T.S. Eliot: Prufrock finds peace

Eliot initially “drown(s)” in the secular morass that is the Western world at the beginning of the 20th– century, discontent with a “meaningless” and morally “hollow” society, yet matures to embrace the “Birth” of his spiritual sublimation through religious conversion. Prufrock’s “indecision”, allowing the “moment of (his) greatness” to “flicker”, parallels the physical and emotional paralysis of the “hollow men” in “death’s dream kingdom”. Vanity and “deliberate disguises”, aspects on an increasingly industrialised and materialistic society, are condemned as “all” in modern societies “form prayers” to false, worldly idols and ultimately “whimper”. Nevertheless, Eliot eventually transcends his “broken” urban existence through the “hard” journey that was his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927. Although not yet “at ease” and bemoaning the “Death” of the old ways, Eliot thus progresses past post-war disillusion and “emptiness” towards spiritual contentment.

Eliot engenders a state of spiritual inertia through Prufrock’s neurotic self-doubt (“Do I dare?”) and the “paralysed force” of the “hollow men”, blurring the distinction between devoid of life or devoid or spirituality; for Eliot, these are one and the same. Eliot warns the reader that ‘all is not as it seems’ from the beginning of ‘Prufrock’ since the epigraph is taken from Dante’s Inferno; Prufrock perceives his urban landscape as a kind of “Hell”. Any romantic preconception implied by ‘Love Song’ is removed by the jarring simile of a “patient etherised on a table”, in a state of stagnation, along with “sawdust restaurants” and “half-deserted streets”. Eliot’s use of imperative sentence types (“Let us go”) gives way to anxious interrogatives (“And how should I begin?”) as Prufrock “malingers”, unable to “force the moment to its crisis”. Prufrock’s journey is ultimately introspective; for Eliot, not “worth it, after all”, as Prufrock is “afraid” to address the “overwhelming question”, which is removed from the first stanza’s rhythmic scheme to emphasise Prufrock’s inability to address it. Similarly, the “lost, violent souls” suffering in the realm between life and death (“death’s dream kingdom”) due to their moral “emptiness”, exist in a state of paralysis; these spiritually “hollow men” embody a “gesture without motion” and are, in the “dead land” of limbo, a “Paralysed force”. The senselessness of the monotonous chanting rhythm “We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men” exhibits their awareness of their lack of a spiritual core, akin to Prufrock’s allusion to the archetypal “Fool”; he is resigned to being submissively “deferential” yet inadvertently speaks the truth. The futile secular existence of these “empty men” is captured by their childish chanting, “Here we go round the prickly pear”, evincing images of “meaninglessness”.

Rampant materialism at the turn of the twentieth century manifests in the “arms…braceleted and white” that Prufrock observes and the oxymoronic notion of being simultaneously “hollow” yet “stuffed”, inhibiting Eliot from rising above the material self and his secular society. It is emblematic of Prufrock’s mundane existence (and of Eliot’s ennui towards modern society) that he has “measured out” his life “with coffee spoons”, as he notes the pretension of those in higher social classes “Talking of Michelangelo”. Eliot’s repetition of the coordinating conjunction whilst listing “novels”, “porcelain” and “sprinkled streets” along with the jarring, tedious line “Before the taking of a toast and tea” following the profound discussion of “time” in the second stanza highlights this materialism. To “prepare a face” suggests notions of superficiality, similar to the “deliberate disguises” of the “hollow men”, masking one’s inner lack of substance. It is for this reason that the “hollow men”, although “stuffed” with the materialistic vanity of their “lost kingdoms”, are fundamentally “empty”. This ideal of vanity leads to Prufrock’s self-consciousness, as he fears being “pinned…on the wall” by what “they”, the shallow people around him, “will say”. This materialism consequently prevents Prufrock, and indeed Eliot, from transcending the spiritually desolate landscape. Rather, naturalistic imagery such as the “pair of ragged claws” and “chambers of the sea” merely sublimate Prufrock’s introspective journey.

The nadir of Eliot’s spiritual journey underlies ‘The Hollow Men’, as those “sightless” towards spiritual redemption “gather” in a state of mutual alienation. Eliot uses the pronoun “we” in a similar way to “you all” in ‘Prufrock’, suggesting the universality of this moral emptiness in Western society (apart from those who “crossed with direct eyes” into Paradise). The lack of these “eyes” in purgatory, symbolising spiritual awareness, is captured by the use of the deictic term “here” (as in “There are no eyes here”), indicating the implausibility of salvation. From a grimy urban setting of perverse “yellow fog”, the “hollow men” suffer in a barren realm of “cactus” and “dry grass”, the physical landscape paralleling this spiritual desolation. With only “dried voices” these men “grope together” and “avoid speech”, evincing a sense of alienation. The rasping, coarse fricative consonant sounds of “grass”, “glass” and “Alas!” reinforce the sterile landscape as well as the lost, disaffected state of the “empty men”. This state of alienation features in all three poems; Prufrock is attracted by the “bare arms” and “perfume” yet cannot articulate his “question”, merely observing the “women come and go”, whilst the Magus finds an “alien people” upon returning to their “Kingdoms”, unidentifiable following spiritual transcendence.

Eliot delineates his religious conversion through the “long” and “hard” “journey” of the Magi towards the nativity of Christ in Bethlehem, resulting in spiritual confusion yet nonetheless approaching sublimation. Whereas Prufrock merely observes the secular nature of Western civilisation and the “hollow men” suffer its spiritual implications, the Magus transcends that which is worldly through the “Birth”, Eliot’s capitalisation of the noun implying its significance as a spiritual concept. The ‘contemporary irreligious derision’ that confronted Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholicism is reflected by the adverse factors met by the “Magi”, like the “worst time of year”, “refractory camels” and “cities hostile”, compounded by those labelling the journey as “all folly”. Eliot surmounts the trivial urban existence of perverse “yellow fog” and barren “cactus land”, the landscape dissolving into a “temperate valley” of “vegetation”. Despite the “Birth” of Christ at “the place”, connoting the “Birth” of Christianity and a firm spiritual mooring for Eliot, this also implies the “Death” of the “old dispensations”. The now “alien people clutching their gods” recalls those “forming prayers to broken stone”, futile in the wake of a shift in spiritual paradigm, which is “hard” and “bitter” for the Magus now no longer “at ease”. The meandering rhythmic and rhyme scheme of the poem along with the description of the joyous occasion as “satisfactory” underpins the underwhelming nature of the nativity and the humility of the Christian experience. Eliot thereby maps his “journey” from a neurotic, “lonely” existence fated to culminate in the “whimper” of moral “emptiness” and “meaninglessness” to the “Birth” of his spiritual transcendence through faith despite the disillusioned secular quagmire of the early 20th century.