T. S. Eliot Essay - T. S. Eliot Poetry: British Analysis

T. S. Eliot Poetry: British Analysis

One useful approach to T. S. Eliot’s poetry is to examine voices and fragments as they announce and illustrate themes. In the concluding section of The Waste Land, one of Eliot’s speakers provides a key to that poem, to Eliot’s poetry generally, and to the theory and practice of poetic composition that marked his career as a writer: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” These fragments consist mainly of highly allusive phrases and quotations, of intricately wrought verbal symbols, of lines of direct simplicity and complex opacity, of passages of sheer beauty and crabbed commonality fixed in formulated phrases, arranged and rearranged until, in the best of the poetry, one finds the complete consort dancing together. On first coming to Eliot’s poetry, especially to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or The Waste Land, the reader’s usual (and perfectly acceptable) reaction is one of bewilderment, excitement, and, at best, an appreciation of the poetic statements that does not necessarily involve an understanding of precisely what is said, the conditions under which it is said, the full nature of the speaker, or his or her aims, intentions, or situation.

The fragments owe much to Eliot’s youthful experience in St. Louis, summers on the New England coast, his Harvard education, his visits to Paris and Munich, and the Oxford and London years. Furthermore, they stem from his lifelong immersion in Dante and the Bible and from his omnivorous reading. He was particularly drawn to French Symbolist poetry (especially Laforgue), the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, especially John Webster, Cyril Tourneur, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare, and Donne and the other Metaphysical poets. To come to Eliot’s poetry with such a literary background is to see the phrases of other writers whom Eliot admired take on new and sometimes surprising meanings. To read Eliot’s work without such a background may mean that the reader will miss both the larger and the particular allusions, but still the reader may grasp possible meanings of individual poems. The unwary reader may be carried along on the surface of the poem or find himself in sympathy with an expressed emotion without clearly knowing what is at issue. All readers should have recourse to those works to which Eliot seems to allude so that they may proceed the more intelligently with the poem at hand. The fragments that Eliot quotes or alludes to are the necessary baggage of the intelligent reader, impedimenta that include much of the Western European tradition and elements from Middle and Far Eastern culture.

In many respects, Eliot the poet became not unlike Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz or, indeed, Marlow: He became “A Voice,” an “invisible poet” (Hugh Kenner’s phrase) who speaks. The voice or voices in the poems are usually those that repeat formulas embedded in literary, cultural, and religious traditions—uncertain voices that often betray their speakers’ lack of self-knowledge or clear identity; they may be voices (especially in the Ariel poems) whose certitudes are affirmed only as they speak them (word becomes act) and which may be truly chimerical. The voices speaking the fragments, even the unified voice of Four Quartets, are the voices of humanity (though often a special order of humanity) seeking, as they turn over the fragments and seek the sense of sounds, to understand, explain, and identify themselves in terms of the past, present, and future. The voices, desiderative, expectant, seek in the expression of a word or words to communicate themselves to other communicants (the reader) and to educate those communicants in the mystery of a common life, the implications of action or inaction, the generalizable elements of a particular experience or emotion.

Long before his Paris year (1910-1911), Eliot had read Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) and had come under the sway of French Symbolist poetry. He had published some undergraduate poetry (phrases of which he used in later poems) and had begun two major poems, “Portrait of a Lady” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He completed the latter at Munich (1911) but it remained in manuscript until Ezra Pound persuaded Harriet Monroe to publish it in Poetry (1915); it then formed the nucleus for Eliot’s first volume of poetry, Prufrock and Other Observations, in which he may justly be said to have inaugurated modern poetry in English. It is with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the first masterpiece of an apprentice, that a just appreciation of Eliot’s oeuvre should begin.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Like “Portrait of a Lady” and most of his poetry prior to Four Quartets, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a dramatic, if static, monologue. It is heavily influenced by Jules Laforgue’s poetic technique in that it presents an interior landscape of atomized consciousness. The male narrator (the voice) worries about the possibility of an erotic encounter as he worries and puzzles over his own identity, his too conscious sense of self, his meaning and place in a surreal and menacing universe of his own devising, and his observations (objective and subjective genitive, as James Joyce phrased it) while he confides to a reader (who is called on to become part of Prufrock’s divided self) the fragmented perceptions of himself and his situation. Prufrock does not, however, arrive at any conclusions about the encounter or about his own identity and meaning.

