Eliot’s poetry presents us with a most urgent and compelling struggle: the struggle to make language say what we mean it to say. In one of his later poems Eliot described his work as ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ (‘East Coker’): an attempt to say what it is most difficult to say, to express oneself with a completeness of understanding. This, Eliot knew, was the same challenge which had faced every other writer of note before him and as poet and critic he assiduously assimilated himself in the work of his predecessors in order to learn from them. In all of his poetry, Eliot is conscious of precept and example, of undertaking a task that has been undertaken many times before. This is not to say that he modelled himself on previous poets. Far from it. Eliot thought of himself as having been born into an age of crisis, of the disintegration of old beliefs and old ways of life. His was a task not of perpetuating a tradition, but of recovering something lost. He did not simply imitate his masters, for he had to find new ways of saying new things. He had to be revolutionary, but only in order to effect a restoration. So at the heart of Eliot’s poetry is a contemplation of the past and of the idea of tradition.
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