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One of Eliot's earliest works and among his most well-known poems is, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". It tells the story of a man who is in love with a woman, but he is too afraid to ever approach her. Prufrock has a difficult time looking at the world in any other way but pessimistically. There is nothing he can do to change the natural order. He is socially distant and has a hard time expressing his emotions in a time and place that he feels is filled with disappointment.
Beginning with an excerpt from Dante Alighieri's, Inferno, many images come to mind. The introductory passage is spoken by Guido da Montefeltro, a military figure of medieval Italy. He was known for his military leadership against papal armies before he was defeated by Roman forces and excommunicated from the country ("Guido da Montefeltro"). Virgil encounters this figure while in the Eighth circle of Hell. It is translated by G.B. Harrison et al., in Major British Writers, "If I thought my answer were to one who could return to the world, I would not reply, but as none ever did return alive from this depth, without fear of infamy I answer thee" (" T.S. Eliot 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'"). Eliot uses this reference to emphasize that Prufrock believes that he is living in his own "Hell on Earth". The image of the smoky city and the quote's message of the ability to speak to the world without the fear or even courtesy of being heard, describes Eliot's version of a more perceptible Hell.
As the narrative progresses, Prufrock contemplates how any woman could ever be interested in him while there are so many other accomplished men in the world, both past and present. "[The] women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" (13-14). It references a famous line from the French poet Jules LaForgue. LaForgue was a Symbolist that used lyrical irony and helped invent the form of free verse ("Who's Jules LaForgue"). This excerpt is used to describe what J. Alfred Prufrock seems to think is a great obstacle that he himself faces. He cannot look past the fact that he is just an average man and no woman would ever want to associate with him since he has no remarkable qualities or accomplishments.
Inside the body of the poem, T.S. Eliot narrates the story so that the reader can understand the emotional transitions Prufrock undergoes. When the agent of the poem sees an opportunity to speak to the woman that he fancies, he simply states, "There will be time" (23). This is taken from a line in Andrew Marvell's, "To His Coy Mistress". The piece from this seventeenth century Metaphysical poet describes a man who has made a loving gesture to a woman. When she playfully dodges his attempts, he expresses that she must "seize the moment" and take advantage of that which he is offering her, for youth passes quickly ("To His Coy Mistress: Study Guide"). The use of this statement in the context of the poem is ironic since it conveys a totally opposite meaning than the speaker intended. Prufrock communicates that he believes he has all the time in the world to make his sentiments known to the young lady. This citation that Eliot uses has been taken and placed into a situation in which it does not belong except to contradict what the speaker is trying to say. He in fact does not have time and the moments are going to pass right by him if he does not take a chance. This conflicting statement, when understood, emphasizes in a satirical way that the man does not entirely understand the implications of his inaction. Eliot again makes a reference to "His Coy Mistress" in line 92, "To have squeezed the universe into a ball". Marvell's poem uses a similar line to emphasize the speaker's love for the woman and how he wants to totally immerse himself in her without any hesitation ("J. Alfred Prufrock: Study Guide"). He is willing to take a chance for her and take control of his life. Eliot's speaker uses this phrase to wonder about whether or not it was worth it to take a risk and be with a woman so fully, or if the hurt would be unbearable.
There are also a few notable Biblical references made in the poem, "head brought in upon a platter" (82). The prophet John the Baptist introduced Jesus to the people so that he could carry out his mission. He was popular among the people for his deeds. When Herod Antipas remarried his own half-brother's ex-wife, John denounced him as a blasphemer. Afraid of what the people would say if anything were to happen to the prophet, he let the matter go. When Herod's niece, on his wife's side of the family, danced for Herod on his birthday, he promised that she could have anything she wanted. Prompted by her aunt, she asked for John the Baptist's head. Herod Antipas fulfilled this request and thus killed the prophet, bringing his decapitated head in front of the court on a platter ("J. Alfred Prufrock: Study Guide"). In the context that Prufrock uses the passage, he tries to let his audience know that he has no zeal for the act of heroism in any matter whatsoever. He is a cautious and guarded individual in all matters, especially with those of the heart.
