Emptying Oyster Shells: T.S. Eliot's Lyrical Poetry

T.S. Eliot’s poetry, the epitome of Modern lyricism, remains influential among contemporary poets – and for good reason. His lyrical free-verse style, experimental in the 1920s, is now the benchmark of ‘good’ poetry that doesn’t have to rhyme. Join us as we unpack the technical brilliance of his sounds and images. Each week, we engage in critical reading, discussion, and debate in order to discover the rich layers, meanings, and possibilities of one of Eliot’s poems.

This course is suitable for students with no prior study of T.S Eliot or poetry, but a basic understanding of terms like metaphors, assonance, and near-rhyme, for example, would be an asset. Students with previous Eliot study will also gain a range of perspectives as we consider critical, historical, and technical aspects of each poem. Excerpts of literary criticism and the poems studied will be provided in-class each week; however, personal research between classes is encouraged.


  • Introduction to Lyrical Poetry: In our introductory class, we will familiarise ourselves with the tools of the poetry trade, the frameworks employed in critical study of literature, and an overview of what makes T.S. Eliot special as a poet.
  • Preludes: This lyrical address employs rhyme and rhythm to create the appropriate atmosphere for Eliot’s wistful and cynical reflections on Modern life.
  • Rhapsody on a Windy Night: We journey home after work with a drunk persona, and the bright light of each lamp we pass triggers a fragment of memory.
  • The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: An ordinary middle-class man, Prufrock longs for the ‘greatness’ which hasn’t been possible since the Renaissance. The amusing, if cynical, dramatic monologue epitomises Modern anxiety and neuroticism.
  • Portrait of A Lady: A lyric address between a young man and his older, wealthier, lady friend, where an amusing turn of events makes it difficult to know who is dumping whom.
  • Journey of the Magi: One of Eliot’s later, spiritual poems, the journey is nevertheless cynical, even apocalyptic in its tone, because with the birth of the messiah comes the death of the Old World.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Read and annotate a poem with reference to its structural and figurative techniques.
  2. Discuss lyricism, free-verse, and dramatic monologues as genres of poetry.
  3. Consider some of the various ways each poem may be interpreted.
  4. Identify the influence of contextual values of Modernism in the poems.
  5. Knowledgably reflect on T.S. Eliot’s significance and contribution to poetry.