T S Eliot – The Early Poems

I will show you Arcade Fire in a handful of dust: why pop music loves TS Eliot

Scratch any literate songwriter – Win Butler, David Bowie, PJ Harvey – and beneath the surface you will find a debt to TS Eliot

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TS Eliot … the inspiration for countless rock musiciansThe New Yorker critic Louis Menand, reflecting on TS Eliot‘s transition from radical modernist to arch-conservative, wrote in a review of the poet’s letters: “He tried to shut the door on modern life. It was too late of course. He was the author of Prufrock and The Waste Land. He was already inside.”Eliot would not have loved pop music but pop music loves Eliot. Ninety years after the publication of The Waste Land, he remains the lodestar poet for ambitious songwriters. They rummage through his masterpiece’s treasure chest of arresting phrases: the “violet hour” and “bodies naked on the low damp ground” quoted in the Sisters of Mercy’sFloorshow, “April is the cruellest month” kicking off Hot Chip’s Playboy or the “red sails” picked up by David Bowie on Lodger (Bowie told William Burroughs in 1974 that he’d “never read” Eliot but I suspect he got around to it).Likewise 1915’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. “Like a patient etherized on a table” is paraphrased by avowed Eliot fan Win Butler inArcade Fire‘s We Used to Wait, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” became a song title for Chuck D, and “the Eternal Footman” crops up in Tori Amos’s Pretty Good Year. “Alfred J Prufrock would be proud of me,” declare Manic Street Preachers on My Guernica. And 1925’s The Hollow Men lends its name to songs by Faust, Gravenhurst and Cocteau Twins. And on it goes: Genesis, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Van Morrison, Rush, EMF, Crash Test Dummies, Okkervil River, the Clientele … “This music crept by me upon the waters.”But why Eliot, above all other poets? One simple reason is that he is widely taught in British and American schools and he impacts on the adolescent imagination with peculiar force. The Waste Land may be unfathomably complex but it is easy to love regardless of whether you understand it. The language is juicy and pungent, full of fire and rain, rivers and dust, birth and death – lots of death. I remember deriving a thrill of pleasurable dread from its sense of crisis and doom when I first read it as a teenager. Lines such as “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” or “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper” (from The Hollow Men) would be at home on the back of a goth’s leather jacket. Eliot offers a vivid grown-up take on a teenager’s sense that all is not right with the world. At a difficult age you get the impression he’s on to something terribly important, even if you’re not sure what it is.So the message resonates, in sometimes simplistic ways, but the medium also has much to teach songwriters. Just months after his death, on 4 January 1965, Bob Dylan‘s Desolation Row described “Ezra Pound and TS Eliot/ Fighting in the captain’s tower.” You can understand the appeal to a man attempting to blast open the language of rock’n’roll in a period of sociopolitical flux. Eliot told Virginia Woolf that Joyce’s Ulysses, which he believed did in prose what The Waste Land did in verse, “destroyed the whole of the 19th century”. They were twin responses to the shattered postwar world – vast collages of competing voices which declared that the old ways were dead and new language was needed. But that new language was built from the bones of the old: a dizzying mosaic of allusion, quotation, pastiche and impersonation, assembled from ingredients gathered everywhere from the ivory towers to the saloon bars, ancient Greece to modern London, and inviting endless interpretation. It attempted to encompass everything in a way that could mean anything, which is a decent description of Dylan’s mission in Desolation Row. When Eliot, traumatised by the strain of composing The Waste Land, later dismissed it, he used a line you could imagine Dylan pitching to an earnest interviewer: “a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”

The poem remains a catalyst for jolting songwriters out of their usual approaches because of the relentless ventriloquism referenced in Eliot’s Dickens-quoting working title for The Waste Land, He Do the Police in Different Voices. The style enables you to open up a song’s meaning by sliding between characters and perspectives: not a single broadcast but a radio impatiently flitting between stations. Neil Tennant applied the technique to 80s London on West End Girls with its “too many shadows, whispering voices” in an unreal city where “we’ve got no future, we’ve got no past”.

Thom Yorke reached for it to evoke his own sense of dislocation and lurking horror on Paranoid Android’s neurotic babble of unidentified voices (“Please would you stop the noise”, “That’s it sir you’re leaving”, “Off with his head”) talking but not listening – “a heap of broken images”, to quote The Waste Land.

Eliot’s influence extends across the whole of PJ Harvey‘s Let England Shake, which pieces together voices and images from multiple decades and countries, and collapses all that history into a single ongoing commentary on war and nationalism. You often can’t tell which lines Harvey wrote herself and which she took from existing sources; among other things The Waste Land’s collage technique is a licence to borrow without shame. One blogger has pointed out the similarity between On Battleship Hill (“Jagged mountains jutting out/ Cracked like teeth in a rotting mouth”) and The Waste Land (“Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit”). The critic Donald Childs believes Eliot was actually referring to Gallipoli (the home of Battleship Hill), where his close friend Jean Verdenal had been killed in action. During the campaign Australian soldiers sang the risque song about Mrs Porter that is quoted in III: The Fire Sermon. Did Harvey know all of this or is it just a case of The Waste Land’s world of echoes setting off accidental echoes of its own?

This process is apt considering The Waste Land includes allusions to show tunes, operas, folk ballads and ragtime songs among its linguistic flotsam and jetsam. In one example of cultural baton-passing Eliot took the refrain “goodnight ladies” from a 19th-century folk song and thenLou Reed took it from him.

As Radio 4’s recent broadcast of The Waste Land demonstrated, it’s a poem that wants to be listened to. The Fire Sermon in particular is full of noise: gramophones and mandolins, throbbing engines and pealing bells, “a clatter and a chatter”. Read it aloud and before you begin to thrash out what it might mean you can hear the music humming in the wires of the verse – the “rhythmical grumbling” if you like. It’s above all this sensuous, enigmatic quality that continues to inspire songwriters who want to leave all their options open; to bathe in words, and the sound of words, without locking them into a single reading. Eliot once wrote: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” True enough, many songwriters would say, especially if you can sing it.


The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

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What is T S Eliot’s Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock all about?

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LET us go then, you and I”

But both “you” and “I” go precisely nowhere in this poem by T S Eliot. Indeed, who “you” and “I” are cannot even be established with any certainty. Well, of course the “I” refers to Prufrock, but who is he and what is Eliot doing with him? Is this really a love song? How can it be? And if Prufrock is meant to represent the condition of modern man c1915, what does that say? Why is modern man’s condition so pathetic, meaningless and without direction? Is modern man no more than a failed lover who cannot get around to even posing the question?

And who is “you”? The reader? If so, if we are being invited along on Prufrock’s “quest”, what kind of a quest is it? However, he might well be addressing the object of his affections, the woman, a woman, who never really gets to centre stage in this supposed love song, just as Prufrock can never hope to consummate the relationship.

And if it is a genuine love song, as opposed to a straight parody of one, it should be that the object of any quest would be the winning of a lady’s heart – but how is such a venture ever likely to be successful when the reader considers the opening image:

“When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table”

This is typical of many of Eliot’s uses of figurative language: the image fails to do the job of an image as it would in a normal poem, giving the reader little that they can grab a hold of, but instead merely draws attention to itself and renders the reader’s initial experience of the world as Eliot presents it both disorientating and unnerving. The reader is befuddled from the start, much in the way that the poem’s protagonist is: Eliot has set up the reader, as well as Prufrock, as well as the modern man who he represents, to fail, to get lost, to lose heart and to wander aimlessly through a meaningless universe where all the old certainties have been lost.

