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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Neo-classicism in Alexander Pope and T.S. Eliot Sanford, Gloria Helen


Following the confusion of the seventeenth century, eighteenth-century thinkers felt the need for the stability and common sense which they found in neo-classicism. Their neoclassical literature was ordered by rules of logic and restraint. Early twentieth-century neo-classicists also came to believe in the critical importance of tradition. They shared with their eighteenth-century predecessors a reaction against the faddish, hazy, irregular, erratic, and sentimental elements in art and society. Neo-classical art is didactic and aims to reform abuses in taste and conduct by upholding traditional moral and rational standards. It seeks restraint and precision of language exhibited in disciplined form. Neo-classicists refer respectfully to the heroic and classical past, using the eloquence of past history and literature as an allusive mirror which heightens our perception of the present. This study explores the similarities in the neo-classical perspective of Alexander Pope and T.S. Eliot. The primary effect of the study is to emphasize their similar thematic focus, concentrating on sterility in western society due to the rejection of traditional values. Through examination of the themes, structure, and imagery of the poetry, primarily "The Rape of the Lock" and "The Waste Land", together with a review of relevant prose, the neo-classicism of Pope and Eliot is perceived as fundamental to a proper understanding of their work. Eliot's neo-classicism evolved under the influence of T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound in the twentieth century, John Dryden in the seventeenth century, and Alexander Pope in the eighteenth century. Through his 1927 statement that he was "'Anglo-Catholic in religion...classicist in literature, and royalist in politics'" Eliot established his traditional position on religion, literature and life. Similarities between Eliot's poetry and that of the eighteenth century can be traced through his respect for the neo-classicists. In "What is a Classic?" he observed that the classic feature of maturity - in mind, manner, and language -is clearly evident in eighteenth-century English literature through the poetry of Pope. There broods in the literature of both Eliot and Pope, as neo-classical authors, a discontent which stems from their outrage at the loss of traditions which has caused social, political, religious, and artistic confusion. This discrepancy between the ideal and the actual in western civilization prompted the ascendence of verse satire. Pope and Eliot enforce, through ridicule, traditional standards of thought and conduct, and especially, the need for restraint and order. Both Pope and Eliot extended their poetics beyond past traditional forms by relating to the language and poetics of their time. Yet, Eliot's poetics represent a far more radical departure from the practice of his time than do the poetics of Pope. In this respect, in their examination of Eliot's poetry, critics have often stressed the importance of his moral tone. However, very little comment has been made on his satire, and it is in the practice of the satirist's art that Eliot and Pope seem particularly to concur.

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