Characteristic of the Works of T.S Eliot

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In T.S Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, Eliot displays many of the key features that characterise modernist literature throughout his composition of poetry. This essay will explore these characteristics, focusing on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock while referencing other works. Furthermore, this essay will examine the fundamental traits of modernist literature such as questioning of self, urbanised setting, the sense of alienation, fragmentation and symbolism.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, of an old New England family. He was educated at Harvard and did graduate work in philosophy at the Sorbonne, Harvard, and Merton College, Oxford. He settled in England, where he was for a time a schoolmaster and a bank clerk, and eventually literary editor for the publishing house Faber & Faber, of which he later became a director. He founded and, during the seventeen years of its publication, edited the exclusive and influential literary journal Criterion. In 1927, Eliot became a British citizen and about the same time entered the Anglican Church.

Eliot can be considered by critics such as Ackroyd as one of the most daring innovators of twentieth century poetry. Never compromising his style and belief either with the public or with language itself, he has followed his belief that poetry should aim at a complex representation of modern civilisation in language and that such representation should naturally lead to difficult poetry. Despite this difficulty, his influence on modern poetic diction is considered immeasurable. Eliot’s study of the poetry of Dante, of the English writers John Webster and John Donne, and of the French Symbolist Jules Laforgue helped him to find his own style while also expanding pass his strong influence of Anglo-American culture, delving into eastern philosophy. In the view of Magher from the 1920s onward, Eliot’s influence as a poet and as a critic, in both Great Britain and the United States was extensive. He also had his own detractors ranging from avant-garde American poets who believed that he had abandoned the attempt to write about contemporary America, to traditional English poets who maintained that he had broken the links between poetry and a large popular audience. During his lifetime, however, his work was the subject of much sympathetic interpretation. Since his death, interpreters have been notably more critical, focusing on his complex relationship to his American origins, his elitist cultural and social views, and his exclusivist notions of tradition and of race.

According to Huyssen, Modernism refers to a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the experience and values of modern industrial life. Building on late nineteenth-century precedents, artists around the world used new imagery, materials and techniques to create artworks that they felt better reflected the realities and hopes of modern societies. In an era characterised by industrialisation, rapid social change, and advances in science and the social sciences, Modernists felt a growing alienation incompatible with Victorian morality, optimism, and convention. New ideas in psychology, philosophy, and political theory sparked a search for new modes of expression. With reference to Bradbury, Modernism as a literary movement is typically associated with the period after World War I. The enormity of the war had undermined humankind’s faith in the foundations of Western society and culture, and post-war Modernist literature reflected a sense of disillusionment and fragmentation.

“emphasizes the individuality of the author, while at the same time the author often hides behind a persona, or 'mask of the self'; stresses interior modes of consciousness while exhibiting 'a concern to objectify the subjective' (Bradbury, 1930)

A primary theme of T.S. Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land (1922), a seminal Modernist work, is the search for redemption and renewal in a sterile and spiritually empty landscape. With its fragmentary images and obscure allusions, the poem is typical of Modernism in requiring the reader to take an active role in interpreting the text. Other European and American Modernist authors whose works rejected chronological and narrative continuity include Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner. The term Modernism is also used to refer to literary movements other than the European and American movement of the early to mid-20th century. In Latin American literature, Modernismo arose in the late 19th century in the works of Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera and José Martí.

In regards to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ no definitive source for the title character’s name has been identified, although there was a Prufrock-Litton furniture store in St. Louis, Missouri at the time Eliot lived there. Almost comical, ‘Prufrock’ seems to combine echoes of ‘prudishness’ and the ‘frock’ of a priest suggesting primness, religiosity, or abstinence. A ‘frock’ is also a trivialisation of the word ‘dress’ possibly alluring to a crisis of gender identity. The poem’s claim to be a ‘love song’ can be seen as ironic as there is no mention or evidence of love in the poem; the women are distant, pretentious creatures or objects of Prufrock’s repressed sexual desire, and of his failure to assert his authentic sense of self.

