T.S. Elliot’s Projections Of Uncertainty In Modern Society In His Poetry

T.S. Elliot as a progenitor of Modernism believes poetry’s capability of encompassing the totality and vagaries of human experience in the era of rapid industrial expansion, which he perceived as fractured and denigrated. His unique linguistic and structural arrangement communicates the paralysis of a generation, capturing the decadence of civilisation into fading repetitions. Readers respond and appreciate Elliot’s projections of uncertainty in modern society, through the encapsulations of the disturbing truths of alienation, fragmentation and futility of existence in his poems ‘Preludes’, ‘Rhapsody’ and ‘Prufrock’.

The concentrated alienation of modern flaneurs in sordid streets described by Eliot permeates the exploration of uncertainty of human mind and soul, where discarded objects and grime dominate the atmosphere throughout preludes and rhapsody. As the pioneering of Modernist, Eliot constantly subverts and criticises conventional Romantic ideas by summoning a disorientated society into reader’s contemporary setting. With the outbreak of WWI, the connections between individuals are dissolved by the war-engulfed environment caused between scepticism and optimism, which is evident in Elliot’s accumulation of negative adjectives such as ‘broken’ and ‘lonely’ in both poems. It foreshadows Eliot's vision of insecure individuals who are struggling in a denatured urban milieu, where through the modernist lens, the sensibilities of urban life make them seek for merely material desires. Distressed by war-ambient panorama of uncertainty, Elliot repeats the word ‘vacant’ with a simile of ‘revolve like ancient women gathering fuels in vacant lots’ to manifest that the emptiness of mechanic society deprives human beings’ ability to connect with others, reminding readers of the inevitability of repetition in modern metropolitan life. Building upon the turmoil in Preludes, the degraded imagery of ‘broken spring in a factory yard’ in Rhapsody conveys the loss of vitality and attachment in individuals and society. It depicts crumbled images of hollowness, reflecting human being’s entrapment in social void, where Elliot suggests to readers that the answer to existence is dogged by false promises of industrial society. The auditory imagery of city dwellers is replaced by the use of sibilance of ‘street lamp sputtered’ where they are portrayed as lack of intense feelings and unable to purposefully express their emotions. The harsh consonant sounds create an enervated and lifeless atmosphere and allude the alienation between individuals in society. By reflecting the distanced relationship between each individual in society, Eliot epitomises the sense of uncertainty and warns modern readers that the crumbled presence of industrial metropolis would ultimately engulfs humanity’s desire to seek for belonging and hope.

Elliot’s poems ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Preludes’ present the disturbing realities of modernism through individual’s futility of existence in terms of lack of human identity and agency. During the aftershock of WWI in England, Elliot witnessed the paralysed and wounded society, he constructs an indecisive persona of ‘Prufrock’ who is trapped in the unending cycle of self-referential paradox between critical judgments and actual actions. In each poem, influenced by Bergsonian, the natural personified motifs of ‘time’, ‘fog’ and ‘moon’ exerts control over city dwellers with alliterated action verbs of ‘licked’ and ‘lingered’, which epitomises the lack of human agency, where human conscious is beheld and limited by city landscape. The superficial metaphor of ‘masquerades’ and ‘faces’ conveys the bleak outlook that only through the facade of pretences, we are able to temporarily fit into the urbanised milieu, resulting in the permanent loss of true identities. The lack of personal agency is epitomised though the vivid use of simile ‘patient etherized upon a table’ where the clinical image depicts the ruthless dissection performed on people, manifesting the utter vulnerability of humanity when facing social and mental entrapment. Moreover, the turn of twentieth century set the emergence of Expressionism which brought about Elliot’s experimentation with poetry features and forms. Influenced by Laforgue’s poetic techniques, Elliot employs the form of dramatic monologue in ‘Prufrock’ where a single and resonant voice expresses the utterance of the debate with himself, capturing the vulnerability and fear of an uncertain future of modern flaneurs. Readers participated in the unfolding and confusing narrative by relating their own disjointed consciousness of a shared boredom of social obligations. The use of second person ‘you’ and ‘us’ acts as a reminder and accusation to readers of increasing devoid of emotional and spiritual connections along with the moral corruption. Thus, modernists like Elliot’s description of a profoundly dejected image of a paralysed and uncertain society disapproves the mechanised existence human beings, encouraging modern readers to seek for take control over themselves in the arbitrary and repetitions of urbanised life.

The sense of disturbing uncertainty in metropolitan context is conveyed through fragmented representation of human conditions and human nature. In Elliot's view, humanity's psyche has been shattered by World War I and the collapse of British Empire, resulting in him questioning the capability of romantic visionary-poet changing the world through verses. It is evident in Elliot’s direct collaging of ambiguous images and styles, where he advocates the theory of 'objective correlation', emphasising the aesthetic experience of reader rather than delivering his actual meanings. The incoherent and fragmented structure is a prominent focus of Elliot throughout Rhapsody. The poem consists of a jumble of juxtaposed broken images with fragmented rhymes. The slightly off-beat iambic pentameter, interrupted with harsh, monosyllabic phrases, as seen in the third stanza ‘stiff and white’ offers readers a sense of abruption and purposed inarticulateness and reflects Eliot’s nihilistic view on his urbanised context. By using onomatopoeia of ‘sputtered and muttered’, the personified ‘street lamp’ manifests the inarticulateness of human beings and assists Eliot in the depiction of incomprehensibly despondent and fragmented perception of human conditions. Similarly, the fragmentation of human beings is epitomised by Eliot’s the use of synecdoche in rhapsody, where the presence of multifaceted human nature is extensively restricted within the disjointed body parts of ‘muddy feet’ and human soul is ‘constituted of sordid images’, encapsulating a sense of decadence and bleakness of human conditions for readers. 

Lastly, Elliot ends all three poems with the utter bleakness, epitomising the uncertainty of Western civilization during the onset of WWI. The fluid persona of ‘chamber of the sea’ ironically ‘drowns human’, conveying the fragility of man over its own destiny in Metropolis. Hence, Eliot's advocacy of poetry as a voice speaking to the present via past evokes readers appreciation and response to contemporary issues such as social fragmentation symptoms and to encourage readers to seek for purposeful connections with society. 

09 March 2021
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