T.S. Eliot: A Discussion of Mental Illness

T.S. Eliot’s poetry is quite intimidating when it comes to analyzing, but there’s common motifs he explores in most of his work – the poems in particular that we’ll discuss today are ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘The Waste Land’. The common motif we’ll explore today are the human experiences of mental illness; most specifically, anxiety and depression, and how Eliot portrays these in his poems. If you’re an ATAR student, then hopefully this will be of some help to you!

So… Who is T.S. Eliot?

Born in 1888 in St Louis, Missouri; T.S. Eliot was an American-British poet, essayist, publisher, playwright, literary critic and editor. Eliot was a leading role of the Modernist movement in literature – more specifically, poetry – producing works such as ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915) and ‘The Waste Land’ (1922).

Most of his works explore aspects of religion, Greek mythology, mental illness, levels of love, and death-rebirth. Eliot wanted his poetry to express the fragile psychological state of humanity in the twentieth century, which is reflected in both ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘The Waste Land’.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is known to be an examination of the tortured psyche of the modern man – eloquent, neurotic, overeducated and emotionally stilted. The poem seems to follow the character of Prufrock, giving us a small glimpse into the life of a socially awkward, impotent and insecure middle-aged man who fears intimacy.

Prufrock is labelled as one of the most influential texts of the modern era – This is because it envelops the transition from the structure of classical literature to the much less restrictive structure of what we now know as modernist literature!

Prufrock: Anxiety and Insecurity

As an inner monologue, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ showcases ones thought patterns and self-perception to be neurotic and in adequate. These two characteristics of Prufrock contribute to the insecurity and anxiety he’s represented to feel.

The poems momentum and rhythm are continuously interrupted by Prufrock’s digressions. Digressions are the speaker’s thoughts trailing off in unrelated paths and are caused by the speaker’s own sense of inadequacy. These digressions usually bring to light Prufrock’s anxiety and struggle with indecision.

With Eliot bringing emphasis to the speaker’s struggles, he suggests that obsessive feeling, some experience, with doing the right thing – whether it be expressing yourself, forming relationships, or simply deciding what to wear – could stop the person from seeking adventure or doing much of anything at all. The constant indecisive digressions produce a sense of habitual procrastination with Prufrock’s character. His procrastination seems to be centralised in social anxiety, as he admits he has time for (lines 32-33):

“a hundred indecisions / and for a hundred visions and revisions”.

Prufrock is constructed imagining (line 39):

“descending the stair”

and greeting people, however, in reality, he is too timid and insecure to do so as he imagines that people will laugh and scrutinise his appearance. This prominent insecure nature that Prufrock has is further reinforced as he observes the women illustrated in the poem (lines 35-36):

“women come and go talking of Michelangelo”

Michelangelo is an extremely influential figure (a sculpturist and painter) in which Prufrock is constantly comparing himself to, symbolising Prufrock’s sense of inadequacy. With the women ‘talking of Michelangelo’, the notion of women in the twentieth century only caring about wealth and status becomes prominent – this knowledge further strengthens Prufrock’s insecurities as he sees himself as inferior to the figure of Michelangelo, therefor feeling undeserving of another person’s attention and care.

Prufrock pities his appearance through his habitual ways of thinking how others perceive him (line 41):

“(They will say: ‘how his hair is growing thin!’)”

Another habitual way Prufrock sees himself is evident through zoomorphism and metaphor (line 58):

“When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,”

The act of pinning an insect is alluded to in this line. Prufrock states this in reference to himself, comparing himself as a middle-aged human male to a small insect being pinned on a wall for closer inspection. This reflects how Prufrock feels when people look at him – like they’re inspecting every little aspect of his appearance and judging his exterior. He again compares himself to a small animal, this time he’s a crab (lines 73-74):

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

 These self comparisons Prufrock makes to small animals symbolize how inferior he feels and how insignificantly he views himself. He dehumanizes himself while viewing everyone around him to be of high value – the zoomorphism alone is a representation of the insecurity Prufrock struggles with. Prufrock’s indecisive nature seen once again, brings forth his neurotic ways as he constantly questions his actions before he does anything. (lines 45-46)

“Do I dare? Do I dare disturb the universe?”

