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TS Eliot and the politics of culture | Roz Kaveney

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The poet's meditative writings in the late 1920s and early 30s mask a certain chill

TS Eliot was one of the most intellectually adroit of poets, a fine mind with a breadth of cultural and other knowledge that few writers since can equal or even attempt to emulate. He often felt humbled by the weight of all that had come before him; much of what he says in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent is attractively modest in the limited programme it proposes for poetry not to explore ever finer and newer and more original emotion, but to find, through technique, a coldly rational way of honing language for its own sake "not the expression of personality but an escape from personality Only those who have personality and emotions can know what it means to want to escape from those things".

Like Stravinsky setting aside the rhythmic invention and freedom of Le Sacre du Printemps for the chill neo-classical beauty of Orpheus or Apollon Musagete, Eliot wanted in the later 1920s and early 30s a poetry of concentration and meditation rather than the brilliant insightful dangerous randomness of The Waste Land. His conversion to high Anglican Christianity, and the growing dominance of his work by devotional and religious themes, made this programme inevitable he could not allow himself to stray again into the dangerous irrational territory of Sweeney Agonistes. Indeed, in his 1933 lectures After Strange Gods, he specifically calls the irrationalist neo-primitivist strain in modernism diabolical, especially in the case of DH Lawrence, whom he admires but sees as a source of spiritual danger to anyone less versed in the true meaning of orthodoxy than Eliot himself.

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