TS Eliot Poems
The Enduring Relevance of T.S. Eliot’s Poetry
In a radical attempt to forge a new poetic medium, the poetry of TS Eliot possesses an enduring appeal due to its ability to lament universal concerns of the modern era while also subverting conventional literary content and structure. The poems ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night (1915) and ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927) showcase Eliot’s skills in thematic subversion and structural fragmentation to explore the immorality and purposelessness that mar modern existence. Adopting a nihilistic approach to memory instead of the nostalgia preferred in the Romantic tradition, structural fragmentation in ‘Rhapsody’ highlights the emptiness of the urban lifestyle. Likewise as he undermines the joy of the Nativity scene in ‘Journey of the Magi’, Eliot intensifies his treatment of these concepts with fragmentary imagery. Thus by simultaneously raising universal concerns and challenging literary tradition, Eliot’s oeuvre endures as a portrait of immorality and futility in the modern age.
The innate immorality of modern society renders traditional sources of solace, such as memory and spirituality, obsolete as forces for social change. Foregoing the escapist methods of the Romantics, wherein memory was sought as a refuge from a harsh industrial reality, Riquelme acknowledges ‘Rhapsody’ as a collection of “unromantic verses” which do not flinch in depicting society’s moral decay. As “midnight shakes the memory as a madman shakes a dead geranium”, this absurdist image foregrounds the omnipresence of death and insanity in the persona’s memories and physical experiences. He notes a prostitute whose “eye twists like a crooked pin”, this unsettling simile highlighting the persona’s discomfort at observing the downfall of modern morality. Even the vestal moon of the Romantic tradition is subject to the moral destruction wrought by modernity. She “winks a feeble eye”, as Eliot personifies the moon as the aforementioned prostitute, and “a washed-out smallpox cracks her face”, this disease metaphor indicating the degree of nature’s corruption. While Eliot’s depiction of modern immorality thus relies upon the subversion of Romantic tropes in ‘Rhapsody’, the typically joyful nature of the Nativity scene is undermined in ‘Journey of the Magi’. Transposing the spiritual concerns he personally encountered during his conversion to Anglicanism to the poem’s Biblical setting, the Magus concentrates on the sordid details of the journey. He recalls “the lack of shelters, and the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly and the villages dirty”, with polysyndeton highlighting the exhaustive hostility of urban society. The Magi “preferred to travel at night/Sleeping in snatches”, symbolic of the spiritual darkness which shrouds the external world. Eliot’s focus upon the obstacles of the journey contrasts with the Magus’ brief summation of Christ’s birth as “(you may say) satisfactory.” His apathetic tone and use of the subjunctive is a contradiction of the celebration attributed to the advent of Christ, framing his spiritual journey as a largely amoral event. Therefore the subversion of literary and religious commonplaces is a key feature of Eliot’s poetry which ensures the universal appeal of his treatment of immorality.
Exposure to the destabilizing change wrought by prevailing forces of modernity increases the futility of human agency and spirituality in the urban world. Growing distrust with established modes of communication and the flourish of Imagism in the wake of World War I pushed Eliot to experiment with poetic form. Attributing the “typical elusiveness” of Eliot’s poetry to its structural fragmentation, critic Haba believes this construction imbues his discussion of futility with a “peculiar power”. The fractured lyric, ‘Rhapsody’, consists of seemingly unrelated images which depict the forces of modernity that compound to degrade human agency. He remarks upon “the hand of the child, automatic”, a mechanical lexical choice degrading a child’s sense of autonomy. In his memories, he notes “female smells…cigarettes…cocktail smells”, a tricolon of vices indicative of an empty modern existence. Shifting abruptly to the persona’s return home, a personified lamp instructs him to “put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.” These imperatives emphasize the decreasing value of human agency in a post-industrial context governed by the mechanization and technology symbolized by the lamp. Thus structural fragmentation in ‘Rhapsody’ provide poignant examples of the human failure in the wake of destructive modernization. Likewise, Eliot employs the fragmentation of textual form in ‘Journey of the Magi’ to convey the Magus’ fractured sense of spirituality. In a seemingly unconnected series of images, the persona recalls “three trees”, “six hands dicing for…silver” and “feet kicking empty wine-skins”. Eliot subtly renders these allusions to Christ’s miracles and crucifixion in the Old Testament through synecdoche, leaving the Magus unable to recognize their spiritual significance. These fragments are interrupted as the persona concludes that “there was no information”, this declarative statement highlighting his religious oversight. The Magus’ final admission that he “should be glad of another death” exemplifies his spiritual resignation, his paradoxical preference for death conveyed in a defeatist tone acknowledging the futility of religion. Therefore the structural fragmentation characteristic of Eliot’s oeuvre is a powerful vehicle for conveying the futility of human agency and spirituality, experiences common to modern individuals.
The poetry of TS Eliot possesses an everlasting relevance due to its ability to confront literary traditions in its discussion of universal human concerns. Eliot’s penchant for thematic subversion and structural fragmentation in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ poignantly convey the immorality and sense of futility that plague modern individuals. Perhaps the greatest merit of Eliot’s poetry is that its distinctive style and form resist simplification, and so recognizes the very complexity of human existence itself.
An Analysis: Unexpected Negatives in “Journey of the Magi”
The speaker of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” is one of the magi of the title, who delineates his arduous journey to witness the birth of Christ. What is interesting is that the tone of this poem is not of wonderment, but of powerlessness. The man who witnesses such seminal moment in the history of the world isn’t truck by wonder, but simply exhausted, perhaps even resentful as he has been forced to leave the old order to witness this moment. His journey is also in a sense compared to the suffering of Christ through the tapestry of symbols and allusions in the poem. A number of references like “beating darkness” (symbolic of baptism), the “vine leaves” (symbolizing the blood shed during crucifixion) and many others draw a parallel between his journey and that of Christ. He projects a sense of isolation in a world that has changed too fast for him to be able to adapt to it as well as that of ambivalence.
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
This poem starts with a Nativity sermon by one Lancelot Andrewes (1662). While this may seem like just a quote at the first glance, it is important to analyse this as an instance of anachronism that permeates throughout the poem. Anachronism is essentially a discrepancy with regard to chronology. The speaker goes back and forth between different periods and the narrative is not chronologically linear. It is also important to note the tone of the poem since the beginning. The word “cold” in the beginning of the poem adds a sense of melancholy to the poem. Words like “cold”, “worst”. “sharp” and “dead” make it abundantly clear that the speaker is not enjoying this journey and has no choice in it. This sets the tone of isolation in the “dead of the winter” that is found in the rest of the poem.