J. Alfred Prufrock is a lonely, middle-aged man who moves through a modern, urban environment in a state of confusion and isolation. Though he wrote the poem in his early twenties, Eliot remarked that “It was partly a dramatic creation of a man of about 40 I should say, and partly an expression of feeling of my own through this dim imaginary figure.” Prufrock’s character is distinct. Yet his personality is vague enough to embody universal concerns. Prufrock’s preoccupations with his balding head and his banter over afternoon tea provide the outlines of an identity. However, his experiences of overwhelming confusion and spiritual disconnection are familiar to many modern people. Attempting to find a place for himself in the cosmos, Prufrock asks, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from 1910 to 1913. The early decades of the 19th century was a time of enormous social, cultural, and economic change in the United States. With the rapid onset of industrialisation, U.S. citizens were moving into cities at unprecedented rates. The urban working class adopted new lifestyles, values, and beliefs that often abandoned traditional morality outlined by dominant religious institutions. Social movements such as women’s suffrage and worker’s rights came to the forefront. This period is referred to as “modernity” and Eliot’s poetry reflects the anxieties of the age; spiritual confusion, personal isolation, lack of shared cultural values, lack of purpose and meaning, an abundance of leisure time.

J. Alfred Prufrock is not just the speaker of one of Eliot's poems. He is the Representative Man of early Modernism. Shy, cultivated, oversensitive, sexually retarded (many have said impotent), ruminative, isolated, self-aware to the point of solipsism, as he says, 'Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two.'… The speakers of all these early poems are trapped inside their own excessive alertness. They look out on the world from deep inside some private cave of feeling, and though they see the world and themselves with unflattering exactness, they cannot or will not do anything about their dilemma and finally fall back on self-serving explanation. They quake before the world, and their only revenge is to be alert. After Prufrock and Other Observations, poetry started coming from the city and from the intellect. It could no longer stand comfortably on its old post-Romantic ground, ecstatic before the natural world. (Mitchell, 1991)

Eliot was a lifelong reader and lover of the work of Dante Alighieri. Eliot opens ‘Prufrock’ with an epigraph drawn from the 27th canto of Dante’s ‘Inferno’. In ‘Inferno’, the quoted lines are spoken by the character Guido da Montefeltro, a fraudulent politician condemned to hell. Guido agrees to tell his shameful story to Dante because he believes that Dante will never escape hell to spread word of it. J. Alfred Prufrock resembles Guido da Montefeltro in divulging his neuroses, insecurities, and sins.

Prufrock’s sense of personal insignificance, “I am… an easy tool / Deferential, glad to be of use”, fuels his willingness to share.

This epigraph is taken from Dante's Inferno (XXVII, 61–66) and may be translated as:

If I did think, my answer were to one,

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Whoever could return unto the world,

This flame should rest unshaken. But since ne'er,

If true be told me, any from this depth

Has found his upward way, I answer thee,

Nor fear lest infamy record the words.

Since the traveller through Hell believes that no one will ever report his story, he feels free to tell it without shame. Similarly, Prufrock doesn't believe that anyone will care about his story, so he feels equally free to admit his embarrassment, awkwardness, and alienation.

The epigraph suggests that Prufrock is speaking from a private hell from which he can’t escape. The image of inhabiting the depths, the pit of hell and the bottom of the sea is a dominant one throughout this “Love Song.” The theme of returning from the dead also recurs in a later reference to Lazarus, who is able to perform this feat, unlike Prufrock and Dante’s figures in hell (Prufrock consistently recognises in others, such as Lazarus, Michelangelo, and Hamlet, achievements or attributes he lacks). Additionally, this epigraph suggests that we, who are being addressed here by Guido/Prufrock, are like Dante, descending into the Inferno and hearing the confessions of the sinners as a cautionary tale. The first line “Let us go then, you and I” may even confirm this invitation to accompany the speaker on a hellish journey. Eliot, who revered Dante, allures other references to his works throughout the poem; this one is more obvious than the others.

The first two lines of the poem are lyrical and set a romantic atmosphere. The harsh imagery of the third line, “Like a patient…” marks a distinct break with romance, as did Eliot’s Modernist style in general. The word “then” implies a prior conversation or, as suggested, an ongoing conversation, perhaps one that has worn thin. The “you and I” has been variously interpreted as Prufrock and a companion, Prufrock and the reader, or as Prufrock and the side of Prufrock’s psyche with which he’s engaged in an endless debate.

