Sie sind auf Seite 1von 19

Gerontion

This poem signals a new direction in Eliots poetry. It is said that the best approach to Gerontion is to clear up its general complexities, rather than trying to make each line completely understandable.1 It is so because the latter way would definitely lead to further confusion. What can be said about this poem is that Eliots speaker in it is an old man, worn out and comic in an alternate way. He seems to be tragic in his pathetic bewilderment now that time and custom have passed him by. T.S. Eliot made this poem an assault to the readers sensibilities. It seems to be encouraging the reader to imagine that Gerontion contains an extended metaphor, constantly emerging through its words and images. The speakers location in space is possible, as he seems to be a resident of a northwestern city, somewhere in Europe. Also, there are country images as well, what makes him not so easily located in time. There are also some antic points, as the one where the author refers to having fought at the hot gates. This can be easily explained, as the Greek term Thermopylae means hot gates. It is easy to conclude from this example that the theme of heroism was employed. However, it can be misleading that the speaker only appears to be a person, that the action is only realistic in its detail, and that there may in fact be a symbolic drama shaping itself. The point of view which strives towards presenting this poem in a symbolic, rather than in a specific way, always fails to reveal a way of dramatization of a Europe that has fallen into a deep cultural decline and amoral state. Such reading transforms the power of the poetry from a soul-searching device into a mere morality play. Gerontion, although composed in 1919, and published in 1920, marks the end of one period in Eliots poetry, and the beginning of another.

This poem provided the abandonment of standard generic and tonal clues, having been only hinted in Eliots earlier poetic efforts. Gerontion shows the beginni ng of a poetry where

elements, sharing the same line of the verse, let alone the same stanza, seem to have an arbitrary if not a capricious association at best, and that one is known only by a poet. It is said that Gerontion remains stubbornly itself as a poem, a closeted, secretive text that the reader must enter on its terms. Also, an important thing connected with this poem is that the metaphorical distance between objects of thought and the thoughts themselves is too wide, and represents a very large gap. The rapid transitions assault the reader: for example, from the epigraph, unattributed as usual, but which comes from Shakespeare, to images suggestive of pirates or buccaneers fighting with cutlasses in a swamp, to references to such relatively modern commercial cities as Antwerp, Brussels, and London, to, as the first stanza closes, images that are connotative of subsistence living in an agrarian culture. It is virtually impossible for a reader to gain any clear understanding of where or who or what is being portrayed or presented. The epigraph is from Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeares so-called problem plays that delve into the enigma of human nature as it confronts matters of fairness and justice. The verses that Eliot chooses to cite primarily emphasize that neither/nor, either/or sweep of possibilities that Gerontions words, more rhetorical than informative in nature, portend as well. Indeed, Prufrocks ominous Here is no great matter comes frequently to mind as Gerontions words begin their murmuring like the wind in empty spaces. The opening stanza, nevertheless, so vigorously establishes an atmosphere filled with regret and resignation that this mood and tone dominate the remainder of the poem. It is this consistency of mood and tone that Eliot seems to be relying on as Gerontion continues his mottled and muddled tale, or is it a confession? To decide that, the reader would do well to approach Gerontion, the characterization not the poem, as if he were indeed a living, breathing person who happens to have a name that embodies his present naturean old man in a dry month. What has brought him to this state consequently becomes the basis for all that he goes on to tell the reader/listener.

Gerontions state is literally a state of mind, the mind of Europe, as Eliot would call it, but also the minds of the myriad individuals making up the modern world. His tiredness and despair mirror a culture that had reached a dead end and had become both morally and literally bankrupt as a result of World War I, a conflict that would have only lately ended (the armistice effectively closing hostilities had been signed on November 11, 1918). Despairing of even the hope of salvation, Gerontions is indeed a dull head among windy spaces, his thoughts the thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season. Past and present coexist in memory, but without order or purpose or direction, they collide meaninglessly with each other, bits and pieces, names both vague and familiar, foreign and common. There are lines that echo the rhetorical style of the 17th-century poets and dramatists whom Eliot would praise in essays such as The Metaphysical Poets, hints of better days, fears of worse illnesses. Wherever the poetry goes, it takes the reader nowhere because Gerontion has reached the end of the line, his line, his rope. He has run out of things to do or to say or to think. He hangs suspended from nothing over the void of his own making. All he can say with certainty is that he has trapped himself, spun his own web of self-deceit and self betrayal around him. He knows that History has many cunning passages and can be a labyrinth in which even its designer may become lost, bewildered, and ultimately defeated. So, although he lives, he is as if dead, a motif that Eliot would soon develop to an even greater effectiveness in The Hollow Men. The most outstanding feature of Gerontion is that there is absolutely nothing positive about it. Not even its Christic elements offer the possibility of redemption, of a second chance. The reader is situated as if at the center of a void where fragments of meaning, sucked dry of substance, drift by on a sterile wind. Natures inexorable processes continue; the spider and the weevil and the gull proceed with it. The stars continue their motion. But for Gerontion, time, history, life, and hope all stand still and, so, fall into decay. In this, he is not alone. His housewhether that be his mind or his lineage or his present rented addressand all its tenants are the lost, the self-damned.

