Anti-Romantic Ideas in Rhapsody on a Windy Night and The Hollow Men by T.S Eliot
Eliot’s grasp and incorporation of anti-Romantic ideas gives rise to his pessimistic diagnosis of the modern world. By “present[ing] formal difficulties of a much more discouraging nature” [George Williamson], the composer evokes in the responder an emotional truth that cannot be denied. This is strongly demonstrated via Rhapsody on a Windy Night, conveying the corrupt conditions of the modern world via the disturbing experiences of its persona. In similar way, pessimistic values of modernity are also shown within The Hollow Men as an equivalent to universal crises towards humanity. Ultimately, Eliot’s exploration of such topics is consistent with the description of his poetry as a pessimistic diagnosis that is emotionally confronting.
Eliot’s poetry shows the apparent repetitiveness of modern life as inducing psychological digression, which gives rise to pessimistic values of modernity. In Rhapsody on a Windy Night, the repeated references to time as seen in “twelve o’clock” corresponds to the continuous passage of time with nothing ultimately achieved. This foreshadows the meaningless and inescapable routines of modern life, ending with “four o’clock”. The concluding caesura of the poem “bed is open;… tooth-brush hangs… shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life” portrays the persona’s exhaustion and thus rest; this diverts from the sustained perspective of a “twisted” and “broken” modern landscape, relieving the responder. However, the juxtaposition of “prepare for life” with the foreshadowing “last twist of the knife” implies a tortured existence. This is reinforced by the pointed rhyme conflating these ideas of fatigue and pain. In particular, the second rhyming couplet is situated as a single line stanza, which succinctly exhibits the salience of this psychological damage. This consequently shows the diminished state of modernity as an undeniable emotional truth. Correspondingly, The Hollow Men shows a parallel idea through conveying modern men as trapped in a life of meaningless repetition. Eliot subverts the joy of the nursery rhyme to give this repetition a malicious edge by replacing the traditional “mulberry bush” with a “prickly pear”. In its second iteration, the rhyme becomes the poem’s pathetic finale, as mankind ends “not with a bang but a whisper”. Eliot denounces a world that has been stripped of meaning by the horrors of war. The emptiness and confusion of this dried out world has fostered uncertainty and turmoil in individuals on a universal level.
Nevertheless, in spite of this tuneful modulation that diverts from the poem’s fragmented form, the subjects still have negative connotations regarding modernity, which externalises the emotional truth that cannot be denied. Hence, Eliot’s diminishing parody within the ‘hollow men’ collectively exemplifies total psychological chaos induced by insignificant repetitions associated with modern life. To summarise, the poems reflect the psychological digression posed by the meaningless routines of modern society.
Eliot depicts the modern world as tragically limited by the absence of spiritual and social connections, which externalises the inevitable reality that is the deterioration of modernity. Social lacking is shown in Rhapsody on a Windy Night via the persona’s particular interaction with the streetlight and his scrutiny towards the woman encountered. The “paper rose” that the woman wields is symbolic of superficial intimacy and an eternal façade for diminished vitality. There is a menacing sense of entrapment in the predatory image of the door “open[ing] on her like a grin”, which exhibits the persona’s isolation.
This is reinforced by the consistent image of the personified street lamp “mutter[ing]… sputter[ing]” that conceals human intimacy and hence the resort to bonding with inanimate objects. The street lamp or even light itself is representative of the analytical persona that exposes the pessimistic values of modernity. This becomes concise with Eliot’s language choice “torn… stained… crooked” which collectively evoke a sense of faulty and destruction. Therefore, Eliot’s portrayal of limited social ties, as seen in Rhapsody on a Windy Night, gives due emphasis on dysfunctional modernism – “a broken spring… ready to snap”. Likewise, in The Hollow Men the decaying sense of spiritual hope is hinted in the fragmented iteration of the Lord’s prayer. “For thine is / Life is / For thine is the”, implying an incapacity to reach god. The men are metaphorically “stuffed” with worthless ideas and thoughts, portraying them as spiritually empty. Juxtaposition of the intensely intimate “lips that would kiss”, with the desolate and lifeless, “form prayers to broken stone”, depicts the emptiness of their hopes and the consequent spiritual turmoil; this also conveys the absence of intimate social connections via the diverting “lips”.
Furthermore, the motif of the “fading star” symbolises decay and death; this dimming light corresponds to deteriorating hope for the inhabitants of the modern world – the “hollow men”. Thus, the confronting spiritual turmoil demonstrated within The Hollow Men associates itself with Eliot’s diminishing perception of modernity. Altogether, Eliot’s view of the modern world is given emphasis via his skilful conveyance of humanity’s social/spiritual lacking and its subsequent turmoil.
To conclude, Eliot’s internalisation of anti-Romantic ideas enables him to give a pessimistic and emotionally confronting diagnosis of the state of the modern world. His poems Rhapsody on a Windy Night and The Hollow Men demonstrate this notion by depicting the repetitiveness and social/spiritual limitations of modernity. Rhapsody on a Windy Night strongly exhibits this repetitiveness through endless inescapable routines and social lacking via the embodiment of human soul into inanimate objects. The Hollow Men conveys the same themes via the composer’s pathetic parody and portrayal of false spiritual hope.
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