Another religious passage is mentioned towards the end of the narrative poem. The narrator, after he begins to wonder about the possible repercussions of love, mentions a parable of, "Lazarus" (94). In the New Testament, there are two men named Lazarus. The first is the man that Jesus raised from the dead. The other, which the reference is made about, is the blind beggar that Jesus had healed during his travels. It is said that after Lazarus died, he was taken to Heaven, while a man named Dives went to Hell. Dives, after seeing his fate, asked that Lazarus go back to Earth and warn his brothers of the misfortune they would face if they did not change their ways. The wish was not fulfilled and the brothers met the same fate ("J. Alfred Prufrock: Study Guide"). J. Alfred Prufrock is afraid to live out his life because of what he might face in the afterlife. He does not live for the present, but he would rather exercise caution throughout his life. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" represents Eliot's views on the modern gesture of love in today's world. Though one critic, Charles Altieri, believes that "Eliot is not an explicit theorist of the emotions" ("The Theory of Emotion"). T.S. Eliot's poems not only expressed his modern views, but did so with deep convictions that projected out from the characters in his poetry.
"The Waste Land"
Perhaps T.S. Eliot's best known work, "The Waste Land", which was published in 1922 and can be considered one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century ("T.S. Eliot"). It tells the story and consequences of death, life and love in his perspective. There are many things to be wary of as one journeys through the challenges of everyday. The poem is not a narrative, but can be classified as a modern epic with symphonic qualities or even as a dramatic monologue ("The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot"). It describes Eliot's assessments on modern society. He believes that civilization is in a state of barrenness, where humans are isolated and sexual relationships are a commonality with no deeper feelings attached ("Waste Land"). It is composed of five parts that shift from different speakers and tones to show the facets of the civilization these people are subject to. Each stanza of the poem is filled with references to various types of literary works and myths to highlight the points that Eliot tries to make about the current human condition.
First, the poem begins by explaining the progression of how the world came to be in this desolate state. The first speaker, a woman, remembers her carefree days before the war and the joys she experienced from life. During this reminiscence, she speaks lines from a well-known love story, "Frisch weht der Wind" (31). The passage originates from a German play version of the French love story of Tristan and Isolde. Isolde was promised to marry Tristan's uncle across the sea. Isolde was unhappy at being forced into a marriage without love, but she reluctantly agreed to be wed in accordance with her mother's wishes. Tristan was sent to escort Isolde and her mother to the castle. Isolde's mother, fearing that the marriage would not begin because of Isolde's feelings, slipped her daughter a love potion to help her along. Unknowingly, Tristan drank the other half of the potion and they fell madly in love. Tristan, understanding his loyalty to his uncle, left Isolde at the castle and left the country. Years later, Tristan was married and lived far away. After he fell ill, he begged his wife to let Isolde come to him because she was his only love. Isolde was sent notice and left the king immediately. The boat carrying her was given the instructions to raise a white flag if she was on board and a black if she was not. When the boat came into the bay bearing a white flag, the jealous wife told her husband that it was black, and Tristan immediately passed away at hearing the news. Isolde came ashore and saw that Tristan had died. She returned back to the country with Tristan's body and told the king that she could not live without him. She then died and they were buried next to each other, where trees, bound together, grew over their graves (Lenard, 63-64). Many different variations of the story exist, but the same message holds true; that love is a powerful emotion that binds people no matter how far they grow apart. Eliot seems to indicate that this "wasteland" of sorts lacks that type of emotional connection between partners in any sense. Even the act of sex has lost emotion and become sterile.
A prevalent topic throughout the poem seems to be that of the role of religion. The people in this society seem to not care about what lies ahead of them after death. They seem to be in a state of in between, where they are neither alive nor dead. Within the body of the poem, T.S. Eliot uses the passage, "I had not thought death had undone so many" (63). In Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno, Virgil makes a remark, "And behind it came so long a train of people, that I should never have believed death had undone so many" ("The Allusions in T.S. Eliot's"). Both of these observations attribute to the state of being that people are in. In Dante's Hell, people are forever forced to atone for their earthly sins. The individuals in this canto have lived selfish lives with only concern for themselves. These types of people have never truly been alive since they do not understand the joys of helping others.
