TS Eliot Prose
A Refreshing Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
To say that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a typical romantic ode to the wonders of love, as the title may suggest, is quite far from the truth. To the contrary, this poem enters the straggling mind of J. Alfred Prufrock, a man plagued with irresolution, and because of this irresolution will probably never realistically be in love with a woman. “Love Song” is a dive into Prufrock’s inconsistent thought processes, and the foggy workings of his less-than-optimistic mind. Through bleak imagery, a wavering tone that feels timeless, and carefully connoted diction, T.S. Eliot portrays J. Alfred Prufrock as an uneasy, indecisive, and ultimately scared man.
The first few lines of the poem set the scene as to what kind of content Prufrock has to offer. He uses a simile in comparing the evening, “spread out against the sky,” to “a patient etherized upon a table” (2-3). It’s a fairly unappealing comparison, and it puts an awkward image in the reader’s mind from the beginning. He goes on to set the scene of a kind of tour through a city-like atmosphere: “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets…of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants…” (4-7). Again, a bleak image is cast into the mind of the reader, reminiscent of a twisted Gotham City where no one would want to be unless accompanied by someone very dear – a someone who Prufrock is not with.
He goes on to make another type of “etherized” comparison later on, which adds to the bleak, uneasy feeling:
And I have known the eyes already, known them all-
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
This stanza dives into Prufrock’s uneasy nature through the use of carefully connoted diction (e.g., “pin”) that conveys imagery of a bug or animal ready to be dissected. He is describing what happens when he runs into people he may know: they “fix [him] in a formulated phrase,” and then pin him down, and when he is “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” he is then forced to interact with them and make a decision about how to go about saying how his day went. To almost everyone else in the world, this type of interaction is a daily occurrence of life, and usually isn’t conveyed as a feeling of being pinned down. However, Prufrock’s uneasy nature is very similar to that of The Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield, in the fact that he really isn’t one for lighthearted social interaction. Instead, every little detail of life, in Prufrock’s eyes, is not considered an idle task, but a high-strung, uneasy chain of decisions.
Throughout the poem, Prufrock seems to jog around in his mind, and is quite abstract with his thoughts. The result is a wavering, fragmented tone that further suggests Prufrock’s indecisiveness and digressive habits. One of the subtle ways that Eliot adds to this wavering tone is the fact that no definite rhyme scheme is used throughout “Love Song.” For example, one stanza includes mostly rhyming words, ending lines with words such as “dare,” “stair,” and “hair,” and then “thin,” “chin,” and “pin.” But the next couple of lines in the stanza may have no rhyme pattern at all, and the same goes for the next stanza; it’s totally fragmented. This wavering rhyme scheme cleverly adds to the notion of an indecisive Prufrock.
Besides the wavering rhyme scheme, the overall tone suggests that Prufrock is very uneasy and indecisive. Prufrock really does continually ask questions, always questioning things. This may seem normal, but considering the subject matter and the uneasy feeling connoted with them, this mode of thought does not come off as entirely healthy. There are close to 20 stanzas in “Love Song”, and in almost all of them, Prufrock is questioning something. Whether the subject matter consists of whether he should “disturb the universe” or not, or how he should deal with people who ask him how his day is, he is constantly questioning everything. He almost mockingly asserts his indecisive manners by saying “Do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (45-48). Essentially, he is declaring that he can make a decision now, with only a minute left, but since in one minute there will be no time anyway, he’s leaving it at that.
This feeling of time passing too rapidly is present throughout the poem. More than a couple of times he says, “And indeed there will be time,” or a variation of this line, which not only adds to his irresolute manner, but also reiterates the fact that he often trails off and picks up another topic on a whim – again, recalling Holden Caulfield’s digressive tendencies. Prufrock even directly refers to this tendency when he analyzes a woman’s arm in the lamplight; he says, “It is perfume from a dress that makes me so digress?” (65-66). He mentions, too, his awareness of the passage of time and of the fact that he is growing old by confirming that he is becoming slightly bald. Ultimately, this realization of mortality makes him afraid: “And in short, I was afraid” (86).
Towards the end of the poem, the tone of “Love Song” seems to waver more and more, and Prufrock becomes even more of a shaky, uneasy, scared figure. Starting from line 120, he begins to trail off: “I grow old…I grow old…”, filling the reader’s mind with an image of a man who sits silently, the world passing him by while he ponders questions without answers. The final stanza, solidifies the elusive nature of Prufrock’s thoughts:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
Through Eliot’s use of bleak imagery, a wavering tone, and carefully connoted diction, Prufrock is portrayed as a highly uneasy, indecisive, and scared man. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not a true love song, but instead a plunge into the shades-of-grey world of J. Alfred Prufrock, and ultimately the grave flaws of a fragmented mind.
Universal Issues in T. S. Eliot’s Works
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.
