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The development and function of the image in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, 1909-1922 Preston, John Frederick


One of the most unique and striking features of T. S. Eliot's poetry up to and including The Waste Land is its imagery. Far from being mere decoration, the images in these poems play a vital role in the process of poetic communication. This paper attempts to examine in some detail Eliot's image, the important influences which contributed to its development, and its function in these poems. The poems of Prufrock and Other Observations show that Eliot had perfected his own "imagism" before coming into contact with Imagist theories through Ezra Pound in 1914, These poems reveal Eliot's characteristic method of using images—which are mainly precise renderings of an urban scene—as "objective correlatives" for a wide range of thoughts and feelings, in order to dramatize the plight of the poem's speaker. It was through a close study of such figures as Charles Baudelaire, Jules Laforgue, the Jacobean dramatists, the Metaphysical poets and the philosopher Henri Bergson, that Eliot discovered his own poetic voice. Although he knew little before 1914 of the Imagists— notably T. E. Hulme, who was to influence him much later— Eliot's "imagism" shows certain similarities, in theory and practice, with the work of this important poet and theoretician. These similarities are examined in this paper to help define Eliot's own "imagism". After 1914, Ezra Pound played an important part in the development of Eliot's imagery. In general, Pound showed Eliot methods for extending to the limit the impersonality which was already a feature of Eliot's poetry. This led, through a mutual interest in the poems of Théophile Gautier, to Eliot's satirical poems in the Poems 1920 volume. These poems juxtapose concepts in the form of concrete images, many of which are drawn from a wide variety of literary sources. But Eliot was restricted by Gautier's rhyming quatrain: in the satires, dramatic intensity is sacrificed for excessive superficiality and undue complexity. "Gerontion," however, marks a return to the energy of the Prufrock poems by using images to present an awareness of individual and cultural neurosis. Finally, The Waste Land marks a climax in Eliot's development by fusing and harmonizing methods previously acquired, and achieves unity through a complex pattern of images, many of which grow out of the preceding poems. At their best, these images are not only precise sensual experiences but powerful expressions of feelings and thoughts. As such, they give ample proof that the image in Eliot's poetry is the primary means of poetic expression.

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