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Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells

When the rhyme scheme kicks in and the poem picks up something of a rhythm, the reader feels carried along towards something, but the meaning of the words contradicts this. The speaker’s repetition of “Let us go then” strikes the reader as weak: who is this protagonist who suggests we continue the journey with him rather than marching us along towards some certain point in the future.

To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                            

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

The strength of the rhyming couplet seems to offer us some certainty, suggesting that something has been arrived at or achieved. But the reader will already be suspicious of Prufrock’s achievement of anything, let alone consummating a relationship in any way. And this is merely a suggestion – another “Let us go” – the third – and the indecisiveness of Prufrock will already rankle for the reader. This is also the first occurrence of the phrase “an overwhelming question”, which piques the reader’s curiosity, but for which he is never given any specifics: of course, on the one hand it is the declaration of his interest to the woman who is ostensibly the object of his love, but at the same time it is the essential quandary of modern man: what now? In a world devoid of meaning, how can I achieve anything, progress, move one way or another, measure my advancement or succeed. All the old certainties are gone: the modern world is not a place in which life can be lived meaningfully.

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Completed in 1910 or 1911, but not published until 1915, this poem is a study of the tortured mind of modern man: overeducated, eloquent, neurotic, and emotionally stilted. Compared to the traditional heroes of love poetry, Prufrock is utterly un-heroic; he is grossly indecisive, halfhearted and aimless.

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions

And for a hundred visions and revisions

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

And it is through the use of bathos that Eliot makes it clear to the reader the depth and extent of Prufrock’s essential problem. Sinking from the exalted heights of “murder and create” and the hyper-serious tone of “all the works of days and hands” – we seem for a moment to be back in the glory days of epic poetry and dreadfully meaningful words and actions – to the commonplace of the clichéd “on your plate” or the utterly quotidian “toast and tea” – but that he is “taking” these everyday foodstuffs as opposed to eating them, is further evidence, if it were needed, of the absurdity of Prufrock’s condition: “taking of a toast and tea” is bathetic in itself, even the use of the indefinite article – “a” – is risible: is “toast and tea” to be spoken of in the same manner as “an aperitif” or “a life”, “a final decision” or “a deposition” – it really is an odd use of the indefinite article, and one that causes the reader to suspect a strong shot of bathos.

But there is pathos too: there are moments when we feel real and genuine pity and sympathy for Prufrock and his hopeless plight:

For I have known them all already, known them all;

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, 

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music from a farther room.

  So how should I presume?

Indeed, it is the mixture of bathos and pathos that give this poem its distinctive tone – halfway between dignified and profound on the one hand and farcical and petty on the other.

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One of the most prominent formal characteristics of this poem is the use of refrains. Prufrock’s continual return to the seemingly random refrain:

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

…is both disorientating and mesmerizing for the reader. Who are these women? What are they actually saying? And why are we being told? Is it merely an incidental observation of Prufrock’s, thereby showing how incidental everything else in the poem is, that is, non-essential, or can there be a hidden meaning here? But this is not a poem that gets to the heart of the matter of who is Alfred J Prufrock is; Eliot mocks this notion in Portrait of a Lady, where he satirizes the central idea of Matthew Arnold’s “The Buried Life”, that one’s essence is hidden, and that falling in love comprises uncovering this essence in each other.  What Eliot gives us in this poem is an effort that fails, that was always going to fail, and that must necessarily fail to come to terms with who the protagonist is, and so with who modern man is.

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—

[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—

[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]

…this is modern man in all his glory. In a world where the old certainties have collapsed, and meaning cannot be had, man is reduced to a pathetic shell of his former glory.

His recurring questioning – “how should I presume?”– and negative appraisal – “That is not it, at all” – the frequent lapses into colloquialisms and idiomatic expression show just how unpoetic Prufrock is, and how unpoetic the plight of modern man is. Gone is the age of the hero, the epic and the romance, the modern world is one populated by the most prosaic of characters, the slightly ridiculous and abundantly pathetic Prufrock, who cant gain any purchase at all in the world he finds himself fallen into.

The faintly ridiculous repetition of some of his sayings, such as:

There will be time… And indeed there will be time

…will strike the reader as almost laughable. Prufrock is a figure of fun, but one we empathies with. The strong whiff of absurdity we get from his is the absurdity of the condition of modern man. For a protagonist to repeatedly comment on there being time enough left when his procrastination is terminal is absurd, but also tragic – this is the tragicomic nature of Prufrock and so of the human condition in the modern world.
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And what can be made of inconsequential imagery such as this…

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,        

And seeing that it was a soft October night

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time

For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,

Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;

Of course, this has an effect on the reader and does help to shape our understanding of Prufrock, if only to colour the mood or light in which we see him, surrounded as he is here and elsewhere by a rather bleak urban universe where nothing is quite as it should be, or could be. Here again is imagery which doesn’t do as it should, but by merely drawing attention to itself, foregrounds the essential oddity of the universe in which Prufrock finds himself, and so in which modern man finds himself, a universe from which he is alienated.

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The triviality of contemporary society is an obvious theme, or at least, motif, of the poem, but it is nothing to the social paralysis that is gripping Prufrock, and this is what Eliot wants the reader to take from the poem and apply to themselves. Is Prufrock foolish and pathetic? Yes. But do we empathize with him? Yes, we do. Prufrock is an Everyman; he stands in for modern man, and in some way, Eliot is saying, this is who we have become, at the start of the twentieth century, with the certainties and progress of the Victorian era having petered out and a new brand of nihilism stalking our consciousness.

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Eliot modernizes the form of dramatic monologue by playing games with the implied listener: who if anyone is being addressed? If it is the reader then this is not a dramatic monologue, but if there is an implied listener other than the reader who is it, in what way is Prufrock related to them, and how does he, she or they affect the manner in which Prufrock relates his experiences of the modern world? Does the implied listener make Prufrock unsure of himself? Or wary of seeming arrogant, too self-assured, and vain?

Also, by focusing on Prufrock’s interiority and isolation, the dramatic monologue form is undermined and the reader might well wonder why it has been employed. As with Preludes, the reader is ever really sure what’s going on, or rather what they are meant to think is going on. Is Prufrock addressing anyone at all? Does he actually manage to speak to the object of his affections? Does the implied listener think of Prufrock in the same way we do? The poem could be seen to be an internal debate in the mind of Prufrock between two sides of his personality and it is through this debate the poet throws light on the spiritual degeneracy of the speaker. Either way the primary focus is the development and revelation of the speaker’s character.

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

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

And how should I presume?

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The rhyme scheme of this poem is irregular but not random. While sections of the poem may resemble free verse, in reality, “Prufrock” is a carefully structured amalgamation of poetic forms. The bits and pieces of rhyme become much more apparent when the poem is read aloud. There are fragments of sonnet form, particularly at the poem’s conclusion.

I do not think they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

 We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

The pessimistic, anti-romantic content, coupled with the despairing interjection, “I do not think they (the mermaids) would sing to me,” creates a contrast that comments bitterly on the bleakness of modernity. The plight of Prufrock is anything but romanticized: it is stripped bare, stripped of any possible gloss, and the man is shown for the pathetic failure that he really is. The old poetic notion of unrequited love, of the spurned lover pining away as he walks beneath the grove of sycamore, is nowhere to be seen: Prufrock is revealed as a terribly mundane, weak and shallow middle aged man, a symptom of the modern age.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!

