The Selected poems of T.s. Eliot
Purpose and Context
The poems set for study were composed by Eliot during the early twentieth century, in the shadow of the First World War and amid the turbulence of modernity and the social, political and economic upheaval it brought. It follows that much of Eliot’s work gives voice to the sense of existential angst that rippled throughout post-war Europe as people grappled with the changing pace of daily life and struggled to match their traditional conceptions of existence with the new urban environment and everything that came with it.
For convenience and clarity, important contextual factors have been identified and addressed individually below.
As its name suggests, modernity is a period of social, cultural, economic and political change that was brought about by the rise of modern technology and processes. While you could argue that by that definition, all of time since the invention of the most basic technologies could be described as ‘modernity’ (and you would be correct to say so), we generally use the term in reference to a specific period of history that is relevant to whatever topic we are discussing. So, in this case, modernity refers to the early twentieth century England, as separate from the decades preceding that era. During this time, several different but intertwined forces drastically changed the composition of daily life in England.
Most significant was the rise of urbanisation. Urbanisation refers to the process of migration of communities from rural areas to city centres, and the accompanying shift of the economic centre of gravity to factories and warehouses from farms and villages. Though the process of urbanisation began decades prior, it was not until the turn of the century when its impacts became clearer as a result of rising wealth disparities between the upper and lower English classes. Essentially, where people thought that working in the city would make them rich, they were stunned to find themselves working in factories for up to eighteen hours a day, sleeping in cramped dorms, and with practically no way of protesting for better conditions. Those people who had left their farms and villages in search of work struggled to adjust to the rigid, mechanical routine imposed by urban life: while in the country the sunrise and sunset were the markers of time, in the factories that role was played by clocks and foremen, and their power was unchallengeable. Moreover, while people were used to knowing their neighbours and being known themselves in smaller towns and villages, because of the massive population growth in city centres during the process of urbanisation, those who migrated quickly found themselves feeling lonely and without an identity – they were merely another factory worker.
World War I
Of course, during this process, life was disrupted even further still by the First World War. Entered into with enthusiasm as ‘the war to end all wars,’ the Great War came to serve as an example to Europe of the extent of the human capacity for depravity, destruction and death. A whole generation of boys and men were lost, and twenty million people died in total. Weapons and violence were displayed on a scale that was previously thought unimaginable. To the population at the time, what they saw literally didn’t make sense – it was as if their world had been turned upside down. Every presumption they had of what distinguished humans and civilisation as superior to other forms of life had been completely disrupted by the War.
There was, it seemed, no reason to maintain faith in the old ways of life, for the War, and the broader processes of modernity, had just shown everything to be a lie.
It was within this context of uncertainty that the modernist art movement emerged as an expression of society’s collective search for meaning. But before that, it gave voice to individual’s confusion and the disorientation with which they viewed their world. Specifically, the modernist movement was founded upon the rejection of tradition and convention, as individuals sought to express their despair at the pace and magnitude of the changes the world was undergoing. Its predecessor, impressionism, emphasised subjective responses to the beauty of the external world. While modernism stressed subjective experiences too, it chose not to concern itself with any attempts at hiding the ugly truth of modern life that had been covered up by impressionism and revealed with devastating effect by modernity.
Though the developments during the period in which Eliot was writing generally lent themselves to pessimism and a loss of faith in all kinds of sources of spiritual authority, in many ways it also served as an opportunity for some people to rediscover their faith, for a variety of reasons. For example: amid the tedium and anonymity of daily life, faith emerged as a means by which individuals could feel as if their life was more significant than it actually was. Eliot himself actually underwent a spiritual revival just like this, which is reflected in his poem The Journey of the Magi.