T. S. Eliot is one of the most famous American poets of the early 20th century. His work is famous for its fragmented structure, many alliterations and an almost shocking portrayal of contemporary society. These key aspects tie in with the Modernism movement which was developing around the same time. This movement was a result of ongoing changes in Western society caused for example by World War I. Eliot incorporated a lot of this changing society in his poetry mainly in order to criticize it. He specifically explored the deficiencies of his society such as monotony or urban decay.
This essay will discuss the way in which Eliot explores these deficiencies by analyzing several sections of his famous poems The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and a short poem, Preludes. One deficiency that Eliot repeatedly explores throughout his work is aridity. In his poem The Waste Land aridity is a recurring motif and while he discusses it in a literal manner, it symbolizes much more than that. In the last section of the poem, What the Thunder Said, aridity plays the biggest role: “sweat is dry and feet are in the sand/ if there were only water amongst the rock” (Eliot 47).
Images such as these create a very dry and uncomfortable atmosphere and emphasize a constant need for something. The juxtaposition of sweat and dry is very effective because sweat is usually considered wet. The aridity in this passage is so intense that even the sweat becomes dry. The image “feet are in the sand” makes the reader feel uncomfortable because it implies being stuck and not being able to move forward. Eliot continues to express the desperate need for water and therefore salvation. Through this metaphor, Eliot is commenting on the need of revitalization, this being a property of water, in society.
He has effectively managed to convey this idea through his use of the image of aridity. This idea is implying that there is something lacking in the society of the time and that everyone is searching for that something. Similarly, he explores the deficiency is urban decay. He repeatedly describes the urban landscape and always associates it with decay and ruin. His poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock contains several descriptions of the city. One example would be “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/ and sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” (Eliot 5).
This image is the perfect example of Eliot’s portrayal of urban decay. The rhyming couplet contains three dominant images, all of which are associated with cheapness, unattractiveness and a certain degree of immorality. “Sawdust restaurants” for example are notoriously known for being cheap and low-class, while oysters are associated with immorality. Through his choice of images, Eliot has created a vulgar and ugly portrayal of urban life and landscape. This is how he continuously portrays it throughout his work without ever attributing any redeeming qualities to the city landscape.
Eliot seems to be implying that society is decaying and that the changes which are occurring have had a negative impact on it. The chaos created by World War I along with changes has led to an immoral, decaying and ugly society. Other than the decay of society, Eliot also comments on the monotony of it. In his poem Preludes he creates this idea of monotony by not differentiating between individuals and repeating the same actions. One image which conveys this idea is “one thinks of all the hands that are raising dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms” (Eliot 13).
This image does not allow for individuality but instead is monotonous and all the same. “A thousand furnished rooms” along with “all the hands” imply that all the rooms and the people who live there are the same. They go through the same monotonous, daily routines without having any real purpose or significance in their lives. Eliot’s choice of diction in terms of words such as “dingy” and “furnished” also emphasize that not only is society monotonous, it is also ugly and cheap. Eliot’s view of his society is very critical and negative.
He could also be saying that society does not allow for individuals to develop but instead forces people to conform. In addition to the monotone character of society, Eliot also explores its immorality, specifically in the form of lust. It is discussed on several instances, and in several forms, in The Fire Sermon, the third section of The Waste Land. He has juxtaposed three different forms of lust in order to emphasize his point. All three images are negative and unattractive without any love related basis.
First he introduces an ancient Roman rape and therefore violent lust, followed by a modern, almost business like form of lust and finally male lust in its most basic form. A good example of this last representation of lust would be “flushed and decided, he assaults at once; exploring hands encounter no defence” (Eliot 43). In this image lust is violent and masculine. Eliot always represents lust as masculine with the man being the dominant figure and the woman more of a victim. Also in this image, it is the man who takes the initiative while the woman sees it as something she has to endure.
It isn’t pleasant or loving but instead an ugly and immoral act which is another sign of the downhill turn of society. His choice of the verb “assaults” creates the violent atmosphere because of its connotation associated with fights and violence. On top of this, he has chosen the word “defence” as if the woman would have to protect herself from this violent, aggressive invasion of her personal life. Overall, Eliot is very critical of lust and anything related to it. A final deficiency explored by Eliot is the superficiality of his society at the time. In The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock, the persona says that people judge him based on his appearance, “they will say: how his hair is growing thin”. The idea of “them”, or in other words society, judging him shows the superficiality of the society. According to Eliot, his contemporary society judges people based on appearances rather than achievements or personality. Later in the poem, Eliot repeats a variation of this phrase and this repetition emphasizes even further the implication of a superficial society. Furthermore, his choice of the 3rd person plural also indicates a sense of society being turned against the individual.
He seems to imply that society does not allow for the development of individual character but instead forces everyone to conform to a particular image. Anyone not fitting this ideal image is looked down upon as happens to Prufrock in this poem. Eliot is obviously very critical of this aspect of society and possibly even implies that this superficiality prevents society from succeeding. In conclusion, Eliot’s representation of society is fairly bleak and doesn’t leave much room for positive aspects. Through his exploration of society, he seems to imply there are only deficiencies and problems.
In all three discussed poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Preludes, and The Waste Land, he repeatedly criticizes society and focuses on everything that is lacking. One could say that his poetry has a very bleak outlook as if the world is nothing but misery and despair. However, despite the dominantly negative attitude, Eliot does offer a certain degree of hope for a brighter future. There is a sense of awareness in his poems meaning that the persona is usually aware to a certain extent of society’s deficiencies which in turn implies the possibility of change.Nonetheless, Eliot’s strongly dominant message is that the society of his time is far from perfect and suffers from countless deficiencies.
Source Cited: Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land and other poems. New American Library: New York, 1998.