Smoothed by long fingers,

Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,

Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,

I am no prophet–and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid. 

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The obvious reference to Andrew Marvell’s Carpe Diem poem – To His Coy Mistress – “Let us roll all our strength, and all
 / Our sweetness, up into one ball” – a poem concerning the poem’s voice’s attempt to convince the addressee, the coy mistress of the title, to have sex with him before death makes such pleasures impossible – is perhaps the most stinging criticism of Prufock, and thus of modern man – the comparison with Marvell’s 17th Century protagonist who is consumed with passion is not a flattering one: Prufrock is even more of a buffoon and a pathetic figure when compared to the assured manner in which Marvell’s protagonist goes about his business. Why can’t modern man be like Marvell’s lover? What has changed?

And would it have been worth it, after all,

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

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

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say, “That is not what I meant at all.

That is not it, at all.”

The conditional “If one…”, the phrase “bitten off” which strongly implies “more than you can chew”, the quotidian and decidedly unromantic “cups” and “marmalade” and “tea” all work to make the comparison with Marvell’s poem even more laughable. The joke is certainly on Prufrock and the terribly reduced and hollowed out “modern man”. The double retraction “not what I meant, that is not it” which shows Prufrock might have gone too far even still, the final definite “at all”, put the nail in the coffin of Prufrock’s volition: he can do nothing: modern man can do nothing. But why, Eliot is asking, must this be the case?

…and again…

Would it have been worth while

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,

And turning toward the window, should say:

“That is not it at all,

That is not what I meant, at all.”                                          

Though Eliot is not at all suggesting that there is a way around this plight: in a meaningless world all meaningful action is impossible. In a world robbed of the strictures of religion, tradition, and ledged, there is nothing left against which we can measure ourselves.

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The poem’s use of fragmentation and juxtaposition is what defines it, and is what defines much of Eliot’s early work up to and including The Waste Land. It is disorientating – which Eliot’s style is designed to do, but it also holds the key to Eliot’s perception of the modern world. Eliot writes in The Waste Land of “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” and “Son of man… you know only a heap of broken images” – so in Prufrock Eliot is working with all that he can get – the few bots of literature that have survived from the old world, but they no longer work the magic of old. The world has changed and whilst he can still reach back to the likes of Marvell and his Carpe Diem and his old-world certainties, they either ring hollow now, or they show up the depths into which we have since sank.

Prufrock asks..

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

…and the reader sees the irony in the poet’s use of these words – it is almost that Prufrock is a mock-heroic hero: we cannot take him seriously when he utters such a pretentious mouthful as this, that is, if he is taking himself seriously, which cannot be taken for granted. The following lines underscore the hopelessness of Prufrock’s suit.

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. 

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Eliot uses techniques like pastiche and juxtaposition to make his points without having to argue them explicitly. He throws things together that have no place side by side and so forces the reader to make a connection.

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

 I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

 …what, we may well ask, is the connection between the two quite disparate images? The answer to the question might well be the black hole that is always about to swallow us up.

 Though making something beautiful out of the refuse of modern life, as a crab sustains and nourishes itself on garbage, may, in fact, be another point Eliot is making here. This notion subverts romantic ideals about art: that an artist or poet creates as though from the void, that there is some variety of mystical inspiration that visits the poet. Eliot is a modern poet, he acknowledges that his poetry is made out of the fragments of poets past; his poetry is deeply concerned with these fragments, and its art and its meaning is to be found in the manner in which they have been arranged.

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But Eliot is also adept at manipulating rhythm to make his point, to suggest an interpretation, to alter or create a specific tone, or even to undermine what he is ostensibly saying

 And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen

…the rhythm of the poem seems to be broken in many places, and where it is generated in but one or two lines, such as  “And would it have been worth it, after all, / Would it have been worth while” – the next line tears it away, and with the rhythm goes the tone that was getting almost hopeful. It is the subtle changes in the poem’s music that tell us the most about how e are to take any particular line. In so far as the line “the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets” punctures the rhythm and tone created in the previous two lines it is to be read as an intrusion of reality onto the slowly bubbling romanticism that Eliot has brewing. And what an intrusion; what does the modern world have to offer but “the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets” – the first item having romantic potential, the second none, and the final item giving us nothing but a dusty city street in need of sustenance.

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Whatever flashes we do get of the object of Prufrock’s desire, they are such broken fragments that we cannot get any kind of handle on the matter at all. And it is the uncertainty and indecisiveness which emasculates Prufrock which shines through and which becomes the poem’s subject, rather than whatever love he might feel, the nature of which has not been more than touched upon: her bare arms… downed with light brown hair.” That is all she is to the reader, so we leave the poem with little idea of the poem’s supposed reason for being, and are left instead with Prufrock’s incessant doubts.

And I have known the arms already, known them all—

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare

[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]

Is it perfume from a dress

That makes me so digress?

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.

And should I then presume?

And how should I begin?

 And then the rhythm changes, as it continually does throughout the poem, swinging into lyrical moments that bear little analysis as such when the meaning of the words is arrived at. The rhyming couplets mark the moments where the poem breaks out into a certain rhythm, but it doesn’t carry the reader far; where the next rhyming couplet is expected the reader’s hopes are dashed – the word “advise” reverses the stress pattern of the following line, but ending only on a strong assonance and alliteration, as opposed to a half or full rhyme, a little twist that will prepare the reader for the first word of the next line, a dissonant monster of a word – “deferential” – on which the rhythm wholly founders, and then the rhythms of natural speech kick in as the rather shabby sentiments of casual conversation replace the hope of a noble outcome, much as Eliot uses bathos elsewhere in the poem to puncture the grand sentiments that almost form.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool. 

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But in the end Prufrock is the modern man: solitary, neurasthenic, overly intellectual, and utterly incapable of expressing himself to the outside world. The poem sinks to the most unpoetic depths, the

 I grow old . . . I grow old . .

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

 Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

 So where have we ended up? Is Eliot saying that modern man is a pathetic man in the manner of Prufrock? In a way. Prufrock’s situation, or at least what we can make out of it, is analogous to the situation of man in the modern world of 1910. Prufrock’s indecisiveness, procrastination and foolishness, as well as his severe self-doubt and pitiable shyness, are not those of modern man, but symbolic of the condition in which he finds himself: unable to rise above the level of Prufrock because the old world has collapsed, leaving nothing which can lend our lives meaning.

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How does T S Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” work?