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Perhaps the word “regretted” in this stanza encapsulates this part of the poem. The camels gall in their stubbornness, showing that nothing is in their favour. Right after the speaker delineates the isolated image in the present moment, he juxtaposes it with his past pleasures, invoking a since of nostalgia from within him for his home where he had everything he wanted. It is very important to note that there is a clear juxtaposition of the sense of isolation and powerlessness in the winter and that of absolute power and dynamism in the castle.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
This is very clearly a tale of hardship and this idea is reiterated in this stanza. The speaker makes it clear that they have come far from their comfort zone and that there is much that they have left behind. He speaks not of adulation and wonderment, but of suffering and hardship. The setting is still bleak and desolate, and he has used pathetic fallacy to help the nature reflect the mood of the speaker. He says that everything around him is hostile, even people that they finally come across don’t offer them shelter.
A hard time we had of it.At the end we preferred to travel all night,Sleeping in snatches,With the voices singing in our ears, sayingThat this was all folly.
They have accepted their situation and decide to travel all night. But even as they do so, they are still feeling resentful. At this point, it is sufficed to say that a sense of regret at started clouding their minds and they didn’t wish to face these hardships.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;With a running stream and a water-millbeating the darkness,And three trees on the low sky,And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.But there was no imformation, and sowe continuedAnd arrived at evening, not a momenttoo soonFinding the place; it was (you may say)satisfactory.
While everything happens in this particular stanza, and the reader has a hard time catching up, every part of this stanza is fragmented and then put together to form a whole. They come at “dawn” (perhaps symbolizing hope) to a valley. The valley in this context is very important because in contrast to the death and desolation of winter, the valley symbolizes fertility and life. they smell of vegetation soothes them after the kind of hardship that they have been through. The “three trees in the low sky” is perhaps the most important part of this entire poem. This is not only prominent use of anachronism but also one of the first overt usages of Biblical allusions. The idea of the “old white horse” and the “vine-leaves” show deeply Christian connotations and evoke an image of a devout man who is narrating. However, it is the end which is the most striking. After seeing all these awe inspiring scenes, the speaker is satisfied. Perhaps he is too tired and drained to actually take in the experience.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,And I would do it again, but set downThis set downThis: were we led all that way forBirth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.We returned to our places, theseKingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,With an alien people clutching their gods.I should be glad of another death.
The idea of “Birth or Death?” captures the gist of this poem. One of the most prominent themes in this poem is the demise of the Pagan order and rise of the Christian one. In this stanza he brings out an inner conflict of a man who is caught in between two shifting dimensions and doesn’t know how to adapt to it. For him, the birth of Christ and of a new order was a “bitter agony” because this meant the death of everything they knew. In the end he closes with wsaying that now all he can do is wait for his death.
The Centrality of Tiresias in The Waste Land
T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land presents a multitude of fragmented depictions of character, voice and dialogue, which combine to create the overall sense of disorientation within the poem. Despite this pervading lack of stability, the poem continues to succeed as a united whole; from some source in the text, a growing sense of unification and constancy develops. Arguably, Tiresias is this source: his position in the poem is not that of ‘mere spectator’, but a disconnection that assigns him almost omniscient authority, rising above the other voices with a tone of certainty, and thus providing a balance to the otherwise dislocated atmosphere.
On a superficial level it could be viewed that Tiresias as a figure in The Waste Land is undercut by his limited appearance in the sequence of poems, the first view the reader is given of the prophet being in the middle of ‘The Fire Sermon’. Yet Eliot’s placement of Tiresias at almost the exact half way point is revealing of his value: structurally, Tiresias appears to be a transitional and bridging figure, perhaps representative of a turning point in thought for Eliot and, as in a five-act tragedy, and his brief appearance could thus highlight Tiresias as a pivotal character. Most prominently, his appearance paves the way to the essential resolution of the poem, in ‘What the Thunder said’- arguably his presence shifts the pace of the poem, and although this initially catalyses the breakdown of the speakers’ language in ‘The Fire Sermon’, it eventually leads to the pared down coherence of Eliot’s various reflections on the conclusive vocalisation, ‘Da’. He seemingly purges the overarching anguished voice of the poem, as indicated by the disintegration of language from lines 301 and 346, allowing Eliot to rebuild the text up to the summit of the instructing final section. Thus Tiresias seems to become the transitional figure that permits Eliot to refigure the ‘heap of broken images’ of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ in his mind, even if by ‘What the Thunder said’ he has only managed to ‘shore (them) against his ruin’; it still appears that Tiresias has allowed for progression, in the speaker’s resolve to seemingly reclaim these disjointed ideas, images and emotions which litter the text.
Similarly, while a prominent source of dissolution in The Waste Land seems to be Eliot’s presentation of the relations between man and woman, typified in ‘The Fire Sermon’ by the clerk’s ‘assault’ and siege of the typist, Tiresias’ presence and first-person control of the narrative paradoxically unifies both the male and female elements in the poem. Tiresias, as a mythological figure, has lived in male and female bodies and consequently feels himself to be ‘throbbing between two lives’, the word echoing from the life-affirming desire earlier in the poem, ‘throbbing waiting’. This transgender and sexual connection allows him to oversee the ‘game of chess’ played between man and woman, having ‘foresuffered all/ Enacted on this same divan or bed’, and experience the suffering between man and woman on a universal, all-encompassing scale. Tiresias’ descriptions of the typist, for example, ‘bored and tired’, ‘alone’, ‘automatic’ are meticulously balanced against those of the clerk, whose actions are ‘undesired’ and who expects no more than ‘indifference’. In this way, his observations highlight the dissatisfaction experienced on both sides, and perhaps, therefore, encourages the reader to view this interaction, and that of man and woman in ‘A Game of Chess,’ in a more detached, less gender-driven way. A unifying effect is thus created by Tiresias’ voice, as the male and female characters are aligned by his observations, and the transcendent, objective view he seems to advocate. The sonnet form woven by Eliot into ‘The Fire Sermon’, from lines 235-248, lifts Tiresias’ voice into a knowing satire: the romantic poetic form is inverted and misused to convey something vulgar and abusive instead. The beauty and regularity of the form highlights the corruption in their relationship, and the sense of resolution which he represents is emphasised, as ‘And I Tiresias have foresuffered all’ appropriately falls on the volta, and Tiresias mercifully draws back from the consummation of the scene. The failure to sustain a rhyming couplet at the end demonstrates the collapse of the sonnet, and Tiresias’ recognition of its ironic unsuitability for the incident described, rendered more poignant by the emphatic ellipses. In this way, Tiresias’ significance is highlighted by his judgmental position in the poem, and by consequence, the characters which seem ‘below’ him, lose their distinction, and seem to merge into one.
