T.S Eliot as a Modernist Poet
T.S Eliot is considered as one of the most important modernist poets. The content of his poem as well as his poetic style give elements of the modern movement that was famous during his time. In fact, modernism was viewed as “a rejection of traditional 19th-century norms, whereby artists, architects, poets and thinkers either altered or abandoned earlier conventions in an attempt to re-envision a society in flux.” Modernism was also mainly represented by orientation towards fragmentation, free verse, contradictory allusions and multiple points of view different from the Victorian and Romantic writing. These modern features appear greatly in the works of Eliot. Two of the most prominent poems where Eliot shows his modern orientations are “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land.”
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is regarded as one of the basic modernist poems. It shows the modern elements of disintegration of life and mental stability. The poem speaks about the problem of the modern man, Prufrock. He laments his physical and intellectual shortcomings, the lack of opportunities in his life in addition to the lack of spiritual progress. What is impressive is that the setting of the poem can be understood to be either as a real place or a mental state reflecting the sub-conscious of the person.
The most important modernist technique in the poem is the stream-of-consciousness technique. This technique reflects the fragmentary nature of the modern man’s mentality. It also a allows the reader to explore the inner self of the character. As seen in the poem, Prufrock’s thought shifts very often from trivial to significant issues and vice versa. This explains the idea of subjective time in modernism which is contradictory to historical time of past, present and future.
As modernism stresses the ideas of pessimism and loneliness, the negative aspects of modern life are also stressed in the poem. In fact, Prufrock seems to be only able see those negative aspects. Death is also dominant in the poem showing Prufrock as an insect pinned against the wall. It is even personified as ‘the eternal Footman.’ What is important is that Prufrock is viewed as a representative of all modern men. He is indecisive. He cannot even decide about eating a peach. It is in this sense that the poem is seen as a record of the random thoughts in the mind of Prufrock.
Finally, modernist writers were interested in showing characters having multiple personalities. This is clear in Prufrock who functions as both the speaker and the listener. In addition, modernist texts are full with allusions to other texts. This is also found in the poem where there is much reference to Dante, Shakespeare and the Holy Bible.
Although Eliot is known as an outstanding modernist poet, some critics argued that he uses some traditional medieval techniques in his works. Those critics argued that “While T. S. Eliot might be called a medieval modernist because of his admiration for the organic and spiritual community of the Middle Ages together with his “impersonal” conception of art, his elitist and formalist views isolate him from several of the central terms of the tradition as I have defined it.” In other words, some characteristics of Eliot’s work exhibit medieval themes and style; at the same time, these works are also rooted in the modern orientation of literature. That is why some critics called him a “medieval modernist.”
The point is that Eliot seems to have nostalgia for the medieval tradition linked with his interest in modern life. In his poetry, Eliot combines both, concern with religious issues (medieval theme) and a trend towards contemporary issues (modern theme). So as critics observed, Eliot seeks some sort of “integration” between the two aspects.
This is actually clear in “The Waste Land” where Eliot shows his discomfort for modern life by contrasting it with medieval traits. He shows the difference between the divinely religious medieval life which modern life lacks and the fall in spiritual matters in modern life. In fact, “The Waste Land,” can be considered as a fundamental modernist text. The major modernist element found in the poem is the clear reliance on images, which is a basic characteristic of modern texts. The poem shows many fragmented images that reflect the feeling of loss in modern man. Although the reader understands nothing of these images, the narrator promises to show the reader how to make meaning from fragmentation. This construction of meaning from fragmentation is one of the essential features of modernism.
The poem clearly describes the modern world, or what the narrator terms as “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” The frequent images of falling and decay are representative of modern life. Life is represented as trivial, suffering from the problems of war. This all happens on both the real physical level and the inner psychological level of the modern man.
The fragmented images, the stream-of-consciousness and all the other strange stylistic features in the poem are used to help convey the message of the poet. For Eliot, modern life is fragmented and illogical; so he conveys this through his style. That is why in “The Waste Land” he tends to break the logic and conventions. So the poem may be clearly viewed as a representation of the modern life and modern man psychology both in terms of its content and style.
To conclude, both The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” are considered as critical texts representing the modern thought. In more specific terms, they are examples of modernist poetry. The poems’ content and style reflect the modern life, especially in its influence on the individual. Eliot is skillful in showing this through his style in both poems. He use stream-of- consciousness to show the chaos in of the modern man’s thinking. In addition, he uses many techniques such as imagism, repetition, fragmentation and other modernist techniques. All these techniques help depict the modern life for the reader and reflect its status in real manner. That is why one can easily say that Eliot is considered as one of the most influential modernist poets in English literature.