AMONG the smoke and fog of a December afternoon           

You have the scene arrange itself——as it will seem to do—           

With “I have saved this afternoon for you”

The opening line of the poem seems to be setting a scene in typical poetic fashion; the assonance that runs through it – the series of short and long “o” sounds – guides the reader into a soft and gentle rhythm which is building up to something already. It is a rather bleak scene that is just beginning to be sketched out, but we will get no more of it. All that the opening line seems to manage, if not give the reader a clear picture of the scene, is to set up an expectation of a poetic, possibly profound, portrait of a lady, and to establish a rather bleak atmosphere which is typical of Eliot’s early poetry. Then the reader stumbles across the second person pronoun that begins the second line and finds themselves either addressed or dropped into the middle of a dramatic monologue; but the meaning of the opening half of this line makes it clear that it is most likely not the reader who is being addressed: how could the reader have “the scene arrange itself”, unless they have taken the opening line and read into it a great deal which is not really there. And then the parenthetic clause “as it will seem to do” further punctures the poetic and lofty tone of the opening line as the reader finds himself overhearing a conversation; the intrusion of the poem’s voice in such a colloquial manner changes the tone as well as the direction of the poem, it’s a rather dismissive comment, qualifying what he has just said as though it was of no matter, or not even worthy of comment, though he has just included it in this poem. The following quotation shows us that we are now fully into a dramatic dialogue rather than monologue, with two speakers. But the quotation is being treated with more than a little irony: how could such an utterance have “arrange a scene”? Is the poem’s voice, that of a young man we later find out, implying that the other speaker, the lady of the title we might suppose, is playing games with him, or attempting to do so, and is manipulating him as much as she can, placing him as though she were pulling all the strings. If that is what she thinks, it is clear that the other speaker thinks otherwise. This poem will be, the reader now knows, about their contrasting perspectives on each other and the relationship between them. And if the speaker is meant to feel special by having such an afternoon “saved” for him, he appears anything but; his cynicism is already in play. It is also interesting what the speaker thinks about who is controlling the scene: she thinks she is, with her carefully chosen words and artfully expressed sentiments, trying to make him feel special, but in the phrase “as it will seem to do” it appears that the speaker attributes control not to her but to simply the way things happen. This is how things seem to turn out, how scenes arrange themselves, rather than are arranged by anyone in particular, or by those who think they are arranging them.

atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb

And four wax candles in the darkened room,           

Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,

An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb           

Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid.

The rhyming of “tomb” and “room” is so strong as to be almost harsh for the reader’s sensibilities: what is being flagged up here by the poet? There is also the word ending the first line – “afternoon” – still ringing in the reader’s ears: is Eliot setting up a rhythm for a particular reason? But the rhythm is unsteady at best, and never manages to assert itself with any force, certainly not enough to carry the reader along, as the opening two lines run on so long, and the succeeding lines vary in length too, never keeping a steady ten syllables, but running over the next line or falling short the line after: but the alternating rhythm scheme asserts a kind of rhythm, from which it would seem that we are being presented with something romantic and emotional. Or is he giving to a decidedly un-lyrical scene a lyrical gloss: because the reader will be unsure in these opening lines as to what Eliot’s tone is exactly. The conversational and dismissive “as it will seem to do” hints at an ironic distance between the poem’s voice and the scene described, such that this scene really doesn’t have anything like “an atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb”. Indeed, it seems to be an overblown comparison, and if the young man doesn’t think it applies, then who does? The lady of the title? So is she already being set up as the object of his ridicule? The “four wax candles”, “the darkened room”, “four rings of light” all seem to be setting up a somber atmosphere where important things will happen, or be said. But the reference to “Juliet’s tomb” punctures this atmosphere because it overreaches. The “unsaid” of the overlong seventh line, stands out awkwardly as well, especially on following on from the shortened one directly before it, making the what follows on from the word “said” where the line could finish and still carry the rhyme, feel tagged on, as though it were another throwaway comment of the speaker’s, or as though these are comments which he mutters behind his hand, sarcastic asides meant for the reader only, leaving the Lady of the title exposed to ridicule, left holding onto her overblown and romantic words as a rather pathetic and laughable figure. But has the young man gone too far? Can he retain the sympathy of the reader?


We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole           

Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and finger-tips.           

“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul                   

Should be resurrected only among friends           

Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom           

That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.”

Again, the conversational aside of “let us say” puts the reader on their guard: why is the poem’s speaker qualifying what he is saying in this way? And why is he referring to himself in the first-person plural? Is this his own affectation? Or is he mimicking those of the lady? What he next says is so patently ridiculous – talking of transmitting music “through his hair and finger tips” – that the reader must now be aware that he is speaking tongue-in-cheek, most probably parodying the affected and pretentious manner in which the lady speaks of the concert, a sample of which we are next given, four lines which achieve the kind of lyrical rhythm which the poem’s main speaker undermines, both his cynicism and with the overly-long and conversational lines that he employs. Where the lady apes the romantic lyricism she aspires to and sees herself being a part of, the young man mocks it by breaking the rhythm with his own lines which are casual and arrhythmic, with the three syllables of “finger-tips” hanging off the end of the second line most precariously.


—And so the conversation slips           

Among velleities and carefully caught regrets

Through attenuated tones of violins           

Mingled with remote cornets           

And begins.

And once out of the steady rhythm of the lady’s pretentious musings on music and who should and could possibly appreciate it, the male speaker carries on as carelessly as he is wont to, with a casual “and so”, as though he cares little for what he himself is saying, let alone the choice nuggets that the lady comes out with. The strong rhyme scheme that he falls into is destroyed by the fact that the lines refuse to form any other pattern in terms of length or rhythm, though as they get smaller the line endings become more prominent, such that the final rhyme arrives at a prominence which sets up what follows as though it will be if infinite importance, words whose truth will be utterly profound. But, of course, by this point we know he is not sincere. Also the meaning of “velleities” – “a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action” carries a lot of weight if we consider how this poem is progressing so far: whose wishes or inclinations are not sufficiently strong? It would seem that the young man means to criticize the lady and her carefully chosen words and softly expressed sentiments; but surely it is his wishes or inclinations that are weak, and we might think by the end of the poem, entirely lacking – is this the Prufrockian figure recreated, who not only doesn’t get what he wants, but doesn’t know what he wants, indeed, cannot know what he wants, because such is the world that he lives in, and such is the universe as drawn by Eliot: we are all in this young man’s situation, obliged to play along in a game you want no part of and feel utterly alienated from: such, Eliot is saying, is life.


“You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends,           

And how, how rare and strange it is, to find           

In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,           

(For indeed I do not love it … you knew? you are not blind!           

How keen you are!)           

To find a friend who has these qualities,           

Who has, and gives           

Those qualities upon which friendship lives.           

How much it means that I say this to you—           

Without these friendships—life, what cauchemar!”

The run-on lines in this excerpt from the lady’s speech more than hint at the passion she feels, a passion wholly absent from the voice of the young man. The run-on line at “find…” and “gives” are so strong, coming as they do right in the middle of a syntactical unit, that the reader is fully caught up and dragged along in the feeling that also carries the lady. But to end on the word “cauchemar” reminds us of the lady’s pretentiousness, and the sardonic stance of the voice that frames her words is palpable, blatantly setting up what follows as mocking, cynical and almost cruel: does Eliot want this young man to retain our sympathies? Given its own line, the words “how keen you are” must make the reader feel distinctly uncomfortable, the heartfelt and sincere words of the lady so horribly mismatched to the manner in which they are taken, glibly mocked and dismissed by this young man.


Capricious monotone

Among the windings of the violins           

And the ariettes           

Of cracked cornets           

Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins           

Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,           

Capricious monotone

The strong rhyme which sets up “capricious monotone” draws further attention to this ridiculous phrase. As well being a short line its internal rhythms positively ring out – the series of long o-sounds in the second long word are set up by one in the first, such that the line has a strong staccato rhythm which strikes the reader as dissonant, if not harsh, when compared to the soft, though careless rhythms of the conversational patter which precedes it. but such a brash and comedy rhythm has already been raised by the inclusion of the hyphenated word “tom-tom”, which will always have a whiff of the ridiculous about it, and coming where it does, in this young man’s spiel, yet another swipe at what he sees as the lady’s pretensions, those to do with refined music or those to do with refined sentiments. There is nothing refined about tom-toms or “capricious monotones”.

a tobacco trance

That is at least one definite “false note.”

—Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance,           

Admire the monuments,           

Discuss the late events,           

Correct our watches by the public clocks.           

Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks.

That the phrase “false note” is in quotation marks not only makes it stand out, but marks it out as one of the lady’s pretentious phrases or as a parody of such, either way the young man is using her words against her more directly now, holding them up for open ridicule, and holding her up for ridicule too: what she referred to a false note, it is implied, certainly wasn’t, what has a false note is that what she said, that has the definite false note: her words ring hollow, are meaningless, and she does not have a grasp of the situation at all. The strong rhymes that follow are to harsh to be taken seriously: the young man is mocking her supposedly romantic and refined sensibilities. For him she is an absurd figure, but what does that make him, who feels he must play along with this absurd scene: have we again arrived at a pretty damning judgment by Eliot on the human condition circa 1910?

Rhapsody on a Windy Night

Charting the form of T S Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night

With an odd collection of faltering rhythms and faint dissonances Eliot sets up a disquieting vision of the modern world. Nothing sits well or follows neatly.


TWELVE o’clock.

Along the reaches of the street 

Held in a lunar synthesis,

Whispering lunar incantations 

Dissolve the floors of memory

And all its clear relations 

Its divisions and precisions.

Why does a random end-stopped line begin the poem?

Why does Eliot have the first line clearly signify anything? Noon or midnight?

What tone is established by the decidedly unpoetic opening line?

Why does Eliot use the definite article, as in “the street”, rather than the indefinite article, as in “a street”?

Apart from mention of  “the street” why does Eliot only give us only abstractions that the reader can’t really grab hold of?

Who or what is doing the holding, as in “held in a lunar synthesis”, or the “Whispering”, or the dissolving, as in “Dissolve the floor of memories”? Why does Eliot hide or deny any agent or agency?

What is the effect of a lack of character or person in the opening of the poem?

What could be meant by “lunar incantations” or “the floors of memory” if anything?

Why does Eliot’s use such unfathomable images?

What is the effect of the series of internal and end of line rhymes “incantations”, “relations”, “divisions”, “precisions”?

Does Eliot manage to establish a dominant tone in the opening of the poem? Does he want to?

To what “divisions and precisions” is the poem referring?

The repetition of the word “lunar” might well establish an atmosphere for the reader: what is it?

How does Eliot make this such a peculiar start to a poem?

How are the reader’s expectations shaped by Eliot?

Does the rhyme that the poem eventually stumbles across appreciably affect the rhythm? The tone?

dead geranium

Every street lamp that I pass 

Beats like a fatalistic drum,

And through the spaces of the dark

Midnight shakes the memory 

As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

How might the sudden appearance of the first person affect the reader?

The image of a street lamp beating “like a fatalistic drum” is an odd one? How can the reader make sense of it?

Though we have finally been introduced to a person who has some agency, in that he passes – “I pass” – is this agent asserted strongly against the midnight, which “shakes the memory” or the street lamp that “beats like a fatalistic drum”?

What of the sudden appearance of “a madman”?

Might the appearance of “the madman” create a story or scene that was becoming too coherent or tangible for Eliot’s purposes?

What is the effect of the almost ridiculously strong rhyme of “drum” and “geranium”?

If the “geranium” could be seen as a most unpoetic of flowers – if only because of its comical sound – why does Eliot use it? Why not a rose, a lily, or a daisy?

The image of “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium” is one of Eliot’s most outlandish and difficult, if not impossible to process: what is he trying to do with it then?

How is the reader to feel by the end of the first stanza?

the light of the door

Half-past one,

The street lamp sputtered,

The street lamp muttered,

The street lamp said, “Regard that woman 

Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door

Which opens on her like a grin.

Why does Eliot persist with the precise references to time, which once more begin a stanza?

What is the effect of the repetition of “The street lamp” at the opening of three succeeding lines?

Once more Eliot gives inanimate objects agency – the street lamp sputters, mutters and then says. Does this do anything other than render the world of the poem strange and alien?

With the imperative “Regard” the poem introduces the second person, which it then labels with the second person pronoun on the following line: why does Eliot drop the second person in now? can this second person be anyone other than the reader?

Why does Eliot choose to give voice to the street lamp as opposed to any other character who the reader might seek to ascribe characteristics, feel familiar with, and even identify with?

Now that something seems to be happening – “that woman / Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door” – will the reader get caught up in a narrative and involved with the poem’s strange world?

However, instead of “you” or “that woman” doing anything now, it is the door – “Which opens on her like a grin” – what of “that woman” and “you”? are they incapable of meaningful action?

The malevolence which is manifest in the final line seems to come out of nowhere: what is the modern world of Eliot’s imagining?


You see the border of her dress 

Is torn and stained with sand,

And you see the corner of her eye 

Twists like a crooked pin.”

How might the reader be struck by the realization that it is the street lamp telling them what it is they see and what they are to make of it?

We are getting more concrete images now – “the border of her dress / Is torn and stained with sand” – does Eliot succeed in getting the reader to picture a particular scene?

Why does Eliot begin the third line with the seemingly redundant conjunction: “and”? Why ruin any rhythm that the poem begins to build up here? And why give the reader the false impression that they are being told a coherent story?

The final image is striking – but just what is the effect on the reader of being presented with such an image compared to what’s gone before?

If the final image is the most effective, what does this say about Eliot’s view of modern man and the conditions in which he exists?

Considering the poets lexical choice here – “torn”, “twisted”, “stained” – and elsewhere, what could you imagine his purpose is?

What might this random woman, who is poorly drawn and only dimly imagined, symbolize in Eliot’s view of the world and man’s place in it?

twisted branch upon the beach Eaten smooth, and polished

The memory throws up high and dry 

A crowd of twisted things;

A twisted branch upon the beach

Eaten smooth, and polished 

As if the world gave up 

The secret of its skeleton,

Stiff and white.

The recurrence of the word “twists” / “twisted” must strike a certain resonance for the reader. What is the exact effect Eliot is hoping to produce?

The memory reappears here, once we have fallen back outside of what is ascribed to the street lamp’s voice: is this poem about the memory? If so, what is Eliot saying about this theme?

The idiomatic “high and dry” seems out of place in such a poem; why does Eliot lapse into such a pointedly conversational tone at this point? Is he undermining a previously established tone?

Most of these lines are weak run-on lines, except for “As if the world gave up” – which is quite a strong run-on line; what is the effect of this on the poem’s rhythm? And how does this enhance or detract from the meaning?

There is quite a strong and graphic image of a skeleton carefully constructed in these lines, until the skeleton itself is mentioned towards the end: why is Eliot drawing the reader’s attention so strongly to this image? Is the skeleton to serve as a symbol? If so, what for?

Again it is abstract concepts or inanimate objects that act: the “memory” “throws up”, or the sea eats, polishes, and gives up secrets; where is our protagonist? Where is man?

rusty spring3

A broken spring in a factory yard,

Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left 

Hard and curled and ready to snap.

This whole stanza lacks a person – first, second or third –any kind of human protagonist at all: what does this tell us about what Eliot is trying to do in this stanza?

By presenting the reader here with a random scene of urban decay, what is Eliot trying to achieve? Is it the arbitrariness of the collection of images that strikes the reader, or the images themselves, each in turn?

cat in gutter

Half-past two,

The street-lamp said,

“Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter,

Slips out its tongue 

And devours a morsel of rancid butter.”