Furthermore, Tiresias’ omniscience as an oracle allows for his significant, connective role in the text. Deep in his sordid account of the typist and clerk, Tiresias breaks off from the ruthless depiction to state that he has ‘foresuffered all’ and has ‘walked among the lowest of the dead’. Here, Tiresias suddenly lifts the reader above the intimate view of their dreary union, instead addressing human suffering on a philosophical scale. Eliot’s use of the word ‘all’, could truly be viewed as encompassing everything here; as a ‘prophet’ he perceives and understands all, paralleling his witnessing of this little private ‘folly’ to the tragic scale of when he ‘sat by Thebes below the wall’, recalling the ignorant lust which turned it, too, into a waste land. It is suggested that the disillusioned Tiresias knows the secrets of ‘the waste land’ both of the past and future, and can thus see his way out of it. Perhaps, then, the figure of Tiresias is representative of the internalised power which the poet possesses, to progress from the personal emotional ‘waste land’ which Eliot is often interpreted as facing in ‘The Fire Sermon’. Indeed, while his memory of being ‘among the lowest of the dead’ reflects the nihilistic mood of The Waste Land, the insistence of his pluperfect verbs ‘have foresuffered’ and ‘have sat’ emphasise that Tiresias eventually has progressed, bridging the gap between past suffering and future resolution, thus unifying the fragments of the text and offering Eliot a promise of resolution in the final two poems.
Thus Tiresias’ importance as a character in the poem is arguably most clearly conveyed by the recurrent image of ‘the violet hour’ in which he is set. This motif opens the first stanza Tiresias narrates in ‘The Fire Sermon’, an image alluding to twilight, a transitional period between day and night, and therefore symbolic of the figure of Tiresias himself. ‘The violet hour’ is a liminal space, a bridge between two points of time and indeed Tiresias embodies this transformative time period; his form flits between male and female, and his mind’s eye between past and future. This emphasises Tiresias as the key figure in the poem: he is the only character who seems to have access to this transitional space; he is not stagnating in the elemental settings of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ or ‘Death by Water’, or the claustrophobic inner spaces of ‘A Game of Chess’. He both perceives and embodies the liminal space of progress and so Eliot, emphasising through his use of anaphora and pleonasm, writes that Tiresias can see ‘the violet hour, the evening hour’: fate, the driving force of inevitability that powers our world. Tiresias can see the end of ‘the waste land’ whatever it may be, a twilight role that permits him to transcend the cacophony of fragments and voices in the poem, giving the reader a new perspective on the collective voice of ‘the waste land’. In ‘What the Thunder Said’, this violet imagery returns, in a destructive, but paradoxically restorative scene: ‘Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air’. The polysendetic, emphatic phrasing evokes a potent image of a simultaneously explosive and reconstructive scene, with the hope of ‘the city over the mountains’ seemingly implying the future escape from the waste land. In this way, Tiresias’ intrinsic link to the violet imagery underlines his transformative significance to the poem, and his status as a unifying figure: ‘the violet hour’ which Tiresias represents summons the essential hint of resolution in the text, supplying it with a final, though implicit sense of fusion and restoration.
Perhaps above all, Tiresias’ significance lies in the argument that his prophetic sight makes up the matter of the poem, as conveyed in Eliot’s notes: ‘What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem’. His vision is the singular source of all the many fragmented voices and characters, whose dialogue, thoughts and memories are conveyed; indeed, this transcendent sight is what allows the many characters to ‘melt into’ one another, creating a unifying effect. When viewed in this manner, it appears as if the entirety of the poem is the prophecy of Tiresias- therefore, it could be argued that he is the overall speaker throughout. Certainly, Tiresias is the sole personage in the poem who appears to be self-aware, as demonstrated through the repeated ‘I Tiresias’, especially when juxtaposed with the almost babbling monologues of the other characters such as ‘Marie’ in ‘The Burial of the Dead’, who is even only named indirectly: ‘and he said, “Marie, hold on tight”’. Similarly, the distinctive use of parentheses to pinpoint Tiresias’ reflections seems to elevate them from the surrounding narrative, highlighting the authority of his ‘seeing’ in comparison to the activity of other characters. However, Eliot’s notes are not necessarily to be taken at face value; arguably, they are just as much a part of the poem as the poetry itself, and as cryptic. Perhaps, more simply, Tiresias is a dispassionate ‘fragment’ of Eliot, looking upon both the state of the western world as well as his own life and personal struggles, presenting them in the way which they appear in his mind: fragmented. Indeed Tiresias seems to represent the internalised understanding of the speaker, which Eliot is fundamentally attempting to seek out.
Each man, arguably, is his own prophet, and seemingly ‘the waste land’ is a state of mind, the essence of which is conveyed to the reader by the destabilising and disorientating mixture of allusions, images and voices. It is through the prophetic omniscience of Tiresias that this is communicated; thus he is the figure at the heart of the poem, at once bridging the gap between male and female characters, as well as connecting the present state of ‘the waste land’ to the future, foreseeable resolution and recovery. Whether he is viewed as the mythological prophet, the metaphorical voice of Eliot, or the embodiment of every character in the poem, it is evident that the text would seem disunited, and purposeless, without his presence.
Maturation of T.S. Eliot’s Style
In many respects, T. S. Eliot’s poems “articulated the disillusionment of a younger post-World-War-I generation with the values and conventions—both literary and social—of the Victorian era” (American National). Eliot used The Waste Land and The Hollow Men to illustrate his feelings of a brutal age of war. The Waste Land was “taken over by the postwar generation as a rallying cry for its sense of disillusionment” (American National). These feelings of disillusionment gave way to a more stable religious theme, such as in Journey of the Magi, later in Eliot’s career.
T. S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot was born September 26, 1888. Until he was eighteen, Eliot lived in St. Louis and then went on to attend Harvard. At twenty-two, after earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, Eliot moved to the Sorbonne University in Paris. After spending a year at the Sorbonne, Eliot returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but in 1914 he moved to England. In 1915, Eliot married his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and they moved into a London flat with Bertrand Russell.
Not only did Russell share his flat with the Eliots, but he also shared with them his social connections. With Russell’s help Eliot met many of Europe’s elite, including Ezra Pound. Pound helped Eliot to meet many of his contemporary authors, poets, and artists. Eliot and Russell’s relationship soured over Russell’s romantic involvement with Vivienne, which led to Eliot not attending his Ph.D. dissertation defense.
