“The poetry of T.S Eliot endures because it engages us with a single, resonant voice.” What is your personal response to the prescribed text in light of the above statement and listening stimulus provided on Enable? Your response should focus on 3-4 poems set for the study.
Upon first reading of T.S Eliot’s collection of work, I did not understand Eliot’s intent or purpose. I was bewildered, yet puzzled, as if I was trying to look for a kind of “meaning” which was not there. Yet, with each re-reading, I felt elucidated in what was a secret meaning that existed across each poetic stanza. In particular, I was able to resonate with Eliot’s personas across various poems including The Journey of Magi (1930), The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock (1915) and The Hollow Men (1925). Eliot, one of the most preeminent literary figure of the Modernist era, attempted to capture the zeitgeist of the early 20th century though the fragmentation of textual form, experimentation and subversion of traditional mediums. His poems, set in the Modernist period, was characterised by the shell-shocked horror of the Great War, unexpected breaks with traditional ways and the disillusion of faith and religion in the context of a new world full of industrial mechanisation. Textual integrity is evident as Eliot’s poetry indirectly presents to us a sense of isolation and hopelessness through his sensual collage of sound, scent and sight that inspire readers to seek out their own interpretations. Across T.S Eliot’s prescribed poems, we as responders are able to hear a single voice – Eliot’s inner soul, resonating with us. His poetry endures precisely because of the impersonal way he has constructed the personal within us. As such, I would like to explore the ‘single resonating’ voice that Eliot’s poetry contains through the examination of three keynotes: Man’s fear of mortality; the disillusion and alienation of the Modernist world; and the continued search of truth and existentialism.
By exploring The Journey of Magi and The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock, Eliot delivers the enduring idea of man’s fear of mortality through his fragmented ‘single voice’ of apprehension, engaging with our own uncertainties. Eliot suggested to himself that in reading poetry, one “Should not bother understanding… or at least at first,” and indeed, my own reading of his works initially drew upon personal impressions of his imageries and allusions. The critic Potter Woodbery, echoes that it is precisely because of Eliot’s fragmented, “modern metaphors and similes,” that allows responders to gain a “fuller and closer examination.” In particular, this is powerfully demonstrated in The Journey of Magi through the exploration of the biblical allusion of, “an old white horse galloped away in the meadow,” in which ‘old and white’ refers to the anthropomorphic Christian God, and the ‘white horse’ refers to the book of Revelation as the apocalyptic skeletal horse of death. As a result, I am able to grasp the resonating impact of Eliot’s powerful allusion, which captures the temporary respite of man’s penultimate death. The vision of the “white horse [galloping] away,” fills me with a sense of immediacy and relief, knowing that the birth of Christ has averted the Apocalypse. Despite the fifteen years difference between the two poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock also embodies the same inescapable apprehension towards mortality. Eliot’s use of rhetorical question, “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach?” demonstrates to me that the persona is conscious of his age and the limited ‘time’ in the world. The word “peach” symbolises Prufrock’s pursuit of his lover by creating a sensual imagery of voluptuousness and sexual appetite. The pursuit of ‘peach’ then, acts as a pursuit of sex – an act of creating life, in direct antithesis of death. In this way, one’s fear of mortality is highlighted when we are induced by Eliot to feel a sense of urgency for life’s ephemeral nature. Henceforth, by exploring The Journey of Magi and The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock, I have found the timeless, resonating voice of the modernist’s preoccupation with the fear of mortality.