The specificity of the time is continued as though it was a motif, has its significance changed for the reader?

Is Eliot attempting to make a character, or distinct voice, out of the street lamp? If not, why does he continue to attribute speech to it? What could be the possible purpose?

We are given yet another strong and fairly malevolent image; does the very strong, almost harsh, rhyme of “gutter” and “butter” serve the image or undermine it? Is this an example of bathos on Eliot’s part? If so, why? Why at this point in the poem? Why with this particular image?

The imperative “Remark” implicitly brings back into play the second person who has already appeared in the poem – how does this affect the poem’s development?


So the hand of the child, automatic,

Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay.

I could see nothing behind that child’s eye.

I have seen eyes in the street 

Trying to peer through lighted shutters,

And a crab one afternoon in a pool, 

An old crab with barnacles on his back,

Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.

How does this reversion to the first person strike the reader?

How might the reader account for this profusion of pretty stark images?

Has Eliot’s accumulation of random images amounted to anything definite yet, or just a general feeling of loneliness, meaninglessness, and alienation?

Is it too much to consider the crab gripping “the end of a stick which I held him” as some kind of symbol for modern man’s condition?

And what of the recurring motif of the eye? An “eye” is referred to twice here, and the word “peer” is used: in this poem who is looking and who is looked at? And how might that tie in with Eliot’s themes?

evil moon

Half-past three,

The lamp sputtered,

The lamp muttered in the dark.

The lamp hummed:

“Regard the moon,

La lune ne garde aucune rancune,

She winks a feeble eye,

She smiles into corners.

She smooths the hair of the grass.

The moon has lost her memory.

Time moves relentlessly on: how is this significant for Eliot’s overall meaning?

The repetition of “The lamp” and each time followed by a dynamic verb in the past tense is a very strong pattern: how does it affect the poem’s tone?

If the street lamp addressing us isn’t unnerving, what of the moon, referred to as “she”, winking, smiling, and smoothing “the hair of the grass”?

Again memory is invoked, how is this instance different to what has gone before, and what might Eliot be saying about memory as a theme?

The absence of a human person is made up for here by the use of the third person to refer to the moon: what is this world that Eliot imagines for us?

“The moon harbors no ill-feelings” – why would it? Why should it? And what of the person, the “I” or the “You” or even the odd appearance of a human third person? Where is the protagonist? Where is the poet? Where is the poem’s voice?


A washed-out smallpox cracks her face,

Her hand twists a paper rose,

That smells of dust and old Cologne,

She is alone 

With all the old nocturnal smells

That cross and cross across her brain.

She? Has the poet lapsed into considering a particular woman? Might the reader be expected to think so? Or is it still the moon that the poet is anthropomorphizing?

Has the poem approached the sad and tragic nature of our existence, as explored by a great deal of poetry, but from an odd angle?

The inescapable sound pattern of  “cross and cross across her brain” seems to almost assault the reader, to what end?

old cocktail bar

The reminiscence comes 

Of sunless dry geraniums 

And dust in crevices,

Smells of chestnuts in the streets,

And female smells in shuttered rooms,

And cigarettes in corridors 

And cocktail smells in bars.”

Are we being rescued by memory? Or does memory fail to provide even the most rudimentary of consolations?

Falling back into cold description, is Eliot making the poem less personal here? More cold and bleak?

The geraniums are back. What of it?

The strong rhyme once more, this time with geraniums might be a hint of mockery, but what is being mocked? The poet’s efforts themselves? Is even poetry to be seen as futile?

Is this futility?

bed is open

The lamp said,

“Four o’clock,

Here is the number on the door.


You have the key,

The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair,


The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,

Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.”

Is this what we have been building up to? A pathetic scene of a loveless and hollow sexual relationship?

The anonymity of “Here is the number on the door” seems to hint at a casual sexual encounter: is this to stand for the deterioration of the human condition?

The image of “the tooth-brush hangs on the wall” cannot but be terribly sad and pathetic. But how has Eliot done this to us? We don’t, can’t know where we are, but have we ended up at the emptiness at the heart of modern society?

If the poem has been building up to this point, then how have we been prepared for it?

“Memory!” Are we to take it that memory yet again proves useless – have we nothing meaningful to remember as well as nothing meaningful to participate in?

How are we to validate our existence in a world full of such meaningless encounters as that which is being sketched here? Is this Eliot’s point?

“Mount.” How are we to take this bald imperative?

Are we being commanded to confront the meaninglessness of our existence in this modern world?

The utter lack of rhythm to end the poem seems to hint at even the gloss of previous passages being lost; is this the unvarnished truth which we are being presented?

sad hotel corridor

The last twist of the knife.

This final line, with the internal rhyme of “last” and “twist” seems to offer some kind of conclusion or resolution or explanation. But does it?

If what we had just previously been presented with, the scene of the numbered door in a cheap hotel and a tooth brush on the wall, is to be considered as “the last twist of the knife”, then what does that imply about the poet’s intentions?

And so, how are we meant to take the rest of the poem’s accumulation of images? Have they all been adding up to this?

Preludes – Eliot ropes us into his bleak vision.

winter evening settles down

The winter evening settles down           

With smell of steaks in passageways.           

Six o’clock.           

The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

The specificity of “Six o’clock” seems at odds with the opening line’s time frame of a “winter evening”, and it is at odds with the poetic register that has been established. But this register, this poetic language and style, is also challenged by the imagery in the second line, which is squalid and mean rather than being in any way poetic. That the third line is so short and with a blunt end-stop, also ruins the rhythm the poem has so far managed to establish, but setting up the following line to do something particular, but all it does is lapse back into the same rhythm and poetic diction: it is an elaborate image, poetic though somber, clearly establishing the rather bleak atmosphere of the poem, and the resigned tone of the poetic voice. This is Eliot’s portrait of modern city life: desultory, fragmented, and disconnected, where there is no overall meaning binding things together, not the different aspects of the scene, and not binding the poem’s voice to the things it half-heartedly describes.


And now a gusty shower wraps

The grimy scraps           

Of withered leaves about your feet           

And newspapers from vacant lots;           

The showers beat           

On broken blinds and chimney-pots,

And at the corner of the street           

A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.           

And then the lighting of the lamps.

Desultory is a really fitting word for this poem: it lacks purpose and enthusiasm, going from one subject to another in a half-hearted way, much as Eliot thought of modern life: a series of random events bound together by no meaningful thread. This is Eliot’s poetic style and tone reflecting theme. The images are randomly put down one after another, introduced in a conversational way “And now…” or set down as bland declaratives “The showers beat / on broken blinds and chimney-pots”, with little or no connection with the image that precedes or succeeds it. The “and” which starts off one line makes the reader realize the lack of continuity, because it seems to cling onto nothing that went before it, not developing a point or image, but simply tagged on for no apparent reason.

But it is the introduction, in the midst of all these images, of the second person pronoun in “about your feet” which will strike the reader as odd, because the person isn’t placed at all by Eliot, and seems just dropped into the scene unannounced, reinforcing the desultory manner in which the poem proceeds. This makes the poem disorientating for the reader, much as life, viewed by Eliot is disorientating, without a guiding light, informing principle, or evident direction. The “And then” which seems to connect the final line of this section with what goes before it again reinforces its very disconnectedness, as well as setting us up for something to actually happen, and all the reader is given is “the lighting of the lamps”, which is neither here nor there, certainly of little import, though it might appear, on the surface to have: is something being illuminated? No, because immediately the scene changes in the next stanza, the next morning, so the illumination is to no effect whatsoever.

