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Modernism in Eliot's Poetry

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Published: 12th May 2021 in Literature

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Matthew Arnold, in ‘The Study of Poetry’, states classic poetry is the promotion of “formal discipline, impersonality, objectivity… [and] aesthetics of romantic conceptions” (Childs, and Fowler, 2006, p.27). Artists like V. Woolf, T.E. Hulme, E. Pound, W. Stevens, and T.S. Eliot are some of the pioneers who helped shape the early twentieth-century literary canon. These trendsetters where:

Aesthetically radical, contains striking technical innovation, emphasize [s] spatial or “fugal” as opposed to chronological form, tend [s] towards ironic modes, and involve a certain “dehumanization” of art (Childs, and Fowler, 2006, p. 145). 

Eliot composed his first stories as a schoolboy in 1905 for the ‘Smith Academy Record’, where he acquired a lifelong interest in Rudyard Kipling. Suggesting, why this seminal work contains a reference to Kipling’s work “The Love Song of Har Dyal” (1959).  Eliot begun to publish poetry with the help of Ezra Pound. Written while he was at Harvard, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, first appeared in 1915 in the American magazine ‘Poetry a Magazine of Verse’ edited by Harriet Monroe. An essential juncture in Eliot’s study came after he concluded his doctoral dissertation an ‘Idealist Philosophy’ (1914-1915) this was the decision to transmute his focus to literature. This gave him a huge foundation for his literary reviews on, as well as an arsenal of intellectual capital to draw on in his writing. Including, “Dante, Laforgue, Sanskrit, Bradley” (Moody, 1995, pp.18-19).  This essay will focus on his “first volume ‘Prufrock and Other Observations’” (Head, 2006), with specific emphasis on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (c.1910). Using a thematic approach this composition will highlight some of the key features of modernism. Firstly, experimentation with the traditional romantic conceptions, expressed through imagery, and secondly, individualism through objective correlative and stream of consciousness.

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Modernism is defined byMalcolm Bradbury in A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms (2006) as the experimental “freedom from realism, materialism, traditional genre of and form, with notions of cultural apocalypse and disaster” (Childs, 2007, pp.1-2). This is reflected in epigraph of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ but Dante’s Inferno incorporates one of the several juxtapositions between heaven and hell or life and death:

 To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all—” (Eliot, 1917, ll.94-95).

In contrast to Lazarus, Guido Da Montefeltro is damned for treachery and failed repentance, he confesses all to Dante who returns from hell via the embodiment of a flame. Both radical scenarios are underscored with a supernatural element, and in direct antonym to the universal Christian belief. Furthermore, the eternal damnation of a bourgeois tediousness (afternoon tea and parties) can only be escaped by some radical act or truth-telling: 'Come rear to tell you all, I shall tell you all” (ibid).  This alludes to Prufrock’s need for risk, either through embarrassment of rejection or partaking of a sordid avenue. Correspondingly, M. Elbert’s idea published in the ‘Edith Wharton Review’ (1994) states that Eliot’s Modernist and Wharton’s Gothic are one and the same. He claims that both “attempt to ward off the modern sense of chaos or fragmentation, some non-traditional, non-accepted form of reality – often in the realm of the marginalized, dispossessed, and unspeakable” (Elbert, 1994, p.19). This connection is further explored through the dismal visions in the ‘Preludes’: “The burnt-out ends of smoky days… The grimy scraps Of withered leaves about your feet… A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps” (Eliot, 1917, ll.4-12).  The result is metaphorical descriptions of ‘smoky’, wet and dirty street; and the horse that “steams and stamps” suggests frustration and discomfort in the cold, bleak streets of industrialisation, mirroring Prufrock’s marginalisation. The title offers a paradox, as a ‘Love Song’ offers certain expectations.  Moreover, the romantic narrative is hijacked with the radical image of an “etherized” patient, continued with the unspeakable description urban red-light district: “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels” (Eliot, 1917, ll.4-6). William Acton pertains in his book Prostitution (1859) that ‘Half deserted streets’ is in reference to the fact that: “Some women are to be seen in certain streets in Paris in the early part of the evening after half-past eleven the streets are quite deserted… In London a man has prostitution thrust upon him; in Paris, he has to go out of his way to look for it” (Acton, 1859, p.112). This indicates opportunity for the protagonist to partake in sexual relations or alludes to the thought “Do I Dare” but more importantly rebukes the aesthetics of romantic conceptions.