Eliot’s poetry is set in the mad, brutal onset of The Great War, encircling the soulless mechanisation and industrialisation of a modern world. In The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock and The Hollow Men, we perceive the sonorous single voice of Eliot’s personas lamenting the disillusionment and alienation of the modernist pathos. Eliot himself, perceives the “use of [his] poetry [as] addressing the public,” notes the importance of poetry’s evolution as “society changes.” An Indian scholar of poetry, Balachandra Rajan concurs that what makes Eliot’s poems so enduring is precisely that his poetry “becomes the event” and, “lived through a form that can speak about itself.” This is particularly shown in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock as Eliot presents the pedestrian breakfast imagery of the persona’s life, “For I have known them all already… I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Eliot’s choice of metaphor for me, is both poignant and haunting. This is because of how the persona juxtaposes something as unmeasurable as life against the simple, ordinary measurement of ‘coffee spoons.’ He subjects us, as responders, to the black humour of the monotony of Modern existence via the absurdity of an individual whose daily climax is the taking of coffee. In the same way, contemporary readers are able to engage the ‘single resonating voice’ in The Hollow Men through the hauntingly innocent limerick of the nursery rhyme, “Here we go round the prickly pear/ Prickly pear prickly pear/ Here we go round the prickly pear/ At five o’clock in the morning.” By appropriating the original ‘mulberry bush’ to ‘prickly pear,’ Eliot creates a sense of disillusionment and alienation by evoking the morbid imagery of innocent children infinitesimally running around a prickly cacti. It fills me with a feeling of paralysis as I feel trapped within a torturous scenario, in which every direction seems antagonistic and fearful. As such, The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock and The Hollow Men, allows me to engage with Eliot’s personas. Eliot’s resonating voice of disillusion and alienation fills responders with the prevailing fear of a world without progress and where actions has no direction.
Lastly, Eliot draws upon the strange and foreboding world of Modernism as we grope about and search for truth and existence. Two poems, The Hollow Men and The Journey of Magi, deliver a single voice on the continued search for man’s life and purpose. Conrad Aiken, an American poet, writer, and playwright connotes that “Mr. Eliot himself is forever abandoning us on the very doorstep of the illuminating,” and that Eliot’s poetry is instead a sort of “direction” to achieve a “kind of filigree without pattern.” This concurs with my reception to Eliot’s representation of existentialism. In The Hollow Men, Eliot’s utilisation of antithetical celestial imagery, “There are no eyes here/ In this valley of dying stars” capture a desolate world without God, as there are no higher being in the ‘sky’ watching the mortals below. The vision of a death filled ‘valley,’ alerts me to the contextual representation of the loss of faith in humanity and a higher power in the trenches of WWI. The expression fills me with a sense of anxiety knowing that there are no ‘higher power’ to guide us, and instead we must face the difficulty of finding meaning in life. Likewise, The Journey of Magi is another poem that ‘expresses both mine and the persona’s secret feelings,’ resonating with the desire to search for truth. This reading parallels Eliot’s claim that readers “will not understand at first [but] gropes about… for a kind of meaning.” My personal reception found elucidation in deconstruction of Eliot’s caesura in “All this was a long time ago, I remember… I had seen birth and death… this Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” The break between Birth/ Death captures a sudden suspension of the familiar. For the Magi, he must acknowledge that ‘birth’ and ‘death’ of Christ is the beginning point of a Christian world, juxtaposed against the darkness of the ancient world. The ‘single resonant voice’ of Eliot is clear through deliberate capitalisation and lower case of ‘Birth,’ ‘Death,’ ‘birth,’ ‘death.’ This signifies the moment of how ‘truth’ is attained, becoming the end point of our personal history as well as the catalyst for a new beginning. Henceforth, we as responders are able to appreciate the enduring relevance of Eliot’s personas as he communicates the idea of searching for truth and existence, as explored in The Hollow Men and The Journey of Magi.
As a whole, my understanding of Eliot’s poetry began in a state of “gallery freight.” However, by re-reading Eliot’s timeless works, meanings begin to emerge and thus, a ‘single, resonant’ voice elucidates us. In this way, I have come to acknowledge that Eliot remains the quintessential poet of the English language precisely because his poetry endures through his impersonal way– that of a fearful, disillusioned modernist seeking truth in a alienated, and desolated world.