Of course, we could consider the fragments we are given as well as the manner in which we are given them – that is the structure of the poem, which amounts to little more than the random juxtaposition of images – “vacant lots”, “grimy scraps”, “broken blinds”, “lonely cab horses” – what does it all add up to? A pretty bleak vision of modern city life.

early coffee-stands

The morning comes to consciousness           

Of faint stale smells of beer

From the sawdust-trampled street           

With all its muddy feet that press           

To early coffee-stands.

The opening line is more than faintly disturbing; it is perhaps the insinuation of a weak measure of personification that renders the line so. But the image brings to mind nothing like the dawn of a new day. This may well be one of Eliot’s images that pointedly don’t work, which fail to create any image for the reader, nor any effect other than a vague disquiet that haunts the poem, haunts the reader’s experience of it, and haunts Eliot’s view of the human condition. But in this instance the scene is more fully set: a morning in the modern city. Each line turns out to be a run on line, but these are so weak that they don’t drag the reader on at any speed, and the rhythm, such as it is, is barely disturbed. This is because the grammatical unit could well end at each line end, but it is only on reading the next line do we realise how it was incomplete. Should the second line have ended on “from” which begins the third line, then the run on line would have been strongly asserted and it would have carried the line and the rhythm with it. But Eliot is interested here in nothing other than glumly plodding though a bleak and meaningless scene. There is nothing to get the passions going. And the only object of the faintest line of progress that runs through this section is the “early coffee-stands”, hardly a place where meaning or significance is found, let alone stumbled upon. But there is no person here making this move, the only agent is the morning itself, who arrives at these “early coffee-stands”, which again is faintly disquieting, extending the sense of unease the reader will be feeling.


With the other masquerades           

That time resumes,

One thinks of all the hands           

That are raising dingy shades           

In a thousand furnished rooms.

Here it is time that is personified, which may add another subtle layer of alienation for the reader: “time resumes”, though what it resumes is anyone’s guess – again another loose thread for the reader to contend with. And what are these “masquerades”? Is what we have been shown thus far, even though it was so meager and unfulfilling for the reader, now to be seen as false? And how is “time” the active agent of those scenes? If so, is the human so utterly devoid of agency that it has been subsumed by time, and its masquerades? But then another person is introduced – “one” – which, following on from the rather weak appearance of an unspecified “you”, will only serve to further disorientate the reader. And this one – be it the implied reader or an implied other – seems to be ordered to think, or it is assumed that they must think, of a seemingly random notion of “all the hands” (not the people), not merely “raising dingy shades”, but “That are” so, in “a thousand furnished rooms”: which is a picture of the city scene no longer on a human scale, but burgeoning with anonymity, which may itself be the root cause of the inherent estrangement of the person finding himself making his way in it. It is interesting that the hands are doing the raising rather than any people because this enables Eliot to keep any certain, concrete human presence out of the poem (also facilitated by the constant and random change of person), which would serve to render it a little less cold and empty, but also because it denies the possibility of a human agent doing something, or capable of doing something or even of affecting the scene: hands raise dingy shades, not real people. People suffer this modern world, they don’t create it, act in it, or even affect it.

thousand sordid images

You tossed a blanket from the bed,           

You lay upon your back, and waited;           

You dozed, and watched the night revealing           

The thousand sordid images           

Of which your soul was constituted;

And then the sudden appearance of the second person pronoun – You –blasted from the opening of each of succeeding line – will further disorientate the reader. It is now the reader who is being told in no uncertain terms what it was they did, how they too are very definitely implicated in this squalid scene, lying supine (face upward) and so vulnerable, weak – “dozed” – and impassive – “waited” and “watched”. Because it is the night now who is the active agent – the night is doing the “revealing” – not you, or any other character real or imaginary. The personification again serves to add another layer of incongruity and disenchantment, it renders strange what should not be strange – here the revealing, or seeing of images, previously the rising of the sun. And then the strong run-on line which carries on the line ending with “revealing” injects a note of passion which has been so far lacking in the poem – but what passion? It would seem to be anger or bitterness. And this is reinforced by the meaning of the lines.  The dissatisfaction, which has been palpable in the poem so far, now becomes something more strongly felt. The appearance of the word “soul” seems to bring us back to a poetic register – poems should concern themselves with such words – but juxtaposing it with “constituted” makes the appearance of the word strange: one would not normally talk of a soul as being constituted of anything or anyhow, it’s a solid and workaday word more to do with base matter than anything lyrical such as the soul. Is Eliot here saying that the notion of the soul is just as tawdry and decrepit as the scene we are almost prompted to picture. The “thousand sordid images” is something which recurs throughout Eliot: human existence has fragmented, collapsing into a thousand images, though in this case they are “sordid” which adds to the bitterness in the poem at this point. But again the central Eliot theme – that life has no informing principle, guiding light, or meaningful thread running through it – is presented to us as a fait-accompli.


They flickered against the ceiling.           

And when all the world came back

And the light crept up between the shutters,           

And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,           

You had such a vision of the street           

As the street hardly understands;

By now the reader is so thoroughly disorientated that the erratically applied personification, or pathetic fallacy – images “flickering”, the world “coming back”, light “crept”, the street “hardly understands” – merely reinforces the sense of despondency which the poem has always sought to establish. But when we are told that “You had such a vision” it seems for a moment that someone – though in this case an unidentified second person – might actually achieve something, or at least do something, be an agent rather than be subject to the meaningless contortions of this world we find ourselves in. But all this second person has a vision of is “the street”, and it is such a poor vision, despite the many images already supplied to us by the poem thus far of such a likely scene, that the street itself “hardly understands”. Again, Eliot is employing imagery which stretches the ability of the reader to make sense of, and thereby making the reader even more disenchanted with the matter or subject of the poem: this modern life stripped bare of culture, myth, significance and meaning. The strong rhyming couplet of “shutters” and “gutters” is such an odd pairing, and lends the poem such an unlikely spurt of rhythm at this point; it makes the reader wonder how the poem could be taking off anywhere at all. And indeed, such a promise is disappointed. The rhythm so soon created almost as soon peters out. And we’re left sunk in a failure to come to terms with this modern world once again.

1967-158Sitting along the bed’s edge, where

You curled the papers from your hair,           

Or clasped the yellow soles of feet           

In the palms of both soiled hands.

