Yes, T.S. Eliot is worth reading. Eliot wrote poetry which defined not only the period within which he worked, but which has also shaped the direction and aesthetic of much of contemporary poetry written in the English language.
Any chance you have come across T.S. Eliot as a student?
He certainly is one of the most widely taught poets.
Eliot offers rich poetry, suffused not only with story but also with commentary upon the works of so many of the poets who came before him.
Eliot is responsible for lines like, ‘This is the way the world ends/not with a bang but a whimper’ and ‘April is the cruelest month’, which have entered and remain part of contemporary discourse, and Eliot has also given us characters like J. Alfred Prufrock, who have gone on to become part of popular culture.
Did you know that Eliot wrote the poem which went on to become Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the musical?
Why is T.S. Eliot so Hard?
Eliot can be hard to read because many of his poems contain allusions to and quotes taken from other works of literature.
Eliot also wrote long poems, with poems like The Waste Land only just readable within a single sitting.
It’s definitely worth reading Eliot’s poems, despite their length and layered references to other texts.
You might also find Eliot hard to read if you are less familiar or comfortable with reading poetry generally.
It takes a while to adjust to reading verse when you generally enjoy reading prose.
It may help to have another person read Eliot to you, so you can simply listen to the rhythm of his language and slowly establish your own understanding of the meaning of each of his poems.
Where to Start with T.S. Eliot?
There are a couple of places which are good to start from with Eliot. I would recommend starting with reading either The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, or beginning with Preludes.
Preludes is a poem written in four short sections and might be the best place to start with Eliot if you prefer to read a poem quickly before meditating upon the themes and images it presents.
If you prefer character-driven poetry, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a great place to start.
This is a poem written as a dramatic monologue, from the point of view of a man named J. Alfred Prufrock.
If access to the thoughts of a defined character seems easier to follow than those of an unnamed persona, as in Preludes, then Love Song may be the best place for you to start with Eliot!
Here’s a link to the complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot, complete with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Preludes (each of which are also available through The Poetry Foundation).
Was T.S. Eliot Guilty of Plagiarism?
No, Eliot was not actually guilty of plagiarism.
One of his most famous poems, The Waste Land, borrows a high number of lines from other literary works.
Intertextuality was one of Eliot’s favorite literary devices to deploy when writing.
Borrowing lines knowingly from other literary works, with correct attribution and to develop complex relationships between your own sentiments and those echoed in existing works, is very different to actual plagiarism where no attribution is given to other works referenced and entire passages are stolen without any creative intervention.
Eliot always attributed any lines he borrowed from other works in extensive notes made to accompany each poem, and it is clear when reading Eliot that he is in fact repurposing these borrowed lines creatively to generate new and innovative ideas.
How to Understand The Poetry of T.S. Eliot
Each of T.S. Eliot’s poems has a plot you can follow, though this may be a bit more difficult than following a conventional prose plot because of how Eliot combines events within his poetry with references across the ages and to other writers.
A great way to read T.S. Eliot is to start by reading through one of his poems simply for plot.
Try to figure out who the speaker is, and what their concerns are.
Where are they speaking from, and who are they speaking to?
Once you have figured this out, you should be able to gain a sense of what happens in the poem.
This will be patchy at first, and a lot of lines won’t make sense.
This is when you need to go through the poem a second time, looking for any lines which you don’t understand.
Highlight or make a note of these lines, and then look for any patterns across the poem.
Do these same lines appear throughout as refrains?
Are there any symbols used repeatedly across the poem, or which develop over the course of the poem?
If any of these lines still confuse or mystify you, try searching them online to see whether you can find the original context within which they appeared, or what they are referring to.
The more widely read you are, the more likely you are to recognize the references Eliot makes in his poems of your own accord.
His poems, through their allusions, are gifts which keep giving!
Is T.S. Eliot Worth Reading?
Yes, T.S. Eliot is certainly worth reading. His poems are masterfully constructed capsules of a particular time and atmosphere.
Eliot also gives us memorable characters and meditations upon loneliness and aging.
If you are looking to start your poetry odyssey as a reader, you can’t go far wrong starting your journey with Eliot.
His work will throw up suggestions for further reading, and also strikes an excellent balance between scholarly or historical reference, and good ol’ rollicking story.
Many of his poems are known for being complex, like The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, but these poems also offer one of the finest instances of drawing upon a vast and significant literary history to deliver a crystallization of the present moment, which was, for Eliot, often around the start of the Great War: a time of darkness and confusion.
Eliot knows how to draw lightness and humor from the most difficult of periods though.
Keep an eye out for his yellow fog, which, though not a cat, behaves very much like one!