Eliot’s Poetry: A Study of Sex and Depression


Imagine being a sexually frustrated virgin your entire life and having very limited friends, but also have the ability to be quite the ladies’ man (despite your inability to get it on with any of them), and have so many mental illnesses you become a narcissist. Well, if you can imagine that easily, I’d say you’ve either seen your future or you’ve seen the life of Thomas Stearns Eliot- the ideal sad man- a lonely virgin with some dysfunctional issues, both physically and mentally, which could arguably be what led to his wild poetry. His personal issues- i.e. lacking in the intimacy department and his self-isolation from society- are very influential within his poetic works, seeming somewhat autobiographical when representing mental illness (which ultimately made him very paranoid of the world), and also expresses his disgusted views on sexual relationships. Poems within “Prufrock and other Observations” (1917), “Sweeney Erect (1920), “Mr Apollinax” (1917) and the five-part poem; “The Waste Land” (1922) all provide insight into the notion of free sex and mental illnesses- such as depression- are results from a faithless world.


Let’s start this study of sex and depression within Eliot’s poetry by providing context; our guy Thomas had a very sad sex life- actually, it’d be more appropriate to say it was non-existent. This is perhaps why he was a fan of writing about being disgusted by modern life through sexual characterisation. As a traditional man himself (weddings, religion, chaste… you know how it be), he often criticised free sex through characters opposite to himself. Prufrock, for example, is a sexually passive character (meaning he lets anyone do whatever the hell they want to him) and therefore, treats romance with another “like a patient etherised upon a table”. This simile reflects how Eliot himself probably saw sex and provides this study with insight into how he viewed sexual romance- like a drugged patient, assumedly under surgery, which connotes to being open and at the hands of others (vulnerable and dangerous since you know… you usually don’t undergo surgery unless it’s necessary. But it’s still risky and not something you want to do which makes this an odd comparison). He also describes himself as being “pinned and wriggling on the wall”, which suggests he’s open for experimentation and is for everyone’s “formulated gaze” of judgement. Prufrock portrays perhaps, that sex is clinical and more like a science experiment than a romantic and free notion. It seems to be more like a forced choice- you do not undergo surgery unless necessary, and the notion that sex is necessary is suggested through the metaphor of being pinned by this expectation. Therefore, through Prufrock, Eliot suggests that sex is expected of people rather than done ceremoniously. In informal words; sex is yucky because it’s expected rather than done to add some spice into your married life.

We all know our guy Tom had a few sexual opposites- since he did not have any known sexual experiences anyway. He was bit of a narcissist this way I suppose- he did like to portray everyone as horrific compared to him and his good boy morals. However, the next dude really did need some good boy morals… or any morals at least. This famous character is Sweeney from Sweeney Erect. He is characterised as being sexually violent, portraying that sex is done for one’s gratification, not for ceremonial tradition or love anymore. The name itself is both a play on words (you know “erect” kinda be about a man during sexy times) and also an allusion to homo erectus- the first known human origins, aka. A caveman- therefore lads have that ‘I take what I want, when I want’ mentality. This immediately informs us that Mr Sweeney is less empathetic and less morally obliged than he should be, since cavemen probably did not have high moral standards and acted more on instinct. This helps this study by reinforcing that sex still isn’t romantic in this modern time, and (through a feminist eyeball) women are treated as disposable now because of the lack of religion and traditional values. Sweeney is a man that “knows the female temperament”, which is clearly why he regards her epileptic fit as a desire to get his attention, and justifies why he only sits “waiting until the shrieks [of the woman] subsides” instead of helping. This purely demonstrates narcissism and the lack of care he has for the woman of whom he’s had sex with, reinforcing the idea that sex without marriage is all purely satisfaction for one person, and usage of another. Perhaps this is in reference to Eliot not being able to ignore Vivian’s mental fits (opposite to Sweeney) while also feeling the need to have sex with Viv even though it won’t satisfy him, only her. It may also be in reference to Mr Russel using poor Viv (we may never know because Eliot is a confusing dude). Anyway, to portray that he is sexually violent would be the imagery of an “oval O cropped out with teeth” on the woman’s skin. Therefore, the sexually violent Mr Sweeney, reinforces the lack of romanticism within this new modernist era.

