A Comparison of Setting: Eliot and Hardy
Victorian poet Thomas Hardy- having immensely enjoyed a childhood in the idyllic county of Dorset- was a stoic believer in the transformative power of nature which is explored through settings in both ‘Drummer Hodge’, and ‘Afterwards’ as nature is imbued with the ultimate power of overcoming death. Modernist poet TS Eliot writes of a period in which such natural power has been exhausted and polluted by an industrial landscape; and similarly conveys this through setting in his verse. Thus, whilst both poets use settings to offer insight into their central concerns; the utopian countryside settings of Hardy’s verse arguably subvert Eliot’s ruined metropolis in which both nature and human inhabitants are corrupted.
In ‘Afterwards’, Hardy uses an idyllic natural setting in order to explore the capacity of nature to transcend mortality and memorialise human life. Such is demonstrated through the vibrant imagery of a natural setting in the opening stanza, which is linked with alliteration in phrases such as ‘the May month flaps its glad green leaves’ to mark out the transformative power of nature, especially when juxtaposed with the sparse descriptions of humanity (‘He was a man…’) despite it being the poem’s central theme. Highlighting this is the structurally fluctuating descriptions between that of humanity and that of the natural world throughout the stanzas, mirroring the process of natural life replacing and invigorating lost human life. Nonetheless, the poem closes not on natural imagery, but on the imagined speech of onlookers at a funeral; ‘He… used to notice such things’, which might suggest that the power lies not in the natural setting, but in a human ability to notice and seek beauty in the landscape. Indeed, the poem was written by Hardy in order for it to be read out at his funeral, explaining the role of the setting in the poem as a vehicle for ossifying human identity after death, as demonstrated through the celestial setting of ‘the full-starred heavens’. The image of a stars-cape here conveys the power of the natural world through suggesting that the onlookers might look upwards in order to remind themselves that Hardy’s ideas still hold significance after death. Furthermore, the compound adjective ‘full-starred’ is just one of many littered throughout the stanzas, from ‘new-spun’ to noun ‘dewfall-hawk’, and when paired with the frequent use of enjambment, this hints at the frequently evolving and transforming power of nature. Aligham wrote that Hardy wants to be remembered here as a ‘lover of nature’, suggesting a beautiful union between the pair which is developed through the setting detail of ‘The dewfall-hawk com[ing] crossing the shades to alight’ as a symbol of the speaker’s soul travelling into a metaphysical afterlife. Alternatively, the ‘shades’ might act as a classical allusion to the ghosts which resided in the underworld of the Greeks, which reinforces nature’s power as spanning to an ancient past whilst additionally having power to transform human life in the present day. Eliot likewise uses classical allusion in ‘Prufrock’- and yet the closing ‘sirens’ are used to exaggerate his distance from nature as opposed to his connection with it. Throughout the poem, Hardy, unlike Eliot adheres to the romanticist tradition evident in the poetry of Blake and Wordsworth of elevating nature to an almost holy level, therefore enriches the energy of natural places as able to inspire and memorialize the memories of not only the speaker of this poem, but many renowned thinkers of the age. This conveys the idea that nature is able to improve the lives of humanity as a collective as opposed to merely individuals, and Eliot rejects such a concept in ‘Preludes’ through implications that humanity as a whole has been warped by nature, evident in the lines ‘His soul stretched across skies’, implying that nature has become a malignant force able to destroy the man.
In ‘Preludes’, Eliot uses corrupted settings to signify his central worry of the damaging effects industrialism would have on places in Britain. Such is evident through the setting detail of a ‘lonely cab-horse’ which journeys through the city’s ‘street’ in the opening stanza, suggesting that nature has been shunned and rejected to the city’s outskirts. This is highlighted by the ‘steams’ and ‘stamps’ of the horse- dynamic verbs which correlate- with sibilance- the sounds of a machine, and this paired with the compound noun ‘cab-horse’ implies that the horse has utterly been reduced to a mere component of the city’s industrial mechanism. If the ‘horse’ is able to represent nature’s diminished power, the ‘sparrow’ symbolizes the human and animalistic liberty which is similarly entrapped by the setting: the ‘shutters’ and ‘gutters’ literally entrap the sparrow on the page, and to do so in perfect rhyme suggests little hope for nature to overpower the destructive place. This might be read as a reflection of the worries of intellectuals of the era who scorned the increased funding of industries, which led to the development of cities and construction of buildings such as sky-scrapers, and Eliot’s decision to concrete this in writing all the more heightens his discontent with such actions. Indeed, this is similar to Hardy’s use of setting to commemorate his ideas concerning nature, and yet the ‘hawk’ is emblematic of a degree of hope lacking from Eliot’s ‘grimy’ and ‘broken’ landscape. Whilst it could be argued that the ‘light’ that pervades the setting as a single line (‘And then the lighting of the lamps’) may inject a glimmer of hope into the verse, that it is end-stopped and surrounded by imagery of a sordid setting (‘stale’, ‘sawdust’, ‘lonely’) suggests that such efforts will fail to illuminate the broken setting: this gives a literal reading of one critic’s perspective that ‘the city is always presented in a negative light’ in Eliot’s verse, as does the use of enjambments and lack of fixed rhyme scheme which foregrounds the unfortunate idea that neither humans nor nature will be able to repair the destroyed metropolis. Whilst the death of Hardy’s character in ‘Afterwards’ is proven to invigorate the natural setting, the industrialist force of Eliot’s poem is proven to destroy both humans and their surrounding natural places, offering a far more pessimistic portrayal of 20th century Britain than Hardy.
