(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 493 words.)