The Poem

In a letter dated July 9, 1919, to John Rodker, who was preparing T. S. Eliot’s volume of poetry Ara Vos Prec for publication with his newly founded Ovid Press, Eliot mentions his newly completed poem “Gerontion” for possible inclusion. It became the lead, and perhaps the most significant, poem in the volume, published in February, 1920.

In critical consideration, “Gerontion” has been identified as one of the poems of the so-called Waste Land cycle of poems, the others including “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), The Waste Land (1922), and “The Hollow Men” (1925). Like these other works, “Gerontion” explores the hollowness of the modern age, the failure of human history to provide firm direction, and the vacuity of a life without passion or belief.

The poem casts the title character, Gerontion, a name derived from the Greek geron in its diminutive form, suggesting “a little old man,” as reflecting in his room while being read to by a young boy. The name is apt, for Gerontion is an old man who has shrunken in upon himself by virtue of his need to think through, to analyze and scrutinize, all options rather than act upon them. As the boy reads, Gerontion’s mind wanders.

Associations occur in his mental wandering. The house is owned by a Jew, which reminds Gerontion also of Christ, who was a Jew. What, Gerontion wonders, has modern humanity made of the Christ? His mind...

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Forms and Devices

T. S. Eliot was one of the pioneers of modernism, a technique whereby images in the poem, frequently discordant and jarring, fuse together to provide an emotion related to, or an insight upon, the modern age.

Significant in “Gerontion” are images of aridity that capture the lack of passionate belief in the modern age. Gerontion is being read to “in a dry month” and he is “waiting for rain.” The rain, which signifies for Eliot renewal and redirection, never comes in this poem. Thus the poem is placed in close relation with The Waste Land, in which the desertlike aridity mirrors the spiritual and intellectual poverty of the modern age. The dryness, finally, is internal. People lose passion and conviction. In this poem, only the mind, never the heart, works like a spider, spinning webs of thought that the wind tears apart.

Juxtaposed to this lack of vigorous passion is the advent of Christ, imaged in this poem as a tiger in an allusion to William Blake’s symbol of the union of God and humanity. The sign for which the people have looked, however, is “swaddled in darkness,” unclear and indistinct to modern searching. Since the sign is unclear, modern people decipher it in their own ways, trying to tame the tiger to fit their mental constructs.

Gerontion cautions that all such constructs are futile, for finally the tiger will devour humankind. Gerontion suggests that death—what he describes as stiffening in a rented house—is not the end of the matter. There will also be a judgment. All this he knows intellectually, but he is unable to grasp it with the heart. He has, as he says, lost his passion.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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