Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Divided Mind of T.S. Eliot

W.B. Yeats famously said that poetry was born from a “quarrel with ourselves,” and Faulkner later added in his Nobel Prize Speech that good writing comes only from “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” These insights are no more apt than when applied to the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Exploding onto the poetic scene in 1915, Eliot and his friend Ezra Pound were at the forefront of the modernist movement. They reacted strongly against the traditional techniques of the Georgians and others who came before them, who seemed to the modernists to be attempting to represent the modern world in a style that was no longer adequate. Following the scientific developments of Darwin and the rising crisis of confidence in religious oxthodoxy, modernism aimed itself towards a realism that had been somewhat eschewed by the poets of the past. Eliot’s earlier poems are directed towards this end. Indeed, his most powerful poetry springs directly from a quarrel within himself between romanticism and realism, later developing into a struggle between religion and naturalism. Though his verse can often seem obscure, Srivastava is correct in his assertion that Eliot’s “poetic quest reflects his attempts to find a belief.”

However, just because this dynamic is seen within his poems, this does not necessarily mean that Eliot himself experienced this conflict. In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919) Eliot controversially argues that “The emotion of art is impersonal,” and claims: “Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry.” And yet, ironically, his poetry is littered with impressions and experiences that were important to him: the similarities between Emily Hale and the lady in Portrait of a Lady; the references to his friend Jean Verdenal in The Waste Land; and the later reference to Margate Sands, where Russell and Eliot’s wife went on holiday, all demonstrate the personal nature of Eliot’s verse. Furthermore, Eliot later admitted that he was somewhat obnoxious in his earlier essays. He writes about Dante’s work that we “cannot afford to ignore Dante’s philosophical and theological beliefs.” Thus, we can infer that the beliefs and the quarrels within Eliot’s poetry are beliefs and quarrels that he felt within himself.

In Eliot’s first poems, his mind seems to be focused largely on the conflict between a romantic and a realist view of life, if by romanticism we mean the hope of something better. Influenced by the anti-romantic teachings of Irving Babbitt, a Professor at Harvard, Eliot’s secular poems explore the possibility of a romantic or idealist worldview, which is then denied. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a perfect example, and indeed the “you and I” of the first line can be interpreted as the two dimensions of Prufrock’s character, the optimistic and the realist. This is reinforced by the poem’s famous simile: “When the evening is spread out across the sky | Like a patient etherised upon a table.” The first line is romantic in its tone, whereas the second is a crushing rejection of that tone with its clinical, realist image that highlights Prufrock’s inhibitions, his etherised character. Eliot himself told Richard Adlington that he was suffering from “aboulie,” which is marked by a loss of willpower. Thus, Prufrock’s “hundred indecisions” are clearly personal to the poet. Though our anti-hero explores the possibility that he might sing his love song, he is, in reality, far too self-conscious (“With a bald spot in the middle of my hair…”) to reveal his feelings to the woman, whom he knows will inevitably reject him: “That is not what I meant at all.”

This denial of the romantic view of life is repeated throughout the poem, particularly evident in the polysyndetic image of the arms, “braceleted and white and bare,” which on closer inspection, are “downed with light brown hair.” Despite his similarities to Hamlet (seen through his inaction), Prufrock understands that he is not heroic. In fact, he is far more similar to Polonius, “almost ridiculous” and “at times, the Fool”. He may dream of the mermaids, but they will not sing for him; he may romantically contemplate the “white hair of the waves,” but in the end, “human voices wake us and we drown.” Eliot once said that, in a dramatic monologue, it is surely “the voice of the poet talking to other people, that is dominant.” Therefore, we can infer that the division in Prufrock is one that Eliot was himself afflicted by, explaining the recurrence of this theme throughout his poetry. Indeed, in Portrait of a Lady, it is the young man who represents the realist perspective, whereas the lady is romantic, hoping for something more than the dull routine of “serving tea to friends.” Thus, it is clear that Eliot was conflicted: he saw the crumbling world around him, and questioned whether this really is our ultimate reality.

