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T.S. Eliot, Poetic Impersonality, & the Via Negativa

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” –T.S. Eliot

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T.S. Eliot, Poetic Impersonality, & the Via Negativa
T.S. Eliot, Poetic Impersonality, & the Via Negativa

Time & Location

Jul 30, 2020, 4:30 PM – 5:30 PM PDT


About the Event

Why was T.S. Eliot so hostile towards individualism, Romanticism, and imagination despite being one of the most innovative poets of the 20th-century? In this lecture that spanned Eliot’s The Waste Land to Four Quartets, Emily King (University of Chicago) showed how Eliot’s artistic disposition is illuminated by the concept of negative theology, the theological method that describes God through what God is not. In his canonical essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot outlines a poetic theory that King will argue prefigures his later turn to religious poetry. Though Eliot claims to “halt at the frontiers of metaphysics or mysticism,” King showed that his theory of poetic impersonality reveals an unconscious connection to the tradition of negative theology, or the via negativa. In developing a poetics of self-annihilation, Eliot’s work recalled the writings of the negative mystics—St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and Pseudo-Dionysius.

This was the third event in Zephyr's summer of poetry and theology. 


Suggested Reading 

T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Essays, Faber and Faber, 1932, pages 13-22.  

About the Speaker 

Emily King is a Summer Fellow at the Zephyr Institute, and an incoming graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where she was awarded the Elsa Marty Fellowship in Ministry. She recently graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in English with distinction. She also studied literature and philosophy at the University of Oxford. At Stanford, she was awarded the Robert M. Golden Medal for Excellence in the Humanities for her honors thesis “Poetry as Decreation: Impersonality and Grace in T.S. Eliot and Simone Weil.” Emily has presented papers at the American Literature Association, the T.S. Eliot Society, and the American Weil Society. She has worked at Philosophy Talk, the Sacramento Bee, and Stanford’s Arts Intensive and Structured Liberal Education (SLE) programs. Most recently, she interned and wrote for Commonweal Magazine in New York.

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