Eliot: the Leader of the Modernist Movement

Be honest, you’ve searched for an article regarding T.S Eliot after you’ve read some of his poems, to gain a grasp on how you’re expected to arrive at a deeper meaning beyond the words written on the page. Eliot was quite isolated compared to the other poets of his time, as he would stray from the fading idea of realism and instead, would confront disturbing and absurd topics while utilising a variety of elements. These aspects include fragmentation, self-reflection, and symbolism, to make up the idea of modernism in literature. Eliot was not just considered a modernist poet, he was the most influential modernist writer of the 20th century, from the time he moved to England at the age of 25 in 1914 from his hometown, St. Louise, Missouri, up until the time he passed, in 1965. In today’s society, Eliot is still commonly referred to as the leader of the Modernist movement, utilising a variety of elements from the modernist period in his poetry. Through these elements, a reader is able to establish meanings and interpretations that are not always understood, because “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”


Viewing fragmentation from a literary essay standpoint, this characteristic is an extensive topic to discuss, as there are many different interpretations of the idea, that any explained change in form is accepted as fragmentation. The aspect of fragmentation was a part of literary Modernism, normally used to break down the characters, plot, setting, and any other element in writing. Eliot commonly used fragmentation in his poetry to disrupt any of the reader’s familiar context, which may have been a large reason for the many misinterpretations of Eliot’s writing. One of Eliot’s most well known pieces, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Love Song), sees a lot of fragmentation throughout, beginning with the title. The term “Love Song” implies to the audience that it will be a supposed delicate poem featuring a common romantic story between two characters, but boy are you wrong. The poem starts off with, “Let us go then you and I, / When the evening lies stretched out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table.” The first line invites the idea that there are two characters with a type of connection, setting up the audience for an expected romantic fantasy between these two unintroduced characters. The second line applies a metaphor supported by personification, that says the “evening is stretched out against the sky” the importance of these techniques is to guide the audience into a state of assumption, and allow them to interpret the “evening” and the “sky” as metaphors of the characters and their physical connection between each other, therefore propelling a romantic feeling onto the audience. Then in the third line, Eliot applies the thought of a “patient etherised upon a table” for the audience, which manipulates and changes the tone and rhyme of the poem, from a classic romantic setting to a sudden surgical environment,  to break free from the audience’s expecting grasp. The lexical choice of “patient” implies a medical setting, while the word “etherised” suggests a dreamlike state, where Eliot is able to juxtapose the ‘classical poetic’ and ‘modern literal’ world in order to develop and set a new realm of literature. Through the opening three lines to ‘Love Song’, Eliot is able to correctly implement an element of modernism into his work to enhance the effect of the poem, and cause the audience to view the text without any preconceived ideas involving context or genre. Eliot’s five-part poem, The Waste Land is considered by some to be the epitome of the modernist era. Being published in 1922, only four years after the end of World War 1 (WW1), utilises the element of fragmentation to represent the now broken empire of Europe, and the uncertain society of England during this time period.  In Eliot’s first part, ‘The Burial of the Dead’,  the form of the poem is manipulated to deter the reader’s understanding by disrupting the setting and language to represent the feeling of division in post-WW1 Europe.

“Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,”

The multiple settings in this passage, support the interpretation that there are a number of speakers at once, all talking in a disruptive and uncooperative manner with each other, as a way for Eliot to represent the state of Europe after the devastation of WW1, and put the reader into a position of confusion, similar to the feeling of England after their loss. The repetition of “and” reinforces this understanding, as it is an attempt to connect each disjointed sentence into a fragmented reality, even going as far as to use the German language, (which in English says “I’m not a Russian, I’m from Lithuania, really German.”) to strongly separate and break the form of the poem. This statement can also be read as a representation of the newly fragmented world, as the Russian’s and German’s were enemies during WW1, and the disparity felt by both countries leaves a long-lasting impact, even after the ending of the first World War. Eliot was able to express the feelings and concerns of his country about a topic so wide-spread, through a type of writing that was never really seen before. He did this in order to communicate messages through not just the words, but the emotion that the form in relation to the text produces, and how that impacts the reader on a level that is deeper than a romantic metaphor. Through Eliot’s insightful understanding of fragmentation, the reader is provided a ‘blank canvas’ of sorts, in being given the ability to interpret Eliot’s work in a way that has never been seen before. This has been done by Eliot manipulating poetry to suit his own ideals of modernism, and disregarding the assumptions and ‘rules’ of poetry before him.