But there is another feature clouding the speakers own features, as it were. Gerontion, as the speaker tells the reader in the very first line, is a little old man, which is what the word means in Greek. So, then, a common misunderstanding that may occur among readers is that, rather than being descriptive, the title is the speakers name. Such an error is forgivable inasmuch as a reader without Greek simply could not be expected to know any better. The question whether or not the poet, T. S. Eliot, is relying on his readers possible confusion in this regard, however, must nevertheless be addressed. Understood for what it means, in Greek, the thrust of the title seems to be encouraging the reader to imagine that he or she will be encountering a type, not a person, a substantial distinction. The poem itself, however, very likely because it makes use of a first-person and, so, apparently dramatized presentation, spins the semblance of a characterization rather than an allegorical depiction out of the ensuing monologue. Between the one and the other is, it must be reiterated, all the difference in the world. If, on the one hand, the poem depicts, then the poet is telling the reader something and has made the readers judgments for him or her. If, on the other hand, the poem is a dramatic monologue, then the poet is presenting someone by creating a personality, as it were, for readers to judge all on their own, according to their own standards and values. If there are serious considerations in Gerontion, with its consistently somber tone and overt references to Christ and matters of sin and salvation, then the reader must also ponder why Eliot would undercut them by resorting to his patented tricksters wit and an erudite cleverness, as he had been wont to do in so many earlier poems. Resolving the question of whether Gerontion is a character study or an extended metaphor for the characteristics of agedness is, then, a critical matter. There again it seems to be clear that Eliot, or, at least, the speaker of Gerontion, has something very important to impart. That importance is nevertheless jeopardized somewhat by the readers inability to sort out easily the speakers dual nature, whereby he is presented, apparently, as both his type and himself. If, however, the reader, out of a measure of ignorance, adopts the convention of making Gerontion the speakers personal name rather than a categorical identity, then, while the speaker

is no less an old man in a dry month, / Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain, he is as well relating the details of a personal biography in the observations that follow rather than, for example, metaphors or symbolic actions. In that case, readers are permitted, indeed invited, to judge Gerontion as they would judge any other person for the values that he is expressing, since those values are based on personal choices, and to judge him as well for the moral posture that they seem to have compelled him to assume. Too, treaties have cunning passagesthat is why hammering them out requires such great diplomatic skill. If all of the foregoing is even remotely the case, however, it still would not make even the Treaty of Versailles and its being negotiated in an ornate hall adorned with mirrors anything less than another metaphorical action for Eliot, who crafts in Gerontion the virtually impossiblea poem whose poetry mirrors the very state of mind, spirit, being, and culture that the poet is attempting to expose. Where Eliot succeeds is that he does not tell his view of things but rather demonstrates it through his speaker, making them seem to be one and the same.

Journey of the Magi (1927)

This poem, the first of Eliots contributions to the Ariel series, is, along with A Song for Simeon, certainly far easier to place within the immediate context of the Christmas season that inspires it than his later contributions might seem to be. Eliots title would quickly make anyone with even the most general and secular awareness of the popular associations connected with Christmas mindful of the three wise men, or magi. Celebrated in song and image, they constitute an integral part of the lore of the Christmas story to this day. The three magi, history would have it, were pagan priests from the East, most likely adepts in astrology from the environs of Persia, who, on the basis of their observations of the stars, traveled westward, guided by the so-called Star of Bethlehem, to the place where Jesus lay.