The Unfortunate Inferiority of Women in the Work of T.S. Eliot
The work of T. S. Eliot frequently presents society as degenerate and infertile. The deterioration of the post-war world is represented through the oppression and suffering of women – a concept explored most notably in Eliot’s 1922 work The Waste Land, but also in a number of his other poems. Eliot uses anonymous characters and allusion – a technique whereby the poet assumes the reader has previous knowledge of the subject matter – to suggest that there should indeed be a role for women in society beyond their domestic subservience to men. However, Eliot does not go about exploring this theme in such a way so as to appear indoctrinating, but instead simply presents the problems to his audience, thus allowing them to draw their own conclusions. As Harding states, ‘Mr. Eliot doesn’t invite you to step across the dividing line and join him in guaranteed rightness – he suggests at the most that you and he should both try not to live so badly.’ In an age where women did indeed perform a predominantly functional role in society – for example, women were only enfranchised to vote in Britain in 1918 – it is important to consider Eliot’s unconventional honesty when he so openly presents the power of male lust – ‘so rudely forced’ to ‘encounter no defence’ despite female reluctance. Eliot’s sincere yet blunt portrayal of the treatment of the suffering woman in the 1920s inspires his audience to feel not only repulsion, but also shame at the state of affairs in what was considered the civilised world.
Within the fragmented episodes of the five books in The Waste Land, Eliot relies on fictitious but symbolic characters to convert language into meaning. The second book, “A Game of Chess”, begins with an allusion to Anthony and Cleopatra: ‘The chair she sat in, like burnished throne.’ Instantly, this simile reminds the reader of how Cleopatra, a renowned leader despite being female, was undone by her love for Anthony, and forced into death. The ‘she’ that the poet refers to transpires to be an indecisive, uncertain woman who mirrors the character of J. Alfred Prufrock from Eliot’s 1917 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. She is lonely and calls, seemingly to herself, ‘Why do you never speak? Speak. What are you thinking of.’ However, unlike Prufrock’s own internal indecisions – ‘Do I dare / disturb the universe?’ there is a more sinister subtext to the female character in The Waste Land. Eliot has previously referred to, in the prolonged opening stanza of Book II, the rape of Philomel (‘The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king / So rudely forced’). Indeed, the allusion to the dominance of the patriarchal ‘king’ emphasises the line ‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’ This remark, also relating to the shell shock experienced by World War One soldiers, questions the commonly held view that women had an inferior intellectual capacity, and were thus limited to menial, domestic tasks. Eliot later explores this in Book III, ‘The Fire Sermon.’
‘At the violet hour’ Eliot forms a powerful presentation of the meaninglessness of sex, expressing his distain at the male ‘human engine’ that ‘like a taxi throbbing waiting’ is impatient and controlling towards women. The female typist is a symbol of the functional, ‘automatic’ role of women towards men. The introduction of Tiresias – the ancient Greek half man/half woman, ‘throbbing between two lives’, is vital in showing the reader that the unfolding scene is a typical example of 20th-century relationships: ‘I Tiresias…perceived the scene, and foretold the rest, I too awaited the expected guest.’ Indeed, Eliot comments in his notes, ‘Tiresias, although a mere spectator, and not a ‘character,’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.’ The typist’s boyfriend, ‘a small house agent’s clerk’, is exemplified as animalistic as with ‘one bold stare’, ‘he assaults’ her; however, not in a manner akin to the rape of Philomel. Instead, the act is ‘unreproved, if undesired’. Plainly, the woman acknowledges that such a task is now the convention, and must be carried out just like her typing, cooking, and drying. She states, summarizing the loss of love and the repression of women in a male-dominated world, ‘Well now that’s done; and I’m glad it’s over.’
Aside from the experience of the typist, there are two further examples of male/female relationships showing a woman to be suffering in The Waste Land. Firstly, the description of Elizabeth I and Robert Leicester, which has often been romanticised, is displayed to the reader in association with the positive imagery of ‘red and gold’, ‘the peal of bells’, and ‘white towers.’ The use of the objective correlative – the technique whereby the poet uses imagery or language to evoke a particular emotion – is highly prevalent here. The result, in this case, is nostalgia and joy. However, it must be recognized that these feelings were long in the past, and since the equality of such a relationship has been eroded while the power of women in the 20th century draws no parallels to that of Queen Elizabeth I. It must also be realized that despite the purity of the bond between Elizabeth and Leicester, they chose not to have children, and thus thwarted natural regeneration, the progression towards rebirth, and the development of a less depraved society – the central theme of The Waste Land.
The final episode of “A Game of Chess” tells of an overheard conversation in a lower-class British pub. The character of Lil re-enacts the idea of women serving as helpers to their men. Her husband, Albert, has been in the army for four years. A friend of Lil comments that ‘he wants a good time, and if you don’t give it to him, there’s others will.’ Again, the dominance of men – ‘Albert won’t leave her alone’ – and their craving for sex stands in direct contrast with the decadence of the previous generation and Elizabethan England as a whole. Abortion, a taboo in Eliot’s era, is presented as a last resort for Lil, who is desperate to avoid having any more children – (‘She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George…It’s them pills I took, to bring it off’). Eliot presents the couple as altering the natural course of rebirth, stressing the supremacy of the male, whose libido dictates the course of their marriage.
“Gerontion”, written before The Waste Land, in 1920, proposes to the reader the idea that civilization has deteriorated through history’s ‘cunning corridors’. As Grover Smith states, ‘”Gerontion” symbolises civilisation gone rotten.’ In the poem, Eliot does indeed focus on the obedient and passive role of women. Eliot alludes to Fitzgerald’s “The Rubaiyat of Umar Khayam”, a story that celebrates life and living for the moment: ‘The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea, sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.’ The technique of allusion, said by Richards to be ‘a technical device for compression’, works in tandem with the lamenting voice of the ‘little old man’ to create a negative image of humanity. The poet reiterates the domesticity of women as Eliot once again enforces the concept of women having to act in a maternal, but ultimately powerless role.
