Essay: T. S. Eliot: The Man in the Mirror

“For I saw with own my eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar at Cumae,
and when acolytes said, ‘Sybil, what do you want’? she replied,
‘I want to die'” (Eliot 474).
T.S. Eliot was an American poet living in England, forced to Oxford University because of the outbreak of World War I (Ramazani 460). Several factors, such as Eliot’s new, foreign home, as well as the fact that Eliot had to suffer firsthand through a war-torn Europe, increasingly influenced his poetry and writing style; Eliot’s poetry directly mirrors not only his surroundings during the time of World War I, but his poetry also mirrors how all of the turmoil in his life were affecting him. Eliot used his poetry as a self-reflection; poems such as The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock are two examples that mirror Eliot’s own fears and anxieties, and allowed him an outlet from his sorrowful life. T.S. Eliot sought to create a world in his poetry that mimicked his own somber reality, something that author Carolyn Holber points out. ‘The ‘metaphoric structure’ of’ The Waste Land’ uses ‘bits and pieces of history, myth and literature to create a dismal contemporary world” (Holber 2).
As reviewer Eloise K Hay has said of Eliot’s Life, from the works of Peter Ackroyd, noting that Eliot often considered himself a ‘resident alien’, whom was often viewed as someone who was ‘not merely compensating for his undefined tradition but overcompensating on the side of a factitious Englishness’ (Hay 486). Eliot was always in a situation he was unfamiliar with, he was always in a metaphorical wasteland. ‘Perhaps Eliot alone understood the complex fate of being an American poet in an era when no one was sure if such a thing as ‘American Literature’ existed’ (486). So not only was Eliot constrained by trying to find his way in a world that was seemingly imploding upon itself, but he was also constrained in the fact that he hadn’t a clue where his place was in the world of literature.
Even though The Waste Land is arguably Eliot’s most famous poem, the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, first presents Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Ramazani 463). From the start, the poem exhibits ideas of time, distance and an internal suffering in an attempt to placate Eliot’s inner feelings of dread and detachment from the world.
Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets (Prufrock 1-4).
Every poet is always seeking something, and these four very poignant lines mirror exactly what Eliot is feeling during his stay in England. ‘Lets us go then, you and I’ demonstrates an overwhelming desire of Eliot to find something, because when a person goes somewhere, they are always seeking something; however, Eliot is a helpless patient that has been administered ether upon an operating room table. This ether that Eliot talks about, is the exact same feeling he has in real life – a loss of sensation, a loss of being able to feel because he doesn’t know who or what he needs to be in life, and this numbing sensation is only intensified by the fact that everywhere Eliot turns, he sees lifeless, war torn, ‘half-deserted’ streets (4). Eliot wants to find his way into the world of poetry, but because of a medium that was heavily English, coupled with the fact that Eliot has been etherised through the constant turmoil in his life, and living in a country that is fighting for its proverbial life, the task is seemingly impossible. Also ether is highly flammable, and not only does this mirror the fiery world in which Eliot lives, but it also shows how incendiary the elements of his life had become.
To further expound upon the ideas illustrated in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a backtracking to the very beginning of the poem is needed. Eliot first starts out by quoting a part of Dante’s Inferno, using the quote to draw parallels between not only himself and his own inferno, but one between Prufrock and Dante, which ultimately ties back to Eliot. Dante is similar to Prufrock in the fact that both are paralyzed, or etherised, by a cowardice in the beginning of each piece, mirroring the same feelings Eliot has with his place in modern poetry. ‘But for this one moment, he is similar to Prufrock in his doubt and fear, and in justifying his weakness by contrasting himself with recognizable heroic figures’ (Hollahan 93). So not only do we see how Eliot seems to use archaic figures to illustrate a point he is trying to make, but we also see how Eliot tries to justify his own hesitance in the world by pointing fingers at Dante as one who has had the very same timid feelings that he had felt. ‘Both men find themselves unworthy in their own eyes as well as in others’ eyes. Both fearfully anticipate failure and shame’ (93).
