Our appreciation of Eliot’s poetry arises from its ability to epitomise the spirit of Modernism. Eliot’s accessible language and openness to reading communicates the paralysis of a generation, capturing the insecurity and fear of a period of rapid industrial expansion and change. It is precisely through this process that responders are capable of engaging with the Modernist existential crisis. His ‘The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock’ (Prufrock), ‘The Hollow Man’, and ‘The Journey of the Magi’, seek to capture the anxieties of a period which has been demoralised by a brutal war, of a civilisation ‘groping’ for truth and purpose. Through projections of social anxiety such as the loss of agency, urban and psychological degradation, as well as the paradoxical concept of ‘truth’; responders appreciate Eliot’s encapsulation of the Modernist zeitgeist.
Eliot’s poetry presents the disturbing realities of modernity, exposing the constructs individuals have become in the desperate search for meaning and truth amidst a disillusioned world of social anxiety. ‘Prufrock’ displays the disconnection between individuals and their ‘ego’ in the Modernist context through the persona’s internal monologue, “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” In this metaphor where an individual’s “face” is merely a construct, Eliot presents a bleak outlook on the superficiality of man’s construed identity. Furthermore, the second person “you” acts as a reminder and accusation of the readers’ complicity as voyeurs to the moral and ethical destruction of each other and society, which is increasingly devoid of emotional connection. This apathy due to overwhelming societal pressures is emphasised through the lack of emotional investment in an individual’s personality, “there will be time to murder and create.” The binary opposites, “murder” and “create”, reflect the rapid industrial and technological change which decentralised the Victorian-Romantic identity, resulting in the loss of agency and purpose. Eliot also communicates the loss of purpose in ‘The Hollow Men’, in which individuals once driven by aspirations become “dead” and “hollow” as scarecrows, empty of motivation. The motif of a scarecrow, captured through the synecdoche of its parts, “Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves,” symbolises individuals created from exterior components. They are empty of purpose inside, without a sense of drive and momentum. This is why they “[behave] as the wind behaves,” carried aimlessly by external forces. Thus, this extended metaphor allows us to envision the bleak reality in which the psychological paralysis of the period has left western civilisation demoralised. IT is through these powerful and evocative visions of futility that ELiot’s poems capture the secret feelings of the Modernist mind.
Furthermore, Eliot’s poetry is multilayered, precisely capturing the disturbing scenes of degradation which plagued the Modernist period; both of the urban landscape, and of the mind. The fragmented scenes of decay in ‘The Hollow Man’ are Eliot’s literal and psychological reflections on the world he inhabits. The “cactus” in “this is the dead land this is cactus land” is an analogy of both emotional and moral aridity, a land where there is no salvation for the “hollow men” that have experienced the physical and psychological ravage of the modern world. The possibility of redemption is rendered even more remote as the speaker considers the thoroughly distressing prospect that “there are no eyes here in this valley of dying stars”. Eliot’s synecdoche of “eyes” appropriates the Elizabethan celestial metaphor to personify apathy of an uncaring higher power. Thus, readers and the “hollow men” alike, are paralysed with the terror of being completely vulnerable. Eliot’s experience of the Modernist oeuvre is preceded by periods of rapid economic expansion. The pursuit of material pleasure in the Roaring Twenties of vapid hedonism set the tone for “cheap one night hotels” and “cities hostile and towns unfriendly” in ‘Journey of the Magi’. It is in such an urban setting that Eliot elicits our senses to acknowledge that Western civilisation is predominated by “six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver.” The allusion to Christ’s betrayal is a powerful criticism of man’s material obsession, that even on the very doorstep of truth and salvation, we have the capacity for profiteering and selfish gain. The imagery of “feet kicking the empty wine-skins” conjures a brutish society far too obsessed with immediate pleasure and unable to foresee future consequences, an exhausted vision of Eliot’s vapid Roaring Twenties and its Jazz and liquor. Thus, Eliot’s representation of the demoralised, war-fatigued population moving into an urbanised landscape cleverly reflects the angst and tension of his modern society.
It is precisely in such a delicate and frail period, that the human condition to search for truth and purpose becomes essential. In ‘Prufrock’, the imperative of “us” in “let us go then, you and I” leaves readers with no choice but to experience and react subjectively to the world of the persona. Yet we are confronted with the comical yet depressing vision of a persona who has “known it all” be confounded by a piece of fruit, “Do I dare eat a peach?” Eliot’s symbolism is at once the sexual anxiety of impotence in the face of his imminent intimate encounter; as well as the singular moment of encountering the forbidden fruit. His imagery captures the helpless paralysis of an individual who is overcome with the urgency of action, yet instead chooses to do nothing. The lack of action leaves readers confused, as expressed by critic Conrad Aiken, “Mr. Eliot himself is forever abandoning us on the very doorstep of the illuminating.” Thus, whilst Eliot invites readers to experience Prufrock’s inner turmoil, he leaves us to ponder the existential agonies of modern man and reach enlightenment ourselves. Consequently, Eliot’s poems explore the process and consequences of the search of truth, rather than is. In ‘Journey of the Magi’, the play on words, “Birth or Death?…this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death” reveals the importance of renewal and contemplation after a journey.
Thus, Eliot’s poetry exposes our doubts, instabilities and sense of futility to engage with renewed visions of mankind. He captures a period of loss of agency in which mankind was paralysed by insecurity, and where the only hope for progression was to search for purpose and truth. The modernity of Eliot’s writing lies in his experimentation with form and exploration of language, and it is his universal concepts of doubt, grief, challenge and fear that enable his poetry to still resonate with readers in the 21st century.