“Portrait of a Lady”, one of Eliot’s earlier works, describes the life of an aging high-society lady through the voice of a younger man. Eliot shows the lady moaning as she approaches death; she is ‘about to reach her journey’s end.’ Despite the favourable lifestyle the woman leads, she still fails to find fulfilment, as she cries ‘you have no Achilles heel’ to the young man because of his youth and promising future. The poem presents another unsuccessful male/female relationship, epitomized by the comment, ‘we have not developed into friends.’
Eliot juxtaposes the theme of women in both high and low society successfully; this is shown not only in “A Game of Chess”, but also through the comparison of the lady in “Portrait” to the monotony of lower-class life in “Preludes”, and more specifically in the third stanza, which quite possibly represents the female; ‘you curled the papers form your hair’ suggests that the speaking voice is now referring to a female. The theme of light and dark – ‘light crept up between the shutters’ – exposes society’s own fragilities, as the woman is said to watch ‘the night revealing the thousand sordid images of which your soul was constituted.’ Vision and the senses are integral to this work, with Rickwood correctly stating that ‘Mr. Eliot has been able to get closer than any other poet to the physiology of our sensations…to explore and make more palpable the more intimate distresses of a generation.’ Indeed, the sensations in this stanza, like the use of allusion in The Waste Land, help transfer Eliot’s thoughts into meaning; in “Preludes”, this is the suggestion that the ‘burnt out ends of smoky days’ of lower-class life treats women no better than the riches of high society.
Eliot presents the treatment of women in 20th-century life as little more than the barbarity of the ancient Greek world of Philomel and Tiresias. Within a great deal of Eliot’s poetry can be found direct references to the treatment of women, but Eliot’s own personal view seems to be disgust at the decay of humanity. While the west has become industrialized, she has not yet progressed on an emotional level, a fact highlighted by the treatment of females in society. As Kenner states, ‘Eliot deals in effects, not ideas’, and the effect of Eliot’s presentation of the suffering woman is pity for the modern-day wasteland, devoid of rebirth and swamped in prejudice. Like writers such as Garland Hamlin and Theodore Dreiser, whose Sister Carrie explored the life of a farm girl in the modern urban world, Eliot questions the social issue of the oppression of women. His own turbulent relationship with his first wife, Vivian, led him to question the role of women in 1920s society: he was conscious of the sacrificial heroics they performed in the first World War, but was all too aware of the dominance of men, whose ‘exploring hands encounter no defence’ and inflict such animalistic brutality. Eliot allows his audience to conclude for themselves the subtext to his poetry, but it is indisputable that his work clearly provokes the reader to demand improvements to the treatment of women.
“Journey of the Magi” Analysis
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, saying
That 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
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating 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 so
And arrived at evening, not a moment
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
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
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
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, these
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
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.
A Closer Look on Live and Death in “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. < http://personal.centenary.edu/~dhavird/TSEMetaPoets.html>
- Lancashire, Ian. “Whispers of Immortality.” Representative Poetry Online. General Editor: Ian Lancashire. 1998. Web. 9 Mar. 2013. < http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/whispers-immortality>
From West to East: Changing Traditions in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”
T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land begins with a latin epigraph that refers to the story of the prophetess to Apollo, Sibyl of Cumae. Apollo wanted to take the prophetess as his lover and offered her anything she wanted in return. Sibyl asked to live as long as there were grains in a handful of dust but still refused to be Apollo’s lover after he granted that wish. She soon realized that she had been granted eternal life and not eternal youth and to her dismay got older and, older as the world stayed young around her. The prophetess choosing eternal life on earth is symbolic of the western tradition of defining yourself through your earthly legacy. The first world war then destroys western culture and society and, turns it into the barren waste land that Eliot describes. The Latin epigraph in The Waste Land represents the deterioration of western culture because of its beliefs in a dead tradition. The poem shifts to an eastern tradition because of its values in truth, compassion and, ethical practice being the possible solution to healing western culture.
The Wasteland begins with The Burial of the Dead, which symbolizes the death of a traditional western religion by presenting knowledge through the absence of a physical god and, in the void of a handful of dust. The first 19 lines depict a story of an aristocratic german woman recalling the nostalgia of her childhood in contrast to the, “Dull roots with spring rain”(4) that symbolize the fruitless state of her current life despite the regenerative rain of spring. April is the cruelest month to her because, a time that was once symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus and, the salvation of humanity, now symbolizes death and hopelessness. “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,/ You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images…”(20-22) This speaker now questions western religion in itself and, raises doubt in believing in what we have been told is God but, have not experienced ourselves. The speaker is questioning what is to be gained through following this god we do not actually know of. I think they relate western religion to ‘stony rubbish’ because, western religion offers the same illusion of solidity that a stone may but, offers nothing of actual substance. They then go on to say, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”(30) This relates directly to the latin epigraph of Sibyl and her void of a meaningless long life. Western tradition ends in a feeling of void, despite what you have acquired, because of its beliefs in meaninglessness.