Greek myths have been retold for centuries to express different morals and beliefs to generations of people. These stories are often used as models for today's literature and media. In the second section of "The Waste Land" titled A Game of Chess, an allusion is made to, "The change in Philomel" (100). The woman Procne was given to Tereus, King of Thrace to become his wife. After some time, he wrote to Procne's sister, Philomela, and misleadingly said that Procne had died. When she arrived, he raped her and cut out her tongue so she could not tell anyone. Helpless, Philomela stitched the story into a tapestry and showed her sister what had happened. Procne helped avenge Philomela by killing Itys, son of Procne and Tereus, and feeding the boy to his father. The women both ran from the king while he chased after them. Seeing what had happened, the gods intervened and turned them all into birds (Evans, 213). The mentioning of this myth seems to convey the understanding that a succession was not passed down. The king did not bequeath the throne to his heir, in the same way that Eliot's nightingale no longer sings sweet melodies to people. The bird does not show its beauty to the world because it no longer has any.
Another widely referenced writer is Shakespeare. T.S. Eliot often alludes to the many different plays Shakespeare had written during his time. In line 72, the speaker says, "Good night, ladies". This bitter line comes from Hamlet and the character Ophelia. Ophelia was in love with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. After the death of his father, Hamlet was overwhelmed with grief. While in this state, he saw ghosts of his father and sought revenge for the death. Hamlet pretended madness and he and Ophelia grew apart. Towards the end of the play, Ophelia speaks these words before she drowns herself in the river. T.S. Eliot's intent by using this citation appears to be to communicate that love is dead in the world. There is no emotion left between individuals at all, especially when in regards to love. The citations in "The Waste Land" articulate Eliot's belief that society has regressed to a state in which emotions are nonexistent and selfishness is the only motivating force.
"The Hollow Men"
Within T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men", the people are stuck in a world in between Heaven and Hell. It is narrated by one of these "hollow" men. He tells the reader about the way the people lean together like scarecrows and how everything feels like a desert, even the dryness of their speech. The next section speaks about how the men are afraid to even look at those who have made it to Heaven or Hell. After this description, the speaker moves on to the portrayal of everyday life. The hollow men are unable to even give kisses to others, so they instead send prayers to the rocks around them in the desert landscape. The fourth section illustrates the fears of the Hollow Men. There are not even eyes in this world to see from, and they are afraid to share looks with people. The final section explains that some type of "Shadow" has hindered the men's abilities. They are unable to even exist and await the end of the world. Their version of the end of the world is very different than many apocalyptic theories though. Eliot's characters believe the end will come as a small whisper and everything will cease to exist ("The Hollow Men Summary").
For the most part, the idea behind the poem came from two different sources, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the British holiday of Guy Fawkes Day. One allusion is directed at the latter source. The Hollow Man describes their physical bodies, "Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!" (4). The image made here seems to indicate that the Hollow Men themselves are scarecrow-like figures. The images originate from the holiday that commemorates the treason committed by Guy Fawkes in the 17th century. There had been a conspiracy to blow up Parliament and King James I in 1605. The Gunpowder Plot, as it is called, began when King James I took the throne after Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. Many were hopeful that the new king would be more tolerant of the Catholic religion. When he was not, many were furious by this development. Many formed a group against the intolerant king and decided that they would blow up Parliament and all in it. Since so many had joined in this rebellion, the secret of the plot was not kept confidential and the plan was foiled. Guy Fawkes was taken down into the cellars of the House of Lords to show the members of Parliament the barrels of gunpowder. After the evidence was discovered, Guy Fawkes was drawn and quartered as an example to all. Many of the co-conspirators were later charged and hanged for their affiliation with the crime. The holiday is now celebrated on November 5th each year by burning effigies of Guy Fawkes filled with straw ("The Allusions in T.S. Eliot's"). The straw-filled Hollow Men are a direct representation of the symbolic holiday. Their bodies are hollow and they lack any type of soul.
