The Sacred Wood – Modernism Lab (2023)

by Anthony Domestico

Published in 1920, The Sacred Wood solidified T.S. Eliot’s status as one of the preeminent critical voices of his generation. Containing the canonical “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as well as essays on Ben Johnson, Swinburne, and others, the collection shows Eliot working through a number of his most pressing critical interests: the necessary and inviolable bond between past and present literary achievement; the need for criticism that carefully attends to the integrity of a work of art, its essential relation of part to whole; and the concepts of poetic impersonality and the objective correlative.

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The central essay in The Sacred Wood is “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Most fascinating in an initial reading of this essay is Eliot’s circling, complex definition of literary tradition. It is not, he claims, a dead collection of writings by dead poets, “a lump, an indiscriminate bolus”; neither is it a body of work from which a few personal favorites can be chosen as exemplars of excellence.[1] Instead, it is a complete order, an organic body in which each part (individual poem) relates to and derives its significance from its place in the whole (tradition).

This celebration of order and overarching structure may seem odd coming from the creator of The Waste Land (1922) and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), works defined by their fragmented nature and their rapid shifts in tone and form. It is a theme, however, that runs throughout The Sacred Wood. In his 1928 introduction to the work, Eliot declares that the collection’s main focus “is the problem of the integrity of poetry” (viii), its orderly, unified nature. In “Dante,” an essay dealing with the seeming inability of modern poets to create philosophical poetry on the order of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Eliot writes that “the artistic emotion presented by any episode of the Comedy is dependent upon the whole” (167). In summing up the Italian poet’s unparalleled achievement, Eliot writes, “It is one of the greatest merits of Dante’s poem that the vision is so nearly complete; it is evidence of this greatness that the significance of any single passage, of any of the passages that are selected as ‘poetry,’ is incomplete unless we ourselves apprehend the whole” (170). In Dante, Eliot argues, there is complete interpenetration of part and whole, detail and structure. In “The Perfect Critic,” Eliot attacks what he calls “impressionistic criticism,” the criticism of those who cannot relate their momentary, transient aesthetic experiences to the entire work of art. The task of the critic, Eliot writes in his introduction, is “to see literature steadily and to see it whole” (xv).

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Eliot’s confidence in his own ability to see literature steadily and to see it whole is impressive. In “Hamlet and His Problems,” for instance, Eliot declares Shakespeare’s most celebrated play a “failure” (99), a work whose flawed portrayal of motivation ultimately prevents it from being a convincing work of dramatic art: “The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the motivation; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is an excess of the facts as they appear” (101). In an essay on William Blake, Eliot playfully describes the visionary schemata created in Jerusalem and The Four Zoas: “We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy … that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house” (156). In the first essay of the collection, “The Perfect Critic,” Eliot claims that “[Matthew] Arnold—it will be conceded—was rather a propagandist for criticism than a critic, a popularizer rather than a creator of ideas” (1). By the time The Sacred Wood appeared in 1920, Eliot had already published Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) to much acclaim; two years later in 1922, he would publish The Waste Land and found the Criterion, establishing himself as the voice of English modernism. The Sacred Wood sees Eliot already comfortable as an imposing arbiter of taste, an authority willing to make sweeping aesthetic claims and to speak disparagingly of idols if necessary.

Throughout the collection, Eliot virulently criticizes the unthinking, reflexive privileging of what is supposedly new and unique. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot writes, “One of the facts that might come to light … is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else … We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed” (48). Critics have described modernism as a movement that defined itself as a self-conscious break from the past; Eliot instead argues for the co-temporality of past and present.

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The poet, Eliot writes in this same essay, must have an “historical sense,” the “feeling that the whole of the literature from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” There is an absolute disdain for the idea of artistic progress: Eliot writes that “art never improves” (51), that tradition (described problematically as “the mind of Europe” and “the mind of his own country”) does in fact change, but that “this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsman.” This attitude seems to leave little room for the avant-garde or for the confidence that revolutionary changes are possible in art. What of Ezra Pound’s declaration that poets must make it new? What of Virginia Woolf’s contention that around December 1910 human character changed?

In his preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood, Eliot claims that the collection’s chief value resides in its status “as a document of its time” (vii), as the essays represent “a transition between the period immediately before the war and the period since.” To a certain extent, this is true: it is fascinating to see Eliot work through his interests in poetic impersonality and the poet’s relation to tradition, interests that would prove so important to modernist achievement in the 1920s.