In ‘Drummer Hodge’, Hardy reiterates his key concern of nature’s power through allowing a natural setting to commemorate the fallen body of a ‘Drummer’ when humans fail to do so. Hardy’s war-poem deteriorates from much commemorative war poetry of the Victorian era in its pacifist message presented through the extended image of a deceased drummer, and therefore the use of settings is imperative in signifying such a unique and controversial idea: this is developed through the use of foreign language throughout the stanzas in terms such as ‘Karoo’, ‘veldt’, and ‘kopje-crest’ used to mark out the drummer as incongruous to the setting, which is furthered by the alternating trimeters and tetrameters used to mirror the dissonance of the drummer with his surroundings. The Boer-Wars were the first major conflict of the 20th century, and Hardy was personally acquainted with a young drummer from his home county Dorset who had died during the wars, which explains one critic’s perspective of the poem as a ‘cry of rage’ for its condemnation of violence within war. Highlighting this is the abrupt opening line: ‘They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest’, with the dynamic verb and use of caesura dramatizing the intense physical violence enacted towards the Drummer. Indeed, the speaker of Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ is similarly shunned from his home and scours the streets of his city ‘like a tedious argument’, and yet whilst there is a degree of choice in such actions, the third person voice of ‘Drummer Hodge’ allows us to sympathize to a greater extent with ‘Hodge’ due to his inability to alter his position. Nonetheless, it could be argued that Hardy offers hope for a future in which nature memorializes the soldier, as demonstrated by the line ‘Grow to some Southern tree’, which marks nature as a force for replenishment and good, especially with the prior enjambment which suggests that man and nature become one. Such a concept is furthered by the celestial motif which continues in lexis ‘stars’, ‘constellations’, and ‘eternally’, used to suggest that the drummer will be remembered and his identity reflected in the up-above setting of the sky; allowing light to have a significant degree of power lacking from the weakened ‘light’ which fails to utterly improve the sordid conditions of ‘Preludes’ setting.
In ‘Prufrock’, like Hardy, Eliot reflects on the lost identity of his speaker through use of isolated and secluded settings throughout. Such is demonstrated by the anaphoric patterning of the line ‘The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes’, with the largely repeated word choices in the following line suggesting that the speaker feels powerless and weakened by the natural setting. Furthermore, the color symbolism of ‘yellow’ implies the corruption ingrained into Eliot’s landscape, and indeed, the life of the speaker. Indeed, setting is further used to demonstrate the speaker’s inability to form connections with women through the rhyming couplet ‘In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo’, which breaks from the standard use of free verse therefore suggesting that the speaker’s unquenched sexual desires remain the root of other issues in his life. Alternatively, allusion to the Italian artist here might highlight the speaker’s feelings of inadequacy as he believes even a deceased artist enjoys more romantic success than him. This is reiterated through Eliot’s standard use of free verse and lack of fixed rhyme scheme, used to convey the central argument that Prufrock’s relationships will ever remain fractured and failed; perhaps mirroring the plight of Eliot who was known to journey around London in sexual distress, forcing himself not to submit to passions which compelled him to touch women on the street. Indeed, whilst Eliot uses free verse to highlight a broken setting, Hardy subverts this through using an interlocking ABABAB rhyme scheme in ‘Drummer Hodge’ in order to mark out the interconnection between the drummer and the comforting presence of nature. One critic has labelled ‘Prufrock’ a ‘series of incessant sexual grumblings’, which is foregrounded through the ‘streets’ the speaker follows ‘like a tedious argument’- a simile perhaps implying that it is his own bitterness that prevents him from enjoying the love of a woman. In ‘Afterwards’, Hardy suggests that natural settings are able to improve and unify humanity as they connect the speaker with those at his funeral, which contrasts Eliot’s speaker who uses setting to increasingly distance himself from humankind.
To conclude, both Hardy and Eliot make excessive use of settings in order to signify their central concerns, despite these concerns being wildly different, with Hardy’ presentation of nature as a beautiful and romanticized force for good subverting Eliot’s perspective of a broken society able to alienate both nature and the individual. Thus, it is perhaps Hardy whose use of setting best conveys his central concerns through the tone of optimism which the poems finalize upon, allowing central message of natural power to linger in the mind long after the poem has been read.
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