T.S. Eliot: I keep other people awake at night
T.S. Eliot’s poetry is famous for many reasons: its beauty, its utter confusion and its tiresome length. I’m gonna be zooming into the poems The Waste Land Section 1- The Burial of the Dead and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
LET IT BE KNOWN that these poems are sooooooo long. The Waste Land has 5 sections, a total of… *proceeds to count the pages*, 3+4+5+1+4… 15 PAGES! And The Love Song is 5 pages long. They’re basically just really confusing short stories that sometimes rhyme.
Thanks T.S. Eliot for barely conforming to typical poetic conventions.
All of us in ATLIT_1: Bernard T.S. Eliot: Dwight
However, Eliot implements heaps of imagery that is quite beautiful at face value, but actually has hidden undertones that are sort of disturbing and a little depressing.
The Waste Land- The Burial of the Dead:
- WWI and Oppression
The Burial of the Dead opens with describing a “dead land” in which flowers are growing out of. The narrator stated the season in “April” was “winter”, also claiming that “winter kept us warm”. This imagery would totally confuse readers since it subverts normal expectations, as you’d normally feel freezing cold because of the low temperatures during winter. The narrator then continues, picturing the “Earth” as being covered by “forgetful snow”. It seems that nature, the “snow”, is covering up all of the pain and agony of what used to be of the “dead land”. This poem was published in 1922, a few years after WWI ended. T.S. Eliot had resided in England since 1914, so he must’ve endured all of the difficult and dark times throughout the war. So, much to no one’s surprise, Eliot alluded to WWI and the emotional turmoil that ensued. The casualties of WWI are being covered by “snow” as a way of oppressing all of the negative emotions that grief provides society post-war.
Alright well this is getting very deep very quickly, and we’re only one quote into this.
Five more to go!
- More WWI (yay)
The last stanza of The Burial of the Dead focuses on the streets of London. The narrator described a “crowd” as flowing “over London Bridge”. He then stated he “had not thought death had undone so many”. He seems to be referencing the society preceding WWI, and believes that the casualties have had an overwhelmingly negative influence on society and the individuals who lost relatives and partners. They were holding on by a thread during the war, trying to cope with the idea of possibly losing their friend, husband, relative, etc. But upon discovering the death of that special someone finally caused them to fall apart and become “undone”.
- Life and Death
Nearing the end of The Burial of the Dead, the narrator recognises a man walking along the streets of this “Unreal City”, he asks his old friend if “that corpse [he] planted” had “begun to sprout” yet.
That imagery is VERY depressing. The narrator’s tone also feels a bit sarcastic. Like he basically said: “haha hey old friend I’m just gonna slide in a joke about all the casualties from WWI btw how’s that garden of yours? Jk don’t care just making small talk sksk and-i-oop byeee”.
This idea that life and death are intertwined with one another is super odd to think about. It’s just so eerie, how much of the imagery in The Burial of the Dead contains philosophical and dark undertones. This quote just exemplifies the overall concept of death being a part of nature and life.
- “Sailor” Tarot Card (WoohoOoo)
In the third stanza of The Waste Land, the readers are introduced to “Madame Sosostris”, a gypsy who reads the fortunes of other people through Tarot cards. The narrator’s card is revealed to be the “Phoenician Sailor”, who is described to have “pearls” for “his eyes”. OHHHHHH symbolic reading time! Pearls symbolise purity, integrity and generosity. Since there’s been heaps of allusions to WWI, we could take a fair guess into believing that these Tarot cards may also allude to the struggles and impacts of WWI. The generosity represented in the pearls could signify the soldiers’ devotion to serving in the war, and them giving everything up to serve. On this Tarot card, there is a little more visual imagery; this sailor is pictured to have “drowned”. This enhances the notion of soldiers being so generous that they agreed to potentially sacrifice themselves for their country.
- “Hanged Man” Tarot Card
Another Tarot card is mentioned in the same stanza, “The Hanged Man”. This is a card in most traditional Tarot decks, and it pictures a man being hanged upside down by his ankle. This card suggests that one will undergo ultimate surrender and sacrifice. The imagery and symbolism of this fortune telling card could be alluding to the soldiers in war who sacrificed themselves for the greatness of their country. Man, this seems to be a lot about war, huh? Dark and difficult times Eliot had to live in, for sure.
I feel like 2020 could be written as a T.S. Eliot poem: it makes no sense, everything is sad, and we don’t know what is going to happen next.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
- Insecurity & Anxiety
We all have it and we all hate it. This poem has so many different insecurities that are presented within the persona, Prufrock’s, internal mind. Such as his appearance; “his hair is growing thin”, “his arms and legs are thin”, “long fingers”, and “slightly bald” head.
His perceived self-worth is just:
Before the last stanza of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, there is one line that is separate from the rest.
Just like this.
Already we know it is going to be an important line since it’s singled out, all alone-some. And, funnily enough, its content is pretty much talking about being alone forever.
Prufrock hears “mermaids singing”, but then claims that he doesn’t “think that they will sing to [him]”. *inhales* – AWWWWWWWWWWWWWW.
Firstly, auditory imagery is implemented in this, as he “heard” the angelic singing of the mermaids. These mermaids may be sirens, as they typically have a calling, usually “singing” (plus their beauty of course), which lure and entrance men; ultimately to their deaths. Our poor little Prufrock here doesn’t think he is even worth being lured to death; that’s how much self-esteem he’s got.
Hoping that someday Prufrock will be blessed by this mermaid:
Okay, okay. Back to my point.
J. Alfred Prufrock’s anxieties are highly prevalent throughout this poem. Now, this next piece of evidence I am labelling as the use of auditory imagery, because you can definitely hear it. The persona potentially sees “the eternal Footman hold [his] coat, and snicker”. “The eternal Footman” is a personification, or entity, representing Death. Prufrock is basically saying “yeah, even the embodiment of Death makes a mockery in the face of my abysmal life”. I honestly think that you can hear Death “snicker[ing]” at Prufrock and making fun of him.
It’s really sad: the way Prufrock sees himself, the fact that the embodiment of Death probably laughs at him, and how sirens won’t sing to him to kill him. The imagery of both relate to death too, which is just an overall depressing concept.
All in all, Eliot makes some really interesting choices when implementing imagery; at first glance its sunshine and rainbows, but at second glance it’s horribly disturbing and depressing. From discussing war, to life and death, to anxiety. All of that rolled up into merely two of his poems? Now that’s concerning.