T.S Eliot was a revolutionary poet around during the 20th century, with his poems captivating audiences, causing them all to ask, “what am I reading?” His confusing writing prompted the evolution of the poetic genre and the making of a new style, modernism. Most modernist art focuses on making fun of the works of the past for being too ‘simple’, ‘boring’ or not ‘hip’. Either that or it was just an excuse for poets to make their medium even more confusing and bonkers, and to give them free reign over references to the Shakespeares and Edgar Allan Poes of the past to point out how stupid they were! There are tons of things that can show how he was a modernist within his writing and this post will go through a couple in his two most recognisable poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or just “Love Song” (as the actual name is a bit of a mouthful) and The Wasteland known for being one of the longest poems ever written, clocking in at about 20 PAGES!?!? Most poems are barely one, but go off man.
Mocking the Past Formula
In typical poems of the past, poets would write in a specific layout, with one of the most common ones being a set of rhyming couplets or 2 groups of two lines. In Eliot’s “Love Song” he opens with a rhyming couplet, attempting to woo his date “Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky.” It seems like a sweet sentiment where he wants them to go and make the most of the evening, but he then follows it up with talk of a “patient etherised upon a table” a much less romantic gesture that is sure to throw off the evening and ruin the ambience he was setting up. Nothing quite like a third line to come out of nowhere, and slap the audience in the face like a stop sign during a storm. This is a direct nod to the typical rhyming couplet structure, that Eliot turns into a throuplet, cause he’s a modernist, and he wants to embrace these new ideas and show how the old ones were stupid. Attempting to get back on track, Prufrock begins a new couplet, talking about the beauty of the streets in which they reside, “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets/The muttering retreats,” the atmosphere comes back, just ignore what he said before I’m sure it was nothing. He then subverts expectations again by bringing up talks of one night stands in hotels, which I’m sure really gets the ladies going, ayy Prufrock? The unromantic ruination of the romantic rhyming couplets informs the audience that this isn’t your typical “Love Song” oh no, this is a modernist’s take on it, and there sure isn’t much too romantic here…
Making Reference to Past Characters
Along with making fun of the structure of the past, Eliot also likes to point out the flaws and give his own take on the characters referenced in previous media. As a modernist, Eliot, subverting the typical roles of the original play of Hamlet, makes reference to an “attendant lord” referencing Hamlet’s good friend Horatio. Horatio, in the original, was Hamlet’s best friend, who only really existed in order to be a number 2 to Hamlet and to drive the plot forward. It’s weird that he would make reference to this seemingly unimportant character rather than the literal name the play is named after, but this may be a new take on these characters, I mean, I would rather be a kind hearted best friend that a murderous king who gets manipulated by his wife in order to gain power. This modernist mention of Hamlet may have inspired director Gregory Doran to make a 2009 film adaptation, starring the ever popular David Tennant and his friend Horatio played by someone? Idk who.
Along with King Hamlet, Eliot in The Wasteland makes reference to another previous historical ruler, Cleopatra and her kind-of boyfriend Mark Antony. (She was also dating Julius Caesar at the time and I think it’s pretty obvious which one she pined for). Anyway, moving even further into the referential tendency of Modernist poetry, Eliot makes reference to Enobarbus, Mark Antony’s best friend’s description of Cleopatra, “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne.” Mark and Cleo’s relationship is also hilariously highlighted in Horrible Histories where she skype calls both and reveals that she is cheating on both of them with each other, DRAMA!
References to historical figures and past characters, Eliot also made reference to biblical characters and events. In The Wasteland makes fun of the old, wise prophet Tiresias, that of which was transformed into a woman for 7 years, “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives/Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see/At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives.” The mention of seeing the “violet hour” refers to his ability to see in the future with “wrinkled female breasts,” referring to him being transformed into a woman (didn’t prophesied that did ya?). Eliot’s representation of the biblical figure seems to paint him as some old blind geezer with a lot of weird kinks, definitely different from the original, who prophesied Tiresias’s future, which he promptly ignored and then went off and did it anyway!
Jumping All Over The Place
Eliot has a habit of jumping around in terms of time and location within his poetry, in fact he was quoted as saying that when writing The Wasteland, he didn’t really focus on whether the poem made sense, but instead just wrote about what he wanted to write about and then published it! “In The Waste Land, I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying,” (Kinda sounds like me when writing any Lit essay!) The question is, if the author doesn’t understand it, how are we supposed to? This confuses the audience and makes it harder for people to understand what it means, comparatively speaking, as older poems have an easier to follow story that consists mostly of description of the setting. Anyway, in part 1 of The Wasteland we start in some sort of war or battle, with Marie, “Marie, hold on tight. And down we went,” but then it suddenly starts talking about “Madame Sosostris, the wisest woman in Europe.” I don’t care about how wise she is, what happened to Marie? Is she OK? Then we’re told that “A crowd flowed over London Bridge.” I’m sorry we’re in London now? What about Madame Sosostris, and Marie, WHAT HAPPENED?!?! The audience is confused by the quick changing of scene, setting, story, source and this shows this brand spanking new modernist outlook. They don’t care about having a coherent story that flows well, oh no, they fly all over the place describing a bunch of different details leaving the audience confused, still trying to put together what it all means.
This strange method of storytelling is seen again in “Love Song.” People more smarter than I have said that the story exists outside of space and time, with the poem exploring all these concepts all at once in a vacuum with Prufrock. I don’t fully understand what that means, but it doesn’t matter because even with this explanation, the poem is still confusing as all hell. In the small snippet on the right, we start in some sort of restaurant with Prufrock and his date, suddenly we’re outside with the “lonely men” and their “pipes.” Then we’re back inside with an awkward moment of silence and then Prufrock transforms into a crap scuttling along a lonely beach. WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, HOW?!?!
It’s unclear how any of this lines up in a literal, understandable way, but if you embrace the chaos and enjoy it, you’re in for a good time.
PS – those last couple of pics come from https://julianpeterscomics.com/page-1-the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock-by-t-s-eliot/