Tradition would further have it that they had become convinced by the astrological charts that they had cast that a great king was about to be born, one whose birth, life, and death would usher in a new age. In his poem, Eliot focuses on the trials of the magis journey to the stable in Bethlehem and on the hope that they placed in the miraculous birth that they had traveled so far to witness, as well as on the effect that witnessing such an event had subsequently had on them. Rather than telling their story, however, Eliot, in keeping with his use of the dramatic mask that goes back as far at least as to characterizations such as J. Alfred Prufrock, imagines himself to be one of the magi many years later, telling his story apparently to a scribe so that there will be preserved a written record of it. The understatement at first astounds and then renders itself perfectly understandable. For all of their acquaintance with mystery, its human dimensions, Eliot offers the suggestion that the magi could not possibly have understood the profundities of the unfolding mystery that they were there to witness in its initial manifestation. But then Eliot has his speaker surprise the reader by expressing at least the inkling of some awareness that, even when counted among miraculous things, this was no ordinary birth and that something far more than merely extraordinary had entered the world and, through it, human history. The speaker seems to know, or at the very least intuit, that his age and his kind, and all the wisdom of his world, is coming to an end and that this birth is the signal of their death. [W]ere we led all that way for / Birth or Death? he wonders, entertaining the paradox of the contradictions that such a blessing portends. Such a birth brings with it renewal, but renewal requires the removal of all those things that are now to be replaced. His is the old dispensation, a world that for the speaker still exists but that for Eliot and his readers is by now something even less than a relicall that which was born too soon and died too early. The speaker confesses that his long-ago experience has forever unsettled his life; he is no longer at ease here in his familiar surroundings, but to what purpose he neither puzzles out nor supposes.

Like Eliots hollow men, he appears to have seen the light but is unable either to recognize its source or to follow it, so he shall die in the wilderness that, for Eliot, is a world without a coherent belief in a singular creation that serves a singular purpose. For all his wisdom, the speakers tragedy is to have come that close to mystery and majesty without having grasped its significance for him and him alone, a state of affairs whose continuing implications could not have been lost on a contemporary reader, Eliot among them. Christ said to Nicodemus that to be saved he must be reborn, and Eliot closes the poem by seeming to play on this cryptic injunction. I should be glad of another death, the speaker says in an ironic twist on the notion of a spiritual rebirth, as if for him sharing the common lot of the grave would have been a better fate than to have been fated to glimpse those many years before in that desert birth the unsettling truth that his age was coming to an end along with all else that he and his hold dearas if, for him, to gain some inkling that there is something better and greater can be worse than to know nothing at all.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, (1915)

No poet in memory has ever had quite so spectacular a debut as the young T. S. Eliot when his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was first published in Poetrymagazine in 1915, thanks in large part to the good offices of another relatively young American poet, Ezra Pound. As with any other event of great moment in its particular field, hindsight may give an unfair advantage. Certainly the great world did not come to a standstill to witness let alone pay homage to the event of the poems publication. Nevertheless, for those who were avid supporters of the revolution in the arts then taking place, the publication of Prufrock signaled a turning point in the art of writing American poetry from which there would henceforth be no turning back. While it would be wrong to give either Eliot or his poem too much of the credit for creating a revolution in the art of poetry writing, the fact remains that readers of today do have the advantage of hindsight, so they come to Prufrock

as a poem whose reputation precedes ita remarkable feat considering that the work of literature in question is not some ancient text by Homer or Aeschylus, or even a venerable classic from the time of Dante or Shakespeare, but was first composed less than a century ago, when its creator was barely 23. However, the poem strikes readers as being as fresh and new today as it was when Pound first encountered it, because, among its many other features, Prufrock remains a classic example of literary modernism, a work from that period in literary history that prided itself on its capacity for never repeating the same act twice. Make it new, Pounds poetic rule of thumb became the rallying cry for an age of virtually ceaseless exploration, innovation, and experimentation in both the themes and the methods of poetry writing, and it casts some light on the quality of Eliots achievement that Pound would famously remark that, with Prufrock, Eliot had made himself modern all on his own. From the title itself to the ominously cryptic ending, in which an anonymous we drowns in sea of human voices, the poetry of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock continues to challenge readers expectations both of what constitutes poetry and what constitutes meaning. Does this we, for example, truly drown in a sea of human voices, or does it drown in some other sort of sea because those voices have awakened it, and if so, from what, and what, then, is that other sea? And why the editorial we, anyhow, when it is clear that Prufrock has been speaking till that moment of and for himself? But has he been? The poem opens, after all, with that invitation to you and I, a definite we again, no doubt, but not one that can be easily identified. Rather, the further the poem proceeds, the more it seems as if Prufrock is speaking to no one but himself, since one of the points that he continually stresses is that no one will listen to him in any case, no matter what he says or does. Those are just a few of the problems that the poem poses for readers to this day, and yet its enduring reputation as a masterwork of 20th-century literature serves as a reminder that the work endures not because of its critical reputation, which is considerable, or because of its difficulties, which are equally so, but because of its great beauty as a work expressing what Eliot would later call a permanent human impulse.