It was during this time that Pound recognized Eliot’s poetic ability, and “in 1917 he received an enormous boost from the publication of his first book, Prufrock and Other Observations, printed by the Egoist with the silent financial support of Ezra and Dorothy Pound” (American National). Prufrock established Eliot as a leading poet of the twentieth century. The years of Eliot’s poetic maturation were accompanied by familial hardship. Eliot’s father died in 1919, at the same time as Vivienne’s mental and physical health started to deteriorate, and the emotional strain on Eliot took its toll. In 1921, Eliot suffered from a nervous collapse, and on his physician’s advice he took a three-month’s restive cure.
Whether it was because of the breakdown or the long-needed rest he received afterwards, Eliot recovered from a severe case of writer’s block. He took the time to finish a poem he had started in 1919, which became The Waste Land. The poem’s intensity stems from a blending of the horrors of Eliot’s life, the recently fought war, and many literary influences from English mythology. Although written during a very trying time in his life, it was the publication of The Waste Land that made “Eliot’s reputation grow to nearly mythic proportions; by 1930, and for the next thirty years, he was the most dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in the English-speaking world” (American National).
The Waste Land reveals itself as aptly titled, especially when the difficult and dream-like verses have yielded their secrets. The melancholy and morose lyrical feast unveils the aridity and impotence of modern civilization in a series of sometimes realistic and sometimes surrealistic mythological episodes, whose perspectives overlap and underline each other with an indescribable total effect. The complete poem cycle consists of a mere 436 lines, but actually it contains more meaning and impact than most novels of as many pages. The Waste Land is now more than eighty years old, but unfortunately it has proved that its catastrophic visions still have undiminished clairvoyance in the shadow of the digital age, and as Eliot stated about his own work: “I don’t see why the prospect of human annihilation should affect the poet differently from men of other vocations. It will affect him as a human being, no doubt in proportion to his sensitiveness” (Hall Interview 221).
The surreal nature of The Waste Land is in itself a means to Eliot’s ends. The poetic juxtapositions he uses allow Eliot to produce a feeling of shock and awe to offset his message of a hopeless new age. The poem’s discontinuity, from this perspective, is a symbolic form of the confusion of awakening from a deep slumber. The poem’s use of allusions to the past as well as its form must be read as a sign of the disruptive power of primal forces reasserting themselves. It is hopeful to a Christian society to believe that it lives in a world where God is not dead, but the poem is not about such a world. The hope that The Waste Land holds is a negative one: “[t] he fact that men have lost the knowledge of good and evil, keeps them from being alive” (Brooks 186). The Waste Land does not merely reflect the passing of the golden age of Victoria, but shows Eliot’s feelings of a society where people walk around morally dead. Beneath Eliot’s scathing criticism there lies a “profound and painful disillusionment, and out of this disillusionment there [grows] forth a feeling of sympathy, and out of that sympathy [is] born a growing urge to rescue from the ruins of the confusion the fragments from which order and stability might be restored” (Nobel).
The Waste Land was Eliot’s first long poem, and can be read as his philosophy on the need to still destructive human desires. There is little hope found in The Waste Land; its major theme is the inevitable collapse of society through the “Unreal City,” which Eliot seems to use to represent post-war urban areas. This “Unreal City” is always “[u] nder the brown fog” (Waste Land ℓℓ 61 & 208), which seems to represent the pall of death that hung over much of Europe after World War I. The “Unreal City” is a nightmarish place that parallels the urban decay and disintegration of the majority of Europe’s cities after WWI. The poem’s finale is an orgy of elemental and social violence, with “[those] who were living […] now dying” and the “red sullen faces [that] sneer and snarl from doors of mudcracked houses” (Waste Land ℓℓ 329 & 344-45), representing the inevitability of death and the fear of man. What the poem attempts here, by pointing out the slow descent to death and the fear ascribed to that death, is the achievement of an elaborate code of conduct that is indicative of the desires, which Eliot feels should be repressed.
However, Eliot, consumed by the rigors of his domestic life, found it hard to fully appreciate his success. In 1923, Vivienne almost died, which nearly sent Eliot into a second emotional breakdown. Over the next two years, Eliot continued down his path of emotional despair, until a lucky chance allowed him to quit his overly demanding job at Lloyd’s Bank. The infant publishing company of Faber and Gwyer saw the advantage of having a literary editor who was versed both in letters and business and hired Eliot. Eliot had finally found a job for which he was suited.
The seeds of his future faith take root in The Hollow Men, although when published in 1925 the poem reads as the sequel to the philosophical despair of The Waste Land. Although The Hollow Men is not truly a sequel to The Waste Land, it is a thematic appendix to this earlier work. Like The Waste Land, The Hollow Men shows the depths of Eliot’s despair and need for a compass by which to guide himself. By starting the poem with “Mr. Kurtz–he dead,” Eliot taps into Conrad’s theme in Heart of Darkness of the death of the gods of primitive men. The death of Kurtz, the god of Conrad’s African primitives, shadows the death of the primitive elemental forces that govern Eliot’s life, like some ancient thunder god. With the death of his primitive gods, Eliot becomes one of the hollow men and must find something with which to fill himself up again.
The Hollow Men takes place in a twilight world of lost souls and disembodied forces. This world is peopled by “[s]hape[s] without form, shade[s] without colour, paralysed force[s], gesture[s] without motion” (Hollow ℓℓ 11-12). These hollow men are walking corpses, soulless individuals who do not know that they have lost their souls. These men live in a “valley of dying stars” (Hollow ℓℓ 54), a land that is as hollow as they are themselves. The hollow men avert their eyes not only from each other, but also from the eyes of the divine; they are empty men estranged from God. They are the shadow that isolates men from each other and the divine; these hollow men are the unenlightened masses, devoid of a moral compass. These hollow men share the fate of “inhabit[ing] ‘death’s dream kingdom,’ not remembered, to be sure, as ‘lost violent souls,’ but, not on the other hand, even memorable” (Kenner 161).
Although there is little hope for the hollow men in their “twilight kingdom” (Hollow ℓℓ 38), there is life outside in “death’s other kingdom” (Hollow ℓℓ 46). This other kingdom, God’s kingdom, is peopled by the stuffed men: those who found their souls and are no longer hollow. Eliot’s hollow men seem to believe, at least to some degree, that if they withstand “the twilight kingdom” they may find some rebirth in “death’s other kingdom.” Through Eliot’s use of the snippets of the Lord’s Prayer in the poem’s conclusion, he implies that the hollow men’s adverted eyes may once again turn to the divine and they may become members of the stuffed men.