The epigraph (Dante, Inferno, 27) provides a key to the incongruous “love song” of an impossible lover and sets the reader squarely in Hell listening to a reluctant speaker (who cannot say what he means) who will confide in the auditor/reader as Guido did in the character Dante, “without fear or infamy,” without fear that the secret will be revealed on earth (will become the subject of “observations”), particularly in the hearing of the perplexing women who “come and go” in the troublesome room or of the desirable but distant and somewhat fearsome recumbent woman. It is possible to exclude the “reader” as the addressee of this poem and to read it as an interior dialogue between “self” and “soul”: Such a reading would heighten to a clinical level the disorder of identity that is sensed in Prufrock’s divided self.

The voice that addresses the reader in scraps of experience remembered and fearfully anticipated and in fragments of historical- and self-consciousness does so in response to a question, presumably posed by the reader in a Dantesque role. As Hugh Kenner aptly points out, the reader enters a “zone of consciousness” in the poem, not a verifiable or constant “realistic” setting. Prufrock is not a “real” character who tells a logical or temporally sequential story. Indeed, the reader participates in the unfolding narrative by hearing and deciding what is part of the world of recognizable experience and what is intrinsic to a fragmented, disjointed, disordered, diseased consciousness that speaks familiarly (“you and I”) of a shared boredom of social rounds and obligations, of the terror of rejection, and (the greater Prufrockian terror) of acceptance and surrender in sexual contact—all of which contribute to a sense of cognitive and emotional paralysis for which Prufrock finds a disordered “objective correlative” in the “sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table.”

The literary fragments in the poem include the central situational analogue in the Inferno, the Polonian self-caricature, and grotesque visions of Saint John the Baptist and Lazarus returned from the dead. None of the characters in the fragments belong to the realm of the living and all represent an inability “to say just what I mean.”


“Gerontion” (1919) carries on the pattern of monologue that Eliot established in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady.” Here Eliot presents another voice speaking, besides words of his own devising, words from the Bible, William Shakespeare, Cyril Torneur, Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, and George Chapman. He intended “Gerontion” to be a prolegomenon to The Waste Land, and as such it is more than adequate: It deals with concerns and embodies themes common to the longer poem: themes such as aridity, the inadequacies of the common experience of sexuality and love, history’s “contrived corridors,” the function of memory, the Christian economy of salvation, and the attempts of consciousness to order disparate experiences and make them comprehensible. Structurally, both works are collages that use allusive language to make human history manageable; technically, they both employ a stream of consciousness tentatively centered in the centrifugal thoughts of a “dry brain in a dry season.”

Gerontion and the foreign figures who flit through the Inferno and Purgatorio of his memory are figures of desolation who have reaped the whirlwind of their own personal histories and of history generally. The characters, from Mr. Silvero to Mrs. Cammel, represent some of the dry thoughts that Gerontion houses. They typify one major difficulty that the poem presents: the tension between the past, the past remembered in the present, and the present—the past dominating the present and vitiating it as memory mixes with desire in a futile nostalgia that prevents the narrator from acting (reaching conclusion). This temporal tension is at the poem’s core and is resolved only in the poem’s emphasis on the act of remembering. Once again, as in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, the self-conscious voices utter personal and historical fragments that illuminate consciousness speaking. The point of remembering these fragments is to identify a fundamental problem of meaning that attaches to peripheral love (of art, for example) and to love (possibly of the poem’s addressee), its meaning in personal and general historical context, and the relationship of those meanings to the meaning of the death for which Gerontion waits and the possibility of another kind of life hereafter.