As a topic, discussing self-reflection in an essay relies on the knowledge of context that a reader can apply to a particular writer in relation to their work. As a poet, Eliot utilises self-reflection in his poetry, to express his personal feelings about an idea or state of society, by aligning the character’s personality with his own in a way that allows for a stronger representation of argument or opinion within writing. Importantly, a writer by the name of Dante Alighieri, commonly referred to as Dante, was an Italian poet during the late Middle Ages who died in 1321. Eliot seemed to have many views and opinions that corresponded with Dante as a poet, which led to Dante being Eliot’s most prominent influence in poetry. Dante’s positive impact is specifically noticeable within Eliot’s ‘Love Song’, as each text seems to have an interconnecting suggestion about their immediate societies and social constructs in which they lived.  At the opening of ‘Love Song’, Eliot includes an epigraph, which is an excerpt from Dante’s three-part poem, Commedia (Divine Comedy), in particular the first part, ‘Inferno’. This poem features a man, who has committed many wrong-doings throughout his life, and an ancient Roman poet is sent from Heaven named Virgil, to come to Earth and guide him on the right path. Virgil takes the man to Hell for a ‘tour’ of the 9 circles of Hell, in an attempt to scare him away from any further sins or treacherous actions. They find a soul at the eighth circle, and the man asks him what he did during his life to deserve to be that deep in Hell. The souls response was the excerpt that Eliot uses as the epigraph to ‘Love Song’, which was;

“S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,

Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.”

In English, this says “If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy.” This relates to Prufrock as a character, because he is also concerned about his appearance in the eyes of the public, as he continues to fret about how people view him, which is evident when he says to himself, “Time to turn back and descend the stair– / (They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’) / … (They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)” This can relate to Eliot himself in less of a physical way, but more of an expression of emotion or idea about the world they live in. Therefore, it can be interpreted as a metaphor, explaining that both Eliot and Dante were in positions of criticism from the societies in which they both lived, as a result of particular viewpoints or actions that were negated in their time periods. The importance of prefacing ‘Love Song’ with this specific epigraph, can be a reinforcement of this metaphor, meaning that the audience is only able to read Prufrock’s ‘Love Song’ because they are trapped in a “gulf” from which they can never return, which in a literal sense, refers to the perceived reality that they are trapped in.  Eliot is able to orchestrate the idea of self-reflection in his poetry to strengthen connections between his writing and the real world, in order to express interpretable ideas that can be derived from societal actions during Eliot’s time.


