Who is the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century? W.B. Yeats? Robert Frost? Wallace Stevens? W.H. Auden? A good case could be made for any of them. Still, if you’d asked this question 50 or 60 years ago, most people would have said, without hesitation, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). In 1948, he received the Nobel Prize for literature, and soon after his verse-play “The Cocktail Party” was a hit on Broadway; in 1956, 14,000 people jammed into a Minneapolis stadium to hear him speak.
By then, “The Waste Land” was firmly established as modernist poetry’s supreme masterpiece, the verse analogue to “Ulysses” (both published in 1922). It and Eliot’s other major poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Four Quartets,” were appearing in freshman English textbooks, next to his ground-breaking early essays, in particular “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Every college student could recite the opening words of “The Waste Land” — “April is the cruelest month” — and many knew, thanks to “The Hollow Men,” that the world would end “not with a bang but a whimper.”
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The Letters of T.S. Eliot: Volume 4: 1928-1929
Ed. by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
Yale University Press, $50