The final character analysis is that of Mr Apollinax, opposite to Eliot by being sexually predatory. Like Mr Sweeney, with being compared to a caveman, and Prufrock who was compared to an insect, Mr Appolinax also has dehumanising and animalistic characteristics, such as his “pointed ears” and reminding the persona of a “centaur”. The pointed ears can be an allusion to the satyr in Greek mythology, a lustful being who is half man and half goat. This reinforces his predatory behaviour as he is half animal (a lustful one at that) and is portrayed as sitting in the “shrubbery, gaping at a young lady”. The mythological allusion, dehumanisation and imagery of the man gaping at the lady, all alludes to Eliot’s own context. As previously mentioned, Eliot was a bit sad that his wife banged Mr Russel in 1916 (and this was published in 1917) because he couldn’t sleep with her. Not so coincidentally, Professor Russel was a sexual predator and this provides evidence that Mr Apollinax is a representation of this homewrecker. Overall, the portrayal of this character suggests that this faithless society has allowed for cheating and predatory behaviour, further reinforcing Eliot’s disgusted views on sex.

Safe to say that Eliot uses sexual characterisation when portraying characters to represent personalities opposite to himself. This way we can see that he is against the sexual gains that have come from the modernist era- which these characters seem to be a part of, and provides us with a clear division between him and them when coming to sexual relationships. This would be to demonstrate how he believes that since people have moved from a religious and traditional society after ww1, that they have gotten sexually passive, aggressive and predatory, which isn’t romantic or sexy at all.

Here’s a meme because it’s well deserved.


Now, this is a study of sex AND depression, so now we shall address them both and how free sex in Eliot’s eyes results from no faith/religious morality and contributes to different mental illnesses. However, also how lack of sex has also reinforced mental illnesses as one sinks into isolation. “The Wasteland” provides insight into both, after all, it was written at a time of Eliot’s nervous breakdown. Through binary opposition we can analyse through Eliot’s eyes, how modern sexual relations contrast to traditional relations, pre-world war 1. Part 2 of The Wasteland: “A Game of Chess”, lines 139 onwards, consists of a woman being told how to prepare for her husbands’ arrival from the war, being told by the persona that she has to “think of poor Albert” and how he’s been deprived from sex (not like she hasn’t either or anything) and will “want a good time.” After being gone four years, the concern for everybody is whether or not the men are given sexual satisfaction over a romantic or meaningful return to the love of your life. And if you think ‘well maybe the sex is the meaningful return’- think again, because it’s been warned that if “she don’t give it [to] him, there’s others [that] will”. This dialogue demonstrates the lack of faith in society that reinforces that sex is- for lack of better words; gross, because there is no proper romance in the modern world in contrast to the traditional world. To further demonstrate how free sex is due to lack of faith is the mental issues that come with it. With this sexual relationship, comes risk of pregnancy (duh)- leading to women wanting abortions “to bring it off” (which was still greatly frowned upon at the time) and judgement from others. “You are a proper fool”, “you ought to be ashamed for looking so ancient”, and “I can’t bear to look at you” are all mere comments that hold a lot of judgement towards a character within them. These comments clearly affect the character as she sits “pulling a long face”. This imagery is a small demonstration of mental health deterioration that came from feeling obliged to have sexual relationships.
Part 3 of The Wasteland: ‘The Fire Sermon’ is literally about the dangers of the new modernist society, that has free sex and lust and the mental anguish one gets when they give in to the lust. The feminist movement that sparked around this time and the growth of flappers (women who fought for free sex) was one of the many social aspects that perhaps made him critical of free sex and what it results in. Once again, a man is portrayed as predatory (‘rapey’, even), as he wants “to engage [a woman] in caresses” even though they are “unreproved, if undesired”. The lustful encounter is described as an “assault” on her (again with the lack of romance) and when he is done he “departs” and “her brain only allows for one half-framed thought to pass: ‘Well now that’s done: I’m glad it’s over.’” The inner thoughts along with the imagery of her “pacing about her room again, alone”, demonstrates self-isolation, anxiousness and the relief of no longer having to participate in a sexual interaction. This could be a self-reflection of Eliot’s own feelings in society- which is further reinforced through the imagery of her “looking a moment in the glass”- since Eliot himself felt pressured by society and his expectations as a man to be able to sexually satisfy and be sexually satisfied. However, even though he didn’t want to (or just couldn’t…) participate in sex, his abstinence made him feel alienated and self-isolated, much like this woman who was forced into this godless encounter. Overall, Eliot criticises the modern feminist movement which fought for free sex, by making clear that the very thing they fought for has been twisted to become a reinforcement of the patriarchy (since they wanted free sex for themselves, Eliot makes note that men have exploited that and made it the issue of ‘just because she said no, it doesn’t really mean no’). He then discusses how this free sex has resulted in mental deterioration of the people who do participate in it (willingly or not) and that of the traditionalists who do not want to (such as himself). The whole situation is depressing, men no longer restrain themselves, women no longer feel valued, no one is marrying for God, men are assaulting women then leaving them alone because they have no religion to hold onto anymore is all depressing. Eliot is basically saying’; ‘this is how the modern people are and it’s depressing compared to my traditional ideologies.’ And maybe he is right? Maybe he is not.

