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Student Number: 428756029 Word Count: 1120

T. S. Eliots poetry has been described as a disturbing portrait of uncertainty


amidst the turmoil of modern life. To what extent does this perspective align
with your understanding of Eliots poetry? In your response, make detailed
reference to at least TWO of the poems set for study.

T.S Eliot, to some extent, portrays a disturbingly uncertain portrait of life and its
meaning. However, this portrayal is not simply concerned with the turmoil of modern life, but
also with universal existentialism. In the cynical context of World War 1, existentialist
philosophies grew prevalent in reaction to the bleak and fragmenting realities that the catastrophe
of war and ever change social norms had exposed. While Eliots dramatic monologue, The Love
Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915) explores uncertainty on a personal scale, his free verse poem,
The Hollow Men (1925) explores uncertainty on a macro scale in regards to existential distrust
in spirituality. Thus Eliot, in part explores modern life as the catalyst for uncertainty and turmoil,
but not as the sole cause.

The confining effects of uncertainty can dehumanise the individual in the confusion of
the modern world. In his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot portrays the fear
and uncertainty of the modern world as paralysing for the individual. Women were accumulating
more and more power in society as the suffrage gained momentum in the early 1900s where
various campaigns strived to fragment traditional patriarchal values. This is reflected in the text
as the protagonist is a cowardly and effete intellectual, who is baffled and intimidated by women.
In Prufrocks questions, Do I dare? And, Do I dare?, the rhetorical nature of the repetition
exemplifies the extent of his uncertainty and thus the confusion caused by the modern world.
In Prufrocks aside, which worries that (They will say: How his hair is growing thin!), the use
of the vague pronoun, 'they' removes any sense of individual identity from the women he
describes, characterising them as a terrifying and judgmental other. Moreover, using hair as a
symbol of virility, Eliot suggests that Prufrock's self-doubt is rooted in psychosexual anxiety.
The metaphor of "The eyes that fix you pinned and wriggling on the wall" suggests a fear of
judgement is central to Prufrocks anxiety. The use metonymy illustrates that he feels invaded by
the women and, in portraying them merely as eyes, presents their gaze as an impersonal force.
The zoomorphic metaphor, in reducing Prufrock to an insect, outlines that his social paralysis is
caused by his dehumanising self-doubt. The beginning epigraphs allusion to Dantes Inferno
suggests Prufrock's confinement is within a purgatory of his own making. This suggests that the
turmoil of modern life is akin to the eighth pouch of the eighth circle of hell. Also, as Guido, the
speaker of this epigraph, is punished for false counsel, Eliot is further suggesting that Prufrocks
uncertain self-talk is a factor that is worthy of such torture. Likewise, Michael North of
Cambridge University suggests that such self-talk in exclamations such as, "How his hair is
growing thin!" and "But how his arms and legs are thin", reduce Prufrock to certain body parts,
the thinness of which stands in for the diminution caused by the rhetorical figures. Prufrock,
pinned under the impersonal eye of the women, is trapped by his social anxiety in an ever-
repeating cycle of self-doubt, which gradually diminishes him into a void of uncertainty and
confusion. This is represented by the figure caged within his own head, but also in part the result
of the fragmentation that modern life has created through changing social norms. Thus Eliot
shows that uncertainty can dehumanise the individual, trapping them in the confusion of the
modern world.

A similar inaction can also result, not from the modern world, but from a distrust in universal
spiritual ideas, which can lead to an inexorable decline into existential limbo. In contrast to The
Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, the poem The Hollow Men, while also portraying a paralysis
caused by doubt and uncertainty, gives this a universal sense by exposing the inability of
traditional spirituality to explain the fragmentation exposed by the modern world. These ideas
reflect the disillusionment of the Lost Generation poets with tradition spirituality and its failure
to provide certainty. They were a specific facet of the Modernism movement that was lost
because after the war, many of these poets were disillusioned with the world in general and
struggled to move into a settled life. Eliot laments that Lips that would kiss form prayers to
broken stone. The metonymy of the lips divorces the act of a kiss from particular individuals,
highlighting the simultaneously fragmented and universal nature of human affection. In addition
to the juxtaposition of lips that would kiss with broken stone emphasises the contrasting
ideas of life-affirming affection and inanimate stone. This suggests the fruitlessness of human
attempts to construct their own meaning of life. This serves to exemplify the spiritual poverty of
the hollow men. J. Hillis Miller from the University of Chicago recognises this lack of purpose
portrayed in the motif of the Shadow. He argues that The "Shadow" which falls between idea
and reality, conception and creation, emotion and response, desire and spasm, potency and
existence (CP, 81, 82), is the paralysis which seizes men who live in a completely subjective
world. Now it is revealed to be the Shadow which isolates things from one another, reduces them
to abstraction, and makes feeling impossible. Like the dehumanisation of Prufrock, the
Shadows reduction of things to abstraction, suggests the all-consuming nature of uncertainty.
This is further examined through the, Eyes I dare not meet in dreams In deaths dream
kingdom. The motif of the eye symbolising an impersonal, divine gaze, suggests a confrontation
with truth. Eliots use of the word dare here thus highlights the Hollow Mens lack of the
courage, even in their dreams, to face the truth of their own naturel. Confinement within a
desaturated, eyeless socket thus bleakly symbolises Eliots exploration of the inaction caused by
existential uncertainty. This uncertainty is thus given a universal sense in Eliots portrayal of the
doubt and uncertainty caused by the inability of traditional spirituality to explain the
fragmentation exposed by the modern world.

In summary, in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock uncertainty is brought about by the
conditions of modern life, while in the Hollow Men it is depicted as a more universal condition,
caused by spiritual disillusionment. In The Hollow Men, Eliot thus portrays a disturbing
portrait of an uncertainty which pervades not only modern life, but also any attempt to construct
universal meaning. These tumultuous depictions of life are reflective of the cynical context of
The First World War and the fragmenting of social norms within the early 20th Century. The
images of the eye socket and the man trapped within himself further explore the paralysing
nature of uncertainties revealed by, but not always exclusive to, modern life. In summary, T.S
Eliot somewhat paints a disturbingly dubious picture of life. This portrayal of life is not simply
concerned with the turmoil of modern life, however, but also with universal existentialism.