Having studied Thomas Stearns Eliot in my own final year of high school, I understand that this Module B unit can be more than a bit bleak. The emphasis on Eliot’s degraded environmental surrounds and sordid fantasies is enough to make even the most upbeat soul cringe inward as they are subsumed by his uniquely modernist nihilism (and possibly confounded by his esoteric literary allusions).
Yet, there’s only so many times you can talk about the synecdoche’s depersonalising effect on the reader or how Eliot’s protagonist ‘Prufrock’ is painfully autobiographical before you lose the marker. After all, THEY’VE READ THIS ALL BEFORE. Rather, I would suggest taking the road less travelled, a path that goes beyond just exploring Eliot’s poetic pessimism. So, before you begin to talk about the modern age’s ontological disrepair for what is now the 8th time in your essay, I would suggest giving a little thought to Eliot’s portrayal of hope.
THE HOLLOW MEN
In the former, Eliot does more than just express his bleak view of the modern condition through dislocated syntax and shifting deixis, as he also presents the 20th century predicament of spiritual inertia as a sort of optimistic purgatory. That is, a state of waiting, where we as a society are not yet damned to eternal hell. At this point, we still stand a chance to be spiritually absolved.
How can we make this inference? Well, Eliot’s very deliberate replacement of the epithet “stuffed” with “empty” in the 4th quintet is, as critic Lawrence Ryan states, reflective of how “the soul in its upward journey toward salvation must pass through a spiritual state of absolute quiescence”. A far cry from Eliot’s deep depression in his pinnacle poetic piece.
Furthermore, I’ve always felt Eliot’s unfailing reliance on literary and religious allusions is optimistic in and of itself, as through his constant intertextual and intratextual references he reinforces the value of culture that remains paramount even in his morally crippled, post-war era.
JOURNEY OF THE MAGI
These notions are furthered in his post-conversion piece ‘Journey of the Magi’. In this strange and drunk dramatic monologue, Eliot reimagines the theologically primordial narrative of the Three Wise Men by using New Testament imagery of a “running stream” and “old white horse”, and anachronistic language such as “sherbet” so as to subvert traditional linearity.
Why? What effect does this have? Well, by fusing his own imagination alongside this historical revisionism, Eliot sends a message of hope to his reader: we are independent thinkers capable of reimagining the past, changing the present, and creating our own future. As such, Journey of the Magi represents an independence, a detachment from historical and literary strictures. It is an essentially hopeful message to his audience.
So, to spice up things for your marker and move beyond the basic analysis of Eliot’s despair and nihilism, exploring Eliot’s unique representations and hints toward hope will not only bolster your marks but provide you with a deeper appreciation of Eliot’s poetic oeuvre and spiritual pilgrimage.