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Just as valuable, however, is the sense that, in The Sacred Wood, we see a critic growing into his voice, marshaling his myriad half-formed thoughts into arresting phrases and memorable aesthetic judgments. Take, for instance, his self-assured comparison of Dante and Shakespeare: “Shakespeare takes a character apparently controlled by a simple emotion, and analyses the character and the emotion itself. The emotion is split up into constituents—and perhaps destroyed in the process. The mind of Shakespeare was one of the most critical that has ever existed. Dante, on the other hand, does not analyse the emotion so much as he exhibits its relation to other emotions” (168). Or his description of Swinburne: “[Language and object] are identified in the verse of Swinburne solely because the object has ceased to exist, because the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning, because language, uprooted, has adapted itself to an independent life of atmospheric nourishment” (149). This stands not only as a beautiful evocation of Swinburne’s foregrounding of the materially of language, but also as a summation of what Eliot, Pound, and other modernists tried to achieve in their own work.

  1. ↑ T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (New York: Methuen, 1980), p. 51. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.


What is the meaning of sacred wood? ›

Sacred groves or sacred woods are groves of trees and have special religious importance within a particular culture. Sacred groves feature in various cultures throughout the world.

What does no poet no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone mean? ›

"No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

What do you know about Eliot the sacred wood? ›

The Sacred Wood is a collection of 20 essays by T. S. Eliot, first published in 1920. Topics include Eliot's opinions of many literary works and authors, including Shakespeare's play Hamlet, and the poets Dante and Blake.

Which of the following authors are alluded to in the waste land? ›

T S Eliot's The Waste Land is full of references to other literary works. Seamus Perry takes a look at four of the most important literary presences in the poem: Shakespeare, Dante, James Joyce and William Blake.

What are the 4 aspects of the sacred tree? ›

The book explains that everyone has a mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional component to their makeup.

What is the purpose of the sacred tree? ›

The sacred forest and tree are deeply rooted in the belief that life does not end with death and that death and the dead must be respected because they continue to live. Under these scared trees, people beg their ancestors for protection, health and gather to make majors decisions for their village and society.

What is the symbolism in TS Eliot The Waste Land? ›

Drought and dryness.

This symbolism of drought and decay is linked to the Fisher King myth (see below), but it is also symptomatic of a wider cultural and spiritual emptiness: modern life, Eliot's poem seems to suggest, has lost its way.

What are the criteria used to criticize a poem? ›

The critique should consider four crucial aspects of the poem: imagery, sound, language, & figuration. visual (they can also be aural, tactile, olfactory, or gustatory), & there are poems that work well without a lot of imagery.

Who wrote the sacred wood a book of essays on poetry and criticism? ›

The Sacred Wood, book of critical essays by T.S. Eliot, published in 1920.

What is the main message of The Waste Land? ›

The Waste Land can be viewed as a poem about brokenness and loss, and Eliot's numerous allusions to the First World War suggest that the war played a significant part in bringing about this social, psychological, and emotional collapse.

How does TS Eliot's The Waste Land represent modern society? ›

Unlike earlier modern poets such as Walt Whitman, Eliot uses The Waste Land to draw connections between the mechanization and technological advancement in everyday life and the degradation of human dignity. In this way, Eliot's poem can be read as a criticism of the Industrial Revolution and its effects on society.

What is modernism in The Waste Land by TS Eliot? ›

The Waste Land is also characteristic of modernist poetry in that it contains both lyric and epic elements. Modernism continued the tendency, begun in romanticism, to prize lyric highly, but many modernist poets also sought to write in the traditionally highest form, epic.

What does the poet mean by no life hard? ›

The poet means 'no life heard' is a phrase that states whatever suffering or trouble he was facing no one heard about it except he himself faced it alone without anyone help. Explanation: This phrase represents remorse and sorrow. The tone of the poet is very sad.

What does the line we are never alone implies? ›

“To believe is to know we are never alone” implies that belief can help us feel connected to something greater than ourselves, whether it is a higher power, a community, or a sense of purpose.

What does a poem should not mean but be mean? ›

He ends his poem with the line: A poem should not mean but be. A poem is a piece of art. The poet is supposed to show, not explain what's occurring in a poem, but allow the reader to experience the feelings and emotions of the poem for themselves.

