Eliot attributed a great deal of his early style to the French Symbolists—Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Laforgue—whom he first encountered in college, in a book by Arthur Symons called The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It is easy to understand why a young aspiring poet would want to imitate these glamorous bohemian figures, but their ultimate effect on his poetry is perhaps less profound than he claimed. While he took from them their ability to infuse poetry with high intellectualism while maintaining a sensuousness of language, Eliot also developed a great deal that was new and original. His early works, like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, draw on a wide range of cultural reference to depict a modern world that is in ruins yet somehow beautiful and deeply meaningful. Eliot uses techniques like pastiche and juxtaposition to make his points without having to argue them explicitly. As Ezra Pound once famously said, Eliot truly did “modernize himself.” In addition to showcasing a variety of poetic innovations, Eliot’s early poetry also develops a series of characters who fit the type of the modern man as described by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and others of Eliot’s contemporaries. The title character of “Prufrock” is a perfect example: solitary, neurasthenic, overly intellectual, and utterly incapable of expressing himself to the outside world.
As Eliot grew older, and particularly after he converted to Christianity, his poetry changed. The later poems emphasize depth of analysis over breadth of allusion; they simultaneously become more hopeful in tone: Thus, a work such as Four Quartets explores more philosophical territory and offers propositions instead of nihilism. The experiences of living in England during World War II inform the Quartets, which address issues of time, experience, mortality, and art. Rather than lamenting the ruin of modern culture and seeking redemption in the cultural past, as The Waste Land does, the quartets offer ways around human limits through art and spirituality. The pastiche of the earlier works is replaced by philosophy and logic, and the formal experiments of his early years are put aside in favor of a new language consciousness, which emphasizes the sounds and other physical properties of words to create musical, dramatic, and other subtle effects.
However, while Eliot’s poetry underwent significance transformations over the course of his career, his poems also bear many unifying aspects: all of Eliot’s poetry is marked by a conscious desire to bring together the intellectual, the aesthetic, and the emotional in a way that both honors the past and acknowledges the present. Eliot is always conscious of his own efforts, and he frequently comments on his poetic endeavors in the poems themselves. This humility, which often comes across as melancholy, makes Eliot’s some of the most personal, as well as the most intellectually satisfying, poetry in the English language.