In a New York Times article on Eliot’s letters, Denis Donoghue states:

Eliot told Kristian Smidt that the “you” is “merely some friend or companion, presumably of the male sex, whom the speaker is at that moment addressing, and that it has no emotional content whatever.” But in an interview in 1962 he said that Prufrock was a man of about forty and in part himself and that he was using the theory of the split personality.(Donoghue,2002)

Technically, the two interpretations Eliot offered aren’t mutually exclusive. People with dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder) may be aware of their other personalities' identities and even interact with them, while suffering from the delusion that they are entirely separate people. But it’s unlikely that Eliot had in mind anything this clinically severe. His connection of Prufrock with himself suggests a “split personality” of a more Freudian or metaphorical kind: ego and superego, warring sides of the self, etc.

One of the poem's central themes is social anxiety and how it affects Prufrock's ability to interact with those around him. This line, like the others in the tea scene, is indicative of the discomfort Prufrock feels in social situations and his belief that he needs to put on a 'face' or mask in order to fit in. This also fits into the theme of otherness present throughout the poem. Prufrock’s indecision is a source of anxiety that causes his mind to unravel. His anxiety makes him indecisive, and his indecisiveness in turn makes him more anxious. Prufrock’s personal refrains are “Do I dare?” and “Should I presume?” Prufrock lives in a world stripped of cultural conventions and guidelines which causes a state of terrifying, unrestricted freedom. As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard remarked, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Confronted with choices and possibilities, Prufrock finds himself gripped by anxiety. Thus, he weighs dilemmas such as, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” In an age in which all values and customs are disputable, it is difficult to decide what to stand for and how to conduct oneself. In a sense, Prufrock’s flexible moral sensibility is admirable and necessary. The downside is his utter lack of self-determination.

Prufrock feels he’s running out of time, comparing Sir John Falstaff’s admission in Act 2, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2: “I am old, I am old.” If Eliot is alluding to this line, it marks a dramatic contrast; between Falstaff, the aging hedonist who has lived life to the absolute fullest and refused (until that moment) to admit he’s getting old, and Prufrock, the still relatively young schlub who’s giving into old age before he’s truly experienced life. Prufrock may envy Hamlet, but of all Shakespearean characters, it’s Falstaff who most represents his polar opposite. Prufrock’s getting on in age, doesn’t want to be seen with peach juices running down his chin, in other words, he’s going crazy troubling himself with mundane concerns. The line also functions more subtly as a metaphor for the girl he desires, who appears to be a younger woman. The peach is also a metaphor for taking a bite out of life, as if taking the bite will justify his existence and renew his vitality. Hamlet, to whom Prufrock feels inferior, contemplates things like murder and the secrets of the universe. Prufrock, though equally fraught with existential malaise, is more pathetic, as his contemplative nature lacks any of the dramatic interest of Hamlet’s. The simple act of eating a peach is something that consumes his conscience in bitter inner debate. In the end, too, unlike Prufrock, Hamlet actually did something. Though it took the prospect of his own death to spur him into action, he got decisive and killed his uncle Claudius. Prufrock sees himself as a coward who will never find the courage to act no matter what.

Peaches, apart from juicy and invigorating, are seen in traditional Chinese folklore as symbols of life and immortality. Called 仙桃, “xiāntáo”, they were consumed by the immortals in order to prolong their lives indefinitely. Eliot was heavily interested in Eastern culture and myth where, he believed, the spiritual salvation will eventually come for the stale Western ideas (the chanting from the Upanishad in the final verses of The Waste Land). He might be wondering not only if he dares eat something that drips and stains in public but also, ultimately, if he dares to live, as opposed to just keeping his lifeless existence.

Through the fantastical, romantic image of mermaids and beautiful ocean views, Eliot has set us up for anti-climax. Once you wake up to the knowledge that the ideals of romance are a fantasy, in part because you yourself are incapable of achieving them, you die a little inside. Prufrock is living in a superficial, pretentious society in which he is constantly being judged for his looks, actions, etc. This is the only external identity he knows, but “waking” to it from his own inner life, he essentially “drowns', his life is empty and meaningless. Eliot is alluding here to Homer’s Odyssey; the “sea-girls” are the Sirens, whose song is so beautiful that no man can resist it. It causes the sailors to throw themselves into the sea and drown or crash their vessel into the rocks and die. Prufrock’s waking also mirrors and subtly revises the ending of John Keats’s sonnet “On the Sea” which urges the reader to sit at the shore as a place of imaginative and spiritual escape.

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