What are the five trees in heaven? ›

Temples dedicated to Lord Shiva will also be surrounded by five species of sacred evergreen tree, as detailed in the Puranas: the Amala (Phyllanthus emblica), banyan (Ficus benghalensis), bel (Aegle marmelos), neem (Azadirachta indica), and pipal (Ficus religiosa).

What is the most spiritual tree in the world? ›

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, the most sacred tree.

It is the southernmost branch of the Bodhi tree in India, under which Buddha attained Enlightenment. The tree was planted in 288 BC, making it the oldest tree intentionally planted by humans. It is revered by Buddhists worldwide.

What tree symbolizes sadness? ›

Weeping willow meaning

The willow tree is also featured in Asian folk tales and art, often in relation to loss and mourning. The weeping willow is also associated with grief and mourning in Western countries, including the US.

What religion is the sacred tree? ›

Stemming from the ancient Vedic religion, Hindus hold great reverence towards nature and believe trees are the origin of life. Trees hold high religious significance in Hinduism. In fact, every tree has a tree deity, or a god/goddess, who is to be worshiped, respected, and given offerings.

What are the teachings of the sacred tree? ›

The fruits of this tree are the good things the Creator has given to the people: teachings that show the path to love, compassion, generosity, patience, wisdom, justice, courage, respect, humility and many other wonderful gifts.”

What does the tree symbolize in Christianity? ›

We see in the gospels that Christ died on a tree for the forgiveness of our sins. We can start again. In the Book of Revelation, at the other end of the Bible, we find more references to trees. We will have the right to eat of the tree of life (Revelation 2:7), if we overcome as the Spirit of God shows us.

What is the metaphor in The Waste Land? ›

Eliot metaphorically compares his sad memories, as losing his friend, to the dull roots and he compares April to rain which revives the roots of the plants at the beginning of spring.

What does water symbolize in The Waste Land? ›

It's here that water becomes a symbol of the fertility that the waste land no longer has, and without this fertility, there can be no hope for anything new or beautiful to grow.

What is the significance of the hyacinth girl in The Waste Land? ›

This presentation concealed a life-long love for an American: Emily Hale, a drama teacher to whom he wrote (and later suppressed) over a thousand letters. Hale was the source of "memory and desire" in The Waste Land; she is the Hyacinth Girl.

What are the 4 elements of literary criticism? ›

Literary elements include plot, theme, character and tone.

What are the four accusations against poetry? ›

First---poetry is useless---a waste of time, second—poetry is deceptive the mother of all lies, third—poetry is immoral—the nurse of abuse, fourth—Plato would have none of it and so banished poets from his republic.

What are the 4 main parts of a poem? ›

The basic elements of poetry include meter, rhyme, scheme, verse, and stanza.

What was the name of Walt Whitman's most famous literary work? ›

Whitman's most well-known work, Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855 by Whitman himself.

Who is the perfect critic? ›

In a two-part essay from 1920 titled “The Perfect Critic,” Eliot attempts to indicate the means by which literary criticism should discern its proper object and distinguish its unique task from other critical activities.

Who is the father of free writing? ›

Walter Whitman Jr. (/ˈhwɪtmən/; May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist, and journalist. He is considered one of the most influential poets in American history. Whitman incorporated both transcendentalism and realism in his writings and is often called the father of free verse.

What is the jug jug to dirty ears? ›

“'Jug Jug' to dirty ears” is how T. S. Eliot, in The Waste Land, described rape. (“So rudely forced.”) As anyone who has pretended to feel pleasure while actually feeling pain can attest, the art of disguising agony isn't hard to master.

What does the end of The Waste Land mean? ›

By the film's end he has come to terms with loss, accepted his own mortality, and suffered literal and metaphorical scars just like his father. The very final scene shows Diego finally venturing beyond the wasteland toward the horizon's new dawn.

Why does TS Eliot refer to lilacs in The Waste Land? ›

Like the lilacs, Eliot represents love as a futile attempt to ignore the cruel realities of life. The relationships depicted in the poem are shallow and unlikely to last through any real challenges. Just like the lilacs, these relationships are doomed to die.

Is The Waste Land optimistic or pessimistic? ›

This overall pessimism caused Eliot to analyze other aspects of society that he felt had changed for the worst after the war.