The Hollow Men seems to be Eliot’s final exorcism of the dæmons of his troubled youth. Merely two years after the publishing of the poem, Eliot’s life began to head in a slightly more stable direction. In 1927 two important things happened in Eliot’s life: he found God in the Church of England and he became a British citizen. Although Eliot’s marriage and personal life continued to disintegrate, he began to find solace in his new relationship with God. Therefore, Eliot’s emotional turmoil of his youth gave way to a religious maturation both in his person and his poetry. With his latter religious poems such as Journey of the Magi, Eliot tries to capture God’s calming influence on his life and share it with others.
Journey of the Magi is the monologue of one of the three wise men, come to see the nativity. Although he believes in the importance of the birth he comes to witness, proven by his willingness to travel to Bethlehem, the magi is not jubilant but melancholy. He has been “led all that way for Birth or Death” (Magi ℓℓ 35-36), but does not comprehend that which he has truly come to see: the child’s birth or his own death. It is not until he witnesses the scene that the magi truly knows the answer.
Upon his journey home the magi realizes the real reason for his journey: “It is not that the Birth that is also Death has brought him hope of a new life, but that it has revealed to him the hopelessness of the previous life” (Smith 122). This realization has not filled him with the fervor or elation of those touched by God, but the morose emptiness of one whose life has been exposed for the fallacy that it is. The magi must now return home to face the “alien people clutching their gods” (Magi ℓℓ 42). His transformation is so complete that he can no longer relate to his own people, the magi now knows the true God, and the gods of his people become as alien to him as his people now seem.
Eliot uses the magi to represent his own sacrifice; “he has reached essentially, on a symbolic level true to his emotional, if not to his intellectual, life, the humble, negative stage that in a mystical progress would be prerequisite to union” (Smith 123). In other words, Eliot has reached the very limit of personal tribulation, and through his acceptance of God, and the sacrifice of his old emotional turmoil he has been reborn into a new version of himself. “Uncertainty leaves [the magi] mystified and unaroused to the full splendor of the strange epiphany” (Smith 124), and Eliot seems to view his own sacrifice with some melancholy, as if his uncertainty matches the magi’s. Even though there is uncertainty in Eliot’s transformation, he has matured enough to realize the calmness of his faith is probably better in the long run than the “old gods” of his tumultuous heathenism.
Through the reading of his work it is easy to see why, in 1948, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry” (Nobel). Just in examining these three poems alone, they can be seen as definitions of poetry itself: they masterfully show the emotions and experiences of the poet in a way that elicits a similar reaction from the reader. If these poems are considered among the complete body of his work, they retain the same meaning as well. Eliot spent his career cataloguing his life through its translation into poetry. This kind of expansive self improvement and refinement is a mark of achievement for anyone, but his ability to turn his life into verse to which anyone can experience sets Eliot apart as a truly great poet.
Brooks, Cleanth Jr. “The Waste Land: An Analysis”. A Norton Critical Edition: T.S. Eliot The Waste Land. Ed. Michael North. New York: Norton & Company, 2001. pp. 185-210.
Cooper, John Xiros. T.S. Eliot and the Politics of Voice: The Argument of “The Waste Land”. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.
Eliot, T.S. The Hollow Men. Collected Poems: 1909-1962. London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991.
Eliot, T.S. Journey of the Magi. Collected Poems: 1909-1962. London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. Collected Poems: 1909-1962. London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991.
Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot. London: W.H. Allen, 1960. pp. 161-164.
“T.S. Eliot”. American National Biography. Ed. John A Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
“T.S. Eliot and Donald Hall”. Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. pp. 203-221.
“T.S. Eliot Presentation Speech”. Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967. Editor Horst Frenz. Amesterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1969.
Smith, Grover. T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956. pp.122-124.
Mind Versus Body: Contrasting Metaphysical and Modern Poetry in Eliot’s “Whispers of Immortality”
T.S. Eliot’s “Whispers of Immortality” is a close examination of life and death. Penned during the war-torn years between 1915 and 1918, Eliot’s quatrain poem cites the writers John Donne and John Webster as examples of metaphysical poets whose work depicts an understanding of mortality and spirituality. Juxtaposed against the work of Donne and Webster is the portrait of Grishkin, a seductive Russian temptress who exists purely in a world of momentary pleasure. In “Whispers of Immortality,” Eliot contrasts the macabre interests of these seventeenth century writers with present-day sensual imagery to illustrate how metaphysical poetry’s intellect upsets modern poetry’s hedonistic ends.Eliot’s piece is divided into two sections, each split into four quatrains with the last word in the second line assonant with the last word in the fourth line of each stanza. The first four stanzas are penned in the past tense and focus on describing themes within Donne and Webster’s individual work and thought processes. He begins: “Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin; / And breastless creatures under ground / leaned backward with a lipless grin” (L1-L4). Webster’s described fascination with death and the occult (“possessed by death”) is emblematic of his genre’s interest in the morbid and spiritual worlds. In seeing “the skull beneath the skin,” the poet is shown as a clairvoyant who perceives a certain reality underneath the human form, a depiction that is furthered when Eliot writes that “He knew that thought clings round dead limbs / Tightening its lusts and luxuries” (L7-L8). The “lusts and luxuries” of the mind (“thought”) are merely fleeting and are negated by the onset of death, and the bones remain even after the flesh has long disintegrated.In his 1921 essay, “The Metaphysical Poets,” Eliot notes that the seventeenth century authors “…feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” In the poem, he corroborates this assertion (“Donne, I suppose, was such another / Who found no substitute for sense; / To seize and clutch and penetrate, / Expert beyond experience,” L9-L12) with a description of Donne’s intellectual curiosity and philosophical study. In the same essay, he writes: “A philosophical theory which has entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in one sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved.” Donne is considered by many to be the exemplification of the metaphysical poetic aesthetic, and shares Webster’s interest in the seemingly impenetrable concepts of life and death (“who found no substitute for sense”). The overtly sexual description, “To seize and clutch and penetrate / Expert beyond experience,” portrays the mind versus body tension that Donne and his contemporaries sought to explain through poetic exploration. The writer rejects fleeting carnal pleasures in favor of the contemplation of mortality and human decay (“anguish of the marrow / The ague of the skeleton;” L13-L14). The second section of “Whispers of Immortality” is told in the present tense and marks a shift not only from formal to colloquial tone, but also from times of antiquity to the modern day. The poem’s subsequent half opens: “Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye / is underlined for emphasis; / Uncorseted, her friendly bust / Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.” (L17-L20). Eliot’s purposeful use of “nice” drips of sarcasm, and leads into a description of a woman whose existence is defined in terms of her fleshy and exaggerated body. In contrast to Webster’s sexless, “breastless creatures,” and Donne’s feverish “skeleton,” Grishkin’s “friendly bust” invites the human touch with the ephemeral “promise of pneumatic bliss,” a sexual tryst. The Russian woman masks and glorifies her true appearance, her eyes “underlined for emphasis;” manufactured to seduce, she represents the “dissociation of sensibility…from