The Enduring Relevance of T.S. Eliot’s Poetry
In a radical attempt to forge a new poetic medium, the poetry of TS Eliot possesses an enduring appeal due to its ability to lament universal concerns of the modern era while also subverting conventional literary content and structure. The poems ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night (1915) and ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927) showcase Eliot’s skills in thematic subversion and structural fragmentation to explore the immorality and purposelessness that mar modern existence. Adopting a nihilistic approach to memory instead of the nostalgia preferred in the Romantic tradition, structural fragmentation in ‘Rhapsody’ highlights the emptiness of the urban lifestyle. Likewise as he undermines the joy of the Nativity scene in ‘Journey of the Magi’, Eliot intensifies his treatment of these concepts with fragmentary imagery. Thus by simultaneously raising universal concerns and challenging literary tradition, Eliot’s oeuvre endures as a portrait of immorality and futility in the modern age.
The innate immorality of modern society renders traditional sources of solace, such as memory and spirituality, obsolete as forces for social change. Foregoing the escapist methods of the Romantics, wherein memory was sought as a refuge from a harsh industrial reality, Riquelme acknowledges ‘Rhapsody’ as a collection of “unromantic verses” which do not flinch in depicting society’s moral decay. As “midnight shakes the memory as a madman shakes a dead geranium”, this absurdist image foregrounds the omnipresence of death and insanity in the persona’s memories and physical experiences. He notes a prostitute whose “eye twists like a crooked pin”, this unsettling simile highlighting the persona’s discomfort at observing the downfall of modern morality. Even the vestal moon of the Romantic tradition is subject to the moral destruction wrought by modernity. She “winks a feeble eye”, as Eliot personifies the moon as the aforementioned prostitute, and “a washed-out smallpox cracks her face”, this disease metaphor indicating the degree of nature’s corruption. While Eliot’s depiction of modern immorality thus relies upon the subversion of Romantic tropes in ‘Rhapsody’, the typically joyful nature of the Nativity scene is undermined in ‘Journey of the Magi’. Transposing the spiritual concerns he personally encountered during his conversion to Anglicanism to the poem’s Biblical setting, the Magus concentrates on the sordid details of the journey. He recalls “the lack of shelters, and the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly and the villages dirty”, with polysyndeton highlighting the exhaustive hostility of urban society. The Magi “preferred to travel at night/Sleeping in snatches”, symbolic of the spiritual darkness which shrouds the external world. Eliot’s focus upon the obstacles of the journey contrasts with the Magus’ brief summation of Christ’s birth as “(you may say) satisfactory.” His apathetic tone and use of the subjunctive is a contradiction of the celebration attributed to the advent of Christ, framing his spiritual journey as a largely amoral event. Therefore the subversion of literary and religious commonplaces is a key feature of Eliot’s poetry which ensures the universal appeal of his treatment of immorality.
Exposure to the destabilizing change wrought by prevailing forces of modernity increases the futility of human agency and spirituality in the urban world. Growing distrust with established modes of communication and the flourish of Imagism in the wake of World War I pushed Eliot to experiment with poetic form. Attributing the “typical elusiveness” of Eliot’s poetry to its structural fragmentation, critic Haba believes this construction imbues his discussion of futility with a “peculiar power”. The fractured lyric, ‘Rhapsody’, consists of seemingly unrelated images which depict the forces of modernity that compound to degrade human agency. He remarks upon “the hand of the child, automatic”, a mechanical lexical choice degrading a child’s sense of autonomy. In his memories, he notes “female smells…cigarettes…cocktail smells”, a tricolon of vices indicative of an empty modern existence. Shifting abruptly to the persona’s return home, a personified lamp instructs him to “put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.” These imperatives emphasize the decreasing value of human agency in a post-industrial context governed by the mechanization and technology symbolized by the lamp. Thus structural fragmentation in ‘Rhapsody’ provide poignant examples of the human failure in the wake of destructive modernization. Likewise, Eliot employs the fragmentation of textual form in ‘Journey of the Magi’ to convey the Magus’ fractured sense of spirituality. In a seemingly unconnected series of images, the persona recalls “three trees”, “six hands dicing for…silver” and “feet kicking empty wine-skins”. Eliot subtly renders these allusions to Christ’s miracles and crucifixion in the Old Testament through synecdoche, leaving the Magus unable to recognize their spiritual significance. These fragments are interrupted as the persona concludes that “there was no information”, this declarative statement highlighting his religious oversight. The Magus’ final admission that he “should be glad of another death” exemplifies his spiritual resignation, his paradoxical preference for death conveyed in a defeatist tone acknowledging the futility of religion. Therefore the structural fragmentation characteristic of Eliot’s oeuvre is a powerful vehicle for conveying the futility of human agency and spirituality, experiences common to modern individuals.
The poetry of TS Eliot possesses an everlasting relevance due to its ability to confront literary traditions in its discussion of universal human concerns. Eliot’s penchant for thematic subversion and structural fragmentation in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ poignantly convey the immorality and sense of futility that plague modern individuals. Perhaps the greatest merit of Eliot’s poetry is that its distinctive style and form resist simplification, and so recognizes the very complexity of human existence itself.
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