the face in this meme is so awkies I almost feel uncomfortable
kinda cute though, look at the wittle awkward smile 🙂

Eliot’s emotional and mental conditions deteriorated with the constant demands from his first wife- Viv- and the isolation and cut off from his family because of his marriage only made it worse. This contributed to his nervous breakdown at the height of his career when he was diagnosed with aboulia (an absence of willpower or an inability to act decisively, a symptom of schizophrenia or other mental illness) and neurasthenia (extreme depression, irritability and weariness). Neurasthenia is the most notable within his poetic works and helps this study by providing context into the characterisation of the people and the structure of the personas world. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, follows a very paranoid/anxious man, representing Eliot’s own mental process. He is clearly worried by questions and yet contradicts that and continues to ask them. He tells the reader to not ask the “overwhelming question” of “what is it?”, which is a statement that demonstrates he’s too anxious to answer the simple question. Yet, he continues to ask rhetorical questions himself, since there is time “to wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’”. The repetition of “do I dare?” along with “how should I presume?” and “how should I begin”, provides this study with evidence for an anxious mind. It’s already been established in previous paragraphs that the nervousness portrayed within some of the poems stemmed from sexual incompatibility and judgement from either having too much or not enough. However, Prufrock can also supply reason for insecurities being from fear of judgement based on appearance. Demonstrating how the world is kind of depressing this way, as he normalises male insecurity and feelings of lack of masculinity. Eliot seems to internalise most of the insecurities, which reinforces how he demonstrates that males specifically repress these emotions. For example, the structure of the poem, the internalised thoughts based on appearance appear in brackets; lines 40-41; “with a bald spot un the middle of my hair- (they will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)”. The structure being this way reinforces his worry of what women will think about his appearance. Further reinforcement would be the structure and imagery of the following lines 43-44; “my necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin- (they will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)”. This shows both his anxious thoughts of internalised judgement (highlighting especially his feelings of inferior masculinity since he is worried about looking thin) and the efforts he goes through to appear good looking. Structure within the same poem also is helpful when analysing his depression or mental states in life- especially through fragmentation. After going through stanzas of his anxious mind asking us rhetorical questions, there’s a line of dots to demonstrate a change in thought. Lines 70-74 are the most noticeable change, as it shifts to the imagery and metaphor of; “I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas’, before fragmentation occurs again to; “and the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! Smoothed by long fingers, Asleep…tired…or it malingers”. These together provide analysis into depression, because the metaphor of the crab provides dehumanising qualities to himself as well as representing that he believes he should be dead. When his real life soulmate (lover or not… we’ll never know), Jean Verdenal, passed away by drowning, our guy Eliot didn’t respond very well. Therefore, this could also be alluding to the thoughts of believing he should be dead and among the ocean floors just like Jean. This is also reinforced in part 1 of the Wasteland, where a clairvoyant tells him to “fear death by water”. So, the metaphor followed by the sentences about the ending of days, and the ellipses within the words “asleep”, and “tired”, slows the readers down and demonstrates the mental state of a depressed person. A main symptom of depression is the constant need or want to be asleep. So, if we assume he is saying he wants to be dead in the ocean like Jean, then the following lines is evidence of the symptom of depression.