Eliot ends this hopeless western epic with an offer of a solution through an alternative understanding in values. This solution comes in, “…a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust/ Bringing rain.”(394-5) This rain comes as a relief to the barren wasteland and in the next lines we are taken to the shores of the improvised Ganga, where its limp leafs finally feel rain too. The speaker then expresses the three duties and values of Eastern Hindu tradition: Datta, Dayadhyam and, Damyata. Datta, in Hindu means “give” and the speaker asks us what we have given and in reflection of the poem we realize that we have only given destruction in return of the dead culture we live in. This was illustrated perfectly in the first section of the poem, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden/ Has it begun to sprout?… Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?”(70-72) I thought this symbolized the unnecessary death cause by the war and how victory, a feeling of accomplishment and warmth, was replaced with the cold feeling of death and loss. We are given the last two duties of Hinduism; Dayadhyam and, Damyata which mean “compassion” and “self-control”. They both lead to the peace that passes understanding or Shantih which the poem ends with. The western tradition offers no values of compassion or self-control and instead promotes a “key to salvation” view of faith, “I have heard the key/ Turn in the door once and turn once only/ We think of the key, each in his prison/ Thinking of the key”(412-14) Everyone is striving to do what they believe is best by god to gain the ‘key’ to salvation but, their prayers ring on dead ears, leaving them in a prison of their own closed mind.
Eastern tradition promotes giving, compassion and, self-control because it believes that everyone is one with each other and therefore, should share and help in each others struggles. This is a concept alien to a western tradition that values gain through destruction or even Utilitarianism. This is the same concept Eliot wanted the reader to take away from the introduction of Hindu verse towards the end of a hopeless poem. At the end of A Fire Sermon there are chants in western tradition and eastern tradition. Western tradition’s dependency on god for salvation is shown, “O Lord Thou pluckest me out/ O Lord Thou pluckest,”(309-10) and garners no response while eastern tradition basks in the purifying fire as from a sermon by Buddha about nirvana. Eliot does not want every reader to suddenly convert to a eastern tradition but, for every reader to include these concepts in their bag of broken images as a hope of gaining understanding to achieve “Shantih”. The poem finishes with the image of the Fisher king experiencing peace through the three duties of Hinduism. There is no certain answer but the reader is told the kind is setting his lands in order which can be taken as a metaphor of his life. He tells the reader, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins/ Why they [might]Ile fit you.”(431-2) Here does he tell the reader that he has found value in the duties and that they might be our solution to? Theres a fleck of doubt on this solution with the quick elude to Hieronymo, which through it’s story symbolizes that the deepest truth will ring silent in the worlds ear (western society) because it rejects those values. Though this does not leave the play hopeless because Hieronymo still strove to revive his tradition, despite the worlds view, because it was still truth. The first four sections of a poem are symbolic of western tradition’s death through foundations in an empty faith. The reader is shown and reminded that our self-motivated wars have destroyed the god we believe in.
Eliot offers us an alternative way of understanding and, chooses Eastern traditional values because the self-salvation value held so highly in western tradition is what killed it. Eastern religions of Buddhism and Hinduism both stress: On giving back, having compassion for others and, self-control as the only way to salvation. This is important because although the bottom line is still self salvation, your salvation is derived through actively contributing to your environment and instead of following another persons path, we create our own, which in turn gives us the meaning we are searching for in our void of a handful of dust.
Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land” and Other Poems. Dover Publications, 1998. pg 31-42
T. S. Eliot’s Style Analysis
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: “the 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 “under 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 “shapes without form, shade[s] without colour, paralysed forces, gestures 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 “inhabiting ‘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 demons 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. <www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/life.htm>.
- “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.
Analysis of the theme of God in the poetry of T. S. Eliot
Among the fragmented layers and voices of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land there is a distinct cry for humanity to accept the comfort of a greater level of intelligence – God. This is dramatically reinforced in the lamenting howl of The Hollow Men. References to religion and differing cultures is a consistent theme within Eliot’s work, but the idea of God is one raised through Eliot’s internal murmurs, bred from his self doubt that eventually surfaces to draw the reader to the underlying necessity for belief in God. It should be made clear that both Eliot’s private torment and emotional turbulence appear in The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, a testament to the fact that the poet was indeed unsure as to his own personal beliefs prior to their appearance in his work, which acted as a forum for him to vent his opinions.
The Waste Land leads to the dramatic conclusion that one must accept, regardless of the reasoning of logic and the routine of the ‘seals broken by the lean solicitor,’ ‘the awful daring of a moment’s surrender.’ In this moment of surrender Eliot leads the reader into understanding that in an era where the literary world was refuting God and religion, it was again acceptable to put blind faith in such a belief. Eliot’s use of language and form is critical to shaping his ideas, allowing him to blend the concept of God into his poetry. In terms of assessing his accomplishment in achieving this objective, one must acknowledge that Eliot’s personal relationship with Anglicism was one only established after the publishing of The Waste Land and The Hollow Men. Both these two poems present Eliot not as an indoctrinating preacher, but instead as a man troubled by personal tragedy, ultimately seeking resolution to his problems. He does indeed succeed in bringing out humanity’s need for God, arguing that in the industrial and increasingly faithless world, God was fundamental in ensuring we exist not as ‘sightless,’ ‘hollow men,’ but with direction and purpose.
