Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341
T. S. Eliot's poetry is ripe for analysis, not only because Eliot is a skilled poet who effectively uses metaphor and symbolism to convey complex meaning in his poems, but because he uses form and structure to suggest images and ideas, giving an extra dimension to his work. "Gerontion" is no different.
Taking its name from the Greek root for "old age", from which we get words like gerontology and geriatric, the poem focuses on an elderly man who reflects on his experiences in a changing world, particularly after the events of World War I. The poem was written in 1920 and can be seen as the interior monologue of an old man looking back on the war and on the previous century, with which he is much more familiar than he is with the new.
Eliot not only weaves together effective imagery, but he creates a dynamic poem that reflects the man's age. The wordplay is vivid and clearly brings the reader into the scenes the man is describing—from his description of being "blistered in Brussels" to the "Jew squatting in the corner," the speaker provides effective imagery that helps to show his musings and biases well. One interesting way the poet conveys the sense of old age is through the use of quick transitions between short snippets of different memories. It seems almost as if the man's memories are flooding back in a rushing wave as he flips through scenes from his life. This gives a sense of vast age, of a man who has seen much in life.
Finally, Eliot shapes the poem physically by putting some words and phrases all the way to the right-hand side and clearly separating them from the other lines and stanzas. Readers get a sense from this almost of pausing and catching their breath. It reminds one of an old man on an oxygen tank who needs to pause momentarily in his speech. By doing this, Eliot has added an even greater impact to the feeling of old age in the poem.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547
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 flickers over lessons from human history, all of which reveal a people preoccupied by present concerns and devoid of spiritual passion. His thoughts focus, finally, upon the state of his own mind. Gerontion’s mind, too, has become a dry, sterile house of thought, devoid of passion.
Eliot’s style in the poem is itself frequently elliptical and fragmentary. He places one directly inside the mind of Gerontion and lets one experience the thoughts with all the randomness with which they occur. This method makes some lines difficult to construe syntactically. For example, lines 19-23, which refer to the Communion or Mass which divides and shares Christ’s body and blood, may be construed thus: In the “juvescence” (or springtime) of the year, in depraved May (because there is no rain) with its dogwood and chestnut and flowering judas, Christ the Tiger came to be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk among whispers.
The fragmentary nature of Gerontion’s mind is mirrored by the fragmentary form of the poem. Thereby the poem becomes an example of the use of organic verse in modernism, a method whereby the form itself objectifies the ideas expressed. Rather than possessing a clear beginning, middle, and ending, the poem constantly intensifies the activity of the analytic mind. Gerontion is victimized by his rational scrutiny, having to examine something intellectually until the mind itself squeezes all the life and passion out of the thoughts it holds.
Finally, then, “Gerontion” is a kind of tragedy. The character’s tragic flaw is the restlessness of his own mind; his tragic ending is the lack of any passionate commitment or belief that might impose some order, direction, or meaning upon such thoughts as he holds. Almost like William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Gerontion finds himself incapable of acting upon what he thinks, allowing his life to slide into futility.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 134
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Browne, Elliott Martin. The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet, T. S. Eliot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.
Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999.
Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Waste Land.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
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