This division is also seen through Eliot’s purposeful contrasting of the seemingly romantic past and the decrepit present. Prufrock is ironically compared to Michelangelo, John the Baptist, Hamlet and Lazarus, all heroic figures. Likewise, Sweeney in Sweeney Among the Nightingales is explicitly compared to the epic hero Agamemnon, whose final words serve as the poem’s epitaph: “Alas, I am struck deep with a mortal blow.”  In the modern world, the only hero we have to guard the “hornèd gate” is “Apeneck Sweeney” who is repeatedly described with animalistic metaphors, as are the poem’s other characters. In this sense, the poem represents Eliot’s anguish at the modern world: his contempt is clear in his satirical description of the brothel as “The Convent of the Sacred Heart” and his use of the word “Nightingales” to describe the prostitutes. This poem is yet another example of realism’s victory over romance: the Nightingales may be singing as “Agamemnon cried aloud,” but they are also letting “their liquid siftings fall” on the “dishonoured shroud.” Indeed, the poem’s title itself seems to foreshadow this conflict: Eliot creates an antithesis between the modern, unappealing name “Sweeney” and the idea of Nightingales, the sweetly singing bird of Keats’ famous ode. Likewise, the modern name “J. Alfred Prufrock” seems incongruous in the context of a love song. Thus, through the contrasting of the past and the present, Eliot’s poetry explores the conflict between realism and romanticism.

Just as in Sweeney, Eliot’s magnum opus, The Waste Land, presents memories of a better, pre-WW1 past as a source of pain, and the poet’s constant use of allusion (including references to Tiresias and Ophelia, amongst others) reinforce the past-present contrast. This is made most obvious by Marie’s epiphany in “The Burial of the Dead” – she reminisces about her childhood as a Princess, directly contrasted with her present-day, dull life of routine: “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.” Marie has been identified as Marie von Habsburg, whose dynasty and power collapsed after the war, explaining her change of circumstance. This idea of routine is also seen through the repeated motif of the wheel, which Louis L. Martz says highlights “the eternally decreed pattern of suffering.” These juxtapositions of the past and the present again show evidence of Eliot’s obsession with this conflict between romanticism (represented by the past) and realism (represented by the present’s lack of hope and romance). However, we are also reminded of the brutality of the past, including the lusts of Tereus and the violation of the Rhine maidens. Though Eliot may not completely idolise the past, the struggle between hope and realism is undeniable.

Conflict manifests itself in all of Eliot’s poems, but it is perhaps most evident in Eliot’s contemplations on religion. It is in these poems that the collapse of Hegelian optimism in the early 20th Century and the rise of naturalistic beliefs are most influential. For instance, Eliot’s Preludes present the reader with a number of melancholic descriptions of the modern world, including the “burnt-out ends of smoky days” and the “faint stale smells of beer,” the spondaic metre of the phrases “burnt-out ends” and “faint stale smells” having a scathing effect. In the focus on the everyday and the unattractive aspects of life, the influence of the poets John Davidson and Baudelaire is clear. However, in Part IV of the poem, Eliot contemplates “The notion of some infinitely gentle | Infinitely suffering thing,” and thus the quarrel within himself has clearly shifted its focus: it is no longer a merely mortal hope (in the form of romanticism) that he is contemplating, but religious belief. However, in this poem, naturalism and realism win: “Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh…” The note of scorn in these lines perhaps suggests Eliot’s own embarrassment that he could even consider the idea of a saviour who dies for us.

This suppression of religious desire is similarly seen in “What the Thunder said”, Part V of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot uses the image of drought to represent the lack of hope in the modern world (“Here is no water but only rock”), but he then allows himself to consider “If there were water…” The “Drip drop drip drop” perhaps suggests Eliot’s hope of a God, which is then denied: not only is there no “Hanged Man” card (perhaps representing the Messiah), also “there is no water.” However, four stanzas later Eliot describes “a damp gust | Bringing rain,” which could again be a suggestion of religious possibility. Moreover, whilst the image of the “empty chapel” may seem to be a denial of religion, finding the Chapel Perilous empty was a test of faith for Perceval in the Grail Legend. However, the cock’s crowing could be read as another example of suppressing religious tendencies: the cock crows in the Gospels when Saint Peter denies Jesus Christ.

