Why Eliot is Difficult ?


I.A.Richards after conducting experiments on some scholars found that Eliot has reputation as a “difficult poet”(1).when he gave a class a passage to Eliot ,many seemed to unable to respond as most of them admitted “Eliot is too difficult for me”(2).It is not only that the scholars found Eliot as difficult ,rather many find him too complicated to handel:

“there was the the matter of its [the poetic tradition of Eliot] difficulty; there were those who found it totally obscure, and others who found it arid and dessicated,grim and prim—-as some people found mr. Eliot himself”(3).

Even the influenced critics like F.L.Lucas “attacked it by saying that ‘among the maggots that breed in the corruption of poetry,the commenest is the book-worm’ “(4).Similar is the case of other critics.AllenTete in Minneapolis in 1965 said ‘while talking about Eliot when he first read THE WASTELAND he did not understanda word of it,but it was a great poem”(5)Such is the belief of so many that Eliot is not easy to understand,has led to writing of criticism texts on Eliot;especially the writing on THE WASTELAND and FOUR QURTRETS have “become amajor critical industry in recent years”(6).Among these criticisms were many misinterpretations of his poems and one of such is that of Wyndham Lewis “who misread the poem in commenting on it as the cross-word puzzle ‘superious verbal algebra’”(7).

But before analyzing the difficulties found in Eliot, it would be better first to know what belief Eliot himself has on the difficulty that rises for a reader while attempting to understand a poem.In his conclusive part of his lectures(written during 1932-33),known as THE USE OF POETRY AND THE USE OF CRITICISM (1964),Eliot presents his views on this context:

“the difficulty ofpoetry (and modern poetry is suppose to be difficult)maybe due to one of one of several reasons .First ,there may be personal causes which make it impossible for apoet to express himselfin any but an obscure way…or difficulty may be due to just novelity;…or difficulty may be caused by the readers having been told ,or having been suggested to himself that the poem is going to prove difficult…And finally there is the difficulty caused by the author’s having left out something which the reader is used to finding ;so that the reader bewildered gropes about for what is absent and puzzles his head for a kind of ‘meaning’ which is not there”(8).



If we broadly devide the reasons of difficulty related to the process of understanding a poem,there we find that mainly two kinds are at the root,on each side (i.e. on poet’s side and on the reader’s side as well).The first one is the’Personal Cause’ and the second one is related to ‘Intellectual Temper’ ——–the former is related to heart and to some extent to the sub-concious mind.Though one can be sure of the existence of each ,but can’t point to any definite region in poetry where one is separated from the other.

Personal cause on the poet’s part is consists of personal experiences of intense type (though Wordsworth is an exception as he could write poetry out of very common day to day experience) and emotions the poet has. When the personal cause is too deep an experience for the poet, the reader finds it too difficult to peek through the deepest region’s of poet’s heart through his poem. All the personal experiences are not recreated in reader’s mind.

Now on this light of ‘Personal Cause’, if we analyse Eliot’s case, we find that this might be one of the fundamental causes, why we find him a complex poet; and this notion is held by many writers who write on Eliot. For example Malcolm Bradbury in his THE MODERN WORLD TEN GREAT WRITERS admits that the fact declared by Valerie Eliot that he [Eliot] paid too high to be a poet as: “THE WASTE LAND is a poem of that suffering …” (9) and of course this sufferings the so discussed ‘Personal Cause’.

But on Eliot the case is not as easy as it seems to be in any other poets, for Eliot is himself against personal causes flooding poetry and also his poems at a first glance don’t give any trace to personal involvement of emotions like love, other of the kind ,for “Eliot ,it is often argued ,is incapable of depicting love in his poetry”(10).So it is difficult to develop consistently the argument that “THE WASTE LAND is a personal poem or that Eliot expressed his inner most personal perplexes in it”(11) . This belief strengthens when we come across Eliot’s ‘Impersonal Theory’ in his essay TRADITION AND INDIVISUAL TALENT, where Eliot considers the man and the poet as two different beings and different roles and for him a poem “is not the expression of personality”(12). This theory of Eliot is what according to V.A.Sahanne, “makes it seem limited to argue that THE WASTE LAND even in specific parts is a personal poem” (13). And also this can be considered true for his many other poems.

But some argue that this impersonality of Eliot is the product of his suppressed personal feelings:

“Knowledge of Eliot‘s unhappy first marriage and his traumatic personal life has led to belief in some critic that his impersonality is the result of suppressed personal emotions” (14).



And this statement can be made stronger by poring over Eliot’s “many biographical details of his life from1914 to1921 suggesting that in THE WASTE LAND, Eliot unfolded his own self” (15).

“Valerie Eliot in her excellent study of the manuscripts of THE WASTE LAND :A FASCSIMILE AND TRANSCRIPT OF THE ORIGINAL DRAFTS,INCLUDING THE ANNOTATIONS OF EZRA POUND,(1971) has indicated that ‘The Fire Sermon’ was the first movement of the poem based on Eliot’s earlier drafts, and that it dealt with London’s teeming crowds, the ‘Urban Apocalyore’ (to use Huge Kerner’s phrase ),the poet’s memories of his London life, the horrible noises his disagreeable neighbors made and in general the horrors of the environment”(16).

