In his “Introduction” to the Selected Prose of T S Eliot Frank Kermode remarks that one aspect of Eliot’s “poetic genius,” which Kermode relates to “emotional” rather than “intellectual engagement” with the subject matter (15), is a “peculiar blend of fascination and disgust . . . balancing on the moment of simultaneous enchantment and loss.” Where do we find Eliot's "poetic genius" through textual evidence and themes related to Modernism?
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Eliot's "poetic genius," as defined by Kermode, can be observed in the work of Eliot as he describes characters, themes or topics that show the condition of the Modern way of life, which is defined by isolation, a peculiar dis-ease that is displayed within characters, and a sense of meaninglessness that pervades the texts. For example, consider the description of J. Alfred Prufrock, in Eliot's famous poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Consider the way in which J. Alfred Prufrock is shown to be constantly suffering from dis-ease in terms of his own confidence and his recurrent thoughts about what others will think of him:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
There is a curious fascination as well as distaste in this description of J. Alfred Prufrock as a man who endlessly tries to put off making any decision that will have lasting consequences, and also in the way that he obsesses over what others will say about his baldness and this thinnness. As such the two famous lines of this poem, "Do I dare / Disturb the universe?", are laughable. The idea of such a non-entity of a man like J. Alfred Prufrock disturbing the universe is incredibly funny. However, at the same time, there is a particular enchantment in these words, as they represent the viewpoint of J. Alfred Prufrock and his own feelings about this decision he is going to have to make ultimately, no matter how much he tries to convince himself that he can make "decisions and revisions." Eliot's genius therefore is demonstrated in the way that his characters and his themes both enchant and repel with equal strength. Readers find J. Alfred Prufrock a ridiculous man, but also a man who is bestowed with a certain amount of dignity as he tries to cope with the Modern condition. This is something that is present in all of his work.
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