Thus, in essence, The Waste Land is a poem that questions whether any hope can “grow | Out of this stony rubbish,” the “stony rubbish” being a world without a God. The answer, argues Schneider, is “Perhaps”. Whilst the incredibly melancholic poem Gerontion is founded on the same naturalist premise that after death we will all be whirled “In fractured atoms,” The Waste Land does suggest some hope, a hope to be found in a non-religious view of life. The sexually depraved city, explicitly compared to the Hell of Dante’s Inferno, in which the typist is assaulted and in which “each man fixed his eyes before his feet,” can be saved through giving, sympathising and controlling (“Datta... Dayadhvam… Damyata…”) Through these actions, the Fisher King may be able to set his “lands in order”. Again, the influence of Babbitt and New Humanism is clear: Babbitt held that man’s imperfect nature might be controlled through the development of the conscience, or the “inner check”. And so, whilst Eliot’s poem may deny religion, it does not necessarily deny hope of a better world: the final words “Shantih shantih shantih,” which Eliot translated as “The peace that passeth understanding,” reinforce a sense of confidence and optimism. The poem tentatively suggests that the Prufrocks and the Sweeneys of this world can improve themselves. It is in this sense that Eliot was divided: whilst in Prufrock, Sweeney, and Gerontion he indicates that there can be no hope of recovering the lost past, in The Waste Land he implies that romanticism, attained through following the moral code from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, is not as implausible as he previously suggested.

This conflict continues into Eliot’s later poems as he gradually moved towards his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927, a movement clearly noticeable in his poetry. He once remarked that “The whole of Shakespeare’s work is one poem, united by one significant, consistent, and developing personality.” The same could very well be said of Eliot’s work in that we can track his gravitation towards religious faith. From Preludes onwards we witness the quarrel over religion, which reaches its climax in The Hollow Men, his last great poem before his conversion. Again, this poem uses the image of drought, describing life as “our dry cellar,” to suggest the lack of hope. Eliot describes how “We are the hollow men” who raise “stone images.” Our building of grave stones demonstrates our desire for something more, an afterlife perhaps, a desire that receives nothing more than “The supplication of a dead man’s hand | Under the twinkle of a fading star.” Thus, Eliot shows his mind’s tendency to contemplate religion, before crushing any realistic possibility of faith. This is most obvious when he writes: “Lips that would kiss | Form prayers to broken stone.” We may have belief in God, but our prayers will inevitably fall on “broken stone.” Our hope of a “perpetual star” is “The hope only | Of empty men,” since he has told us already that the star is “fading.” The Shadow of Death looms over us all, and therefore we are unable to act: this is why the world will end “Not with a bang but a whimper.” In this poem, though Eliot’s questioning of religion has become all the more prominent, there is still no hope, and as Schneider notes: “There is no Grail and no Quest, no lands will be set in order…” It does, with its dallying with religious faith, nonetheless lead up to his great religious poem “Ash Wednesday,” the culmination of this long-lived quarrel, a poem that embraces religion over naturalism.

Thus, Eliot is clearly a poet of what he called mature impersonality, in that he can retain “all the particularity of his experience,” whilst making a “general symbol.” His verse may be obscure, but this does not mean that the sentiments in his poetry are not deeply felt. F.T. Prince says of Eliot’s poems that they are “not only a poetry of modern life, but a poetry reflecting his individual sensibility.” He was uncertain and perplexed about the modern world and its apparent pointlessness. He had, in his own words, a “grouse against life,” and his melancholic confusion led him to contemplate something better, whether that be faith in humanity or faith in God. He may have believed that the human race is “in rats’ alley,” but this was a belief that he did not want to have. Eliot, as Tiresias, had “foresuffered all,” but he later came to follow Hulme’s view that nothing short of dogmatic religion could serve to control man’s evil nature, and that this could be the only answer. The quarrel is finally ended with his firm belief that we should “rejoice that things are as they are.” He finally hopes that he may forget the conflict that divided him for so long, “These matters that with myself I too much discuss…”


  1. I like some Eliot - I particularly like the line, from Prufrock, "measuring [ones] life in coffee spoons." I think I've been doing that for the past ten years... on other occasions though he leaves me unmoved. I can't help but feel that poetry isn't a medium that's particularly enriched by footnotes - something about the obsessive references seems almost juvenile, like he's trying to name-drop or quote as many things as possible to show how learned he is. Of course I realise that the finished product is a masterpiece of craftsmanship but I just can't sympathise with the approach.

    If you're into anti-romanticism, why not try some William Carlos Williams or R. S. Thomas? I would love to see you tackle some R. S. Thomas! I'll set you an essay if you like...

    1. Thank you for reading! I really like Eliot, but I completely understand where you are coming from. It can often work (like the Dante reference in the Waste Land and the Cleopatra reference) but it often just seems like name-dropping, I agree. Some of it just seems a bit pointless. I've read a bit of WCW! I didn't really like him though, some of his poems just seemed a bit emotionless (but I guess that's sort of the point). I'll have a look at some R.S. Thomas :)