Again Eliot makes this ‘Personal Cause’ more complex by adding other’s personal experiences to his poem:

“This experiences in part personal and in part observed and felt through the others [—] his neighbors and friends” (17). “…for example to the likely collapse of London-bridge in the last stanza (line 426) [of THE WASTE LAND] is derived from an actual hallucination Bertand Russel had suffered “(18). Russell makes a reference to this act of Eliot in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY as “…I spoke of this to T.S.Eliot who put it into THE WASTE LAND” (19).Such kind of personal treatment makes Eliot’s poem more like a fugitive for a reader who misses the meanings nearly each time of his attempt, as the reader confuses himself between the experiences of Eliot and others that are put together as a whole. And those who do recognize the difference between two types of experiences find it too difficult for them to synchronies with these differences and complain of getting “heaps of broken images” (20). Even when a reader comes across the poems of Eliot that contains only the thoughts and emotions of the single poet, there also the personal references are so distant that for a common reader it becomes out-of-focous.Patrick Murray gives an extra-ordinary example of Eliot in this context:

“…writer can make use of symbols so purely private, personal and in determinant that it is difficult for the reader to discover what is being suggested and even the context can not do much to help the symbols generate their meaning .Isolated instaces may be found in the poetry of T.S.Eliot .In PORTRAIT OF THE LADY, for example we read that lady’s voice ‘ returns like the insistent out of tune/Of a broken violin on an Augustan afternoon’ .It is difficult to see the point of reference to Augustan afternoon;here we seem to have a purely personal symbol,reflecting some intimate experience,which can’t have the kind of meaning for any reader that it had for the past”(21).



Now the second factor , the ‘intellectual cause’ (as mentioned in the very beginning) comprises the poet’s learnings and in case of Eliot this factor plays a significant role ,as “Eliot’s learning was proverbial and scholarship unquestionable “(22).And no doubt Eliot made full use of these in his poetry and this gave rise to his new mode of constructing poetry —-the ‘universal intertextuality’,the method in which he reffered to various texts and litrary works of different languages and subjects across the globe (among which are the great works like Dante’s DEVINE COMEDIA and BHAGAWAT GITA written in Sanskrit) that have inspired him.For instance in line 308 of THE WASTE LAND there is the line :

“Burning Burnig Burning Burning”

which can be explained as:

“This is taken from the Buddha’s ‘Fire Sermon’ ,where he says everything in the world is on fire,: ‘ forms are on fire…impressions received by the eye are on fire,and whatever sensation , pleasant ,unpleasant or indifferent , originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye , that also is on fire ? With the fire of passion , say I , with the fire of hatred , the fire of infatuation ,the fire of birth…old age…death…sorrow…grief…and despair …are they on fire.’ “(23)

This kind of reference to other texts , makes Eliot’s poem difficult for those who have not come across those texts . For example , if a reader without any knowledge of Buddha’s ‘Fire Sermons’ comes into contact of the line of THE WASTE LAND mentioned in the previous page ,then what would mean the same ‘burning’ word repeated four times in the line?

Again Eliot has made some reference to Sanskrit UPANISHADAS in THE WASTE LAND; which makes the problem more acute .For instance the last line of the poem ends with :

“Shanti Shanti Shanti” (line 433)

Here ‘Shanti’ (the Sanskrit word) ” signifies ‘ the peace which passeth understanding’ and is a meaningful repeatation of the well known formal ending of the great UPANISHADS” (24).

Most of the critics consider this ‘inter textuality’ as the part of Eliot’s personal dealings with his poems as they show the reason that whatever read by the person becomes a part of his personality,like any other experience of his life.

“…the mind of any poet would be magnetized in it’s own way , to select automatically in his reading (from picture papers and cheap novels , indeed as well as serious books , and least likely from the works of an abstract nature, though even these are aliment for some poetic minds )the material—which may be use to him later.And this selection probably runs through the whole of his sensitive life.There might be the experience of a child of ten , a small boy peering through sea water ina rock pool and finding a sea-anemore, for the first time :the simple experience (not so simple for an exceptional chil as it looks )might lie dormant in his mind for twenty years ,and reappear transformed in some verse context charged with great imaginative pressure”(25).



That is why the reason critics held Eliot’s ‘restrospection’ quality as his most significant impersonal cause that creats difficulty for readers.Eliot has built many “new poems out of the rejected lines of earlier poems”(26).

Vinod Sena in his essay ‘T.S.ELIOT :THE INVISIBLE POET’ mentions an intresting account of this aspect of Eliot:

“Many a times he began writing a poem,but dissatisfied , he laid it aside.However he hardly ever unsigned such unfinished pieces to the waste paper basket .Even the weakest fragment found its place in his drawer.And then when the moment of inspiration came , he found that he could cast several such fragments into a new whole”(27).

