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TS Eliot Essay

This is an example of a high range response of a TS Eliot essay. As a critical study, the respondent must assess his work as a whole and be aware of the broader contextual impact of the work. This response is for the 2013 English HSC.


Explore how time and place are used in Eliot’s poetry to shape the reader’s understanding of modernity.

In your response, make detailed reference to at least TWO of the poems set for study.

T.S. Eliot’s poetry examines how individuals in modernity are trapped by materialistic values, limiting their experiential perspectives to particular times and places. In a world riddled with uncertainty in the wake of vast ideological and political changes spurred on by the scientific enlightenment and subsequent industrial hegemony of Western imperial nations, the poet’s work often contrasts traditional metaphysical ideals with the vacuum of modern nihilism.  Whereas Eliot’s first professionally published poem The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock TLSJAP (June 1915) philosophically wrestles in uncertainty with the relentless power of this new world, his later work The Hollow Men THM (November 1925) succinctly critiques the limitations of a solely modernistic value system.

Even in Eliot’s earliest work, his reverence for past wisdom and curiosity for non-physical places are evident.  The infinitely internal and publicly shy poet begins TLSJAP by intertextually invoking Dante in its original latin format, inviting the audience into a version of hell through the eyes of a poet in the Late Middle Ages. Dante’s protagonist believes that if someone were able to escape hell, “this flame would keep still without moving any further.” However, as the protagonist and all who hear him are trapped in the allegory of “those undergrounds” or for a figurative interpretation, the hell of one’s own mind; he is able to “answer you” (himself), “without fear of infamy” as the poet would be unable to suffer rejection or ridicule from within the confines of his own psyche. It is in this way that Eliot is able to express both his interpersonal sense of isolation where he does not “dare” to disturb other people in a social setting as well as the dread and confusion that develops from symbolically daring to “disturb the universe” through existential inquiry. By reading his poetry, the audience is invited into a realm that both emphasises the physical constraints of modern materialistic reality where literally and figuratively, “in a minute there is time”, whilst simultaneously using the wisdom of the ancients to query the “hundred indecisions … hundred visions and revisions” that transcend individual experience and instead serves as a reminder of the many facets of existence where the universe paradoxically has “time to murder and create” across time and space .

At the turn of the nineteenth century the “madman who lit a lantern” screeching “Whither is God?” had left a deep existential void for Western thinkers in modernity. Eliot wrestles with Nietzsche’s assessment of the encroaching societal nihilism in TLSJAP by positing: “But as if a magic lantern threw nerves in patterns on a screen”. The simplicity of the simile and Eliot’s recurring motif of lamp light symbolises humanity’s limited capacity for creation in “the chambers of the [sublime] sea”, where the folly of modern man’s hubris is alluded to with “Prince Hamlet” and the rise of Western materialism serving as the precursor “to swell progress” symbolically in the modern world. Ultimately this merely serves as a temporary respite for what the “worshippers of the machine” choose to forget,  as “human voices” are the only one’s viewed as rational enough to “wake us” in a time where man is the master and creator of all until “we drown”, the finality of death being inevitable to a 20th Century intellectual mind. Modernity serves as a stage for examining the absurdity of existence with a self conscious protagonist who is ironically concerned with whether he will “part” his hair or wear his “trousers rolled” whilst simultaneously grappling with metaphysical questions like having “squeezed a universe into a ball” of consciousness. J. Hillis Miller interprets as an “opaque sphere” of subjectivity where each “Lazarus” (human) who has been brought into existence in their own “impenetrable” bubble of experience and understanding, is stuck in the timeless angst of their own mind as their impending death looms.

As a critic, Eliot’s THM draws inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to the poet, the value placed on materialism in the modern world is viewed as hollow, much like an ivory tusk that has been removed by Kurtz as he parades around as a god before his untimely demise. Eliot parodies the shortsightedness of modern man by referring to him as someone with a “Headpiece filled with straw”, an allusion to “pagan rituals” according to Grover Smith. Once more through literary fragmentation the poet slips into and out of his own context to explore the subjectivity of meaning from a relativistic perspective; to the poet, the “quiet and meaningless” voices of men are paralleled with “wind in dry grass” and “rats’ feet” which to a 20th Century modernist would have no inherent purpose. The symbolic “cactus land” that modern man inhabits and “At five o’clock in the morning” in futility goes “round the prickly pear”, a parody on the “divine” tree which places the nihilistic thinker in a position that resembles Sisyphus with his rock. The solitude of city life is apparent as the poet wonders whether it is “like this” in “death’s other kingdom” where the machine men are “walking alone”, babies “trembling with tenderness” in a “hollow valley” that only values  “stone images” which glorify the materialistic might of the Western world.

It would be a disservice to assess THM without reflecting on Eliot’s most well known work The Waste Land; a poem that critiques the modern notion of progress without consideration, a time and place that lacks “roots” to “clutch” onto the “stony rubbish” that has been constructed by the “Son of man”. Again, the poet considers past wisdom that to the modern individual is “more distant” than a “fading star” as the “twilight kingdom” of death is treated with little regard in modernity, a time where materialists are “Sightless, unless / The eyes reappear”, a primitive “hope” for a species of “empty men” who have destroyed themselves with war. As if in a game of hide and seek, Eliot seeks the places where the symbolic “Shadow” of meaning resides. By placing the audience’s mind in “deliberate disguises” like “crowskin”, Eliot emphasises through pathetic fallacy man’s connection to the “voices” that are apparent to the poet “Between the conception / And the creation”, the metaphysical place being the “Kingdom” of the “multifoliate rose”, infinite time and potential.

Eliot grips his audience in a place that knows no time, the infinitely creative mind; he does this as he earnestly considers the events and thinking of his personal context and the wisdom that has illuminated the modern mind as the cult of progress developed and devalued the knowledge that came before. By seeking knowledge in the angst of his own mind as well as that of contemporary thinkers who had influenced global events, the poet is able to look beyond the veil of time and space in order to appreciate the sublime. He empathises with modernity, a time which whimpers into nothingness as the bombs fall and the business men circle in their suits but reminds the respondent to consider their own roots when seeking meaning.

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