“Eliot’s poetry is about the frustration of the journey man through a bleak landscape.”
Critically evaluate this statement through a personal response which examines the elements of Eliot’s art form.
Eliot’s poetry poignantly communicates to the responder a distressing pathos that stems from his inner soul, capturing the zeitgeist of the paralysed Modernist generation. This is perfectly encapsulated in Eliot’s own words in his lecture “Virgil and the Christian World” that a poet’s work expresses both “their own secret feelings” and “the exultation or despair of a generation”. These impressions are evident in his poetry, particularly within “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men” and “The Journey of the Magi”. In the war-ridden Modernist era of radical shift in technology, industrialisation and the secularisation of an age where wealth was emerging as the new God, Eliot expresses the trivialisation of man’s existential crisis. What responders encounter is the desperate, relentless groping for meaning and truth in a disillusioned world of social anxiety, where the melancholy journey man has lost faith and agency.
Eliot’s work encapsulates the fundamental loss of purpose, the loss of the very essence of mankind, necessary to fuel and propel our lives. Eliot presents a subversion of the Romantic era through the alienation of demoralised man in a hostile urban landscape of industrialism and mechanisation. In “Prufrock,” he accentuates via sibilance and assonance the “half-deserted streets” and “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels” that pervade such a world. Eliot’s language encapsulates a fragile civilisation which has lost it grand narrative, emphasised in Prufrock’s ridiculous, almost humorous understatement and pedestrian, breakfast imagery that he has “measured out his [my] life with coffee spoons”. Responders are confronted by the poignant juxtaposition of having, “known them all already, known them all.” As responders, we are accosted by the irony that something as immeasurable as life itself, has been reduced metaphorically to the negligible, insignificant ritual of tea-making, marked by the measure of ‘coffee spoons’. Prufrock’s persona is paralysed by the unease of social upheaval and the pressing need to reinvent and challenge themselves. The cumulation of ordinary objects “dooryards… novels… teacups… the skirts” accentuates the mundaneness of such a life. Similarly, Eliot captures this bitter absence of forward momentum in “The Hollow Men” as he alludes to and distorts the childish innocence of the nursery rhyme “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” into a hauntingly torturous and cynical chase “here we go round the prickly pear, prickly pear prickly pear”. A scene of innocence is thus transforms into a scene of frustration, capturing the Modernist ethos of an intellectually paralysed empire where anxiety and fear permeated the lives of man. This loss of innocence marks the recognition of the harsh reality of experience and we as reader feels this exasperation.
As Nietzsche spoke of a world where “God is dead”, Eliot too invites responders engage in a lost world tormented by the elusiveness of any form of hoped salvation. War, fear and terror stripped the Modernist Christian of faith in a benevolent, higher power. Eliot depicts the “Eyes” of the God of “hollow men” as ones he “dare[s] not meet in dreams”, appropriating Elizabethan celestial conventions to symbolise the apathy of an uncaring cosmic power. For Eliot, “There are no eyes here”, and metaphorically no God looks over this inhospitable “hollow valley” of “fading stars”. The repeated imagery of a “fading star” coupled with the extensive use of metonymy of “eyes” emphasises the lack of guiding celestial bodies in a civilisation characterised dehumanised, disillusioned men. Responders are faced with the same terror and fear of a reality where unguided, human beings are beholden to their every flaw, responsible for their every action. It is this loss of faith in a higher power which guides man, that leads the persona Prufrock to lament that he feels as though a “pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas”; the slow, soft sounds produced via sibilance increases his feeling of insignificance, producing a sense of alienation and estrangement from a benevolent God as he, a little forgotten, trivial crab amidst kilometres of darkness “scuttling” across in a vast ‘ocean of possibilities’. Likewise, in “Rhapsody” the “old crab… gripped the end of a stick”, clings to a force that offers salvation, and yet that salvation is futile at best, leaving us with a sense of helplessness. As P. Woodbery connote of Eliot’s works, “secularised Enlightenment man”, where the “absence of God in the modern world” is presented in a “consistently dark light”. Thus Eliots captures the loss of faith, of man through the bleak landscape of the Modernist ethos.
Consequently, the continual search and desperate groping for meaning and value is central to Eliot’s poems. Eliot’s more recent poem “The Journey of a Magi” is a both a literal and spiritual journey on the search for purpose and faith, where Eliot recounts a long and arduous journey to find truth. Eliot portrays a debauched society of “camel men cursing and grumbling” whose apathy to the quest for Christ is accentuated by exceedingly lengthy sentences and plosive sounds “villages dirty… charging high prices”, symbolic of a prolonged journey, reinforcing the sense of fatigue and exhaustion. The voyage, however, is ‘fruitful’ as magi reach “a running stream and a water-mill”, water signifying a life force, contrasting the motif of dryness and the lack of vitality in the “cactus land” of the Hollow Men. It is shocking then, when we realise that the discovery of truth brings no solace, but instead the burden of knowledge. The Magi are, “no longer at ease here”, with “an alien people” and must acknowledge this paradigm shift through the capitalised “Birth and Death”, signifying rebirth through Baptism, marking the end of the Old Testament, and the beginning of the New World and Testament. Correspondingly, the search is earlier on evident in Prufrock’s dramatic monologue as the persona begins by inviting responders on a journey to address the urgency of an “overwhelming question”. Yet despite the assuring instruction, “do not ask what is it… let us go and make our visit,” the persona comes come face to face with the ridiculous, almost humorous, rhetorical question of the persona, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” in which the “peach” metaphorically represent the forbidden fruit of knowledge and the very answer to the “overwhelming question”. Therefore, Eliot draws upon the quest of the Modernist world, the incessant search for an answer and for a universal truth.
Eliot, through deliberate choices of language, is able to convey to responder’s the persona’s feelings of incompetence within a decaying Modernist setting, a society immobilised in a state of denial, resistance and faithlessness. What he creates is an intimate and evocative journey for truth when hope and meaning are lost.