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Tone and voice in T.S. Eliot’s early poetry and prose Cooper, John Xiros


This study examines 'tone' and 'voice' in T. S. Eliot's early poetry and prose from sociological and historical perspectives. A procedural framework is proposed drawn from recent work in the sociology of knowledge, social anthropology, and the sociology of language which helps to elucidate the specific relationship between a literary text and the concrete historical moment in which it is lodged. In this study a literary work is not conceived of as a discrete textual object, but as a signifying practice which shares with all uses of language the important feature of occurring in a particular social context that is already always deeply inscribed with meaning. The shared knowledge of this system of meaning in a society I call 'common intuitive life'. Works of art impinge on the common intuitive life as operations, of certain, specific kinds, on this system of settled significations. I argue that Eliot's early work actively aimed to subvert, disrupt, and, ultimately, transform the aesthetic and socio-political regions of the common intuitive life of bourgeois society. This study, thus, contests the traditional critical practice of assigning to Eliot's enactments of experience in his poetry and to his formulations of critical axioms in his prose a universalist or essentialist value. Instead his early work is read as embodying more limited aesthetic and cultural practices, which, on occasion, use universalist notions, like myth, instrumentally in the service of the more limited project. "Hearing the dissonances" introduces the concept of 'tone' and explores the paradoxical services this notion has rendered Anglo-American formalism from I. A. Richards to American 'new criticism’. This chapter rethinks 'tone' sociologically. "The destruction of 'literature'" examines "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as Eliot's witty attempt to annul late Romantic notions of the 'literary' and of the verbal practices which follow from such notions. "Undermining the foundations" extends this analysis to other short poems and ends with a discussion of a fragment of The waste Land, bringing to bear concepts and themes developed in previous chapters and looking forward to the fuller treatment of The waste Land in Chapter Five. Chapter Four, "An incessant activity," examines tone and form in The sacred wood, discovering and interpreting the overall unity of this signal text as a function of its iconoclastic encounter with settled notions and theories of literature and literary practice. "A deep closed song; or the argument of The waste Land" examines Eliot's early masterpiece as a work whose unity lies, not in putative intrinsic coherences, but in its relationship to the common intuitive life of bourgeois readers in post-Great War England. The chapter, in short, explores the poem's negative or dialogical 'unity'. The study concludes in "A very long perspective" with a brief discussion of "Ash Wednesday" and For Lancelot Andrewes. It assesses the mutations of tone and voice consonant with Eliot's migration in English society from an uneasy marginality to a socially and institutionally more central place.

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