One of the most commonly used elements of modernism in today’s style of literature, and one of the most frequent examples used in a variety of essays involving literature, is the aspect of symbolism. Eliot took this convention and moulded it into a specific style that suited the many associations for his writing, to support the vast interpretations of his poems. Eliot is well-known for his poem The Waste Land, but the third part in particular, ‘The Fire Sermon’, features symbolism that dates back to the Arthurian era of the 5th and 6th century. Eliot incorporates the story of the Fisher King, which involved the narrative of a King who was crippled from the waist down, rendering him unable to do anything except fish. The King was in charge of the Holy Grail, but as a result of his injury, the land around him was barren and void of prosperity. Eliot makes multiple references to this tale, with the persona in the text revealing that he is “Fishing, with the plain arid behind [him].” The action of “Fishing” in this particular sense, can be interpreted as a direct reference to the story of the Fisher King, to prepare the audience for the connection between the “plain arid” land behind him, and the King’s land that was also a deserted “Waste Land”, thus having a connection to the title of the poem, The Waste Land. Eliot’s reasoning behind the obscure connection to the Arthurian era and the Fisher King in ‘The Fire Sermon’, may be the result of Eliot’s perceived admiration towards Medieval culture. Eliot was known to appreciate the organic and spiritual community of the Medieval era, but in turn, also commonly expressed elitist and formalist outlooks in a variety of situations. This gained Eliot the label of a “Medieval Modernist” which was given to him by critics of his work. Another poem of Eliot’s that expresses extensive symbolic references which presumes a position within The Waste Land, is the second part, ‘A Game of Chess’. This text incorporates the story of Philomela, a tale dating back to Greek mythology, which involves two sisters who are separated after one of the sisters, Procne, marries a Thracian King, Tereus. Procne soon begins to loathe being away from her sister Philomela, so she asks Tereus if Philomela can live with them. Tereus agrees, and travels to Athens to retrieve Philomela, but during his expedition, Tereus falls into a deepened lust for Philomela. Once their voyage is over, Tereus takes Philomela to the woods, where he rapes her and then cuts out her tongue as a way to prevent her from revealing his atrocity to anyone. Now that Philomela is without speech, she weaves the story into a tapestry that she then sends to her sister Procne. Upon reading the message, Procne kills her son, Itys, and puts his dismembered body in Tereus’ dinner. When Tereus asks to see his son, Procne tells him that Itys is inside his stomach, and then Philomela appears, holding Itys’ dismembered head. In a heat of rage, Tereus attacks Philomela and Procne, who are turned into a nightingale and swallow respectively, and Tereus is turned into a hoopoe. Eliot’s ‘A Game of Chess’ openly references the story of Philomela, when he positions the audience by “a window… upon the sylvan scene / The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king / So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale / Filled all the desert with inviolable voice.” The term “sylvan” refers to the woods where Tereus violated Philomela, followed by the direct reference of the “change”, implying the loss of her virginity, by the “barbarous king” who can be interpreted as Tereus. Another direct symbolic reference follows in the next line, claiming that “there the nightingale / Filled the desert with [an] inviolable voice.” This can be interpreted as the juxtaposition between Philomela as a person, being speechless, and her reincarnation to a nightingale, who has an “inviolable voice” which also can be interpreted as irony of the story. The importance of Eliot making this symbolic connection between the story of Philomela and his writing, may reside with his perception on oppression and how difficult expressing traumatic events may be for certain victims, which is where the symbolic reference of Philomela’s inability to talk may be derived from. Since Eliot has been presumed as homosexual by many of his audience as a result of many hints in his work, a reader can realise where his disdainment of oppression may come from, and how he understands the difficulties of speaking up about specific traumatic events in a society that is against you. Through this adapted style of symbolism, a reader can interpret deep and meaningful associations between Eliot’s texts and historical events. From these examples, it is evident that Eliot was able to utilise symbolism as a feature of modernism, and create a new pathway for literature that was not readily available during the era of Realism.


Literature is an ever-changing subject of writing that accumulates aspects of different styles as time progresses. As a result of this, Eliot was able to incorporate inspiration from different era’s combined with his alienated views, to include certain elements such as the perception of a fragmented reality, the idea of self-reflection, and the involvement of deep symbolism. This was all in order to create a new style of writing and lead the literary world through a new poetic era of modernism. 


One thought on “Eliot: the Leader of the Modernist Movement

  1. Even in a blog, saying things like Eliot’s “insightful understanding” or how he did things “correctly” feels out of place. I point them out because they are obvious examples of times where your expression has let you down. Your analysis here is great but it’s marred by the way it’s presented as this is neither BuzzFeed informal or analytically formal.


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