Even The Americans Are British: T.S. Eliot

According to poets.org, T.S Eliot was born as Thomas Sterns Eliot in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888. He lived in Missouri until leaving to earn both undergraduate and master degrees at Harvard. He then traveled to Paris, until returning to Harvard to gain a
doctorate degree in Philosophy. He did not move to England until he was twenty-six years old. He did not become a citizen of Britain until 1927. Why is Eliot’
s background important? Well, what makes British Literature and American Literature differ in this sense? Although Eliot had both a citizenship of England and America, he is always noted as a British writer, being anthologized in the Norton Anthology of British Literature we use in class. Through understanding Eliot’s works readers can understand what it means to be a British writer.

File:Thomas Stearns Eliot with his sister and his cousin by Lady Ottoline Morrell.jpg
Morrell, Lady Ottoline. Thomas Stearns (‘T.S.’) Eliot with his sister and his cousin. Digital image. Wikimedia.org. National Portrait Gallery, 1934. Web. 14 May 2017.

Due to Eliot living in England during both World War I and World War II, a lot of his work shows the darkness that England, and most of Europe faced during this hardships. His poem “The Hollow Men”, sheds light on the dark times of England. The poem starts out with two different Epigraphs. The first is a quotation from Joseph Conrad’s novel we read earlier in this time period, Heart of Darkness. By starting out with “Mistah Kurtz- he dead” (Eliot 2543), it shows the death of an older man who agreed with Western imperialism. Although this time is “over” due to Mistah Kurtz’s death, by starting the poem out with this allusion, points out the fact that the troubles of England have been ingrained for a while, and are still going on even though imperialism died with Mistah Kurtz. The second Epigraph is referencing to children begging to pennies to guy fireworks to kindle scarecrows for Guy Fawkes’s day, a national holiday for England. These scarecrows, are to represent Guy Fawkes who was a traitor to the British. A holiday basically for kids to set fire to a symbol of a traitor; talk about some national pride! Both of these epigraphs show the death and doom that life in England have. First the imperialism (and death of) and the death of the traitor, we can tell this poem is not light stuff.

In Line 15 and 16 of the poem, the speaker give allusion of parts of Canto 3 of Dante’s Inferno. In Dante’s Inferno, groups of souls were excluded from Hell because they were not bad enough. In Eliot’s poem is states “Remember us- if at all- not as lost violent souls, but only as the hollow men” (Eliot 2543). They cannot take a side, so they are basically in Purgatory. This makes the reader think if the speaker is referring to Britain as a purgatory. The men aren’t lost or violent, they are just- there. The poem also references Dante’s Inferno in line 60 as the speaker states, “Gathered on this beach of the tumid river” (Eliot 2543). The term “beach of the tumid river” gives understanding that this river, most liking the Acheron River, which is a branch of the mythological River Styx, is swollen. Swollen shows that the river is overfull, just how the London streets must have felt to Eliot at the time of his writing. The term “beach” makes a reader think of a vacation, yet this is not a vacation at all. It is the life of these hollow men.

In lines 77, and 91-94 there are references to the Lord’s Prayer that many Christians still know by heart. “For Thine is the Kingdom” (Eliot 2543), refers to Heaven. This is a drastic switch from talking about Hell in previous lines. This relates to how difficult living in England is, especially during the World Wars and how the “kingdom” meaning heaven is the goal, yet it is rather unreachable. This plays into the purgatory idea again, that they are neither in heaven or hell. They are just there. Also, “For Thine is the Kingdom” starts the end of the prayer, which is a prayer often read right before someone passes away, if the death is imminent, and could have meaning that the speaker might be close to death or that they know someone who is. It might also mean that England as a whole is just people close to death.

“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

(Eliot 2543)

Many scientists believe that the world started with a bang- the big bang. Yet, with this the speaker is showing that war (the bang) will not end the world, but the whimper of the dying will. Although this poem is not very uplifting, I suppose this ending can give the reader a sense of hope that war won’t end the world, yet that’s a stretch.

So, how does this poem show that Eliot is a British writer? Although America also has hardships, this poem relates itself to many different British epigraphs and metaphors. Throughout the entire poem, it relates “the hollow men” to those who are stuffed just like the scarecrows about to explode.It shows the pain living in England has on people, and how it feels like they are living in purgatory. The important of British Literature, is not about the country in which the author was born, but how their literature helps solidify history and culture of the country.

Works Cited
Eliot, T.S.  “The Hollow Men” The Norton Anthology English Literature. Vol. F. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 2543. Print.
IgniterMedia. “The Lord’s Prayer.” YouTube. YouTube, 03 Feb. 2014. Web. 14 May 2017.
Morrell, Lady Ottoline. Thomas Stearns (‘T.S.’) Eliot with his sister and his cousin. Digital image. Wikimedia.org. National Portrait Gallery, 1934. Web. 14 May 2017.
“T. S. Eliot.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 02 Oct. 2015. Web. 14 May 2017.

