Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 393
"Gerontion" is a poem by T. S. Eliot (26 September 1888 – 4 January 1965), an American poet who became a British citizen in 1937. It was first published in 1920 and originally written as a response to World War I.
The poem is written in stanzas of irregular length. The meter of the poem is free verse, i.e. it has no consistent rhythmical pattern nor does it have regular rhymes, although it employs many poetic devices including assonance and alliteration.
The narrator of the poem is an old man. The poem, which Eliot had at one point considered publishing as a preface to "The Wasteland," is a dramatic monologue reflecting on the decay and fragmentation of modern life, especially in terms of its secular and rootless nature.
The poem takes as an epigraph lines from Act III of Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure, from a speech that is an extended meditation on old age and death. The narrator of Eliot's poem is himself close to death and reflects on his own mortality in terms of the decay of civilization. As in "The Wasteland," Eliot uses imagery of dryness and withering to link the image of the aging fisher king to the decline of the fertility of the kingdom and land. The old man is waiting among the ruins of his own life and western civilization, hoping for a sign of renewal, which is identified with rain.
Christ appears as an ambivalent figure, who may be part of both the old world that is fading and the world that might be reborn. Christ is part of the youth of the world, but the present of the poem is one of old age; the second coming of Christ is a distant and uncertain possibility in the poem, that might bring destruction or renewal, the narrator, though, has lost faith, hope, and the strength needed for renewal:
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch . . .
Instead, any potential hope for the future must rest in a new generation that can somehow transform or thrive in the fragmented post-apocalyptic modern world. The old man who narrates the poem, though, cannot see forward to the future but only sees the fragments of the past and the deceptions and melancholy lessons of history.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493
Like Eliot’s earlier “Portraits of a Lady” (1917) and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the poem “Gerontion” is a dramatic but interior monologue in which the voice of the narrator is distinctly realized, and his words reveal his character and the dramatic situation or scene in which he acts. A difficult poem, it may be approached as a collage, entered as one would a stream, in this case the stream of consciousness of the narrator, who is, literally, a “little old man.”
The narrator weaves personal history with more universal themes to form a meditative reverie of remembrance interspersed with remembered fragments from the Bible and from the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic poets William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, Cyril Tourner, and Thomas Middleton. Other dramatis personae are the Jew, Christ, Mr. Silvero, Hakagawa, Mme de Tomquist, Fraulein von Kulp, De Bailhache, Fresca, and Mrs. Cainmel, as well as the anonymous boy who reads to the narrator.
Like the Fisher King of The Waste Land whom he prefigures, Gerontion is an old man waiting for rain, for rebirth in a period of aridity. Yet since the juvenescence of the year brings Christ the tiger who is eaten and who devours, there is some ambiguity and possibly some ambivalence about a rebirth that leads to death in a recurring cycle. There is also the equally large concern about action, phrased by one who denies that he has acted: He was not at the Battle of Thermopylae (the hot gates), nor did he fight knee-deep in the salt marsh (possibly before the gates of windy Troy). He has, instead, been acted upon, driven by the trade winds to a sleepy corner.
The space-time continuum figures prominently in the poem. Eliot’s use of space varies from the inner space of a dry brain to the house to the location of the house to the Jew who has wandered from Antwerp to Brussels to London to the ethnic origins of Hakagawa and company to the celestial Ursa Major. Some of the characters, in a trope reminiscent of the poems of seventeenth century poet George Herbert, are gone into a world of light, whirled beyond the Bear’s circuit in fractured atoms. Similarly, time is confused and variable as past, past remembered in the past and present, the present, and the future coalesce in the mind of the narrator. Similarly, the meditation on history and its gifts shuttles across time and raises ethical issues such as concerns over how and whether to act.
Above all, the poem represents an authorial attempt to present a speaker’s attempt to order his experience, to make sense of the present in the light of the past, to think, and, in the act of thinking, to create meaning. What Gerontion does is essentially what the principal narrator of The Waste Land will do; he is shoring up fragments of language and of meaning against the ruins of a life.
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