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Life Arts    H3'ed 11/1/22

A Tour de Force on T. S. Eliot's Poems, Plays, and Prose (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 1, 2022: The American-born Nobel Prize winning poet, playwright, and influential literary critic and famous adult convert to Anglicanism (in 1927) Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) published his most famous poem The Waste Land in 1922, the edited and shortened version of which his American-born poet friend Ezra Pound (1885-1972) had helped him cull out of a much longer but unwieldy manuscript.

Eliot's unwieldy manuscript has been published in the volume titled The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, edited by Valerie Eliot (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971).

The version of Eliot's The Waste Land that was published in 1922 can be found in The Poems of T. S. Eliot: Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015, pp. 53-77).

Also in 1922, the Irish writer James Joyce's experimental novel Ulysses was published in book form. Parts of it had previously been published over the years in literary periodicals. Together Ulysses and The Waste Land became classics of literary modernism. As the title of Joyce's 1922 experimental novel advertises, it is somehow related to the famous Greek epic the Odyssey. But the title of Eliot's 1922 poem advertises that it is somehow related to the not so famous medieval European legend of the Grail (featuring the wounded Fisher King and the waste land).

Of course, the waste land also calls to mind the widely known story of Moses and the ancient Hebrew people wandering in the waste land of the desert for forty years. Their king, figuratively speaking, was their monotheistic deity God, not some earthy king, wounded or not. The late Thomas Cahill (1940-2022) has written insightfully about their wandering odyssey in the desert in his 1998 book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday) - including the way that Thomas Stearns Eliot thinks and feels.

Now, as part of my own personal commemoration of the centennial in 2022 of its publication, I recently read Jewel Spears Brooker and Joseph Bentley's 1990 book Reading "The Waste Land": Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation (University of Massachusetts Press).

Brooker is also the editor of the 600-page 2004 book T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews (Cambridge University Press; for the reviews of The Waste Land, see pp. 75-120).

In addition, Brooker is the co-editor (with Ronald Schuchard) of volumes 1 (covering the years 1905 to 1918) and 8 (covering the years 1954 to 1965) of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot (Johns Hopkins University Press; Faber and Faber, 2021).

Eliot's most famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919), the poetic compositional principles of which he never repudiated, is reprinted in volume 2 of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, covering the years 1919 to 1926, edited by Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard (pp. 105-114).

Because the Roman Catholic Church is famous for invoking its Tradition of thought and practice, I want to point out here that popes tend to follow similar prose compositional principles in composing their official church documents about matters of faith and morality in their encyclical letters - similar, that is, to the poetic compositional principles that Eliot enunciates in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." So we may think of papal encyclical letters as following what we may term "Tradition and the Individual Pope's Talents." See, for example, Pope Francis' 2020 visionary encyclical letter titled Fratelli Tutti (which is available in English and other languages at the Vatican's website) - and note its notes acknowledging sources from the Roman Catholic Tradition of thought.

For further discussion of Pope Francis' 2020 visionary encyclical letter, see my OEN article "Pope Francis' Vision for the World" (dated October 15, 2020):

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Ah, but may we also imagine individual Roman Catholic theologians following the prose compositional practices of what we may term as a manifesto titled "Tradition and the Individual Roman Catholic Theologian"? For example, is not the prolific American Jesuit theologian and ethicist James F. Keenan (born in 1953) following such an imaginary manifesto in his learned new 2022 book A History of Catholic Theological Ethics (Paulist Press)? In general, the moral imperative in the Catholic moral tradition is to avoid evil and do good. However, oftentimes over the centuries, the moral imperative to avoid evil predominated to the detriment of doing good.

For further discussion of Keenan's new 2022 book, see my 2,000-word OEN article "An Accessible and Learned History of Catholic Moral Theology" (dated October 27, 2022):

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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