 Eliot challenges formality through his usage of free verse and lacks the traditional rhyme scheme.  Although on occasion he opts to blend both the new and the old. One example is, he chooses to use rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter, demonstrating his traditional knowledge of Shakespearian rhyme “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;” (Eliot, 1917, l.111) controlling the pace of the reader.  According to ‘The World Broke in Two’ (2017), modernism is both a reaction to romanticism and a response industrialisation. Eliot defies the nature of romanticism with his use of objective correlative underpinned by ‘Laforgue’s symbolism’ (Joshi, 2016, p.48). He formulated this principle in his essay on ‘Hamlet and His Problems’, in ’The Sacred Wood’ (1921) which he called Hamlet “an artistic failure” (Eliot, 1997, 1-82). He writes:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an objective correlative in other words a set of objects, a situation , a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion: such that when the external facts which must terminate in sensory experience are given the emotion is immediately evoked

(Eliot, 1997, p.81-82). 

Therefore, Eliot provides a dramatic monologue to explore Prufrock’s dramatis personae as the form for the expression. For instance, through the “yellow fog”, “soot that falls from chimneys” and “pools that stand in drains” (Eliot, 1920, ll.15-19); the reader envisions a time of hopelessness. Sigmund Freud theorises his early work Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming that poetry produces a subliminal pleasure “engaged in fantasising, [and] an exertion of the imaginative capacity” (Freud, 1908, p.143).  Within this general context, “spread out upon a table” Eliot infers to the ‘new worldview’, which questions the traditional Christian belief, through rational thought. So, with this broader connotation in mind Eliot explains:

The practical world from a theoretical point of view, because this world is what it is because of the practical point of view, and the world we try to explain is a world spread out upon a table - simply there (Eliot, 1917; cited in Childs, 2001, p.77).

Born in an era of scientific advancement and the systemic testing of theories, all contribute to the rational intellect of modernity, based on the urge “to question, analyse, and categorise [everything]” (Beasley, 2007, p.2). Eliot provides an imaginative space enabling his readers “to enjoy their own daydreams without self-reproach or shame” (Person, et al.,pp.28-29). For instance, Prufrock is caught up in his own torment, “(They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!")” (Eliot, 1917, l.44).  Informing the reader that no one has commented on his appearance other than himself “he is victimised by the insistently reiterative movements of his own anxious mind” (Perry, 2016).  Considering the snippets that run parallel to the main narrative, “Beneath the music from a farther room” (Eliot, 1917, l.53) it can be assumed that an alternative dreamscape is possible, one that has music and the potential for happiness. However, Prufrock’s persona and mental anguish hinders the development of this plot.  Similarly, in the ‘Portrait of a Lady’ music is referenced “This music is successful with a "dying fall" (Eliot,1917, l.122.), another Shakespearian symbol is observed in the ‘Twelfth Night’ interacts with Prufrock in that the music is reference to a love-sick Duke Orsino's. “If music be the food of love, play on,” (Shakespeare, and Donno, 2004, l.1). The effect that Prufrock does not access the room playing music is indicative of his anxiety - also reiterating Eliot’s own numbing fears.  Woolf, known for her gossip stated that there was a “disparity between who [Eliot] he appeared to be and who, ‘Beneath the surface,’ he might be” (Goldstein, 2017, p.22-25).

According to Carl Jung (1989), we all wear masks. We have different persona’s at different times with different people, however, this is a “defense [sic] against intrusion and manipulation... [much like a crabs harden exterior, the soft vulnerable side is hidden beneath] To identify solely with the masks we wear is to live in illusion” (Craig, 1994, p.189). Prufrock has built up walls of protection, by hiding his true self, or blending into the unspectacular  symbolised by anatomy of a crab– “I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (Eliot, 1917, ll.73-74). He is happy not standing out in the company of women, he is respectable and conversely dressed, he blends in- he is ordinary. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren states that Prufrock:

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 Knows that if he corresponds to any character in [Hamlet] it is the sententious, empty, old Polonius, the sycophantic Rosenkranz, or the silly, foppish Osric. Perhaps-though there is no fool in Hamlet-to the fool, that stock character of so many Elizabethan tragedies (Holt, and Company, 1950, p.439).  but more importantly rebukes the romanticist genre of the sublime.

