If you’ve been on the poetry scene for pretty much any length of time, then the name ‘T.S Eliot’ isn’t exactly a foreign one. but, just to catch you guys up, Eliot is essentially famous for how he redefined poetry and helped establish modernism, transcending us into a new literary era (blah blah). Now, ‘what’s modernism?’ you may ask? (And ’d probably tell you to google it) This is a form of poetry which denies traditionalist ideas originally presented under classicism, and is presented as a movement which acts as a characteristic perception and representation of reality, which experiments with modes of expression, complex themes and issues as well as the abandonment of traditional form and style.
The texts, ‘The love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ , ‘A Game of Chess’ from The Waste Land and ‘The Hollow Men’ all display elements of modernism, with his use of fragmentation, self-reflectivity and the exploration of psychological states. These are then utilised and constructed in a way which allows for multiple interpretations, and further contributes to themes and ideas which we are able to regard as wisdom or lessons surrounding the ‘human experience’. Now, I wouldn’t say Eliot honestly has that much advice that would be useful, let alone positive as an outlook on things. So, if you were looking for a laugh I wouldn’t say these lessons are for you. However, he does bring a certain something I think we can all agree we need every now and then, and that is a good old dose of
pessimism realism! This is pretty important as it contrasts all those glamorized texts of romanticism and instead acts critically towards notions such as love, society and even comments on how difficult to navigate life really is.
So here’s a glimpse of the life and lessons, told by the man himself, Eliot:
All About Love ❤
As you probably guessed, one of the most prominent themes in Eliot’s work is the theme of love, and no, he doesn’t describe how beautiful and amazing it is. In fact, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘A Game of Chess’ tend to demonstrate the exact opposite, with the overall message we get is that its overrated and relationships are, essentially, meaningless. This isn’t a hard conclusion to come to with the way he displays lifeless relationships through his stylistic choices and aesthetics, as well as his overall negative perception of women as a motif. Now, we can assume there’s some contextual relevance due to the poets own experiences, with his failed first marriage (with the wife eventually entering a permanent residency in a psychiatric facility) and, of course, his rumored homosexual relationship during his youth, so… he may be biased against romance. However, he really shows this within his poems as well. For instance, during ‘The Love Song’, he uses contrast with the initial conformity to romantic expectations, only to completely undermine the audiences assumptions with his use of sudden realism. The title alone demonstrates how Eliot sets up the poem as to develop a certain idea of the themes to be represented, as ‘The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ presents a tone of dramatic monologue, structured as if to be a love letter to a partner. This is further shown within the first few lines, where rhyme and rhythm conform to the traditionalist ideas, such as with “you and I” and “against the sky”. The concept of sound within poetry often connotes to beauty or perhaps even passion, however Eliot manipulates this by creating a broken and irregular rhyme immediately afterwards, where he instead uses “etherized upon a table…half-deserted streets”. Through this, the previously established expectations of the poem are distorted and romanticism is juxtaposed with darker imagery as to abolish the glamorization associated with it. The language used by Eliot may also reflect disillusioned feelings towards relationships and love, as often words such as “overwhelming” and “insidious intent” are displayed. This implies a sense that love is a strong emotion, however it can be consuming, as shown with “overwhelming” and “insidious intent” may be seen as love inflicting harm, reinforcing the notion that love brings pain and romance is idealized. Similarly, ‘a Game of Chess’ indicates a personas lifeless relationship with a lover. This is shown within “Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.”. Eliots demonstration of a modern couples inability to communicate acts critically towards modern society and its lack of love, as it displays a failure to form a connection within the modern era, as they will always be left unsatisfied and demanding.
Not only is all that really great and surely making you hopeful for love, with how much T.S Eliot clearly thinks it sucks and all, but he does go on and reinforce it with his overall portrayal of women with symbolism and imagery. ‘The Love song’ is where the ‘women’ motif comes into play as the society around Prufrock often illustrates women, and not too positively either. Eliot uses a refrain with “the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo”. The consistent repetition of this not only fortifies female stereotypes as to associate “gossip” as they are seen to conversationally discuss the idealized image of a man, however it also shows the unmeetable standards set for a partner, which not only make the male persona feel inadequate in comparison to the esteemed “Michelangelo” figure but also add to the belief that relationships are unsustainable as they will not be enough. Within ‘The Love Song’, the attitude towards women is once more displayed with “I have heard the mermaids singing”. Symbolism is notable through this, as often mermaids are presented as beautiful, mythical (and typically female) figures, so this is able to be interpreted as a demonstration of women within the poem. However, the connotations of “mermaid” followed later by “and we drown” relate to the negative legends where often the mermaids would seduce the men and subsequently drown them. This is then able to applied towards the theme of love and assume to represent women within relationships and Bada-Bing, Bada-Boom, women officially suck and to be in a relationship with one is to essentially “drown”.