The impact of the historical and literary period in which Eliot wrote his poetry is of paramount importance. Contextually, the world was emerging from the Great War – a war of devastation and aimless brutality, whilst a post war depression was strangling economic recovery. However, on a more individual reading of Eliot’s life, in the early 1920’s, he was undergoing a phase of serious health concerns, as well as grave troubles within his marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. The negative backdrop of post-war society drove Eliot to a great deal of his references to both the human condition and death in The Waste Land, important as Eliot’s values are created from the degenerate environment he found himself to be residing in. Eliot’s belief that humanity was in need for God manifests from Eliot’s own personal need for emotional comfort.
The negative imagery of the Burial of the Dead is poignant in reflecting what initially seems to be a lack of faith in God or religion in Eliot’s mind. His ‘heap of broken images’ include lilacs breeding ‘out of the dead land,’ the ‘Unreal city’ [London] ‘under the brown fog of a winter dawn,’ and an army of the dead, marching over London Bridge, according to Eliot ‘so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.’ Indeed the influence of the war on Eliot is crucial in understanding his disillusionment and, alike to the mood of a ravaged Europe, a collective shock at the cruelty that had taken place. This is later reinforced in A Game of Chess, when the speaking voice moans ‘I think we are in rat’s ally / where the dead men lost their bones.’ This reference to the harsh nature of trench warfare in World War One exemplifies Eliot’s realisation that society was still to recover from the impact of the war. As Rickwood comments, ‘Mr. Eliot is has been able to … explore and make palpable the more intimate distresses of a generation.’ This is certainly true in acknowledging Eliot’s success in tapping into the post-war psyche. The continuous negative and war-related topics within The Waste Land exemplify Eliot displaying the miserable side to society, provoking the reader to seek an answer to the problems – answers that soon appears in Eliot’s ramblings.
Amongst the negative images and verses of the opening two books in The Waste Land, there are indeed references not directly to God, but to Jesus. Eliot enforces his technique of allusion – the technique whereby he assumes the reader to have background knowledge as to what he, the poet is referring to, in order to transmit his idea. Lines 48 and 125 refer to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ‘(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)’ and ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes.’ These lines have connotations with the resurrection, as in the Shakespearian play the character of Arial, a half nymph, prophesises the resurrection from supposed death of Alonso, Prince Ferdinand’s father – who does not realise he is in actual fact alive. Although one should notice that the link is indeed tenuous, as Richards claims, ‘The truth is that very much of the best poetry is necessarily ambiguous in its immediate effect.’
A stronger, more substantial link to Jesus is established in book V, What the Thunder Said. Referring to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24, the speaking voice questions, ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?’ The figure is described as ‘Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded.’ James E. Miller, Jr. believes there is a personal element to the text, ‘It is a safe assumption that Vivienne Eliot learned early in her marriage that she was in some obscure sense competing with someone whose presence was more felt than seen.’ It seems that this presence is indeed Jesus Christ.
Christ and the Church seemed to be declining in value to many in the 1920’s and 30’s. In the western world there was shift away from the decadence of old, which valued religion as the utmost importance, towards the financially-orientated booming commerce of capitalism. Ezra Pound’s 1923 poem, ‘Ballad of the Goodly Fere,’ attempted to make Jesus more relevant. The poet’s colloquial language and basic structure enables Pound to succeed in his effect of labelling Jesus a ‘brave’ ‘man o’ men.’ It is certainly true that, like Pound, Eliot accepts Christianity as a release from the routine and monotony of ‘the thousand sordid images’ of the ‘burnt out ends of smoky days’ (Preludes) in interwar Britain and America. This is confirmed within The Waste Land, but dramatically expanded on in The Hollow Men.
The Hollow Men is a criticism of those who live without faith. Eliot labels their ‘whisper’ as ‘quiet and meaningless.’ There is no anger within the poem – ‘the empty men’ simply request, ‘remember us – if at all – not as lost violent souls, but only as the hollow men.’ Eliot calls on humanity to reject the hollow nature of atheism, where ‘death’s twilight kingdom’ – hell – is ‘the hope only of empty men.’ Two important techniques help in uncovering Eliot’s call for humanity to accept God – the objective correlative and fragmentation.
The objective correlative – the technique whereby a series of images, objects or chain of events are used to evoke a particular emotion – helps shape the allusive and fragmentary nature of Eliot’s work into meaning. For example, the repetition of the image of ‘a fading star’ evokes the emotion of sorrow and loss. Meanwhile, the use of fragmentation – the technique whereby seemingly unrelated phrases, stanzas or speaking voices are assembled together, appears when Eliot introduces the Lord’s Prayer to the poem, ‘For thine is the Kingdom.’
