• Slobodan D. Jovanović


First World War, despair and apathy, Modernism, intellectualism, spiritual renewal


The purpose of this paper is to remind the readership that Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888–1965) was one of the initiators and true protagonists of Modernism as an international movement dominating the arts of Western culture from shortly after the turn of the twentieth century until around 1950. The First World War and the European influences at the time when America was thrust into the centre of international politics created the conditions for American writers and artists to emerge as leading intellectual and artistic voices who addressed the shattered confidence in a civilization that seemed bent on self-destruction. It then belonged to artists and writers to interpret the meaning of total mechanized warfare and America‘s new role on the world‘s stage. American writers increasingly absorbed, imitated, and transformed the ideas and methods of European modernist masters such as Joyce and Proust, and their predecessors, such as Dostoyevsky and Baudelaire. Thus Modernism originated in an erosion of faith in the social, spiritual, and psychological absolutes of the nineteenth century and a consequent drive to discover new artistic modes of representing reality, new ways of self-understanding and emotional and spiritual renewal. The First World War showed conclusively that old beliefs were corrupt and had to be replaced, and Modernism, in general, disclosed a rejection of tradition and a hostile attitude toward the immediate past. Among the intellectual and artistic voices of that shattered and eroded confidence, one of the strongest and perhaps the most important ones certainly belonged to the author of Waste Land (1922), subsequently understood and described by the poet William Carlos Williams and others as the ―atomic bomb‖ of modern poetry. Other intellectuals and critics saw The Waste Land and its predecessor, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917), as an expression of dismay, even despair, provoked by the disintegration of Western civilisation, an expression of post-war disillusion. Certainties had crumbled, and this was Eliot‘s Modernist response, which later on inspired many of the young, and influenced the next generations of poets. What Eliot wrote, of course, was ahead of his time, but he personally went on to be a rather serious figure, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and member of the Order of Merit. He also looked like a man of the Establishment: dark suits, stiff collar, carefully knotted tie; there was nothing bohemian about him. When he exchanged his American nationality for British, he declared himself Anglo-Catholic in religion and royalist in politics, while his social criticism stressed the importance of order and hierarchy. This is perhaps, at least partly, why it is not surprising that his early poems sometimes provoked puzzlement, and proved difficult to read and understand by many. Again, this is what also explains the fact that he is easier to understand and accept today than ever before. Half a century is often long enough for a poet‘s reputation to sink low, before sometimes, if at any time, recovering, and this is what once happened to such large poets as Byron and Tennyson, for instance. Eliot‘s renown, however, has remained high. The Waste Land, especially, retains its appeal, and every single day of our current lives the moment is right for one to address T. S. Eliot and re-address his work all over again.