Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Eliot, T.S. (1888–1965)
Author:
Shucard, Alan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Since expatriate T.S. Eliot was an ardent defender of European cultural tradition as the guiding light of American literature, his limited regard for Walt Whitman, redoubtable advocate of American literary independence, is no wonder. In a review article in the London Athenaeum in 1919, Eliot complained that Whitman (along with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe) suffered from "the defect of [American] society. . . . Their world was thin; it was not corrupt enough" (qtd. in Howarth 93).

Nevertheless, even though the extent of the influence is debatable, Whitman had an effect on Eliot's work. For example, the hermit thrush's song in the pine trees in the "What the Thunder Said" section of Eliot's The Waste Land is an echo of bird songs in Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." In addition, Eliot's question in The Waste Land "Who is the third who walks always beside you?" (line 360) resonates with Whitman's "Lilacs," in which the "I" walks "with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me, / And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me, / And I in the middle as with companions" (section 14). Indirectly, it is likely that Whitman influenced Eliot's composition of long lyrical sequences, notably in The Waste Land.

In the end, Eliot thought more of Whitman than he cared to admit, acknowledging in his 1926 essay "Whitman and Tennyson" that Whitman was "a great representative . . . of an America which no longer exists" and approving the vision that underlies "all [Whitman's] declamations. . . . When Whitman speaks of the lilacs or of the mocking bird, his theories and beliefs drop away like a needless pretext," Eliot observes, preferring his own pretexts.

Bibliography

Canary, Robert H. T.S. Eliot: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982.

Eliot, T.S. "Whitman and Tennyson." The Nation and Athenaeum 40 (1926): 426.

Howarth, Herbert. Notes on Some Figures Behind T.S. Eliot. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.

Miller, James E., Jr. "The Waste Land." The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman's Legacy in the Personal Epic. By Miller. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979. 100–125.

Moody, A.D. "T.S. Eliot: The American Strain." The Placing of T.S. Eliot. Ed. Jewell Spears Brooker. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1991. 77–89.

Musgrove, Sydney. T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman. Wellington: U of New Zealand P, 1952.

Strandberg, Victor. "Whitman and Eliot: Two Studies in the Religious Imagination." Four Quarters 22 (1973): 3–18.


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