And then to be placed so fully into a scene to have that scene be so bleak and hopeless, as this scene seems to be. But it does seem that the second person, whomever it might be, is now firmly established as an agent within the world or narrative of the poem, though an agent who can but clasp “the yellow soles of feet / In the palms of both soiled hands” doesn’t hold out much promise, and serves merely to further entrench the poem’s gloom and despair. The solid details of the “bed’s edge” and the “curled.. papers from your hair” lend the scene a solidity which hadn’t until this point been asserted, so we finally have an image which we can imagine, but what an image it is. The strong rhyme of “where” and “hair” lend the poem at this point, despite the disruption of the strong run-on line, a rhythm which might underscore a more poetic and lyrical tone, but the image contrasts with this strongly, making this yet another discordant note in a series of such notes which make up the poem.

soul stretched tight across the skies

His soul stretched tight across the skies           

That fade behind a city block,

Or trampled by insistent feet           

At four and five and six o’clock;

And now we have some third person “His”, who might be anybody at all, continuing the disorientating effect of random switches of person. The metaphor of a “soul stretched tight across the skies” is similarly disorientating, raising an unanswerable question: what could it possibly mean? Another of Eliot’s imponderables, a figurative devices that draws attention to itself but serves no obvious purpose; but the words must affect the tone of the poem, making it more melancholy, as well as raising the tension slightly, adding to the ominous effect of so many other vaguely gloomy and downbeat words and phrases. This is again the poetic diction which the poem plays with but never fully settles on, falling into conversational language or non-poetic expressions such as “four and five and six o’clock”, which, forming an strong but alternate rhyme, seems to mock what is poetic and lyrical rather than reinforce it. so the effect is slightly bathetic, with the result that the serious poetic tone, which manages to be somber and grand, is punctured by the final line with its happy rhyme, thereby rendering what has gone before it as overblown and pretentious. Its as though the “he” of the poem, managing to feel sorry for himself, feeling his plight as at once sad and heroic, is shown up for a fool and laughed at. We are not, Eliot is seems to be saying, even entitled to think ourselves tragic: we are petty and miserable and merely sad.

preludes 2

And short square fingers stuffing pipes,           

And evening newspapers, and eyes           

Assured of certain certainties,           

The conscience of a blackened street           

Impatient to assume the world.

The image of the “short square fingers stuffing pipes” seems to come out of nowhere, not being in accordance with any of the images we have so far been presented with, at least those that we could make sense of. And the quotidian detail of the “evening newspapers” further detracts from anything poetic and beautiful that might have been constructed previously. But against the utter ordinariness of the everyday details of life, Eliot throws another startling image at us, set up by the effective caesura after newspapers, and the very strong run-on line, and then the odd half rhyme of “eyes” and “certainties”, the effect is that we feel once more cast into the horror which the poem has so far skirted around. But then, what does this figurative flourish even mean? Nothing that untoward anyway. Again, we are treated to the unsettling effect of a peculiarly applied pathetic fallacy in the “conscience of a blackened street”, which is “Impatient to assume the world” and we back where we began, lost amongst Eliot’s threatening images which never quite mean anything, but always threaten something terrible. This is the vague but alarming disquiet that modern man is lumbered with. We are lost and always about to stumble across something terrible. This is an awfully bleak view of modern man.the notion of

I am moved by fancies that are curled           

Around these images, and cling:           

The notion of some infinitely gentle

Infinitely suffering thing.

Another person, this time the first appearance of a first person, but at least he is “moved”, but only by fancies which themselves are “curled around these images” and which “cling” – another unnerving application of the pathetic fallacy. The next two lines, which end on an ominous rhyme of “thing” and “cling”, a rhyme that is particularly harsh, as much as it is troubling, introduce an idea which never clearly forms in the reader’s mind, but which might well serve to sum up the whole poem and Eliot’s overall vision as performed for us here. The repetition of “infinitely” suggests the pain of working these things out as much as any pain there might be in the existence which the poem is describing – that pain inherent in our existence.

Gathering fuel in vacant lots

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;           

The worlds revolve like ancient women           

Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

The final lines, which rob the poem of any rhythm as well as cohesion of meaning, leave us bereft: yet another image, this time quite a concrete one, is dropped on us as though from nowhere. Another spin of the second person so that we are given a final disorientating poke, before we too collapse on the only options left to us “laugh”, and bitterly it would seem, or continue to eke out such an existence as we have been doing: how is the state of modern man at all similar to “ancient women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots”? Leaving us this as the final image, it would seem that Eliot is convinced that in the ruins of culture and civilization which we find ourselves in (in c1920), we may as well not bother to seek meaning, because there is none left.

How T S Eliot makes The Waste Land Work

wasteland 1

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Seeming to begin with one of Eliot’s unaccountable metaphors, the poem actually starts off with a particularly bleak assessment of life itself, for it is April when life starts, and it is the start of life, its beginnings, which is its most cruel aspect, as far as Eliot is concerned: would we not be better off if we never had existed? The opening rhyming couplet (and then triplet) is not allowed to strike the reader with any resonance owing to the effective caesura and strong enjambment of both opening lines, so there is no rhythm carrying the lines on, no music, but a steady beat, like the ringing of a funeral bell, which strikes the reader, reinforcing the title of this section: The Burial of the Dead. Indeed, it is the present participles (the –ing words) which seem to bang out this rhythm, setting up a strong pattern as though they themselves were the starting point of each line, and then, once they set this pattern up, they run on to the shorter line in the end which pulls the reader up short, with “spring rain” striking the reader as something altogether malign, as opposed to having he positive connotations it would normally have: for a poem concerning itself with the absence of water, and thereby the absence of nourishment, particularly spiritual nourishment in this meaningless modern world, the real nourishment which begins the poem leaves the reader at something of a loss: something is missing from this world. But then, Eliot refers to the “dead land”, an almost oxymoronic description in the context of this land seeming so fertile, and that the lilacs are bred “out of the dead land” as though pulled out is counter to how we would normally think of growth: why is Eliot defamiliarising such a common life process, if not to set up this poem’s central theme: life itself, in the early twentieth century, is corrupt. “Memory and desire” are presented through the metaphor of “mixing” as things in the ground as opposed to neutral abstract concepts: they seem stained by association with the dead ground, and then with the “dull roots” as though these things, memory, desire, or life itself, is not really growing. What Eliot is giving us here is a warping of the traditional view of life and its profusion being universally good.

wasteland 3

Unreal City,                                                           

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

It is the long vowel sounds of the opening few lines that give them their especially mournful tone, but it is the particularly short opening line which sets up what is to follow, apparently an explanation of or description of this supposedly “unreal city”, which is the early twentieth century London where Eliot decides to set this poem examining the hollowing out of modern life. There is something essentially alienating and unnatural about the city scene, especially as Eliot describes it in his early poems. But it is also its anonymity, the state which it enforces on its flowing “crowd”, that Eliot seems to be foregrounding here. But it is in his manipulation of the steady ten syllable lines that he sets up, where the second syllable of “many” on both lines is a syllable too many, thereby making this word stand out, thereby drawing attention to the sheer number of people. Of course, the line is taken from The Divine Comedy, and the reader will see Eliot’s equating the crowds of clerks on their way to a day’s work in London with the spirits in purgatory who knew neither good nor evil when they were on earth. Eliot is getting the reader to see London, as the place representative of modern life, the city, as somehow purgatorial. The grim imagery of the line of “And each man fixed his eyes before his feet” seems to stress this part of the poem’s somber tone, but then the strong rhyme which follows it, end-stopped too, takes that away in a well timed touch of bathos: there is nothing tragic about this, Eliot is saying. There is nothing poetic or lyrical about man’s purgatorial existence, it simply lacks all meaning: that meaning provided of old by the rhythms of the land or the old traditions and ceremonies. We have been cut adrift in this modern world; all we are left with are the seemingly random and meaningless street names “King William Street” and church names “Saint Mary Woolnoth”, names which no longer retain the meaning of old. That the “dead sound” and the “final stroke” land on the seemingly harmless hour of nine, has an echo of the opening image: it is that starting into this life that is the most heartrending, not the going out of it. But we will soon be confronted by the end of this day, the nighttime, from which we can expect no comfort either.

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