Responses to his poetry
The writer Ronald Bush notes that Eliot's early poems like "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", "Portrait of a Lady", "La Figlia Che Piange", "Preludes", and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" had "[an] effect [that] was both unique and compelling, and their assurance staggered [Eliot's] contemporaries who were privileged to read them in manuscript. [Conrad] Aiken, for example, marveled at 'how sharp and complete and sui generis the whole thing was, from the outset. The wholeness is there, from the very beginning.'"
The initial critical response to Eliot's "The Waste Land" was mixed. Ronald Bush notes that "'The Waste Land' was at first correctly perceived as a work of jazz-like syncopation—and, like 1920s jazz, essentially iconoclastic." Some critics, like Edmund Wilson, Conrad Aiken, and Gilbert Seldes thought it was the best poetry being written in the English language while others thought it was esoteric and wilfully difficult. Edmund Wilson, being one of the critics who praised Eliot, called him "one of our only authentic poets". Wilson also pointed out some of Eliot's weaknesses as a poet. In regard to "The Waste Land", Wilson admits its flaws ("its lack of structural unity"), but concluded, "I doubt whether there is a single other poem of equal length by a contemporary American which displays so high and so varied a mastery of English verse."
Charles Powell was negative in his criticism of Eliot, calling his poems incomprehensible. And the writers of Time magazine were similarly baffled by a challenging poem like "The Waste Land". John Crowe Ransom wrote negative criticisms of Eliot's work but also had positive things to say. For instance, though Ransom negatively criticised "The Waste Land" for its "extreme disconnection", Ransom was not completely condemnatory of Eliot's work and admitted that Eliot was a talented poet.
Addressing some of the common criticisms directed against "The Waste Land" at the time, Gilbert Seldes stated, "It seems at first sight remarkably disconnected and confused... [however] a closer view of the poem does more than illuminate the difficulties; it reveals the hidden form of the work, [and] indicates how each thing falls into place."
Following the publication of The Four Quartets, Eliot's reputation as a poet, as well as his influence in the academy, was at its peak. In an essay on Eliot published in 1989, the writer Cynthia Ozick refers to this peak of influence (from the 1940s through the early 1960s) as "the Age of Eliot" when Eliot "seemed pure zenith, a colossus, nothing less than a permanent luminary, fixed in the firmament like the sun and the moon". But during this post-war period, others, like Ronald Bush, observed that this time also marked the beginning of the decline in Eliot's literary influence:
As Eliot's conservative religious and political convictions began to seem less congenial in the postwar world, other readers reacted with suspicion to his assertions of authority, obvious in Four Quartets and implicit in the earlier poetry. The result, fueled by intermittent rediscovery of Eliot's occasional anti-Semitic rhetoric, has been a progressive downward revision of his once towering reputation.
Bush also notes that Eliot's reputation "slipped" significantly further after his death. He writes, "Sometimes regarded as too academic (William Carlos Williams's view), Eliot was also frequently criticized for a deadening neoclassicism (as he himself—perhaps just as unfairly—had criticized Milton). However, the multifarious tributes from practicing poets of many schools published during his centenary in 1988 was a strong indication of the intimidating continued presence of his poetic voice."
Although Eliot's poetry is not as influential as it once was, notable literary scholars, like Harold Bloom and Stephen Greenblatt, still acknowledge that Eliot's poetry is central to the literary English canon. For instance, the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature write, "There is no disagreement on [Eliot's] importance as one of the great renovators of the English poetry dialect, whose influence on a whole generation of poets, critics, and intellectuals generally was enormous. [However] his range as a poet [was] limited, and his interest in the great middle ground of human experience (as distinct from the extremes of saint and sinner) [was] deficient." Despite this criticism, these scholars also acknowledge "[Eliot's] poetic cunning, his fine craftsmanship, his original accent, his historical and representative importance as the poet of the modern symbolist-Metaphysical tradition".
Allegations of anti-Semitism
The depiction of Jews in some of Eliot's poems has led several critics to accuse him of anti-Semitism. This case has been presented most forcefully in a study by Anthony Julius: T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (1996). In "Gerontion", Eliot writes, in the voice of the poem's elderly narrator, "And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner [of my building] / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp." Another well-known example appears in the poem, "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar". In this poem, Eliot wrote, "The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs." Interpreting the line as an indirect comparison of Jews to rats, Julius writes, "The anti-Semitism is unmistakable. It reaches out like a clear signal to the reader." Julius's viewpoint has been supported by literary critics such as Harold Bloom, Christopher Ricks, George Steiner, Tom Paulin and James Fenton.
In a series of lectures delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933, published under the title After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934), Eliot wrote of societal tradition and coherence, "What is still more important [than cultural homogeneity] is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable." Eliot never re-published this book/lecture. In his 1934 pageant play The Rock, Eliot distances himself from Fascist movements of the thirties by caricaturing Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, who 'firmly refuse/ To descend to palaver with anthropoid Jews'. The 'new evangels' of totalitarianism are presented as antithetic to the spirit of Christianity.
Craig Raine, in his books In Defence of T. S. Eliot (2001) and T. S. Eliot (2006), sought to defend Eliot from the charge of anti-Semitism. Reviewing the 2006 book, Paul Dean stated that he was not convinced by Raine's argument. Nevertheless, he concluded, "Ultimately, as both Raine and, to do him justice, Julius insist, however much Eliot may have been compromised as a person, as we all are in our several ways, his greatness as a poet remains." In another review of Raine's 2006 book, the literary critic Terry Eagleton also questioned the validity of Raine's defence of Eliot's character flaws as well as the entire basis for Raine's book, writing, "Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot's well-earned reputation [as a poet] is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours."
Eliot's influence extended beyond the English language. His work, in particular The Waste Land but also The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday strongly influenced the poetry of two of the most significant post-War Irish language poets, Seán Ó Ríordáin and Máirtín Ó Díreáin as well as The Weekend of Dermot and Grace (1964) by Eoghan O Tuairisc. Eliot additionally influenced, among many others, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, William Gaddis, Allen Tate, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney, Kamau Brathwaite, Russell Kirk, George Seferis (who in 1936 published a modern Greek translation of The Waste Land,) and James Joyce .
- Order of Merit (awarded by King George VI (United Kingdom), 1948)
- Nobel Prize in Literature "for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry" (Stockholm, 1948)
- Officier de la Legion d'Honneur (1951)
- Hanseatic Goethe Prize (Hamburg, 1955)
- Dante Medal (Florence, 1959)
- Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1960)
- Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964)
- Thirteen honorary doctorates (including Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne, and Harvard)
- Tony Award in 1950 for Best Play: The Broadway production of The Cocktail Party
- Two posthumous Tony Awards (1983) for his poems used in the musical Cats
- Eliot College of the University of Kent, England, named after him
- Celebrated on commemorative postage stamps
- A star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame