Jane Cooksey

Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Dorothy McMahon, William McMahon, Frank Steele

Degree Program

Department of English

Degree Type

Master of Arts


Few critics have had a greater impact upon the theory of poetry than T.S. Eliot. His critical works, spanning the decades of his literary career, embody a theory of poetry and by a careful scrutiny of his many essays, reviews and interviews, it is possible to formulate definite requirements for works in the genre of poetry. Beginning with the essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in 1919, Eliot stresses certain aspects of poetry that must be carefully considered by the poet, and Eliot does not radically alter his attitudes throughout his career.

Eliot insists in his earliest essays that the poet must recognize the value of tradition to his work. To Eliot, tradition represents not only a knowledge of the past, but an assimilation of this past into one’s life. The artist must have a definite sense of tradition and realize that his work does not stand apart from all other art. Rather, each new work of art will modify the old existing order. Another element of poetry that Eliot considers important is prosody. Eliot insists that free verse is impossible; the poet can only thoroughly master technique, then has he the freedom to depart from the standard forms. Eliot cautions the poet to not sacrifice the sense of a line for its sound, yet always be aware that the musicality reinforces the meaning of the poem.

Perhaps the most familiar term Eliot uses is objective correlative. Although much has been written about his meaning, Eliot basically uses the term to signify the objectification of emotions and thoughts; it is a technique to elevate the subjective into the objective, while retaining a sense of immediacy. Eliot never concedes that poetry should only be a personal statement; the poet may begin with very personal feelings, but he must transform them into an impersonal statement. This demand by Eliot for impersonality includes his belief that the poet can best express the universal through the particular. He believes the imagery should be definite and specific. The poet should also use the vernacular speech of his era; he must avoid the appearance of artificiality of language.

Finally Eliot comes to a clear position toward the role of philosophy in poetry. Early in his career he argued that no poet should sacrifice the quality of the poem artistically in order to employ it as a vehicle for a particular philosophy. Eliot, recognizing that a poet will incorporate personal beliefs into the poem, insists that these views should be there almost unconsciously. A too conscious striving to use poetry only as a statement of philosophy Eliot views as corrupting the role poetry should play. To Eliot, the function of poetry is to serve as an aesthetically satisfying expression of universal truths.


Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature | Literature in English, Anglophone outside British Isles and North America