To give that permanent human impulse a body, Eliot would argue, is the function of poetry. Prufrock is just such a body. It is easy to get so lost in the work as to lose sight of the worker, the maker, the poet who gives us the poem. For its point must finally be Eliots, not Prufrocks, since Prufrocks point cannot be Eliots. What then is Eliots point? Prufrock knows, or appears to think that he knows, that he does not have the strength necessary to force the moment to the sort of crisis that will free him, and he thinks that he knows why he does not have that strengththat he is a lesser, not a greater man. Even that, however, is a sort of self-congratulatory self-dramatization on Prufrocks part, for his vision, like anyones, is limited by what he has seen and by what he can see. In that sense, Eliot the poet has succeeded in making his characterization of Prufrock seem to be as real as the rest of us, and that is an incredible achievement in and of itself. The poet, however, is not limited by his vision, since he contains it and has created Prufrock for the sake of seeing what is real but must otherwise remain invisible.

To divide the creation from its creator, Eliot would argue from early in his literary critical career, is a necessary action if the reader is to benefit from the creation, and this rule is especially true in Eliots case in general and in the case of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in particular. The temptation to identify the poet with the poem is a powerful one. Eliot certainly understood that, and a poem on the order of Prufrock begs the question. In many respects Eliots life, or at least his background, appears to be duplicated or at least reflected in the poem, and these resemblances, casual though they may be, appear to extend well beyond matters of social class and ethnic and regional associations. Eliot, too, was often described by friends and acquaintances alike as diffident, stiff, and formal to a fault and more aware of proper manners and of 296 Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The keeping ones distance socially than could easily be regarded as typical even for someone of an uppermiddle-class background. Just how much the poets personality, let alone personal detail, is reflected in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is open to

endless speculation, of course. That it would be fair to regard Prufrock as Eliots alter ego would be risky critical business at best, nevertheless. For just one outstanding discrepancy, Eliot was a very young man when he composed Prufrock, while it seems obvious from those elements of self-description that emerge from Prufrocks monologue and from his tone of worldweariness that Prufrock is approaching if not in fact in his early middle age. Any poet writes out of what he knows, but that is the end of it. Readers tend to think of the creative mind as one that is endlessly inventing; in common parlance, we speak of someone as having a wild imagination, as if those two words form a necessary conjunction. Most of the time, however, the imagination functions not to invent but to transmute what is already there in the experience of the artist into something that, as art, becomes a part of universal experience, still recognized as coming from the artists general experience but no more his or hers otherwise than it is mine or yours. Surely that was the case with Eliot, according to his

critical pronouncements from as early as the time of the 1919 essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. It stands to reason that his character Prufrock would move among well-heeled individuals in the formal settings of the drawing-room culture that flourished among the venerable old families of America at the end of the 19th century, not because that was a special culture, although it may appear so to a typical reader of today, but because that was the world that the young Eliot knew. But to conclude, then, that there is some sort of autobiographical connection between Eliot and the speaker of his poem would be to miss the point that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is, after all, a poem, intended not to record the poets life but to explore the poets observations. Those observations, if truly regarded as the products of the poetic imagination, must inevitably involve not only people unique to Prufrocksand Eliots time and place and class, but all of us. Nor it is merely playing with words or coining a coy phrase to talk of a poetic imagination. The oppositions

and startling juxtapositions and unsettling dislocations and disjunctions that the poetry of Prufrock creates throughout serve a purpose that is neither journalistic (making the poem autobiography, for example) or psychological (making the poem a case study) but rather aesthetic in nature. That is to say, they are intended not to inform or to persuade but to engage the reader in the processes of creation and thereby force the reader to make sense not of the social or personal or psychological but of the delicate balances among perception, experience, and language that form, for the most part, what is generally called reality. That may seem to be an immense, almost impossible task for the poet to take upon himself, let alone credit to a work of literature, but that is what Eliot the poet is out to achieve and that is what certainly makes this particular poem one of the earliest masterworks of literary modernism, as Ezra Pound so astutely observed it to be. If Eliot is correct and poetry deals with permanent human impulses, Prufrocks is a basic,