Furthermore, the Burial of the Dead, from the Wasteland provides insight into his mental state, representing the struggles of his neurasthenia. The poem consists of motifs of seasons, the environment, death and “dried” things- which can all be seen as metaphors for his mental state. He alludes to personal context to demonstrate causes of his sad boy mental state, stating that “April is the cruellest month” which is personification because how can a month be cruel? This personification alludes to personal context, it’s the month Jean died but also the month he met Vivian, and those are the two main causes of his emotional deterioration. He demonstrates through his motifs of the environment how he feels about life during this time of mental hardships, the environment which is supposed to represent beauty and growth is only a “dead land” with “dull roots” and “little life”. He describes how the “dead trees give no shelter” and that the “sound of crickets give no relief”. The constant motif of talking down about the environment is really depressing. In the romanticism era, nature was referred to as beautiful compared to the modernist growth, and as someone who refers to himself as a classicist- he ain’t really following the “nature is the only source of love and life” rule. Anyway, burial of the dead was a reinforcement of his mental state that was analysed above in Prufrock, however, this time it focused on death and depression over anxiety.

Overall, Eliot’s poetic works provide insight into his mental state specifically, but also allows a deeper understanding into the study of depression and other mental illnesses, as he provides insight into his life. Through his poems and the use of things like- well, language features, Eliot tells us that depression and anxiety do be kind of contradictory in one’s brain and hard to manage and not fun to one’s self… but I think we all could have known that anyway.


This study of sex and depression within Eliot’s poetry has been a wild ride. Not only can we analyse the way his virginity frustrated him and caused him to self isolate from society- but we are also invited to see into his ideas of traditionalism and how it contrasts with modernism. Ideas such as free sex and worrying of appearences are represented through characters who are opposite to Eliot, but in some ways (most specifically Prufrock) represents himself as well. He criticises modernist society and the post war faithless world through these opposite representations of sexually violent and predatory characters and discusses how lack in faith has resulted in deteriorated moral standards, and deterioration of mental health. His poems within Prufrock and other Observations, the Waste land, Sweeney Erect and Mr Apollinax, all provide insight into his criticisms of the modernist era and how he wishes for a return to old life. The takeaway from this should be: one- eliot thinks sex is yucky and gross especially since it became… “free”, and two- depression and anxiety fill a man’s head and society’s without ever really being addressed or acknowledging where it comes from. Fair to say, this lad was a bit disappointed with the faithless human race.


by L.H.


One thought on “Eliot’s Poetry: A Study of Sex and Depression

  1. This is pretty good. Like, near perfect. If it wasn’t for the fact you spelled Viv’s name and Bertrand’s surname wrong, I might’ve given you 100%. Oh, and this phrase – “for the woman of whom he’s had sex with”. I hate the wording here. So, yeah, full marks isn’t gonna happen. Sorry 🙂


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