Indeed, the worthlessness of atheism has led to a depraved and corrupt society as Eliot points out both in his earlier work – Prufrock and Other Observations, and in the Waste Land. In Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy night the institutionalised customs of the urban workers is attacked as their souls are ‘trampled by insistent feet / at four and five ad six o’ clock.’ Eliot calls on them to ‘put your shoes on the door, sleep, prepare for life’ – a criticism on the empty repetition of life. This is further explained in The Waste Land’s The Fire Sermon, Book III. The female character, the typist, is shown to live her life merely as a function of her husband’s sexual desire, as well as her endless household chores. They eat, ‘she is bored and tired,’ yet ‘The time is now propitious, as he guesses,’ for loveless sex. He ‘assaults’ and ‘gropes’ away at her, whilst his ‘Exploring hands encounter no defence.’ She has not been raped, but simply acted out one of her usual jobs of the marriage, just like the cooking and cleaning. She carries out the act as if it is an ‘automatic’ response, and says to herself, ‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’
It is notable that Tiresias connects the typist’s story. Indeed Eliot himself comments, ‘Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.’ Tiresias unites ‘all the rest’ as his genderless form and unique foresight seem to re-enact Eliot’s role in condemning the damage that the present can and will cause in the future. Eliot presents the contemporary as a soulless, weak world. The hollow men ‘avoid speech’ – they are too heartless to experience ‘the existence,’ ‘the creation’ and the ‘desire,’ and according to J. Hillis Miller ‘they are detached from nature and live in a land devoid of spiritual presence.’
Eliot criticises his immoral society to such an extent that he, after all his experiences and encounters with faith and religion, bemoans all to accept God once again, after so many had lost faith with the horrors of the Great War. In the penultimate stanza of The Waste Land, the speaking voice, which now appears to be Eliot himself, calls on the reader to realise that ‘we have existed / which is not to be found in our obituaries.’ Eliot now emerges from his bitterness and doubt, urging his audience to ‘surrender,’ or release oneself from the troubles and emptiness of a faithless life, where one is destined to die ‘not with a bang but a whimper.’ Eliot predicts that ‘your heart would have responded gaily / when invited,’ juxtaposing the idea of the beating heart and oar of the boat. He summarises the fullness of God and his effect by describing the oar and your heart as ‘beating obedient / to controlling hands’ – the controlling hands of God.
Eliot has described the emptiness of a Godless society. He has presented the world as a ‘hollow valley’ of ‘dying stars’ – loveless, patterned and devoid of verve. Eliot does indeed successfully harness his view of the integral nature of God to humanity. His appeal and demand that his readers strive beyond the faithless and ‘hollow’ ‘whispers’ of scepticism is a message that resounds to an audience that was, alike to Eliot, very much in search of guidance.
Traditionalism and Autobiographical Aspects in the Prose Works of T.s. Eliot
The award-winning, genre-defining poet Thomas Stearns Eliot is known not only for his poetic masterpieces, but also for his literary criticism. He spent years of his life studying with Harvard professors “renowned in poetry, philosophy and literary criticism, and the rest of his career was shaped by all three.” He earned a living writing literary criticisms for many years, one of which being “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” first published by the London literary magazine The Egoist in 1919, then later in a few of Eliot’s own publishings. In this critique, Eliot conceptualized ‘tradition’ as a literary term representative of the inheritance of style and ideas by artists and writers alike; this passing down of style and ideas allows works to transcend time, as they fit into both the past and the present as a timeless yet new and original piece of art. This idea also allows creations so ‘out of the box’ they don’t fit anywhere in history to have a meaning in relation to tradition because it’s a rebellion against the theory itself. T.S. Eliot’s favourable views on tradition are apparent in his writing through his intricate use of literary devices: allusion, theme, symbol, and autobiographical elements.
Although Eliot is considered to be a classicist poet, strains of other literary movements like romanticism and modernism can be seen throughout his writing. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” he conveys that an artist should be able to incorporate the past into their work cohesively while still remaining grounded in the present. He states that a writer should
“neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period” to ingrain that those who wrote years before, who laid the stepping stones for the writers in the present and those to come, cannot be consolidated into a single category of ‘historical figures’ in the mind of a good writer; intentional allusions to specific artists who influence a creation make the entire artwork so much more special in the eyes of the viewer, especially those who can notice the integrations. This is why Eliot “insisted on abiding by the principles of classicism and drawing inspiration from what has been written in the past, especially in the ancient Greek, … Roman literature, and romanticism.” Combining history into original works is so important to Eliot because he believes that “we know so much more than they did … because they are what we know.” The inclusion of tradition, of repurposing other’s works to create something new, is a respectful way to pay homage to the great writers and artists that have passed while still creating an entirely new and original piece. In the same essay, T.S.Eliot supports his claim by saying that “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone because his significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” His personal way of thanking his predecessors in poetry was to allude to many works of those whose creations he learned from.
First published in 1915, “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” is one of the most popular and well-known works of Eliot. In this poem, allusions to historical works like Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, James Cooper’s The Pioneers, and a few more are seamlessly threaded throughout; these references are used to aid Eliot in setting the timorous and hopeless tone as well as conveying Prufrock’s inner conflicts and emotions. The opening epigraph from Dante’s Inferno relates to the man who resides in the Eighth Circle of Hell; this epigraph is meant to illustrate how Prufrock feels like he is living in his own personal Hell on Earth before Eliot has even written anything original. The shamelessness of the words spoken by Count Guido, the man from Hell, is also representative of how Prufrock speaks shamelessly to the reader in this poem. In addition to the allusion to Dante’s Inferno, phrases like “overwhelming question” and “dying fall” are borrowed from James Cooper and Shakespeare, respectively, to enhance and carry the message of this poem while also making noticeable references to support his concept of traditionalism. One main allusion alongside the epigraph is a line from Jules LaForgue’s work; while describing the atmosphere around Prufrock, Eliot borrowed and slightly altered a quote of hers to “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo”, giving it an entirely different context and new meaning while still hinting at his admiration of LaForgue’s brilliant writing and ability to show Eliot “the essence of poetry and how to speak in his own voice.” Another poem of his, “Portrait of a Lady,” alludes to two different works before the poem even begins; Henry James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady and Ezra Pound’s poem “Portrait D’une Femme.” Ezra Pound was one of Mr.Eliot’s closest friends who inspired him to write poetry, which explains why this allusion was made. In addition to the title, allusions made to Juliet’s Tomb in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as well as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Mentioning other authors or poets in this way is a form of respect for those who came before Eliot; it’s also a main aspect in the concept of tradition in as it diverts the attention and praise from a single artist towards past and present artists as a whole community, lessening the individuality and egocentrism that comes with creation.