The Waste Land

The transition from “Gerontion” to The Waste Land, in which Gerontion is transformed into Tiresias, is a movement from considerable opacity to relative clarity, though the later poem is indeed perplexing. In 1953, Eliot wrote that he did not look forward with pleasure either to literary oblivion or to a time when his works would be read only by a few graduate students in “Middle Anglo-American, 42B.” Together with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Four Quartets, The Waste Land ensures that neither of those ends is probable. Eliot stunned all, and outraged some, of the literary world in 1922 with the publication (in The Criterion and The Dial) of The Waste Land, a work that has engendered more commentaries, interpretations, and discussions than any other poem of the twentieth century. Structurally, the work is a series of five poems that constitute one poem; parts of it were written and rewritten over the course of at least seven years, with editorial help for the final version from Ezra Pound. When he published it in book form, Eliot added more than fifty notes to the poem, some of which are not helpful and some of which emphasize the importance of vegetation ceremonies and direct the reader to Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1915) and to Jessie L. Weston’s work on the Grail legend, From Ritual to Romance (1920).

The wealth of literary fragments, clues, and allusions to other works, the inclusion of foreign words and phrases and of arcane material, may produce some bafflement and has inspired numerous exegetical tracts. It is of primary importance not to treat the poem as a highly sophisticated double-cross; instead, one should, before beginning a search for sources and analogues, surrender to it as an emotional, intellectual, puzzling, and disquieting poem. It is only in allowing for the experience of communicable and precisely incommunicable emotion that the poem can work as a poem rather than as an occasion for the exercise of literary archeology.

Eliot wrote (note to 1.218), “Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ’character,’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. . . . What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.” One may, on Eliot’s authority, read the poem as an account of Tiresias’s observations as he guides the reader through his own memory to various locations in The Waste Land as seen or remembered on a journey that is both in and out of time. Thus, many elements fall into place as Tiresias subsumes all the characters or speakers in a multilayered, cyclical ritual of death and rebirth. Alternatively, one may read the poem as a series of fragmented monologues, in the manner of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” so that Tiresias’s becomes only one among many voices. So to read it is to find Eliot’s note somewhat misleading.

Assuming that this is a Symbolist poem, perhaps the Symbolist poem of the twentieth century, the historical and cultural dimensions that many critics have so ably attributed to it (as being a poem about the disillusionment of a particular generation, about the 1920’s, about London, and so on) recede. So, too, do the ubiquitous anthropological considerations of barren land, infertility, initiation rites, and the death of gods. Both sets of data may, then, be treated as “objective correlatives” for emotions that the poet seeks to express. What remain as underlying themes are sexual disorder (basic to the Grail and to vegetation myths), the lack of and need for religious belief (accented negatively by the presence of Madam Sosostris and positively in “The Fire Sermon” and “What the Thunder Said”), and the process of poetic composition (fragments “shored against my ruins”). These may be seen as elaborations in The Waste Land of themes present in “Portrait of a Lady,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Hippopotamus” (1917), and “Gerontion”; they are themes that also relate directly to Eliot’s lessons from Dante’s La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life) and La divina commedia (c. 1320, 3 volumes; The Divine Comedy, 1802).

The diverse interpretations of what the poem is about have obvious implications for how one values the fragments of which it is composed and, to return to the question of voice, how one identifies the speaker and the burden of his speech. If, for example, one assumes that the blind, androgynous Tiresias speaks in many voices and does so with foreknowledge of all, one may conclude that the work stands as a monument to the disillusionment not of one generation but of many. One may also find that the slight progress of the Fisher King from the dull canal behind the gashouse (part 3) to the shore (part 5) has slight significance and that the question about setting his lands in order is, like shoring fragments against ruins, all that can be done before capitulating to the inevitable continuation of a condition in which the land will remain waste. Tiresias has, after all, foreseen this, too. If one assumes a multiplicity of voices, however, beginning with Marie, the Hyacinth Girl (or, in the epigraph, with the Sibyl’s complaint and the voice speaking of it), and ending with the Fisher King, the Thunder, and a new voice (or many voices) speaking in the poem’s last lines, one has a quite different experience of the poem. In the second reading, one treats the work as a series of soliloquies or monologues all mixing memory with quite different desires, all commenting on various meanings (or lack of meaning) or love, and all concerned with hope or its opposite, hope negated in self-irony, hope centered on the release from individual prisons, hope tempered by trepidations attendant on the “awful daring of a moment’s surrender,” and, possibly, hope that the Fisher King has finally thrown off accidia by asking himself the one needful question.

