It would be difficult to overstate the effect that Eliot’s poetry had on me when I first read it. Unlike Auden’s work which I could not find a way into, I felt that Eliot’s poetry was an open and inviting doorway into a place where you could look at the things behind the world.
Reading the two so close together has allowed me to consider why this should be so. In the end, it comes down to the very simple fact that whilst both poets are undoubtedly fiercely intelligent and pack their work with reference and allusion, I do not need to understand it to get anything out of Eliot. Auden it seems to me uses his intelligence to obscure and exclude. Eliot uses his intelligence to open up and include.
This is not to say that I do not understand the levels of Eliot’s erudition. Well… some of them at least. And it did no harm to my understanding that I was already a great fan of Shakespeare, Dante, and Conrad; and steeped in Arthurian literature and analysis. However, it is Eliot’s imagery that first hooked me. Those first three lines of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ were enough. Anyone who could write like that was going to have a permanent place on my bookshelf (and I saved my three pounds and bought the hardback of the complete poems and plays which I still have).
At school (this was one of my A Level set texts) we worked from the Selected Poems. No Minor Poems etc. No Old Possum’s. Whilst we had a good teacher, that selection did somewhat obscure two things about Eliot’s poetry. Firstly was the way in which it developed. His increasing pre-occupation with religion is more obvious when the poems are read chronologically. The second is the varying quality of his work. The minor pieces simply do not compare with the epic quality of the major works. But that is to compare Eliot with Eliot, because even the pieces written in ‘Early Youth’ are assured and redolent with the voice that would later shake my world.