As previously stated, T.S.Eliot frequently incorporated differing literary periods into his works like romanticism and twentieth century modernism. His inclusion of modernist themes or motifs like misdirection and fragmentation make his work stand out significantly. Misdirection was most commonly used by Eliot in the titles of his works. The title of ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’, for example, suggests that the poem will carry some romantic notion throughout, however, the opposite is true; this poem is riddled with almost anti-romantic themes of social and sexual paralysis, fragmentation, and the feeling of being lost, alone, and incapable of love or affection. In addition, the poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’, too, has a romantic-sounding title that is deceiving. It makes the reader assume the main character or subject of the poem would be this young, beautiful woman when in actuality the lady mentioned is similar to Prufrock in how old, miserable, and lonely she is.
The modernist movement also brought about fragmentation, which is prominent in “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The fragmentation of the society that surrounds the main character in this poem is used to represent the chaos occurring during World War I. The intermittent rhymes found throughout the poem only to be broken by an intrusive thought by Prufrock fragments the main flow of the poem, leaving the reader with the pieces of an intricate puzzle they must put together themselves. The use of fragmentation in this poem shows how shattered Prufrock’s psychological state is in addition to illustrating how he views the world around him. Another example of fragmentation in Eliot’s work is later on when Prufrock transitions from describing a realistic scene of “tea and cakes and ices” to a depressing moment where Prufrock has “wept and fasted, wept and prayed” to a mystical one of “mermaids singing … riding seaward on the waves / combing their white hair.” This is not only modernist because of the fragmentation and massive divide in tone, but also representative of the romanticism movement of the nineteenth century.
Romanticism is also intertwined into the works of Eliot, most noticeably in the quote where Prufrock compares himself to “a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of the silent seas.” The imagery that accompanies this quote is so romantic and delicate when the sadness of intended message is taken into account. Eliot is trying, and succeeding, to eloquently share how lonely, depressed, and depersonalized Prufrock is feeling. In addition to this, “such romantic imagery as “sea-girls wreathed with seaweed” is exploited in the poem, not adopted.” (Sultan 80) Romanticism is more prominent in the poem “Portrait of a Lady,” however, and it “is nevertheless considered one of the most advanced poems in terms of an exposure of a “bloated” Romanticism.” Eliot treats romanticism strangely, however, as his “expression of Romanticism in this poem is actually a “failure” to satisfy.” The utilization of literary movements that Eliot did not take part in makes his works seem more cohesive and fluid, conveying layers of meaning with every word. It also acts as proof to his concept of tradition, as the inclusion of these modernist and romanticist themes, no matter how he twisted them, honors the artists who inspired him to write these pieces.
Just like with themes, Eliot employed traditional symbols used by his predecessors in his own works. The recurrence of these symbols throughout time mean that readers already understand the connotations associated with them, like animals, flowers, time, and colour, for example. In the third stanza of “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “yellow smoke begins to slide along the street, rubbing its back upon the window panes” of houses in France’s Red Light district; the yellow hue connotes the cowardice that Prufrock feels, and the smoke itself has an almost feline quality to it — slinking along, “licking its tongue … lingering … falling upon its back … making a sudden leap … and falling asleep.” The cat-like figure that the smoke formulates is representative of Prufrock himself, alone and completely ridden with fear of rejection and judgement. More zoologism is found in this poem when Prufrock compares himself to a crab with “a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Prufrock and this sea crab are connected by their scavenger-like traits, the crab for food at the bottom of the ocean, and Prufrock for a woman’s affection, love, and attention. This crustacean imagery is also an homage to The Tragedy of Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The frequent comparison between Prufrock and animals is dehumanizing and shows how cowardly he is as a man. Another significant symbol in “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” is time; time is always on Prufrock’s mind because he fears that he may not have enough of it. He’s mentally stuck on the fact that he will die one day and that he doesn’t have enough ‘tomorrows’ left. He hates the idea of dying an unchanged man. The constant repetition of the word time, specifically in one stanza it is said twelve time, is meant to show the reader that he is trying to convince himself that there is time left for him to change his ways and make a difference in the world; he is despaired as he knows that there is no way he will be able to change himself in time before he dies.
Time is also prominent in “Portrait of a Lady,” but in a different context than in Prufrock. In this poem, time is symbolic because of its links to the lady’s age and how the young man makes her feel so much younger than she’s felt in a long time. In the beginning of the second part of the poem, Eliot uses floral symbolism, specifically lilacs. The lilac that the woman twirls between her fingers is representative of the turning back of time — blossoming love, innocence, and youth — it is symbolic of her want to pursue a relationship with the narrator of the poem. Another important symbol is that this poem takes place in October, the beginning of Autumn. Autumn is symbolic of death since all of the leaves fall from the trees and the flowers die; a reader who picks up on this will understand that it acts as foreshadowing as well. Each of these symbols used by Eliot have been used by writers before him, and his utilization of such symbols conform to the traditionalist theory he conceptualized.