Much of the narrative is also centered on the plot of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The novel recounts the journey of a man named Marlow to the African continent in search of ivory. Marlow meets an experienced man named Kurtz who has made the best of his quest for ivory. Kurtz has come to this country to find riches, and with this new money he becomes a very powerful man. The natives of Africa worship the man and he takes full advantage of exploiting them. His greedy ways cause him to fall ill, and he is to be taken back to England with Marlow. Kurtz becomes angry and asks the natives to sabotage the boat. Marlow and his men scare off the savages and the plan that Kurtz had made was foiled. Kurtz then tries to escape the ship to shore and the native villagers, but his plan is ruined when Marlow catches him. On their way back to England, Kurtz dies on the river. A year later, Marlow visits the widow that Kurtz left behind. She mourns the great man she married, and Marlow does not have the heart to tell her about the man he became before he succumbed to death ("Heart of Darkness"). The last section of the "Hollow Men" speaks of a dark and looming figure that exists between Heaven and Hell, "[there] Falls the Shadow" (76). The reference is made about the shadow that Kurtz became before he died. The secrets he held and the life he led created a shadow of the man he once was, the man that his widow remembered and Marlow never saw. The Heart of Darkness ends with a shadow which spans across the entire human race ("A Hypertext Version of").
Shakespeare's play of Julius Caesar is a story of ultimate betrayal. The great Julius Caesar was viciously stabbed in the back and killed by one of his most trusted advisors, Brutus. For a long time, Brutus is caught, "Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act" (72-75). The use of this citation indicates that Eliot feels that his Hollow Men are caught between a state of nonexistence and existence ("A Hypertext Version of"). They have no motivation to come out of this state and into their destination of Heaven or Hell. They, like Brutus, have given into temptations. Brutus listened to the voices against Caesar and carried out the murder, while the Hollow Men gave into the temptation to stay where they were and not take the final step of their afterlife.
As T.S. Eliot begins to end the poem, he encompasses many allusions into one phrase, "Not with a bang but a whimper" (98). Guy Fawkes, Brutus and Cassius, and Kurtz can all be found within this line. It is said that before Guy Fawkes was killed, he disclosed the names of some of his co-conspirators with a "whimper" in the hopes that he would not be executed so harshly. When Brutus and Cassius learned that their plans to rule after the death of Julius Caesar were foiled, they both made a small noise to indicate their displeasure. As Kurtz is on his deathbed, he whispers and moans that the world he lived in while in Africa was a cold and corrupt place, which was interpreted to be the rest of the world as well ("A Hypertext Version of"). The whimper in the poem indicates the end of the world and nothing will exist. For the "Hollow Men", T.S. Eliot uses this literary technique to indicate that men are only shells of what they once were with references to Heart of Darkness, Guy Fawkes, and Julius Caesar.
T.S. Eliot's poetry reflected "the complexities of [his] modern world" through the use of religious allusions and references to other major works to enhance his writings. After living through the horrors of both World Wars and the Cold War, Eliot was subject to some of the worst horrors that the world has known. Men were killed in torturous ways that left the rest of the earth in a state of shock. T.S. Eliot's poetry reflected what he thought of the changes that society had surrendered to during his lifetime. The society Prufrock lived in was filled with smoke and lacked beauty and hope. Eliot refers to many religious scenarios, including the stories recounted in the Bible and the version of Hell in Dante's Divine Comedy. "Wasteland" tells about a place where emotionless beings cover the land and relationships have no strong foundation. Greek myths, Shakesperean plays, and old tales all help to emphasize the deterioration of love in the modern world. "The Hollow Men" follows the same pattern of using citations of other works to emphasize that men no longer hold any loyalty. Kurtz represented how men are fickle and greedy, Brutus embodied the act of betrayal, and Guy Fawkes was the persona of acting only through self-interest. Eliot used his writings to, "[be] constantly aware of how difficult it is to keep a harmonious relation between thought and feeling because at least one aspect of feeling is more elemental, more mobile, and more intricate than the usual elements with which thinking works" (Altieri, "The Theory of Emotion"). These emotions were brought forth through the allusions Eliot used to make the context of his poems more relatable. As T.S. Eliot said,
"We can say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning" ("The Allusions in T.S. Eliot's").