In his lecture “The Music of Poetry” (1942), T.S. Eliot said, “I think that a poet may gain much from the study of music.” Indeed, much of his poetry shows his debt to music, for instance in the musical titles of his early poems, jazz rhythms in the Waste Land, and the instrumental reference in the Four Quartets. This paper reviews Eliot’s preoccupation with Romanticism through an invocation of Romantic musical genres.
T.S. Eliot wrote his early poems during a time when other poets like Ezra Pound vigorously denounced the Romantic project and its Victorian inheritors. Around the same time, representative composers like Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky experimented with the idea of tonality and the ways it could be subverted. Listeners that had been accustomed to the idea of tonal music with a main pulse or meter that would carry throughout were thrown off by the measure-to-measure switches in time signatures, music that had no tonal center, and a seemingly lack of form; something that was easily comparable to the fragmentation prevalent in Eliot’s work of the same period.
This paper illustrates through close readings how the poems “Nocturne,” “Preludes,” “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” and “Portrait of a Lady” demonstrate this parallel shift from the Romantic tradition into a new concept of music and literature: post-tonality in the former, and modernism in the latter. Eliot uses Romantic musical forms in the first three as the framework for themes of isolation, fragmentation, and disillusionment, and within his exposure of Romantic cliché in “Portrait of a Lady” one can see his desire to move towards something new.