When writing a poem that purposefully references and involves other artists’ works, it is difficult to not include a bit of self into what is being written. Often, writing is best when it comes from personal experiences and emotions, as it comes from the heart and can be elaborated on with such detail that a reader can understand and connect with what they are reading. Eliot agrees with this claim, stating “in writing poetry, we begin from our own immediate experience.” In Nicholas B. Mayer’s article “Catalyzing Prufrock,” he argues that the patient in “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” is actually T.S. Eliot himself, and he has subconsciously incorporated his emotions and his experiences into the character of Prufrock. He supposes that there is a catalyst, or a precipitating event, in the text that commenced the introduction of Eliot’s self into Prufrock’s character. Mayer poses questions like “did the events actually happen, or were they merely imagined? … is it just Prufrock or also Eliot who is involved in the events?” Mayer uses many sources to back his argument, including Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The main point of Mayer’s literary article suggests that
“the poem can be read as either about Prufrock or by Prufrock or as Mayer prefers, about T.S. Eliot because the poem is written by him. More specifically, it is about the process of depersonalization because it is the result of the process of depersonalization. As I want to suggest, Prufrock becomes depersonalized … which results in the creation of “Prufrock.””
Mayer proposes that the poet discovered his ‘poetic consciousness’ while writing this poem, and while Prufrock is re-encountering or re-evaluating his life as he walks down the streets of France, Eliot is taking a mental stroll down memory lane to revisit the moments where he felt a similar way to his character. Meyer suggests that Eliot reached a ‘catalysis of depersonalization’ while writing this poem, which is why so many parallels can be drawn between the lives of the poet and his character, as they became one in many ways. This claim that “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” is actually somewhat autobiographical is both supported and opposed by literary critics around the world, but it relates back to Eliot’s theory of traditionalism since it brings the aspect of self into the story alongside the allusions to former authors and artists who have inspired the creation of the poem.
One person in opposition to Mayer’s claim that this brilliant poem is autobiographical is Elisabeth Schneider. In her article “Prufrock and After: The Theme of Change” Schneider states that she does not believe this poem to be a representation of Eliot’s life – she believes that this poem isn’t autobiographical at all seeing as Prufrock is fearing a loveless life where he doesn’t get married, meanwhile this poem was published in Eliot’s first year of marriage. She does, however, make an interesting statement that
“’What every poet starts from… is his own emotions, and … their own personal experience,’ a statement that, under the circumstances, must be equally applicable to Prufrock; Prufrock was Eliot, though Eliot was much more than Prufrock.”
The idea that Prufrock was Eliot, as the character is an amalgamation of emotions and personal experiences of the poet, is an interesting take on Mayer’s idea as it poses Prufrock as a reconstruction of Eliot rather than a poetic consciousness. Either way it relates back to Eliot’s theory of traditionalism by uniting a community of self and former authors and artists who were inspiration for the poem.
To conclude, Thomas Stearns Eliot’s concept of tradition as a literary term is apparent in his poems “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady” through his use of allusion, theme, symbol, and the autobiographical lense. The repurposing of styles and ideas of writers who came before Eliot allowed him to write such cohesive and intricate texts with so many layers for a reader to discover. This inheritance of idea and techniques through hard work and studying allows creators to make new, original, timeless and transcendent works of art.
- Ang, Abby, ‘“Romanticism in T.S. Eliot’s Early Poetry: Music and Words”’ (2012). English Student Papers. 6. http://digitalcommons.providence.edu/english_students/biography.com authors.
- “T.S. Eliot.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 10 Apr. 2019, www.biography.com/people/ts-eliot-9286072.
- Eliot, T. S. “Portrait of a Lady by T. S. Eliot.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44213/portrait-of-a-lady-56d22338932de.
- Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/thelovesongofjalfred-prufrock
- Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” (1919) http://people.unica.it/fiorenzoiuliano/files/2017/05/tradition-and-the-individual-talent.pdf
- Mayer, Nicholas B. “Catalyzing Prufrock.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 34, no. 3, 2011, pp. 182–198. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jmodelite.34.3.182.
- Rauf, S.M.A. “The Strain of Romanticism in the Poetry of T.S. Eliot.” The Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 21, No. 1, April 2013, https://bit.ly/2IELhZd
- Smith, Francis Joseph, ‘The Idea of Tradition in the Writings of T. S. Eliot’ (1948). Master’s Theses. Paper 807. http://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_theses/807
- Schneider, Elisabeth. “Prufrock and After: The Theme of Change.” PMLA, vol. 87, no. 5, 1972, pp. 1103–1118. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/461187.
- Soldo, John J. “T. S. Eliot and Jules LaForgue.” American Literature, vol. 55, no. 2, 1983, pp. 137–150. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2926277.
- Sultan, Stanley. “Tradition and the Individual Talent in ‘Prufrock.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 12, no. 1, 1985, pp. 77–90. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3831143.
Literal And Metaphorical of “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 sc?ne 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.