The unconscious symbolism is a modernistic trait that explores forgotten impulses and the fragments of a person’s soul; in the hope that the reader can share in a journey of self- discovery. In Laforgue's words, the Unconscious is our "inner Africa" (Revue Blanche 10, 1881—82) which the artist must set out to explore, setting the scene for the reader imagination. The continued adoption of discontented voice of a man in the throughs of an ‘existential crisis’, offers the relatable scenario of growing old.

In Modernist literature the individual is more interesting than society. Specifically, modernist writers capture how the individual adapts to the changing dynamics of modernity. In some cases, examining how they triumphed over obstacles; Eliot examines how Prufrock refuses to change despite the various opportunities to do so. This results in him feeling old before his time, increasing his anxiety and alienation. Moreover, he is paralysed with indecision and fear which does not allow him a chance of romantic love.

“When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall to the wall,

 Then how should I begin

To spit out butt-ends of my days and ways?

And how should I presume? (eliot,1917, ll.58-61).

Eliot experiments with sequential timeframes, offering contradicting timing within stanzas. “And I have known the eyes already, known them all—” (ibid, ll.55,65), emulating Prufrock’s confusion. Additionally, Prufrock’s declaration of ‘known them at all’ is displaying an unconscious narcissistic personality, increased by the repetition in multiple stanzas. Further embedding his inexperience and his personal deception. Another, mechanism is the metonymic illustration of how Prufrock reverts to the comfort of segregating women into body parts; especially those that do not have any sexual connotations: “the eyes already,” the arms already” (Eliot,1917,ll.55,63).  Another important point is that he compares himself to an artefact “pinned” “on the wall” not to be admired but studied like a rare beetle.  In contrast to the beginning of the poem when Prufrock was young and had the whole world in front of him. Now, he is aging “pinned and wriggling” insinuating restraint. The “spit out butt-ends” (ibid, l.60) implies the endless small talk, that never goes any further and his hope for connection is diminished when he is cast aside. So, he has resolved himself to become the observed and the observer - admiring the ostentatious displays “Arms that are braceleted and white and bare” (ibid, l.63) but never daring to hope for more. The author is examining the loneliness and isolation of one individual, rather than a whole society, as well as highlighting the insignificance of material wealth. Eliot further contrasts these emotions with the allegoric image of a cat: “that rubs its back  upon the windowpanes” (ibid, l.15). Demonstrating the feline characteristics - neuroticism, reflected insecurities, anxiety, and a wariness of other people.

As we have argued elsewhere The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock  may be recognised as a cultural shift between Romanticism and Modernist movements,  Woolf describes it as a “dislocation in time and consciousness between the country England had been before the war and what it was now” (Goldstein, 2017, p.6). It must also be reiterated that the artists of modernist movements occupied the transitional space between destruction and the aspirations of creating peace in this new world.  Add this displacement to the struggles, both personal and mentally that the artists of this new era encountered: private dramas like “nervous breakdowns, chronic illness, intense loneliness, isolation, and depression, not to mention the difficulties of love and marriage and legal and financial troubles“ (ibid, pp.6-7).  Using metaphor to create a dreamscape of which the reader can peak into the mind of an individual. In addition, exploring decisions (or indecisions, regarding Prufrock) with the rapidly changing environment. Prufrock is not a misogynistic but there is scope for unconscious narcissistic thoughts, however they are never acted upon and only adds to his self-consuming behaviour.   It is a disturbing landscape where the evening is “etherised” and the yellowing fog encapsulates your very being, like a cat, Prufrock is led by an inquisitiveness as he prowls the underbelly of society yet remains unchanged. Eliot’s fragmented structure and experimentation with form and style adds a new dimension in this seminal poem. Moreover Eliot, intrinsically links language with complex emotions; his “Imagery created by metaphors enables the extraction of meaning from figurative language” (Eastman, 2015). This discussion has led to an understanding that language in the hands of modernist artists provides a mechanism that can be manipulated to challenge the traditional modes of expression. Artists like Eliot resist the common significance of an object for one that fits the poet ’s narrative, therefore creating a symbolic truth, thus, providing “innovative perspectives and new knowledge of phenomena” (Moerman and Van Der Laan, 2011, p.11).  


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