What are the allusions in The Waste Land? ›

Eliot references William Shakespeare many times in this poem because, well, Shakespeare's the man, isn't he? More specifically, Eliot alludes to the plays The Tempest (48, 191, 257), Antony and Cleopatra (77), Hamlet (172), and Coriolanus (417).

What is the mythical method in TS Eliot's The Waste Land? ›

He explained that the mythical method consisted of creating “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity”. “It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the intense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (177).

What is the main theme of modernism? ›

The major literary themes of the Modernist Era are confusion, isolation, and disillusionment. These themes reflect the mindset of the American people and the feelings that plagued them throughout the early 1900s.

How does Eliot present the predicament of modern man in the waste? ›

He connects existing panoramic setbacks of modern life to antiquities. Thus, it implies a reproachful question on modernism. Exposing a picture of mundane wasteland that symbolically suggests the spiritual death of modern men, Eliot ties the malaise with the eternal human problem and looks east for a possible remedy.

What is the conclusion of The Waste Land by TS Eliot? ›

At the end, the poet comes to the conclusion that he must start the process of self-purification from himself. He decides to follow the three principles of spiritual rebirth in his own life with a hope that it will lead to a better future.

What are the symbolic meanings of wood? ›

It is also associated with qualities of warmth, generosity, co-operation and idealism. The Wood person will be expansive, outgoing and socially conscious. The wood element is one that seeks ways to grow and expand. Wood heralds the beginning of life, springtime and buds, sensuality and fecundity.

What do types of wood symbolize? ›

Wood Symbolism
  • OAK energy, protection and strength of character.
  • EBONY protection and clarity.
  • MAHOGANY growth and guidance.
  • TIGERWOOD kindness and loyalty.
  • ROSEWOOD nourishing health and beauty.
  • PURPLE HEART creativity and knowledge.
  • OLIVE WOOD peace and inspiration.
  • PADAUK power and strength.

What is the most spiritual wood? ›

Palo Santo is the most revered tree you will ever encounter in the natural world. Sacred wood collectors have been foraging the tropical dry forest floors for centuries.

What is sacred tree in the Bible? ›

The olive tree is special to the Christian faith. The Bible contains many references: Jesus prayed under an olive tree on his way to Jerusalem before his crucifixion.

What is the spiritual meaning of the wood element? ›

Wood represents wealth, family, health, and prosperity. Incorporating the wood element in your home is essentially using the vitality of the outdoors to create more harmony and energy indoors.

What emotion is associated with wood? ›

The emotion of the Wood Element is Anger. The Wood element is also the element of Spring, making it appropriate to think about now. Wood exemplifies the energy of growth, change, and pushing through It is a very active energy that allows for a lot of movement and progress, both internally and externally.

What is the spiritual meaning of wood energy? ›

Symbolically, wood has a strong connection with the nature. Like crystals different tree species have their own sacred energy and metaphysical properties. Their energetic potential may help to deal with stress.

What is the mystical meaning of wood? ›

It is a symbol of honesty, truth, and forthrightness.

What wood represents life? ›

Elm trees represent life and eternal wisdom. No wonder so many college campuses plant elms along their entrances. Maple trees represent balance, longevity, and generosity.

What tree is associated with magic? ›

Hazel. Hazel has a reputation as a magical tree. A hazel rod is supposed to protect against evil spirits, as well as being used as a wand and for water-divining.

What type of wood is considered holy? ›

Sacred Oak

The tree received its “sacred” attribution due to a native Indian legend that claims that the tree possesses the power to heal. This sacred tree was looked upon as the shrine tree of the Delaware Indians, who prayed for it whenever they needed help.

What is the wood of God? ›

People call agarwood as "Wood of God" because they believe it was God who created this fragrant wood. Agarwood is mentioned in many religious scripture.

What are the healing properties of wood? ›

The reason wood has such a positive effect on human health is because it lowers the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation. SNS causes the stress response; increasing blood pressure and heart rate and inhibiting functions like digesting, recovery and repair.

What tree was Jesus crucified on? ›

According to the story, it was the dogwood tree that provided the wood used to build the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Because of its role in the crucifixion, it is said that God both cursed and blessed the tree.

What are the 4 trees in the Bible? ›

Almond (Ecclesiastes. 12:5); apple (Song of Solomon 2;3), chestnut and fir (Ezekiel 31:8), cedar, myrtle and oil (Isaiah 41:19).


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