The Characteristics of Eliot’s Poetry That Distinguish It As Radically Modern

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T.S. Eliot is a modernist poet who addresses issues within the modern world and society, he discusses many of the fears and worries that society at his time experienced about the evolving world in which they were living. Eliot’s own apprehension about the world stemmed from the belief that Western culture encouraged laziness and led people away from education, which created a society which was problematic in many aspects.

Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock begins by depicting with what would appear to be a romantic setting, ‘Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky’ in which Prufrock seems to be charming his lover, but this quickly takes a turn as he proceeds with, ‘Like a patient etherized upon a table’ which sets the sinister tone which is continued throughout the rest of the poem. ‘Ether’ was an anaesthetic used by doctors on wounded soldiers, therefore this reference alludes to Britain in 1915 before World War I, where the poem is set, and Eliot is in turn using this poem to depict the harm he himself feels is tied to the post war world.

Prufrock is extremely concerned with concept of time throughout the poem, or rather unconcerned with it. He convinces himself, ‘And indeed there will be time’, followed with the repetition of ‘There will be time, There will be time’, believing that there is plenty of time to do all of the things which he constantly puts off until later. What Prufrock and other characters such as the women in the poem actually do with their timeless lives is never confirmed, for example the repetition of the lines, ‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’ the women simply come and go, spending their time talking about a painter with no other objectives in life and doing very little else. Therefore, Eliot is depicting how life can be frivolous and meaningless, and the society can become lazy and dull like Prufrock and the woman in the poem who spend their time aimlessly.

We are told that Prufrock has, ‘known them all already, known them all: / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons’ as he wants us to believe that he is a wise and knowledgeable man with plenty of life experience, he has lived through the trials of life already, so he doesn’t need to experience anymore. Prufrock is rejecting new experiences because he is content with how things are and doesn’t feel the need for change. But in reality, we as readers know that Prufrock has not actually experienced much in life, because he has been too afraid to do anything daring and simply put everything off until later, which he never got round to ever doing, he’s comfortable living in his safety net where he doesn’t have to make changes or get anything done. Eliot is emphasising what he believes to be the danger of becoming comfortably lazy and never accomplishing anything because you are too afraid.

Eliot uses personification in this poem to depict the passivity of life, ‘And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! / Smoothed by long fingers, / Asleep… tired… or it malingers’ the evening is portrayed as a person who is pretending to be asleep to try and avoid waking up and proceeding into the afternoon. This is reflective of Prufrock, who can’t be bothered to do anything with his life, he seems to have no energy and in turn just lazes around. Prufrocks past and present are also mixed together as the poem begins in the evening, then retreats back to the afternoon, therefore Eliot emphasises the theme of passivity as time seems to merge together as one.

The point at which Prufrock becomes aware that he has lost his chance at love is when he declares, ‘I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker’ he now realises that he was so nervous of taking any sort of risk in life that is left with only death to look forward to now, which leaves him ‘afraid’. Later in the poem when he discusses growing old, he asks, ‘Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? / I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.’ This appears to be an act of desperation, he kept himself alienated from the world throughout his life and has accepted his fate to die alone, but he will turn his focus on anything rather than facing his deep rooted feelings and therefore concentrates on how his appearance instead, Gordon states that it is clear he suffers ‘an identity crisis.’ Brown makes an interesting claim in that the speaker of the poem ‘rises above any simple egotism or self-obsession’, which Eliot himself had a pet hate towards. Throughout the entirety of the poem, Prufrock never addresses his emotions, and fails to make any developments in his life especially with women, and Eliot warns that this is the pitfall which leads to him becoming isolated and hopeless.

The problematic nature of the world is further depicted in The Waste Land, a piece of fragmented poetry which Eliot wrote post war, depicting how the world had changed and the anxiety he felt surrounding this new world using numerous perspectives from different speakers throughout. He begins the poem by addressing Spring season in I. The Burial of the Dead:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

These opening lines highlight how the speaker connects the month of April with distress and how the post war world has now become ‘dead land’, most people welcome Springtime viewing it as an invitation for new beginnings where fresh flowers grow, but instead the speaker depicts how Spring causes ‘dull roots’, McIntire believes Eliot ‘yokes together what is painfully opposite and seemingly unrelated through a dramatic revolution of the earth’s cycles’. Eliot is alluding to the human ‘memory and desire’ of life before, and how these memories cease to exist now and will never return no matter how much ‘stirring’ prompts them, similar to his yearning for the past, it cannot return.

When Marie becomes the speaker we learn of her childhood:

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

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Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

Marie is now old, reflecting on her bold and exciting past life, but she goes on to tell us about her life at present, ‘I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.’ Her decision to journey to the warm South in the winter diverges from the previous cold holiday’s she experienced in the mountains and her hobby of reading for pleasure also contrasts with the thrilling sledging which she once enjoyed. Eliot makes this juxtaposition of Marie’s past and present to portray the fact that people in society are too detached from their pasts.

