The American Bard and the anti-American…

For my research paper I would like to explore the connections between Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot.  I chose Eliot to begin with because he often blatantly rejected Whitman and his influence; however, it is undeniably there in both his style and subject matter.  Whitman is a poet of many things, but one of his most profound roles is as the poet of America.  Whitman’s poetry celebrates America and desires much for America.  Going through the suffering of the Civil War with America, Whitman desired to heal the nation and put much hope in the modern way of life.  On the other hand, as a modernist poet, Eliot’s work reflects the view that, due to the forces of modernity, the world has become more complicated and distressed; therefore, art should be, too.  My main focus on their relationship will be to investigate how Eliot rejects the materialism and modernization of America, which, to him, Whitman is a representative of.  Eliot lived in a time in which the phenomena so optimistically described by Whitman had become a daily reality; therefore, his poetry breaks down the optimism of urban life and civilization and acknowledges the new disconnectedness of the landscape and the people. 

My guiding research question will be how does Eliot reverse Whitman’s optimism about the modern world and what is it about Whitman’s poetry in particular that Eliot responds to, often in veiled ways?  I believe the fundamental connections between the two will be in their detailed treatment of urban life and their attitudes toward humanity, in mass and as individuals.  Furthermore, I feel that they each take opposite stances on these subjects and I am looking to explore this further with close readings of many of their poems.  For Eliot, I know that I will be looking at “Prufrock”, “The Hollow Men”, and “The Waste Land”, unless that gets too big, with other possibilities as well.  I am not positive yet what Whitman poems I will be most closely looking at, but probably among “Song of Myself”, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”, “When Lilacs Last…”, and “I Sit and Look Out”.  With a profound understanding of Eliot I hope to understand what it is about Whitman’s poetics and modern life that he rejects and why.  These two are poets born in America but their generation gap and personal differences led to a divergent treatment of often similar topics, with a free and open form that is stylistically similar.  As an Eliot fan I am looking forward to discovering an influence of his that is less commonly accepted as a way to enrich both my understanding of Eliot and of Whitman.

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One Response to The American Bard and the anti-American…

  1. Charles Carmody says:

    An interested paper topic indeed. I like how you are trying to draw the connections between Eliot and Whitman rather than claiming that these connections were severed with the modernization of America. While Eliot seems to be writing against many of Whitman’s ideals, I think both of these poets are writing from a similar medium and worldview. You have some good poems picked out and I like the idea of focusing on the poets’ treatment of urban life.

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