which we have never recovered,” the post-seventeenth century crudeness described in “The physical Poets” that Eliot blames for the disorientation of modern poetry. Eliot equates the seductress to a predatory feline enticing a hapless primate with her pheromone-saturated scent (“The couched Brazilian jaguar / Compels the scampering marmoset / With subtle effluence of cat; / Grishkin has a maisonette;” (L21-L24). Even when lying “couched” in her apartment (“maisonette”), Grishkin’s gratuitous sensuality incites a visceral response from her unwitting prey. The poet elaborates, stating that even his metaphor of the cat and monkey pales in comparison to the supposed influence of the temptress (“The sleek Brazilian jaguar / Does not in its arboreal gloom / Distil so rank a feline smell / As Grishkin in a drawing room,” L25-L28). The metaphysical poets, as the name suggests, were captivated with theories and ideas that existed outside of the palpable realm; in contrast, and even in metaphor, the jezebel occupies a purely physical space fraught with primal desires. The poem’s final stanza concludes: “And even the Abstract Entities / Circumambulate her charm; / But our lot crawls between dry ribs / To keep our metaphysics warm.” (L29-3L2). Grishkin’s unconcealed sexuality lends her a certain magnetic desirability, even to deeper-thinking souls (“Abstract Entities”). Those drawn into her deceptive web “circumambulate her charm,” orbiting helplessly around her gravitational pull. However, the poem’s unnamed narrator is immune to the vamp’s “promise of pneumatic bliss,” instead seeking refuge amongst “dry ribs / To keep our metaphysics warm” with other like-minded souls (“our lot”) who eschew the lure of sensualist pastimes. These long-dead (“dry”) bones, Donne and Webster’s symbolic skeletal remains, are a rejection of Grishkin’s sensual physicality in favor of intellectual satisfaction. Webster and Donne delighted in the contemplation of the seemingly inconceivable and generated meditative and expository poetic works that sought to make sense of the irrational world. In his prose, Eliot writes that, in metaphysical poetry, “…there is a direct sensuous apprehension of thought.” This “sensuous apprehension” is the alchemy of ideas into palpable cerebral pleasure, the “skull beneath the skin” and the expertise “beyond experience” that characterizes these poetic works. In “Whispers of Immortality,” death is everlasting and is related to the mind, while sex is ephemeral and purely confined to the body. Through comparing metaphysical and modern poetry, Eliot asserts that the ecstasy derived from Donne and Webster’s texts lies in the coalescence of intangible ideas and emotions into a digestible whole. In contrast, the self-pleasuring nature of modern poetry lacks the substance with which to relate intellectually outside of the physical self. Eliot, T.S. “The Metaphysical Poets.” Centenary College, 2007. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.< >Lancashire, Ian. “Whispers of Immortality.” Representative Poetry Online. General Editor: Ian Lancashire. 1998. Web. 9 Mar. 2013.< https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/content/whispers-immortality>
A Metaphorical Reading of T.S. Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night
T.S. Eliot once remarked that poetry must be difficult. The sentiments of this are expressed in much of his poetry and in his esoteric style, especially in Rhapsody on a Windy Night. If read literally, Rhapsody presents a bewildering scene of confusing, albeit beautifully-written nonsense. However, if read in terms of a series of lexicalised ideas, rather than a sequence of events telling a story, extensive and meaningful interpretations can be drawn. Therefore, it is my belief that a metaphorical stance is necessary to appreciate the full value of Eliot’s Rhapsody.One initial example of this is in the title; the reference to a ‘windy’ night is not met by any direct reference to wind in the poem. However, if we look at the connotations of wind; change, transmutation and the ephemeral, this ties in with the first line of the poem; ‘twelve o’clock’ is the midpoint between one day and the next, often presented in literature as a time of change, perhaps most famously in Gothic fiction. Therefore the title is a presentiment that change is an important theme in the poem.Wind is also important in its ability to erode and to deform; this is reflected in the repetition of the ‘twisted’, which pervades the poem. Twisted imagery is used to represent scenes of desolation; ‘a twisted branch upon the beach eaten smooth’. The sea also symbolises change, and the fact that it erodes the branch, which is a part of nature, may suggest that the poem is about the effect of change in subverting nature. Furthermore, the twisted is also used to convey the unnatural; ‘smallpox cracks [the moon’s] face, her hand twists a paper rose’. The image of the ‘paper rose’ symbolising man-made beauty juxtaposed with the personification of the moon as a diseased and damaged woman conjures the idea of industry and the artificial having a degrading effect on nature. Contextually, this makes sense as Rhapsody was written in the late 1910’s; a time of a great innovation and development both artistically and industrially.Eliot’s use of personification and reification blurs the boundary between the physical and the metaphysical, adding to the ambiguous and somnambulatory tone of the poem. The reification of memory (‘dissolve the floors of memory’, ‘midnight shakes the memory’) is particularly prominent. This ‘captures the essence of an abstraction by recasting it as something more palpable’ ; the presentation of memory as a physical object suggests the vulnerability of memory as Eliot reminds us that like physical objects, memory can be lost, degraded and destroyed. If midnight is taken to symbolise a time of change, then the fact that it ‘shakes the memory’ may suggest that new changes are ‘shaking off’ memory, causing us to forget. Furthermore, the fact that the ‘floors’ and ‘clear relations, divisions and precisions’ dissolve suggests that in the novelty of innovation, tradition is fading away. Modern readers may be reminded of Santayana’s famous aphorism ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ , opening up various avenues of social and political interpretation of the poem. A metaphorical reading of Rhapsody on a Windy Night has proved to be effective, as the reification of memory inspired the song Memory in the long-running musical Cats.Alongside the aforementioned personification of the moon, Eliot also personifies a street-lamp throughout the poem; ‘the street lamp sputtered, the street lamp muttered’. The street-lamp forces the narrator to look upon a series of different images (‘regard that woman’), and provides the only dialogue in the poem. This highlights the narrator’s solitude, and his alienation from the society represented in these images. The anthropomorphic streetlamp and moon provide the only sources of light in the poem. This is important as light has strong connotations of happiness, hope and positivity; however the narrator’s only source of this is artificial or reflected. This mise en scène gives us the impression that the narrator’s relationships with others and with society are strained and superficial, further broadening the feeling of alienation.Eliot uses creative metaphors to create acroamatic and cryptic imagery. Readers must deconstruct these metaphors by looking at the combination of literal meanings, connotations and context of the words in order to develop images of what is being described. For example, ‘I could see nothing behind that child’s eye. I have seen eyes in the street trying to peer through lighted shutters’ is full of meaning that must be ‘unpacked’. The abutment of ‘see nothing’ and ‘eyes’ which have contrasting literal meanings presages discord and dissonance. Eyes are often presented in culture as being relatable to character; idioms such as eyes being ‘the window to the soul’ and ‘mind’s eye’ are applicable here. Therefore the fact that the narrator can ‘see nothing behind that child’s eye’ could be a suggestion of his inability to relate with others, widening the arroyo that Eliot creates between his narrator and society. On the other hand, he also sees eyes ‘through lighted shutters’. In the context of the whole poem, this is associated with the ‘female smells in shuttered rooms’, which are mentioned with a nostalgic tone towards the end of the poem. This, combined with the previously mentioned connotations of eyes and light therefore leads us to interpret that the eyes he sees ‘through lighted shutters’ are a suggestion that his lack of hope and lack of connection