In II. A Game of Chess, Eliot refers to ‘The Philomela Myth’ in which Philomela was raped by Tereus, her brother in law, and turns into a nightingale bird in order to escape his barbarity. He relates people in the modern world to Philomela, who ‘Filled all the desert with inviolable voice / And still she cried, and still the world pursues, / “Jug Jug” to dirty ears.’ People are no longer understood by one another as they are unable to communicate with any purpose or relevance and when they attempt to do so alike Philomela did with her ‘inviolable’ cries, the ‘dirty ears’ in the modern world can only hear gibberish such as ‘Jug jug.’ Gordon believes that ‘in this text voices are vision’ therefore when left alone and alienated you begin to lose your vision and sanity. Eliot also alludes to the loneliness which Philomela experienced in the desert as she cried out, he believes people are lonely, unable to express themselves or be understood to those around them.

A nameless speaker enters the poem frantically, “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. / Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. /What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?” Eliot depicts this speaker as nervous and afraid to be alone, asking someone to stay with him. He also emphasises how alone and desperate for company the speaker is as he is unable to control his questioning as soon as he acquires this company, rambling in a panicked attempt to keep someone there with him, he will say anything to avoid being deserted. Therefore, Eliot is portraying how the world has created paranoid people, who need non-stop attention and are unable to connect with one another, neither an emotional nor intellectual level.

The speaker also asks, “Do / “You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / “Nothing?” followed by, “Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?” This repetition of ‘nothing’ highlights how Eliot feels believes the problem with the world is that it removes people’s connections and memories associated with their own personal pasts and the past world, and now instead they are left with a feeling of nothingness in their lives. What they are left with lacks anything of real substance, any culture or civilisation which was known before has now vanished, creating a world which he depicts as alienated.

III. The Fire Sermon depicts how the City of London itself has been destroyed by the modern world, Eliot highlights how on the River Thames ‘The nymphs have departed’, these nymphs represent what Surette believes to be Eliot’s ‘strong interest in mystical nature’, and they were replaced with ‘loitering heirs of city directors’, leaving what was once a magical place in the past, something very different now. He uses sarcasm to emphasise how the river now ‘bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends’. Eliot portrays how aspects such as pollution and littering have destroyed what was once a beautiful landscape to him, and he is now left with a waste land, he believed the modern world created people who were lazy and careless which led to the deconstruction of London’s what was once elegant and magnificent scenery.

III. The Fire Sermon further highlights how modern world culture has changed from that of the past when Eliot portrays the relationship between the young man who is described as ‘carbuncular’ and therefore someone who lacks good looks, and the young woman who is tired after their meal together:

The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,

Endeavours to engage her in caresses

Which are still unreproved, if undesired.

Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;

Exploring hands encounter no defence;

His vanity requires no response

Because the young woman makes no action of either agreement or objection, the man takes it upon himself to make the decision for them both, and has sex with her off his own accord. The modern man feels that he is in a position of authority which enables him to make this decision as we learn that his ‘vanity requires no response’, he doesn’t care how the woman feels about the situation, this aspect is unimportant, as long as the outcome is pleasing to him. T.S Eliot himself, claimed, ‘Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important.’ This satirical aspect of the poem emphasises how in the modern world, love and sex are no longer connected, it is seen as merely something to provide enjoyment and pleasure to uneducated people in order to pass their time, whereas in previously sex was associated with romance and passion.

In conclusion, T.S Eliot depicts how modernist aspects of life have affected the lives of both the people living in the modern world, and the world itself. He writes both poems in fragments, as if they are a stream of his own consciousness, describing how he feels about the problematic nature of the modern world with elements such as loneliness, alienation and hopelessness. He alludes to many other texts throughout his poetry, such as Shakespeare in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Ovid in The Waste Land which is a typical characteristic of modern poets. It is clear Eliot that in Eliot’s vision of the world, he is warning people of what can happen if they easily become uneducated, lazy and careless in their lives, and believes that they should remain cultured and accomplished in this new modern world.


Primary Texts

  1. Eliot, T.S., The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1915
  2. Eliot, T.S., The Waste Land, 1922

Secondary Texts

  1. Brown, Richard-Danson, Aestheticism & Modernism: Debating Twentieth-century Literature (United Kingdom: Routledge), 2005
  2. Eliot, T.S., The Cocktail Party, 1950
  3. Gordon, Lyndall, T.S. Eliot: The Modernist in History, (London: Cambridge University Press), 1991
  4. McIntire, Gabrielle, Modernism, Memory, and Desire: T.S. Eliot & Virgina Woolf, (London: Cambridge University Press), 2008
  5. Ovid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Fifteen Books, Vol II, (London: Jacob Tonson), 1717
  6. Surette, Leon, The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the Occult, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press), 1994
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