T.S Eliot, one of the eminent literary figures of the Modernist era, captures the exultation and despair of a generation in a modernist response caused by the First World War and the disillusionment of mundane modernity. His profound anxiety is demonstrated in “The Love song of J.Alfred Prufrock”, “The Hollow men”, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” and “Journey of the Magi” through the deliberate subversion of Romantic poetry. The enduring appeal of his poems is the evocation of emotion within the reader, conjuring “a hope which sprang from the renunciation of the world, a hope so different from despair yet different from nihilism.” (A.Moody, 1979) Eliot’s cohesive poems possess a unity of culture, revealing timeless concerns such as the fragility of faith, decay and alienation of humanity and search for truth.
Both “Love Song” and “The Hollow Men” capture the bewildering moment when man transitions from the traditional Romantic period into a world of strangeness and vulnerability. This is acknowledged by Eliot’s metaphor of Prufrock having, “lingered in the chambers of the sea…” The allusion of the ‘chambers’ appropriates the sublime experience of Romantic poetry, in which literature becomes an escapist perception. However, this experience is disrupted by “human voices” that ‘wake us, and we drown.’ The disruption of Prufrock’s “chamber” instils an awakening from a Romantic escape, where the fragility of the human soul seeking relief is brought back to the reality of anguished voices. The recurring low modality evokes enervation as Eliot forces us to confront the material world rather than seeking an escape. The fragility of faith and the universality of confusion is further evident in “The Hollow Men” which highlights the shift of theological traditions to the teleological notion that humans are secluded. The lack of celestial bodies “in this valley of dying stars” alludes to the modernist belief by Nietzsche that “God is dead”. Ambivalence and vulnerability pervaded European civilisation, a civilisation that had lost its faith both in the benevolence of God and the nobility of man. Further reinforced through “there are no eyes here”, the poem elucidates a lost world where we lack guidance and location, where we are responsible for our own sins and decisions. This terror was particularly inherent in Eliot’s society during the devastating effects of the First World War as they were confronted with the idea of bearing the burden of sin. Hence, Eliot’s poems capture the disorientated state of western society as they forsake the beliefs of the past and subversively fall into a state of scepticism.
The loss of faith in the modern man led to psychological decay and paralysis, captured by Eliot’s experimentation of form in “Love Song” and “Rhapsody”. The modernist movement expressed the attitudes of an anxious generation unprepared for the onset of modernity. “The Love Song” is a poem that critiques the stagnation of Eliot’s society. The rhetorical question: “Do I dare eat a peach?” strikes the audience with the absurdity of a persona confounded by a piece of fruit. However, the persona’s reflection evokes the fear of an emasculated middle age man, representative of old traditions subverted into anxiety and scepticism. The peach metaphorically represents forbidden fruit and the dangers of knowledge, in which acknowledgement would lead to displacement and disillusionment; a direct reflection of modernity. “Rhapsody” also accomplishes a vision of desolation and apathy through the free association of twisted images. Eliot’s persona portrays the decay of Europe through fragmented imagery “So the hand of the child, automatic / Slipped out and pocketed a toy / I could see nothing behind that child’s eye.” The ‘automatic’ action of the child metaphorically represents the dehumanising impacts of increasing industrialisation within Eliot’s society in which the presumably innocent child is stripped of free will and morality. The synecdoche in “nothing behind that child’s eye” implies the absence of their soul or humanity, the depersonalisation of the lost child reflecting the sullen apprehension of the early twentieth century. Hence, through experimentation with textual form, Eliot highlights the alienation of humanity in a world dislocated from security and certainty.
The destruction of the old world creates a resonating desire to find a universal truth. Eliot’s particular approach to poetic form encourages us to find meaning within his poems. The experimental nature of Eliot’s poetry can be captured in the juxtaposition of capitalised letters to lower case letters in “Birth or Death? / I had seen birth and death” from “The Journey of the Magi.” The “Birth” and “Death” allude to Jesus’ birth which represented the end of the old civilisation (B.C), and the beginning of the Christian world (A.D). Both the end of the Romantic period and the Birth of Christ bring upon a new era in western civilisation, as we are struck between tradition and innovation, anxiety and impatience in finding new meaning through experimentation and exploration. The inadequacy of speech to demonstrate the search for meaning is elucidated through the fragmented metaphors in the “Hollow Men.” Eliot’s asks us to seek personal meaning “Between the conception And the creation/ Between the desire And the existence” as a result of the abandoned civilisation from God. The anaphora “between” emphasises the poet’s inability to articulate his concerns and his inability to reach beyond the barriers of language as a result of its subjectivity. Eliot’s work is tantalising, forever hinting at but never revealing its full illumination. Therefore, he invites us to interpret his poems which captures the spirit of Modernism in search of the ‘new’ revealing that life is a continual process of seeking personal truth as a result of the disillusionment in Europe.
Eliot’s poems depict the subversion of the Romantic era to Modernism in which his poems confront a material world of alienation and confusion. As a result, Eliot evokes an abiding desire to search for meaning which brings his poetry a cultural and personal unity. Therefore, by analysing Eliot’s particular approach to poetic form, the audience gains a better understanding of the fragility of faith and the subsequent significance of the search for truth.