with society may have been redeemed to some extent in women. Nonetheless, the fact that the eyes are only ‘trying to peer’, the physical barrier of the ‘shutters’ and the retrospect with which the ‘female smells’ are mentioned suggests this redemption has been lost and is confined to memory.Eliot presents the poem as a stream of consciousness with a free metre and stanzas of differing line lengths. The consolidation of these structural features, the use of creative metaphor and touches of magic realism (‘lunar incantations’) gives the poem a dream-like and noctambulant tone. However, the short, staccato lines of the penultimate stanza represent a return to reality. The poem ends with ‘the last twist of the knife’. This is a conventional metaphor, showing the narrator’s transition back to reality is complete. This further use of the word ‘twist’ and the meanings derived from the phrase; pain and suffering, suggest that reality is worse than any of the previous images of the ‘twisted’.Throughout the poem, age is juxtaposed with degeneration and the obsolete. For example, ‘her dress is torn and stained with sand’. Sand may be an allusion to ‘the sands of time’, or maybe be a reference to the ‘twisted branch upon the beach’. Though ambiguous, this image gives the reader the distinct impression of age and mis-use. It has been ‘torn’, therefore no longer fulfils its use as clothing. Similarly, the ‘broken spring’ is described as old and decrepit; ‘rust clings to the form that strength has left’. Its use as a spring is to bear tension, however it has become brittle; ‘hard and curled and ready to snap’. This can be taken to be symbolic of tradition becoming obsolete and discarded, or alternatively as symbolic of the narrator, cast away from society like these broken, useless objects. The repetition of dust (‘smells of dust’, ‘dust in crevices’) is symbolic of antiquity and by-gone time, further defining the feeling of anachronism.It is clear that Eliot wrote Rhapsody on a Windy Night as an intentionally ambiguous poem, having the effect of creating the opportunity for limitless interpretation. To take Rhapsody at face-value would cause us to lose some of its inherent value. A metaphorical reading helps us to see its intricate web of imagery and to uncover the various layers of meaning which are hidden beneath the surface. Therefore, it is my belief that a metaphorical stance is a necessity in order to appreciate the full potential of Rhapsody on a Windy Night.
Journey to Modernism
Compared to the poetry prior to the 20th century, the poetry of T.S. Eliot rings vibrant, unconventional and inventive. Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi” is typical of his style and illustrates how Eliot’s poetry changed the genre forever. In its compression of image and language, “Journey of the Magi” is a complex poem, reflective of the complex world of the 20th century. The poem narrates the journey of the magi to see the birth of Christ. Traditionally, the magi in this tale are filled with a sense of wonder and excitement over the new king. They travel from afar and bring the finest gifts like gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” the magi are not characterized by the same sense of wonder and enthusiasm; they perform the journey without full understanding or interest. The gifts that are traditionally associated with them are not even mentioned. The first few lines of the poem set a negative tone; they explain that the journey was during the “worst time of the year” and in the “very dead of winter” (2; 5). This tone is surprising to the reader because traditionally the wise men are represented as dedicated and reverent-hardly the type to complain about how long or cold the journey is. Also, because the poem is a retelling-apparent because of the quotation marks around the first five lines-one would expect the magi to have forgotten the negative aspects of the journey in light of their conversion. In comparing the tone of this monologue to the Ulysses’ monologue in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” we see that Eliot is not concerned with perpetuating a picturesque myth but rather with constructing a realistic-even ordinary-perspective for his characters. This is a major shift for poetry: while it once focused on conventional images of beauty like nature, landscapes and singing birds, Eliot extracts beauty out of the mundane.As the poem continues, the narrator provides images of the journey, though never describing the landscape directly. In a word, the journey is disastrous: their transportation, the camels, are miserable; their guides, the camel men, are undependable, and the cities are hostile. The wise men “regret” the former times of “summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, / and the silken girls bringing sherbet” (8-10). The word “regret” is an interesting choice because there are two relevant meanings: it could mean that the wise men miss, or long for, the former times, or that they feel repentant over them. Both interpretations of the word can be supported: because the wise men are leaving on a winter journey, one would expect them to miss home (and summer); also, considering their spiritual conversion, one would expect the magi to feel repentant over the idleness in which they spent former times. The reader’s uncertainty parallels the uncertainty of the magi throughout the poem. By the end of the first stanza, the magi seem to lack a full understanding of the journey. By the line “that all this was folly” (20), the reader is invited to supply the meaning that the magi have missed. In the next stanza, the reader is actively engaged in deciphering the meaning of the poem. The magi reach a valley that smells of vegetation, and has a running stream and a water-mill. These are all images of birth-a direct contrast to the images of death in the first stanza. Though opposites, birth and death are connected through the relationship of the snow and the valley-the snow, an image of struggle and death, gives the valley moisture that causes vegetation, a symbol of birth. This relationship between birth and death is revisited later in the poem. The poem continues with a series of images that refer to Christianity. The three trees directly allude to crucifixion-there were three crosses at the crucifixion of Christ. The white horse alludes to the white horse of the second coming that is referred to in the New Testament. The pieces of silver refer to the silver pieces for which Judas betrayed Christ. These images are typical of Eliot in their compressed language and juxtaposition. Collectively, the images tell the story of Christ’s life, albeit briskly. At the end of the stanza, the wise men have found the place of the nativity, and call it “satisfactory” (31). This adjective certainly surprises any Western reader, for whom the nativity is traditionally celebrated as a divine event. That the magi find the nativity only “satisfactory” suggests that they don’t quite understand the gravity of the scene-or that they are not fully converted.In the last stanza of the poem, the uncertainty of the magi is revealed as the narrator reflects upon the journey. Though he “would do it again” (33), he is still unsure why they were led all that way: for death, or for birth? He is certain that he has seen a birth-the birth of Christ-but he had also seen a death-the death of his old lifestyle. In returning to their kingdoms, they are uncomfortable among the Pagans, “alien people clutching their gods” (42). This passage revisits the complex relationship between birth and death. In Eliot’s time, this passage seems particularly appropriate-much of his other writing deals with the alienation and isolation inspired by the increasingly modern world. The death of an old world brings about a more intricate new world, and the magi experience anxiety about the change. That the magi do not seem to fully comprehend the impact of the birth they have just witnessed shows that though converted, they are unable to truly benefit from their conversion. They are left awaiting another death, regretting past times.Credited as an inventor of modern poetry, Eliot reflected the uncertainty and complexities of modern life in his poems. Much like the narrator in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the narrator of “Journey of the Magi” is complicated and alienated. Unsure of their desires, the narrators of both poems are unable to make choices. The doubt and hesitation that the magi feel over the impact of Christ’s birth keep them from benefiting from their newfound faith. The conversion of the magi could parallel Eliot’s conversion to modern society: he was a man no longer at ease in the old dispensation of poetry.
