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Can we conclude that T.S.Eliot’s ideas about culture are ‘elitist’ and leave it at that?

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Eliot writes of culture as “the way of life of a particular people living together in one place. That culture is made visible in their arts, in their social system, in their habits and customs, in their religion.(Milner, A (1994) Contemporary Cultural Theory: An Introduction. London: UCC Press.)

A culture, then according to Eliot is one which is shared in common by a whole people, although he believed it was not shared equally between the people. Eliot divided the people into two groups, the elite and the masses and considered the elite to “exhibit more marked differenciations of function amongst their members than the lower types.” (Eliot, T. S. (1948) “The Class and The Elite:” Notes towards the Definition Of Culture. London: Faber & Faber Ltd.)

This seems to demonstrate that Eliot’s ideas about culture are basically elitist, however, although Eliot recognised the division in culture, he did not disregard the masses, indeed he said ” I … should like an audience which could neither read nor write.(Eliot T.S. “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism.) This remark could hardly be farther from a desire for a limited and highly literate audience of adepts. Which seems to go against the widely held view that Eliot is deliberately elitist – his poetry is frequently obscure and its allusions, learnedness and quotations which make some of his poetry -particularly “The Wasteland” – difficult to understand.

The general and widely held view of Eliot is that he is a deliberately elitist and difficult poet and essayist and indeed more people have heard of “The Wasteland” than have actually read it. However, his reputation as a ‘difficult’ poet works for him in this sense adds to the appeal of his poetry as a whole and by the standards of most poets, Eliot is read very widely indeed. However, would this be agreeable to the poet himself? As mentioned above Eliot believed that the poet “naturally prefers to write for as large and miscellaneous an audience as possible,” yet his difficult standard of poetry marks him down as seeking to appeal to a small learned and elite audience. This seems to be a contradiction for Eliot as a poet, yet the obscurity and intertextuality of his work may be due to other influential poets Eliot studied, rather than a desire for elitism.

Eliot came to know the work of Dante (Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italian poet and philosopher.) whilst at Harvard and he later looked back at his own work and believed Dante was the main guide and model for his poetry. Eliot particularly respected the poet’s directness and his frugality of his language (shown also in Eliot’s poetry: “The river’s tent is broken…”) (Eliot, T. S (1922) “The Fire Sermon” ( line 1): “The Wasteland.”) and the extent of his emotional experience especially in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”. This appreciation of Dante is shown in the “Dantean images and themes” (Southam, B. C. (ed.) (1978) ” T.S. Eliot: ‘Prufrock’, ‘Gerontion’,

‘Ash Wednesday and Other Shorter Poems.” ( The Casebook Series ) London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.) used by Eliot in his work.

Something which strongly influenced Eliot’s work was the Symbolist movement. Throughout the later part of the nineteenth century there were two main movements in literature: Realism and Symbolism. The aim of Realism was to present man as a ‘social animal’ and to present a reflection of the processes which affect the behaviour of man. The basic style of the realists was simplicity and directness, ornament and too much elaboration was avoided in their work. (For example Barthes). However, the main weakness in the work of the Realists was a lack of imagination and this coupled with their ‘solid social concern’ was the main reason for their lack of support from poets. However the Symbolists, by contrast used indirect language which was often allusive and obscure. (For example Baudelaire: 1821-1867). The poets of the Symbolist movement also had strong views on society, their poetry was focused on the processes of their own minds and the poets of this movement gave meticulous attention to the form and language used in their work. The poetry of the Realists chose words and images and arranged them “…to set up a complex criss-crossing of associations…” and set up their poems as an “…endless maze.”

This seems quite an accurate description of the work of T.S. Eliot himself, in whose poetry frequent ‘criss-crossing’ of references emerges. It appears that this movement and its followers, who have influenced Eliot so strongly (Especially Baudelaire and Laforgue.) may be partly responsible for the frequent obscurity which appears in Eliot’s work. This evidence throws doubt on the claim that Eliot’s work and views of culture are merely elitist, it seems that the poet and his work have more depth than simply a desire for elitism in his poetry.

However, Eliot’s views on culture have been shadowed by the frequent obscurity of the language and allusions used in his work. Eliot considered culture to have three meanings. “The term ‘culture’ has different associations according to whether we have in mind the developments of an “individual of a group or class or of a whole society.” (Eliot, T.S. (1948) Notes towards the Definition of Culture. London: Faber & Faber Ltd.)