In either reading, how one treats the speaker and the meaning of the fragments raises other questions that drive one back into the poem, and each new reading raises new questions. There is no doubt that sexual disorder is a dominant theme, that the disorder concerns the dissociation of appetitive action from the intellectual and emotional aspects that would make the action human and not merely a reflex action, and that the symptoms of disorder are common to such characters as the typist, Mr. Eugenides, Mrs. Porter, Elizabeth I, Tiresias, Philomel, and the Fisher King. Add to this the abiding sense of death and its meaning, and the spiritual teachings of Buddhism and the mystery religions (Christianity among them), and new complexities emerge, as do new questions that only the Thunder can answer.

The poem’s last verse paragraph displays little overt coherence once the Fisher King asks his question, but it does nevertheless offer a direct key to understanding the poem. That the Fisher King has traversed the arid plains, has put them behind him and now may have some power to set his kingdom in order, provides a sense of closure. In the next line (1. 427), London Bridge, crossed by so many who had been undone by death in the unreal City (part 1), is falling down: This action will end the procession of dead commuters; in the nursery rhyme there is no adequate means to rebuild the bridge permanently. The next line is from Dante, who is a source for many of the attitudes, emotions, and possibly the situational contexts of many of the poem’s speakers: Here Arnaut Daniel, suffering in Purgatory for sins of lust, leaps back into the refining fire of his own accord; this may be seen as a gloss on the “Fire Sermon” and as a cure for the various forms of lust in the entire poem. There follow lines from “Pervigilium Veneris,” a reference to Philomela (echoes of parts 2 and 3) and from Gérard de Nerval’s “El desdichado.” This last may have metapoetical implications for the authorial Eliot and may also recall another quest for rightful inheritance—in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (1819). In “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (1. 430), “these fragments” are the preceding 429 lines, the immediately preceding seven lines, the fragmented speeches, the fragments of poetic and religious traditions, and the fragments of verses composed over many years to form the poem itself. The reference to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (pr. c. 1585, 1. 431), in which Hieronymo proposes to “fit” a play using fragments of poetry in several languages (tongues) could, as Bernard Bergonzi indicates, comment directly on The Waste Land itself. The penultimate line repeats the Thunder’s statements, giving them more point; and the final lines translated by Eliot as equivalent to “The Peace which passeth understanding.”

What do these keys unlock? Surely they suggest what a reader should know of European and Eastern literary, cultural, and religious traditions to grasp some of the poem’s meanings. They may also serve to help the reader see, to paraphrase Eliot, the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end. Having come to the end of the poem, one must be prepared to read it anew from the beginning. Bernard Bergonzi, following C. K. Stead’s analysis of the pattern and meaning of Four Quartets, provides an invaluable guide to the significance of each of the poem’s five sections. “The Burial of the Dead” concerns movement in time (seasons, change, reluctant birth); “A Game of Chess” reveals patent dissatisfaction with worldly experience; “The Fire Sermon” leads through purgation in the world and a divesting of the soul of love for created things; “Death by Water” is a brief lyric containing a warning and an invocation; “What the Thunder Said” deals with the issues of spiritual health and artistic wholeness. To read the work as a poem about the artist’s concern for artistic wholeness allied to spiritual health offers extraordinary and suggestive possibilities for revaluing it and the poetry that preceded it.

“The Hollow Men”

“The Hollow Men” has often been read as a poem written at the nadir of the poet’s emotional life, a depressing and depressed poem. This may be a correct reading; it may also be, however much it is favored by scores of writers who seek autobiographical confessions in Eliot’s poetry, wide of the mark. The poem seems, indeed, to have been composed from fragments discarded from earlier drafts of The Waste Land. Again, voice and fragment should guide the wary reader. The epigraph, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), should put the reader on guard: The speech is that of an African worker reporting the death of Mr. Kurtz to Conrad’s narrator-once-removed, Marlow, whose account is passed on to the reader by one who heard him tell the tale. The reader is, like the hollow men, at several removes from anything like experience at firsthand; and several emotional layers separate Conrad’s reader from Kurtz: Eliot adds another emotional layer of separation but strikes a responsive note of limited sympathy in his readers who have read Conrad. This is only one small reflection of the ways in which Heart of Darkness stands in relation to this poem and, by extension, to The Waste Land and its “preface,” “Gerontion.”