Poets of World War I: Nature vs. Reality

Transporting the Wounded in Houthulst Forest (Verwundetentransport im Houthulster Wald) Artist: Otto Dix

The Great War of 1914 offered a rich basis for the expansion of reactionary literature and, more specifically, poetry. Narratives surrounding WWI were particularly uplifting in 1914, when England offered an idealistic view of what soldiers endured in war through the use of propaganda. Many young men (younger than the age of 18) enlisted in the war, not knowing the full breadth of what they were fighting for. Patriotism rang through the first generation to enter WWI, and many of them died before the war progressed further. Industrialization drastically affected battlefields, and shifted the approach soldiers took when fighting the enemy. Germany had machine guns at the start of the First World War, whereas England still relied on horseback and bayonets. Soldiers quickly learned that the method of fighting would not subdue Germany, and England had to reverse her war strategy. Soldiers in the trenches suffered from disease and severe illness, oftentimes from the rain and lack of hygiene. There was no sign of glory when the soldiers remained in trenches for lengths of time, and it was a wildly dehumanizing experience. Oftentimes, family members back home had contempt for the war because their young sons were put to their deaths. The shift in mindset was critical to keeping up the morale of the war, and the number of soldiers who wrote poems and narratives were plentiful. Soldiers who wrote at the start of the war versus toward the end had contrasting perspectives about what, exactly, they were fighting for.

Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke used nature to invoke patriotism in his poem, The Soldier. He passed away early on in World War I, and this fact certainly dictated the pro-war tone in his writing. The glorification of war and death is evident in his work, and the merging of natural imagery with the reality of the industrialization of war. Brooke speaks of death as a possibility, not as a definitive fate: “If I should die…” Brooke creates a persona that does not speak of specific images of war, but he focuses on the generalization of space: “There’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England.” War is a very specific and complex endeavor, but Brooke’s language makes the thought of war seem like a dream-like image and a hazy, lovely place. He makes his own death tangible by linking a “foreign field” back to his homeland, England. The image of blood spilling is joined with another vision of English blood seeping into foreign earth: “In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;/A dust whom England bore…” Brooke displays a tint of the “dust to dust, ashes to ashes” rhetoric here in his description that the soil is made richer from his dying on it. His second stanza is over-ridden by natural imagery, the semantic field of: “flowers”, “roam”, “body”, “air”, “rivers”, and “suns of home” solidifies the romantic notion of death caused by war. The first line of his third stanza represents the shedding away of the grotesque-ness that death and war bring: “And think, this heart, all evil shed away”. The pulsing of the English heart beats strong against the darkness of war, and Brooke ends his poem with: “In hearts at peace, under and English heaven.” Heaven becomes a localized object that each English patriot brings onto the battlefield with them, an ethereal image that Brooke injects into both himself and every English solder in the war. Brooke died early on in the war from dysentery and never made it to Gallipoli, so his generational thoughts were never affected by the atrocities which occurred later on.

Siegfried Sassoon

Unlike Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon was sent home in 1917 after a bullet ripped through his body, literally rupturing the very flesh of his English patriotism. He emerged from the war a more hardened and defiant individual, and he was completely disillusioned with the propaganda and the rose-colored glasses that every soldier was handed before stepping foot on a battlefield. His anger is apparent in the tone of his poetry, and he embeds horrific, grotesque imagery. In his poem, The Rear-Guard, Sassoon makes no attempt to ease the reader into the poem itself, but tosses the reader into the action. Sassoon uses the pronoun “he”, directly contrasting Brooke’s use of “I”, and this change in pronoun offers a distanced perspective. Sassoon deliberately chooses the specific location of a trench, and does not sweep over a foreign landscape as Brooke did. His first line, “Groping along the tunnel, step by step” suggests immediacy and a painful, slow, methodological process. Sassoon ends his first stanza with, “And he, exploring fifty feet below/The rosy gloom of battle overhead.” This rose color is physically separate from where the persona is in the poem, as if the rose-colored glasses were ripped off the face of the soldier and thrown up into the air to be disintegrated into this haze. The romantic thoughts that were once part of his mind are no longer reachable, and become distant. As the persona traverses the tunnel, he stumbles on a dead body: “Savage, he kicked the unanswering heap,/And flashed his beam across the livid face/Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore/Agony dying hard ten days before”. Sassoon does not describe any kind of reaction from the persona, only the image of death in its raw, faceless, reality. The last lines of the poem contrast the natural image of the air surrounding the soldier persona, and the figurative image of his state of mind: “He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,/Unloading hell behind him step by step.” Hell is not capitalized here, thus communicating to the reader that Sassoon does not mean hell in the religious sense of the word. Hell, to the solider in the trench, is a state of mind and lies embedded in the memory of war.

Side-by-side, Brooke and Sassoon offer two sides of the spectrum in terms of the morale of English soldiers and what truly went on in the war. War is most definitely a psychological endeavor, but the damage is not evident in Brooke’s poem. Sassoon clashes with the patriotic thought and offers a raw rendering of his own experiences. As a 21st century reader, one would be inclined to say that the truth is more important; but tethered with the progression of WWI, is it not better to have a dream to live for? Sassoon speaks of loss as a distanced, dehumanizing experience, whereas Brooke personalizes and tethers loss to home. What matters more: remembering the spilled blood, or remembering the reasons it was spilled? It would have been difficult to establish any semblance of a positive outlook or outcome without the artists and dreamers that emerged from the trenches.



Works Cited

Beresford, George Charles. Siegfried Sassoon. Digital image. Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siegfried_Sassoon#/media/File:Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1915)&gt;.

Brooke, Rupert. “The Soldier.” The Norton Anthology English Literature. Vol. F. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 2018. Print.

Dix, Otto. Verwundetentransport Im Houthulster Wald. Digital image. The Guardian. Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum DACS 2014, 14 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2014/may/14/art-apocalypse-otto-dix-first-world-war-der-krieg-in-pictures&gt;.

Rupert Brooke. Digital image. King’s College Cambridge. N.p., 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 13 May 2017. <http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/news/2015/brooke-centenary&gt;.

Sassoon, Siegfried. “The Rear-Guard.” The Norton Anthology English Literature. Vol. F. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 2024. Print.