perhaps even essential human conflict between the desire to be noticed, which makes one dependent on what other people think, and the desire to be self-defining and self-directed, which requires one not to care what people think. Most manage to separate the requirements of maintaining group dynamics from the sense of ones own self-worth, but Prufrock appears to be incapable of resolving the conflict, and so his dilemma is created. That does not make Prufrock the poem nothing more than a psychological study, however. Prufrock the person is not even a characterization; rather, he is a verbal construct, a creature made up of words, as Hamlet once said, and thus far less substantial than even a phantom of smoke and air. Without diminishing the more or less full-bodied individual who nevertheless emerges from the words, their tone and color and mood, it is not difficult to imagine that, rather than any truly living being, Prufrock represents, embodies, the masculine principle, self-centered and vain, awash in a sea of feminine reserve that is itself closeted and Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The 297

yet somehow inviting, certainly alluring. Whether Prufrock is a man obsessed by women or by their apparent lack of interest in him, or he is a person dissatisfied with his station in life or with the life that fate has dealt with, or he is an individual uncertain of his sexual identity or simply a lonely person craving only a sympathetic ear, his importance as a literary creation rests on what his condition reveals of the human condition. Prufrock is that not-untypical human creature at odds with both himself and his social and physical environment who is struggling nevertheless to find an accommodating reality or even just an accommodating point of view whereby he might be at peace with himself and at ease in the world. The reader who can see in Prufrock, for all the apparent idiosyncrasies of class and the times that he might display, not the hero, as he tells us he is not, but still the agon, suffering the social and moral ills of the ordinary man, can find in him as well the uniquely modernist nature of Eliots particular creation, a poem that focuses, for all the startling breaks with the past that his new kind of poetry might require and result in, the typical life led by a typical person in the real world, where nature is only a reflection of inner turmoils and the

unspoken tells more than words ever can. Whatever else they may hope to find there, readers are ultimately drawn to Eliot, to the poem, for what Prufrocks plight may tell them of their own inner conflicts and turmoils, and of their own incessant effort to find the words to express those truly shaping forces. Primarily his is the desire to be accepted not for what but for who he is, but he appears weak and indecisive because he knows that he is unable to reconcile that dilemma himself. Only others can, so he winds up imagining that his only hope is to get away from everyone else. At the poems end, Prufrock may be thinking of committing suicide by drowning himself, but it is the sound of the voices of other humans, creatures like himself, that awakens him from his self-centered reverie. There are worse awakenings than his. No one likes to be a specimen, his nerves displayed for all the world to see, and Prufrock knows that. But Eliot, by having made his creation a specimen of what it is to be alive and to be human, exposes his readers to the very sorts of lessons that only great art can teachenduring lessons in the human heart. What, however, distinguishes Eliots treatment of those tried and true lessons that have

been grist for the literary mill since time immemorial is that Eliot, taking a page from his mentor Laforgue, requires his readers to engage their heads, their minds, rather than their own hearts in deciphering the depths of mixed hopes and despair, frustration and encouragement, that, though only the heart can truly plumb them, nevertheless all too often fall on deaf ears, exactly as Prufrock is certain that his complaints, his lament, may do. Thus, while Prufrock the speaker may sound sentimental or seem to sentimentalize his condition from time to time, Prufrock the poem, by sending such a variety of mixed verbal and social signals to readers as have been enumerated here, neither sounds sentimental nor sentimentalizes Prufrocks condition or his social milieu. Although this desentimentalized approach may often strike the unprepared reader as sounding instead cold or dispassionate, it is nevertheless in keeping with the modernism that Eliot, with poems such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, helped usher in as a literary movement that, ironically enough, saved overt expressions of sentimentality as a literary mode by removing from them their patina of a romantic excessiveness. It

bears repeating that Eliot accomplishes that feat by deflecting his readers attention from the poet to his speaker, putting all the sentiment, such as it is, into the mouth of a figure as unromantic and, dare we say, insignificant as Prufrock, thereby depersonalizing those very sentiments. This methodology is in keeping with the poetics that Eliot would shortly delineate in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, and the curious reader would do well to consult the entry on that essay. The novice reader, daunted by the apparent complexities of the poetry, would do well also to approach Prufrock not as thematic poetry intended to state some specific meaning or to expose an otherwise abstract truth, but as a character study whose carefully contrived and manipulated nuances reveal not simply the nature of the speaker but the social coordinates of the world in which he 298 Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The resides. A person who has to prepare a face for his encounters with others in his social environment and who ineffectually imagines escaping from it is, after all, uncomfortable not just with all those other

people but with being inside his own skin, from which there is no escape. It is through this careful examination and exposure of a single human being that Eliot introduces not some preconceived thematic considerations or universal truths to his readers so much as the means humans devise to cope as social beings. Such means become a constant theme in Eliot, albeit a necessarily unstated one.