This poem, like earlier poems and the later Ash Wednesday, is obsessed with death. One of Dante’s dead, a “hollow man” (Inferno, 3) who lived, without blame and without praise, a life of accidia, addresses the reader in self-explanation and communal confession. Two other major sources inform the poem and quicken the sense of death: the history of the Gunpowder Plot and the Elizabethan dramatic account of assassination found in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600, in which the phrase “hollow men” occurs). The reader is clearly in the presence of the dead, just as Dante’s Pilgrim listened to the hollow men, who were neither for Jehovah nor against him, in the Hell of their own making. Like the addressee of Heart of Darkness, the reader hears, perhaps seated in a club chair, a story of Marlow telling a tale prompted by his observation that his present location (seated on a yawl on the Thames) was once one of the dark places of the earth (and may still be so). In each case, the reader/addressee is told a story of darkness, a story of the Shadow, a story of failure and, ultimately, of inconsequence, a story told to pass the time.

Ash Wednesday

In Ash Wednesday, so named for the first day of Lent, a day for the turnings of Christian metanoia, Dante’s mysticism and its correlative tension between flesh and spirit are elaborated. The situation of which the voice speaks, a conversion that is not without difficulty and contention, is told not in logical, sequential narrative but in a disciplined Symbolist dream. Here, for example, the Lady subsumes many ladies (the rejected one of blesséd face, Beatrice, Theologia, Ecclesia) and Eliot’s earlier expressions of dehumanization (such as the classic “ragged claws” of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) now become expressions of Christian humility. Unquestionably influenced by Eliot’s own turning to the Anglican Church in 1928, this poem, together with the Ariel poems, represents poetic pilgrimages of hope that do not necessarily find resolution of the tensions between flesh and spirit but that indicate possibilities for subliminal resolution in transcendence.

Four Quartets

The assured masterpiece of his poetic maturity, Four Quartets is more immediately accessible than Eliot’s early and middle work. The poems that comprise it, like his earlier poetry, grew incrementally from “Burnt Norton,” which sprang from lines discarded from Murder in the Cathedral, to “Little Gidding,” with “East Coker” and “The Dry Salvages” intervening. Unlike his earlier poetry, the poems of Four Quartets lack a dramatic character who speaks; instead, they are in the lyric tradition of direct poetic speech in which the speaker has a constant voice that may well be the poet’s own. Unfortunately, the speaker sometimes assumes the hortatory voice of the preacher. This shift in poetic style, away from masks and personae, is a new element in Eliot’s verse.

Each of the poems adopts a musical and frequently iterative pattern, as if the reader is meant to hear the instrumental conversations endemic to musical quartets. In reading these poems, one is frequently reminded of Walter Pater’s dictum that “all art continually aspires to the condition of music.” The poems are set pieces in the eighteenth century tradition of verse inspired by a visit to a specific place. Taken together, they constitute some of Eliot’s most beautiful (and, in places, most banal) poetry, as the lyricist adopts a consistent poetic voice that muses on the process of cognition and composition.

The essential structure of these poems, filled as they are with local references dear to Eliot, follows the five-part structure of The Waste Land. C. K. Stead admirably analyzes the fivefold structure of each of the sections of Four Quartets as follows: the movement of time, in which brief moments of eternity are caught; worldly experience, leading only to dissatisfaction; purgation in the world, divesting the soul of love of created things; a lyric prayer for, or affirmation of the need of, intercession; and the problems of attaining artistic wholeness which become analogues for, and merge into, the problems of achieving spiritual health.

The poems of Four Quartets in some way negate, by their affirmations, the fragmented, disparate, and “unreal” elements in Eliot’s earliest poems, but on the whole, they present a synthesis of Eliot’s poetic concerns and his varied statements about the problems and business of being a poet. They stand not at the end of his artistic career but at the summit of his career as a poet whose later work, in both bulk and intensity, is minimal. Four Quartets constitutes a compendium of the themes that Eliot pursued from his earliest days as a poet, but with the decided difference that sex has become part of love, belief has been ratified, and the world has become flesh again. The fire and the rose are one.