often changes details of images or omits pieces of the text altogether. Such omissions often result from Pound’s decision to eliminate instances of complex literary allusion which, though characteristic of Chinese poetry, would probably confuse English readers not versed in the Chinese poetic tradition.
Hugh Kenner is the most prominent of a number of scholars who argue that readers who criticize Pound for 'Cathay'’s variations from its source texts miss the point of Pound’s effort, which was to produce innovative English poems using the ancient Chinese texts as an inspirational springboard, not a constraining template. The “real achievement” of 'Cathay', according to Kenner, lay not on the frontier of comparative poetics, but securely within the effort…to rethink the nature of an English poem. It consisted in maximizing three criteria at once, criteria hitherto developed separately: the vers-libre principle, that the single line is the unit of composition; the Imagist principle, that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them; and the lyrical principle, that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds. These things had been done before but not simultaneously. Yet, even as Pound crafted his poems at the level of individual sounds, images, and lines, he also selected the contents of 'Cathay' in a way that highlights the poems’ broad thematic linkages, beyond their authorial, geographical, and temporal affinities. Several of these thematic concerns—the place of the exile, for instance, as dramatized in “Exile’s Letter,” and the encounter of the poetic sensibility with war, as in “Song of the Bowmen of Shu”—occur elsewhere in Pound’s work, often in other poems based on historical texts or personages. The recurrence of these themes suggests not only Pound’s abiding interest in them, but also his belief that certain elements of human experience persist across boundaries of time, place, and language—and that it is the task of translation to reveal these enduring truths. Thus poems in 'Cathay' thematically echo Pound’s earlier poems based on the lives and legends of the wandering, amorous troubadours, as well as later poems like 'Homage to Sextus Propertius' (itself assailed as an erroneous translation), which ruminates on love, art, politics, and war. The vivid, often gory realism of combatant-poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen frequently defines the limits of what is considered “First World War poetry,” but to forget that 'Cathay' appeared while the war was raging would be to neglect a crucial cultural context of the book’s publication. Kenner makes a spirited argument that 'Cathay' should be read as a book of war poetry—that the book’s true theme, however obliquely addressed, is war as a transhistorical, universal phenomenon: “that all this has happened before and continually happens”.
Regardless of the success of his overall argument that 'Cathay' is a book of war poetry, Kenner does provide a very affecting piece of evidence that at least one of Pound’s contemporaries read it as such: a letter written by Pound’s friend, the cubist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who would die in the trenches. “I keep the book in my pocket,” he wrote of 'Cathay'. “Indeed, I use [the poems] to put courage in my fellows. I speak now of the ‘Bowmen’ and the ‘North Gate’ [i.e. ‘Lament of the Frontier Guard’] which are so appropriate to our case”.
Pound’s commitment to revealing the kinship of speakers across great distances of time and space (not to mention language) is perhaps most dramatically evinced by his decision to insert his translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer” into 'Cathay'. Though it at first seems out of place in a book otherwise composed of translations from the Chinese, “The Seafarer” actually makes a striking complement to the other poems. Like so many of Pound’s protagonists, the speaker of “The Seafarer” is an exile and a wanderer, and he recalls a life filled with “bitter breast-cares”—cares endured by the Bowmen of Shu and the scribe of “Exile’s Letter,” as well as by those left behind by warriors and travelers, like “The River Merchant’s Wife.” Pound also knew that the Chinese poets he was translating and the anonymous author of “The Seafarer” wrote in roughly the same historical period, a fact that simultaneously emphasizes and downplays the geographical and cultural distance between Anglo-Saxon England and ancient China. Pound later wrote that he considered “Exile’s Letter” and “The Seafarer,” which are so thematically similar, the two greatest poems of the eighth century, and that the latter “shows the West on a par with the Orient”.
Furthermore, “The Seafarer” presented Pound with a distinct opportunity to innovate in the realm of poetic technique. In a phonological tour de force, Pound adapts the Old English pattern of alliterative lines of verse in order to make ordinary, contemporary language suddenly seem unfamiliar.
Ezra Pound’s 1920 poem 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley' is a landmark in the career of the poet, where he uses two alter egos to discuss the first twelve years of his career, a period during which aesthetic and literary concerns fully engaged Pound’s attention. The poem reconstructs literary London of the Edwardian period, recreating the dominant feeling about what literature should be and also describing Pound’s own rebellious aesthetic beliefs. The poem also takes us to the catastrophe of the early twentieth century, World War I, and bluntly illustrates its effects on the literary world. The poem then proceeds to an “envoi,” or a send-off, and then to five poems told through the eyes of a second alter ego. In the first section of the poem, Pound portrays himself as “E. P.,” a typical turn-of-the-century aesthete, and then in the second he becomes “Mauberley,” an aesthete of a different kind. Both E. P. and Mauberley are facets of Pound’s own character that, in a sense, the poem is meant to exorcise. After composing this poem, Pound left London for Paris and, soon after, for Italy, where his view of his role as a poet changed dramatically. No longer would his work be primarily concerned with aesthetics; after 1920, he started to concentrate on writing 'The Cantos' and on studying politics and economics. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is not just Pound’s farewell to London; it is Pound’s definitive good-bye to his earlier selves.