T.S Eliot was one of the preeminent poets of the Modernist movement capturing the exultation and despair of a generation. In particular, this is captured in my reading and reception of his three poems, Journey of the Magi (Magi) (1927) The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Prufrock) (1915), and The Hollow Men (Hollow) (1925). The turn of the Twentieth century saw the onset of Expressionism, Existentialism, and Futurism amongst many other forms of experimentation with writing and art. Textual integrity of Eliot’s works stem from the uniqueness brought about by Eliot’s own experimentation with form and features fills us with a sense of our own “secret feelings” that can only be expressed through the analysis of his works. For myself, this is revealed through an understanding of key thematic concerns such as the fragility of humanity, the disillusion and loss of faith, and finally the eternal human search for truth.
Both Magi and Prufrock explore the fragility of humanity through a single, resonant voice which, across different periods of the poet’s life, captures a sense of vulnerability and fear of an unknown future. The critic Herbert Howarth stated that, “Eliot demonstrated that a poet’s business is not just reporting feeling, but extending feeling and creating a shape to convey it.” The ‘shape’ of Eliot’s poems is the form and feature of his unique literary representations. For Magi, analogy in “an old white horse galloped away in the meadow” represents a biblical allusion reinforced by the assonance in the line, where the extension of the long ‘o’ vowel creates a sense of elongation and doubt. “Old” and “white” naturally evoke in the reader the context of a Christian God, whilst “horse” and “gallop” represent the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Intertextually, Eliot alludes to the white horse, a biblical allusion of the skeletal horse of Death, and thus, the aural and visual imagery induced in us is the momentary salvation of man brought about by a saviour. This state of fragility is further captured through “Love Song” in the extended metaphor, “We have lingered in the chambered of the sea…/ Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” It draws us into a world of fantasy and illusion. However, ironic expression of the persona lingering in a watery world, yet drowning when awoken to air breathing reality, conveying the fragility of man. For me, it captures the feelings of the WWI era, where the onset of mechanised war made Western civilisation feel both temporary and fragile. It is in this way that Eliot creates resonating personas that universally capture the fragility of humanity across the turn of the 20th century.
Another resonant voice that echoes across Eliot’s poems is the thematic concern of the apprehension and anxiety of disillusioned society. as Eliot wrote in 1945, “A poet must take as his material his own language as it is actually spoken around him.” Hollow takes us into a state of desolation as a result of its fragmented imagery. My most poignant reception of the poem extends from Eliot’s limerick parody, “Here we go round the prickly pear/ Prickly pear prickly pear…” His appropriation of the 19th century nursery rhyme “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” invites us to imagine the childish innocence of a carousel. However, the transformation from ‘mulberry bush’ to ‘prickly pear’ fills us with an anxious, foreboding tension. That innocuous children, representation of our future generation, are stuck in a ‘prickly’ world of constant danger, fills us with disillusion. Likewise, this ‘voice’ of disillusion is paralleled by Magi. In the lines “Birth or Death?” and “I had seen birth and death”; the capitalised “Birth” and “Death” are juxtaposed with lower case letters to emphasise the impact of the Birth of Christ on the persona and that of Western civilisation. The confessional tone of the Magi, “this Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death,” leads me to acknowledge the impact of the birth of Christ on our world. The very fabric of our culture is based upon the two acronyms of B.C – Before Christ – and A.D – Anno Domini. Such a vision fills us with dread and apprehension as we imagine the sentiment of a king come to the realisation that his own world must give way to the new. Hence, Eliot enduringly expresses the darkness of a transitional period where man becomes disillusioned by the onset of total war and an unknowable future through the single resonant voice of his disillusioned personas.
Consequently, the search for truth is central to Eliot’s personas. Eliot questions our motives and reasons for life, and makes us aware of the necessity of seeking reinvention. The American critic, Cleanth Brooks elaborates: “Eliot’s poetry is the medium for rendering a total situation—for letting us know what it feels like to look at something with imaginative sympathy.” Indeed, Eliot’s poetry fills me with a desire to search out and find meaning for myself, resonating with his own experience, “I know that some of the poetry to which I am most devoted is poetry which I am not sure I understand yet.” This was elucidated by my reception to Hollow, where Eliot communicates that the search for truth is quite literally ‘between the lines’, “Between the idea and the reality/ Between the conception and the creation/ Between the desire and the spasm”. The repetitive anaphora and a tri-colon of phrases borrowed from Brutus in Julius Caesar suggest that one finds meaning in between the transition of two extremes, in the grey space of critical thought. This cross examination of our purpose in life is further enriched by his Hamlet appropriation in Prufrock. Hamlet is a philosopher prince, aware of his role and conscious of his moral choices. However, Eliot states, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet,” and transforms into the prophetic character of the Fool in King Lear, saying that he is “Almost, at times, the Fool.” As a result, Eliot takes on the persona of the ‘Fool’ who attempts to relate the truth to us, while we as responders play the role of the foolish king bewilderingly pondering the meaning of the ‘prophet’ whose ‘utterances’ are strange to us. As such, Eliot endures in creating the continued process of seeking truth, and refine our understanding of the world.
Through Magi, Prufrock, and Hollow, Eliot expresses the 20th century’s thematic concerns of the fragility of humanity, disillusion of a people, and the subsequent search for truth. Through my analysis of Eliot’s form and feature, I have overcome the ‘gallery fright’ associated with poetry that endures the test of time. Thus, Eliot engages and enriches the reader with his poetry through the personas he creates with a single, resonant voice.