The ‘fire Sermon’ of THE WASTE LAND is based on such an earlier draft of Eliot, as Valerie Eliot reveals in her book THE WASTE LAND:A FASCMILE AND TRANSCRIPT OF THE ORIGINAL DRAFTS INCLUDING THE ANNOTATIONS OF EZRA POUND (1971). But to understand how this re-use of past drafts creates problems to some extent in understanding the whole poem we must first understand that we generally catch the thoughts or ideas easily that are linear in nature , i.e. there is continuity in Tone ,Temper and Theme—the three ‘T’s of any human thought . And also we must understand that the harmony among these three ‘T’s break with the flow of time .For this Samuel Beckett’s play KRAP’S LAST TAPE provides an insight that can help us to understand it better .

” In KRAP’S LAST TAPE …Becket makes use of the tape recorder to demonstrate the elusiveness of human personality….Beckett has found a graphic expression for the problem of the ever changing identity of the self , which he had already described in his essay on Proust. In KRAPP’S LAST TAPE , the self at one moment in time is confronted with it’s earlier incarnation only to find it utterly strange.What then is the identity between Krapp now and Krapp then? In what sense they are same ?Amd if this is a problem with an interval of thirty years,it is surely only a difference in degree if the interval is reduced to one year , one month ,one hour…”(28)



As Eliot modified his earlier versions of drafts into new ones and added them to the main poem then it is sure to arise (according to the above theory) some gaps (however small they may be ) in thoughts between the two kinds .This what forces the theme of Eliot’s poem to be derailed from it’s linear movement .The common reader feels being stuck at these points without being unable to follow the thoughts of the poet who by breaking the time , mingles the past and the present.

We always try to judge a poem or try to understand it with reference to what we believe , know and other related psychic activities known as ‘Rational Deduction’ But any number of criticisms or probings cannever be equal to the literary work it self as the literary work is the exact expression or representation of the thought itself. Trying to understand it we can use the tool of ‘Analysis’ and ‘Comparison’ as Eliot prescribes, but we should never take it for granted that what we get after analysis and comparison is the universal meaning of the literary work . In fact we vary due to shift in our view-points—the angle through which one visualize the work and that’s why it should be con clusive to mention here what Eliot’s own view is on this matter :

“The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem in the ordinary sense ,may be (for here again I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader,to keep his mind diverted and quite, while the poem does work upon him;much as the imaginary bulgar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house dog.This is a normal situation which I approve .But the minds of allpoets do not work that way; some of them , assuming that there are other kinds like there own, become impatient of this ‘meaning’ which seem superfluous, and perceive possibilities of intensity through its elimination.I am not asserting that this situation is ideal; only that we must write our poetry as we can , and take it as we find it .”(29)



Works Cited


(1)Richards,I.A. “Practical Criticism” (1929)

(2) Richards,I.A. “Practical Criticism” (1929)

(3)Bradbury,Malcolm. “The Modern World Ten Great Writers”,

Kalyani Pub.(1989)

(4) Bradbury,Malcolm. “The Modern World Ten Great Writers”,

Kalyani Pub.(1989)

(5)Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ. Press,

(6) Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ. Press,

(7) Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ. Press,

(8)Eliot,T.S. “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism”(1964)

(9) Bradbury,Malcolm. “The Modern World Ten Great Writers”,

Kalyani Pub.(1989)

(10)Das,Bijay Kumar. “The Universality of T.S.Eliot”,

The Ravenshw Journal of English

Studies:vol-9;no-1-2 (1999)

(11)Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ.Press,

(12)Eliot,T.S. “Tradition and Indvidual Talent”,Selected Essays

(13) Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ. Press

(14)Joshi,S.K. ‘Eliot’s Theory of Impersonality’, The Ravenshw

Journal of English Studies:vol-9;no-1-2 (2000)


(15) Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ.Press,

(16) Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ.Press,

(17) Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ.Press,

(18) Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ.Press,

(19)Russel,Bertrand. “Autobiogrphy”,London:Allen & Unwin(1964)

(20) Das,Bijay Kumar. “The Universality of T.S.Eliot”,

The Ravenshw Journal of English

Studies:vol-9;no-1-2 (1999)

(21)Murray,Patrick. “Litrary Criticism”,Lomgman (1982)

(22)Das,Bijay Kumar. “The Universality of T.S.Eliot”,

The Ravenshw Journal of English

Studies:vol-9;no-1-2 (1999)

(23)Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ.Press

(24)Sahnne,V.A. “The Waste Land—T.S.Eliot”,Oxford Univ.Press

(25) Eliot,T.S. “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism”(1964)

(26)Das,Bijay Kumar. “The Universality of T.S.Eliot”,

The Ravenshw Journal of English

Studies:vol-9;no-1-2 (1999)

(27)Sena,Vinod “T.S.Eliot:The Poet’s Invisible Poet”,The Litrary


(28)Esslin ,Martin “The Theatre of Absured”,Pelican Pub.(1961)


(29) Eliot,T.S. “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism”(1964) 




(c) Samir K. Dash, 2004,

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