Eliot believed that the differences between the three senses of culture could be best understood “…by asking how far, in relation to the individual, the group and society as a whole the conscious aim to achieve culture has any meaning.” In ‘The Three senses of Culture’, Eliot criticises Arnold (Culture and Anarchy) in his famous classification of classes (‘Barbarians,’ ‘Philistines’ and ‘Populace’) for not considering what the proper function or ‘perfection’ of each class should be. Eliot has a different idea of what culture should be than Arnold and it is shown in this criticism as Eliot criticises Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” by saying the effect of the essay and its shortcomings “…exhort the individual who would attain the peculiar kind of ‘perfection’ which Arnold calls ‘culture’.”

Eliot believed also that Arnold ignores one sense of the word ‘culture’ in the point of ‘refinement of manners’, and also in ‘The Three Senses of culture’ Eliot believed that to a degree religion and culture were inseparable and makes this point more strongly than does Arnold. Indeed, Eliot’s definition of culture is in this chapter of his book strongly suggests that his views on culture are elitist, if simply in the reason that his definition of ‘culture’ differs’ from that of today. When Eliot speaks of culture he is defining what we today would call high culture – “the appreciation and understanding of literature, arts and music, etc.”, rather than the basic and everyday use of the word which is to describe the customs and civilisation of a particular people or group”.

In poetry, if obscurity of language and allusion can be seen as a desire to appeal to an intellectual minority rather than a wide audience then Eliot is an elitist. But he defends his obscurity in his poetry by stating that the reader should himself interpret the poetry and arrive at his own understanding of what he reads. When asked at a press conference in Edinburgh in 1953, Eliot said ” As far as I am concerned, it means what it says. If it had meant something else, I would have said so.” “But would you have said it clearly?” “No, I would have said it just as obscurely.” This though justifies Eliot’s reputation as an elitist, as surely some learning of poetry would be necessary to interpret his work, yet Eliot said earlier, as I quoted in this essay that he would like uneducated people to hear his work which seems a contradiction. However, one theory on poetry is that a poem does not mean, it is. So therefore, one does not always have to interpret and trace back to its source each quotation, the poem should or could be read as a whole work, rather than several intricate ideas.

The poem ‘The Love song of Alfred .J. Prufrock’ can be read as a whole to demonstrate my last point. It is a lament of Alfred .J. Prufrock about his lack of love in his life. He watches the upper class women, notes their ‘braceletted arms’ and conversations; ‘talking of Michaelangelo’. This seems to be the basic message of the poem to me, yet to another person the message might be entirely different. Eliot says of the poem, of the fallacy there might be only one interpretation: “of assuming there might be just one interpretation of the poem of the whole” and he says ” as for the meaning of the poem as a whole, it is not exhausted by any explanation, for the meaning is what the poem means to different sensitive readers.” In the poem there are very many different quotations ranging from Dante’s ‘Inferno’ to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, the less well-read reader of the poem may not ‘pick up’ on all of the sources, yet the basic meaning of the poem would still be apparent.

Speaking of Eliot and his ideas about culture as elitist would seem to be, broadly speaking, correct. However the speaker of these words would have to be aware of the depth of meaning they present. True, it seems that Eliot’s ideas are elitist, yet the obscurity in his work has been for other reasons than simply making the work difficult to the less well-learned. Eliot himself says that there may be several reasons for difficulty in poetry. That there “…may be personal causes which make it impossible for the poet to express himself in any way but an obscure way” and also that “difficulty may be due to novelty.” (Eliot, T.S. “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” (1933) reprinted in ‘Selected prose of T.S. Eliot.’ ed. John Hayward (1953).

I have drawn together the main arguments for the given reasons for Eliot’s ‘elitism’ and these have been a large contributing factor for the often mistaken idea that Eliot is an elitist simply to exclude what he terms ‘The Masses’.


Eliot, T.S The Wasteland and other Poems (1940) London: Faber & Faber Ltd.

Eliot, T.S Notes Towards The Definition of Culture ( date unknown) London: Faber & Faber Ltd.

Milner, A (1994) Contemporary Cultural Theory: An Introduction. London; UCC Press

Pope, R (1998) The English Studies Guide. London: Routeldge

Southam, B.C (ed.) (1978) T.S. Eliot: ‘Prufrock’, ‘Gerontion’, ‘Ash Wednesday’ and other shorter poems. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Southam, B.C (1994) A Students Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot. London: Faber & Faber Ltd.

Tate, A.(1967) T.S Eliot: The Man and his Work. London: Chatto & Windus.

Tillotson. G. (1967) Criticism and the 19th Century. Archon Books.

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