T.S Eliot’s Poetic Voice
Emotionally charged and deeply intellectual literature acts as the voice of an empathic society, reeked by disturbing uncertainty and consumed by an anxious paralysis. T.S Eliot’s confronting suite of poetry forces a reconciliation with the futility of the modern world, a masterful quality that allows his nihilistic works to endure within our anxious post-9/11 zeitgeist. In a 1951 speech Eliot recognized the immensely powerful nature of the poetic voice, as it has the ability to communicate the “secret feelings” and the “despair of a generation”. The intense anxiety of Eliot’s disjointed society resulted in an earthly ‘purgatory’ of isolation and disparity. Eliot’s nihilistic perception of modernism provided a voice for paralyzed society, rejected by the infertility of the decaying urban landscape.
Alienation from a superficial world embeds a sense of meaningless isolation within a social consciousness. Eliot voices his permeating social anxiety through Prufrock, in the ironically named ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The poem, despite the misleading title, is not in fact a love song typical of idyllic romanticism. Rather, ‘Love Song’ is an agonizing examination into the modernist psyche, as Prufrock embodies the crippling paralysis of Eliot’s 20th Century society. Voicing his qualms over the inhibited social sphere, Eliot transfers his struggle inhibited social connection, unable to voice the “overwhelming question” to the “women talking of Michelangelo”. The need for pretense in an inauthentic society crippled self worth, as Eliot’s voice lacks Bergeson’s ‘elan vital’, a vital life force and requires the emotionally drained individual to “prepare a face to meet the faces”. Falsity is continued in the nihilistic poem ‘The Hollow Men’, as Eliot anxiously voices his concern with modernist reality being “stuffed” with a collective who’s “headpiece is filled with straw.” The narrator’s accusative voice and the repetitive of the inclusive pronoun “we” draws the responder into a reflective state of questioning regarding our “hollow” existence. The anxious realization forced by Eliot, requires both contemporary and modern audiences to reconcile with their “lost violent [soul]” and reflect on their contributions to a “meaningless” society. Eliot’s painstakingly relevant observation regarding the inescapability of futility is as a glaring as “sunlight on a broken column”. The narrator purposefully reiterates the motif of eyes, drawing from Roman philosopher Cicero’s interpretation as eyes being windows to the souls. Eyes are a means for deep connection, yet in Eliot’s disillusioned society “there are no eyes here”, perpetuating existing ennui. The lack of authentic connection creates a society trapped in anxious purgatory, a sentiment reflected in the repetition of “between” in ‘Hollow Men’. Thus, Eliot poignantly expresses his struggle against the inescapable human condition that craves to seek meaning in an inherently meaningless word.
The degradation of social connection is perpetuated by urban decay, and enhances the modernist suffering of ennui. Eliot’s deeply fragmented voice in ‘Preludes’ creates disjointed stanzas, which display no apparent beginning or end, reflecting the instability of “grimy” modernity. The malaise of urbanized cities that waft with “the faint smells of beer” through “sawdust-trampled streets” has paralyzed modernist society. Eliot’s pessimistic disgust regarding urban existence is furthered by the olfactory imagery of “burnt-out ends of smoky days”, as Eliot forces readers to reflect on the lethargic futility of life under the toxicity of urban decay. Eliot recognizes the gloom of modernist society, as the individual is forced to hide behind “blinds”, “shades” and “shutters”, indicative of the deeply isolating affects of residing in a meaningless world. Modernism damages the “infinitely suffering” everyman, as Eliot voices the destruction of inauthentic “masquerades” on a void social consciousness. Voicing the rampant disillusionment of modernism, Eliot furthers the understanding that existence is fleeting in ‘Rhapsody On A Windy Night’. The ironic title, evocative of a joyous musical piece, subverts Romantic idealism, instead reflecting the existential recognition of life’s inherent futility. Eliot voices his deep loathing for modernist decay, personifying the street lamps that “splutter” and “mutter” to reflect the failing nature of 20th century society. The “fatalistic” combination of a society void of authentic connection and the suffocation of an inescapable city drives Eliot to feel like a “madman”. The insanity inducing nature of an infertile environment that “smells of dust” forces the reader to personally reflect on the degrading affects of an arid milieu. Paralyzed by a lack of control, modernist society becomes obsessed with time. Eliot voices the intense difficulty in relinquishing a false perception of control over the passing of “four o’clock and five o’clock and six o’clock”, as time endures in both ‘Preludes and ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’. In true modernist fashion, Eliot offers no solution to his pervasive criticism of modernity, instead sarcastically advising readers to “wipe your hand over your mouth and laugh”. The comical advice endures in relevance, as contemporary readers are reminded that the agonizing struggle against the universal human condition is an inherently meaningless experience.
Thus, the ability for Eliot to masterfully voice the anxiety of modernism and the damage of disillusioned paralysis reflects an understanding regarding the meaningless nature of man’s search for meaning. Communicating the enduring plight of humanity to seek meaning in a toxic social milieu acts as pervasive social commentary of modernism’s anxious zeitgeist. Capturing the disillusionment on an unstable social sphere allows Eliot’s nihilistic commentary to endure, as contemporary audience as drawn into a reflective state regarding the futility of existence.