His significant worry and concern for the size and kind of effect his actions would have on the universe – that he still needs to venture into – is reflective of his overly cautious habits as he limits himself from experiencing anything that would pose a threat to him, be it physically or emotionally. ”

The Waste Land

‘The Waste Land’ is one of Eliot’s longest poems with five different sections;

I. The Burial of the Dead

II. A Game of Chess

III. The Fire Sermon

IV. Death by Water

V. What the Thunder said

The five different sections are joined together by a wide variety of voices; sometimes in monologue, dialogue, or with more than two characters speaking. The poem is notable for its disjointed structure, jumps from one voice or image to another without clearly delineating these shifts for the reader. He also includes phrases from multiple languages; Latin, Greek, Italian, German, and French!

I. The Burial of the Dead

The first section, as its title indicates, is about death. The section begins with the words:

“April is the cruelest month.”

Eliot’s dark words inform the reader that the poem will be dark and heavy (line 1). There is a reinforcement of a juxtaposition between something that’s alive growing/stemming from something that’s lifeless:

“breeding / Lilacs out of the dead ground”

“Dull roots with spring rain.”

“feeding / A little life with dried tubers”

These few instances of juxtaposition between life and death (lines 1-7) can be reflective of the persona’s view on life – to be something so difficult like trying to grow (themselves or nature) from the base of something so lifeless. It gives a sense of hopelessness to the reader as these are too difficult to do, typically leading someone to give up and just stay with the ‘dead ground…dull roots…dried tubers…’ The German phrase (lines 12-13) leads into a conversation from a sledding episode in the childhood of a girl named Marie. The season has changed again, to winter. Marie notes:

“In the mountains, there you feel free,”

implying that when she is not in the mountains, or sledding adventure, she does not feel free. Marie feels trapped, just as humanity feels trapped in its own waste land.

Eliot starts to give some visual cues about the waste land of modern society (line 19):

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” ‘

The poet tells the reader that he or she “cannot say, or guess” what the roots of this waste land are, because the reader knows only (lines 21-23):

“A heap of broken images” where “the dead tree gives no shelter.”

These and other images depict a barren, dead land. The lexical chain of ‘broken, dead, rubbish’ help reinforce that notion of difficulty to grow – that sense of hopelessness in which the personae in ‘The Waste Land’ seem to experience. Eliot notes there is (line 68):

“a dead sound on the final stroke of nine,”

which refers to the start of the typical workday. These people trudge along in a sort of living death, going to work, which has become an end in itself. The repetitive lifestyle pattern has bored the people, bringing forth emotions of sadness and feelings of hopelessness.

IV. Death by Water

The shortest of the five, starts off with a reference to “Phlebas the Phoenician,” the dead sailor who was first mentioned in the second section. Eliot is again focusing on death, and in this section, he gives a thorough description of the sailor’s body being torn apart by the sea:

“A current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers.”

The word choice of ‘picked’ emphasizes the slow and constant deterioration of one’s mental health. The metaphor alludes to the whispers being intrusive negative thoughts that are ‘picking’ apart their mental state, making them feel closer to death – or feeling numb – rather than feeling happy.

The section ends with an address and warning to the reader to:

“Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall / as you.”

V. What the Thunder said

The poem’s final section builds on the images of death but attempts to offer hope that this can be overcome. The section begins with a long discussion of Jesus Christ,

“He who was living is now dead,”

The biblical reference can be a metaphor for how one feels dead emotionally, with all the trauma and intrusive thoughts they’ve experienced, feeling alive has become foreign to them now. This motif of depression is constantly appearing through the poem with this being the final emphasis.

by S.H.





























One thought on “T.S. Eliot: A Discussion of Mental Illness

  1. This is a good informal analysis, allowing you to flit in and out with lines from the poems and your own observations/comments. I don’t know what the deal is with The Waste Land though – is it meant to skip sections 2 and 3? When you add the fact that they’re missing (for whatever reason) to the short passage on section 5, it seems as though you came up short of what you were trying to do. Perhaps you needed to refine your focus or manage your time better.


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