T. S. Eliot in the 21st Century!

Courtesy: The New Yorker Times

The First World War served as a catalyst for many writers, especially poets, to outlet their feelings and thoughts, as they sought to escape from the harsh realities of modern life and turn their back on modern civilisation. The twentieth century saw rapid industrialisation, urbanisation, and drastic changes in science and technology, resulting in the birth of evils in the society, and poets such as T. S. Eliot presented the complexes, discomforts, and frustrations of modern society in their creative works. Eliot’s 1917 to 1925 poems are a response to a society that was so much impressed by the advancements in society that they could not live in their traditional ways. He draws the attention of the readers to the degraded urban civilisation that modern society brings to the world and sees it as a failure by modern man.

Eliot expresses the fragile psychology of man living in modern society. He is so much engaged in his mundane routine that the emptiness in his life makes him a vagabond. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the speaker belongs to modern society but faces psychological problems and doesn’t even have the courage to approach the woman he loves. His indecisive ability shows the hesitancy of the paralyzed modern society; he has been useless, procrastinates, and lacks clarity in life. Eliot exhibits man as no longer a rational being but as creatures who can’t accept the morbid truth through other generic characters like Sweeny, the old lady, Aunt Helen, who represent the decaying modern society rather than individuals. The damaged psyche also caused isolation which led to lack of communication as highlighted in The Waste Land, Preludes and The Hollow Man.  ‘Game of Chess’ shows the lifeless relationship between lovers; they lack feeling and are unable to express their emotions; The Hollow Man shows the hollowness and social void of human life that is surrounded by the chaos of modern civilisation. There is a lack of human identity in poems such as Preludes and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock that displays the paradox between judgements and actions. Men are so engrossed with their mundane life that they find it difficult to mingle with others and thus the feeling of loneliness and cynicism is increased. 

Moral degradation of the lives of people in big cities is also a crucial aspect of Eliot’s poetry and is greatly seen in The Waste Land. Each section of the poem describes the effect of modern society; the first section deals with the futility of human life, the second section with the corrosion of human relationships, the third section elucidates the desperate need for sex whereas the fourth section shows the idea of one’s inescapable death. In Portrait of a Lady, the lady is in search of friendship as she believes it to be very hard to find; she tries to be a friend to the young man but finds it very difficult because of trust issues and is not able to open up to her. Eliot shows sin and corruption as a part of modern life. There is the death of human relationships, values, and morals in modern society. 

Status of Modern Man

Modern man also lost his purpose in life which led to his meaningless existence. Eliot shows them as barren souls with no particular aim in life. In Portrait of a Lady, the old lady lives her life the way society expects her to live it; she lives a meaningless life. She tries to imitate others and loses her individualism. The young man does not have enough strength and finds it difficult to climb the stairs and open the door of the old lady’s house. In the epigraph of A Cooking Egg, the speaker is inactive and in meaningless existence. He regrets being unable to fulfil his desires on earth and therefore he dreams of a life of comfort in heaven where he might be able to fulfill them. He doesn’t want Pipit in heaven with him which shows the temporariness of human relationships but rather he hoped that he would have the finest company in the afterlife. He is very much baffled by life but does nothing to change it. He is only capable of imagining life in heaven until the bleak reality brings an abrupt end to his imagination. He understands that although he might be able to regain qualities like honor, capital, and spiritual guidance that he lacked on earth, heaven can’t give him simple joys like having cakes with Pipit behind the screens. Again, he finds it difficult to think of the past, live in the present, and question his future just like every modern man who is uncertain about his life. 

Eliot shows an insecure modern man who lacks sensibility and only seeks material desires. In Whispers of Immortality, he conveys his idea of materialism through Grishkin, a Russian woman, who seeks worldly pleasures through love and sex. She is more dependent on material happiness and is ignorant of simple concepts such as death. The Waste Land too shows the misery of modern society through the wilderness arising from materialism. Man is not able to cope up with their sexuality, lose genuine relationships, faces isolation, and indulge in prostitution to satisfy their bodily desires. In The Hollow Man, Eliot portrays the disconnection with God as they lose faith in transcendental entities and thus worship stone images. Prufrock, the old lady, and the hollow man are meaningless as they don’t have faith and their life is baseless. Material and economic prosperity became more important for them than relationships and spiritual values. 

The horrendous mechanical routine of city life also constitutes a major part of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Preludes show the picture of a post-apocalyptic world wherein not only man but the city too is devastated and alienated. The gloom in the city is the result of the devastated humans as they experience loss of attachment to society; the industries and rapid industrialisation that is considered to be a sign of modernism leads to environmental crises. He uses negative adjectives such as ‘lonely,’ ‘gusty’ and ‘vacant’ to describe the streets of London, the slums, and industries despite the huge city crowd. With modernism, the man started cutting himself from the society- he is living in a society but isn’t a part of it; he does not care for his dying city and does nothing to better it. In The Waste Land, Eliot writes about the sterility of the modern world and proposes it as a wasteland. He shows the picture of nature’s death as it is unable to regenerate which can be a metaphor for the death of humanity which cannot be reborn. The Hollow Man also discusses the dead, infertile land that is filled with straws, just like the human mind that is not able to think rationally. The epigraph of the poem is a reference to Kurtz, a greedy Englishman who overexploited the ivory in Africa and desolated the land. He indicates that man not only destroyed their life but have also exploited the natural resources, making nature barren. 

The writing style of Eliot also shows the complexities and chaos of modern society through his difficult to understand and fragmented poetry. He makes use of internal monologues in poems such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock as the speaker is unable to speak up his mind and mirrors the state of modern society through this style. Even though he indicates the futile modern society through his poetry, he is not a pessimist as he believes that this can be changed. In section five of The Waste Land, Eliot outlines the universal solution to the problems started in all of his earlier poems. The infertile wasteland will not bloom immediately but there are still fragments that are enough for it to become fertile. The thunder tells the modern man ‘to give’ everlasting love that is beyond the momentary pleasures of sexual encounters; ‘to sympathise’ with each other’s sufferings and subvert our isolation; and ‘to give up control’ because only then will we be at ease and peace. He contradicts the idea of modernity wherein society can do whatever pleases them. Even though modern society has become selfish, corrupted, and isolated, he cannot leave the wasteland and find his way home. The Waste Land sees man as neither good nor evil but only points out the limitations of living a good life through his poetry. 

While writing his poetry, T.S. Eliot was bound to a historical reality known to him and wished to reflect the modern society that is on the verge of decay. He explained the entirety of life as he presented modern man in modern society and expressed the crises they faced such as environmental problems, alienation, loss of emotion, materialism, neglected spiritual values, and meaningless existence. He urged men to change their ways before society collapses and paved a way of righteousness for them to follow. Thus, from this discussion, it emerges that Eliot has given a true account of modern society through his poetry that still has relevance in today’s world. 

“I don’t believe one grows older. I think that what happens early on in life is that at a certain age one stands still and stagnates.”

T. S. Eliot

Published by Ashwini Sequeira on 13 May 2022

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