I would’ve hoped the emoji gave it away, but no, this will not restore your faith in the world. In fact, T.S Eliot is extremely critical of the world around him, specifically the modern world, and this is evident with Eliots self-reflectivity and overall representation of the personas psych within ‘The Love Song’. The mental representation shown of the persona demonstrates that of someone neurotic and paranoid, as demonstrated through the fragmentation within the poem, as seen through “That is not what I meant at all…No! I am not Prince Hamlet”. The fragmentation shown through the erratic jumps between topics after each break represent the anxious and paranoid behaviour interpreted from the persona, however this acts as a reflection of an individuals response to the societal pressures around them. For instance, “(They will Say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)”, with “They will say” indicating Prufrock’s thought process. The personas internal monologue portrays the sense of being overwhelmed as well as his awareness to societies judgment as he assumes the opinions and criticisms of others. Further, the persona demonstrates a feeling of inadequacy with “the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo”. The choice of “Michelango” correlates to the sense of lacking self-worth in comparison as often “Michelangelo” will initiate thoughts of success, legacy and achievements, which the persona understands they will never compete with. Therefore, through the women, as a representation of society, discussing the need for a ‘Michelangelo’ figure, the male persona feels inadequate and lost as he has little significance within the world around him.
He also does a lot of lot self-pitying and all ‘round being a bummer towards the world in ‘The Hollow Men’, where his criticisms towards contemporary society are emphasized with his religious allusion and symbolism. His use of religious allusion can be assumed to be a reflection of his response to modern society and his desire for something greater, as shown within “deaths three kingdoms”, with the “dream kingdom” relating to heaven, the “twilight kingdom” being purgatory, and the repeated “deaths other kingdom”, being hell. The primary repetition of the “other kingdom” demonstrates how the persona would rather choose hell over reality, as the repetition can be seen as an unconscious desire or willingness. The “Hollow Men” acts as an extended metaphor for what the persona views on what humanity has become. For instance, we see the “we are the stuffed men/ headpiece filled with straw”, which develops the imagery of a scarecrow, and the use of inclusive language such as “we” implies modern men or society relate to scarecrows. Through the connotation to scarecrows, we often think of fake, humanoid figures with little purpose rather then be objects, which then reflects on how Eliot perceives how we have evolved in modern society. This semblance of falseness is reinforced by “such deliberate disguises” , where its evident that he holds the belief that society conceals their individual identity and hides behind a mask, lacking individuality that once stood out within communities, as we become more involved and encompassed by modernization. Further the idea of lacking individuality or rather a ‘sheep mentality’ is present with the “headpiece filled with straw” which (if you’ve ever seen the Wizard of Oz) is evident as a metaphor for lacking own intelligence. Through ‘The hollow Men’ Eliot really digs into society and the world he sees around him. And its kind of a bummer, once again, but okay, go off, sis.
T.S Eliots poetry, specifically ‘The Hollow Men’, ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘A Game of Chess’ are all relatively significant when discussing the overarching themes within his works, and from there we can see it centralizes on modernist, abstract ideas such as death, societal criticisms and, of course, love. Its pretty easy to infer from a variety of his works that he has a rather negative perception on almost everything, and authors often write in reflection of themselves, so to assume Eliot utilize the self-reflectivity, analysis of the personas psyche and symbolism to embed these messages wouldn’t exactly be a leap of faith. From the contribution of all of these things, we can see a running theme surrounding these which I think can be applied to our own lives. For instance, love = meaningless and painful, whilst society and everything around us is fake, bland and (going by Eliot) death would be better at this rate! So, if there’s anything we can take away from T.S Eliot’s lessons on the human experience, is that …
(But that’s okay)