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UBC Theses and Dissertations

T.S. Eliot’s impersonality : a study of the personae in Eliot’s major poems McNeal, David Stuart


This thesis is a study of T. S. Eliot's "impersonal" theory of poetry, particularly as it affected his own poetic work. To this end it focuses upon Eliot's personae in order to demonstrate the extent to which his concern with personality influenced his poetry and, in addition, how the theory and the poetry developed together throughout his career. Eliot's original distrust of personality in poetry was based upon two distinct, though related, tenets. First, he held that poetry (indeed, all art) is--or should be--"ideal" in the classic sense. That is, it should reflect the type, not the individual, the form, not the personality, the absolute, not the transient. Second, he distrusted human nature itself, and therefore doubted the value of the individual human personality. The first of these tenets, the poetic theory, received its first and most extreme airing in "Tradition and the Individual Talent"; the second, the view of human nature, coloured most of the early poetry. The resulting distrust of human personality, combined with Eliot's clear knowledge of the temptations of romantic self-expression, led him to develop a series of personae and other poetic devices with which he could disguise his own voice. At the same time, however, Eliot was concerned with exploring the limitations of the human personality. Consequently, most of the early major poems--"Prufrock," "Portrait of a Lady," and "Gerontion," for example--employ impersonal narrators in order to examine, in part, the excesses and failures of personality. In "The Waste Land" Eliot's characteristic dramatic narrator began to become less distinctly apparent, though Eliot was still reluctant to use his own voice. And although in the "Ariel" poems he returned to the genre of the dramatic monologue, he began to investigate the possibility of human salvation rather than of human hopelessness. At the same time, in "Ash Wednesday" he began to record his own personal record of spiritual doubt and hope. This development reached its conclusion in the "Four Quartets" where by reconciling his own limited human experience with an absolute and eternal world, he was finally able to speak freely of his own life in his own voice without lapsing into the romantic fallacies he feared as a young man.

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