T.S. Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land, is a summation of everything that has been presented so far; The Waste Land represents Eliot’s feeling of being an outside not only in country but also in profession, doing so by using his archaic examples as well as his environment to shape this epic poem. As the Norton Anthology implies, The Waste Land was the poem that was the child from all of Eliot’s personal problems. The main problems, aside from the constant strain with trying to fit into some sort of niche, include the mental problems he faced, as well as with his family. In 1932, Eliot and his wife separated, and was eventually sent to a mental asylum, and died several years later. The passing of Eliot’s father in 1919 also contributed to this barrage of negative emotions, especially since his father ‘died thinking that Eliot had wasted his ability’ (Ramazani 461). One of Eliot’s closest acquaintances, Jean Verdenal, also died during World War I, and was the person he dedicated his first set of poetry books to (461). The Waste Land is such a somber and magnificent poem, because it reflects everything that Eliot was feeling during his lifetime, all wrapped up into one epic story. The Waste Land is a collection of everything that he was seeking, everything that had happened to him, and his way of trying to mirror his reflection outwards towards the world in a negative manner. ‘To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling’ (Ramazani 474). Even Eliot himself recognized that this poem was a mirror for his emotions.
The Waste Land starts out with more archaic symbolism, this time from an ancient Greek myth in which the Sibyl is granted eternal life, yet fails to ask for eternal youth and ends up shriveling and living forever in a decrepit form (474). This idea of eternal life mirrors what Eliot desires, especially after the death of his father, the war and also the condition of his mentally declining wife. The forgetfulness of the Sibyl directly correlates to what Eliot seeks; the estranged poet wants to forget the terrors he has had to face during his time on earth, which to him, feel like an eternity.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers. (Waste Land 1-7).
These first few lines in the first part of The Waste Land, which bear the title, The Burial of the Dead, shows the pain Eliot suffered in the past few years before the finishing of the poem. The death of his father and Verdenal outline the first act of this epic, brought together by the desire of Eliot to forget these terrible memories and attempt to ‘breed lilacs out of the dead’.
Another desirous idea that Eliot inserts in this first section is dealing with the hardships of dealing with his sickening wife, and how her mental illness brought him suffering and yet a desire to fight through.
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. (15-16).
‘The first female whom we encounter in the final edition of The Waste Land is Marie, whom the European speaker recalls from his childhood in a mingling of memory and desire’ Marie is linked with the ‘awful daring of a moment’s surrender’ that the speaker invokes near the end of the poem. She describes overcoming her fear, holding on tight” (Sicker 421).
This desire can be related back to Eliot’s estranged wife, and times when her sickness brought on moments of surrender for him, and it seems as if this point of view is her’s, and how she is urging him to hold on tight and overcome his fear.
Even the others sections of this epic poem can be deduced and interpreted as allusions to Eliot’s own life. First, Eliot undergoes a stage in which he has to physically and emotionally bury his dead: his father, Jean and his mentally declining wife. Eliot then plays a game of chess with himself, a game in which he desires to cover over the burial of his dead with lilacs, and cover himself in a forget layer of allusionary snow. Eliot seeks a rebirth much like the rebirth Philomel takes on in the second part:
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues (Waste Land 99-102).
Eliot had terror forced upon him many times in his life, and now he just wants to fill his deserted life with beauty, yet he still manages to realize that even though he may find inner peace, that the world will still be there to tear him down in the end. The third section, The Fire Sermon, relates back to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, with fire representing the fiery surroundings in which Eliot lives his life, and the incendiary life that is constantly burning him at every turn. Yet, fire has another important purpose: cleansing. Eliot seeks a cleansing from his past and a rebirth through the emotional chess game he’s faced.
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
burning (Waste Land 307-311).
Eliot seeks rebirth, to be plucked into life after burning and burning, much as ‘Phlebas’s drowning has been read as a sacrificial death before rebirth’ (Ramazani 483).
The Waste Land is Eliot’s step-by-step guide to himself, on how to gain some sort of catharsis from the tumultuous life he has had to endure. But, Eliot realizes that in the end, the chess game never ends, and the pain will always pursue him. ‘And still she cried, and still the world pursues (Waste Land 102). This is where the final section comes into play, Death by Water. The cycle finally comes full circle, and after burying his dead, struggling with desires and hardships throughout his life, the chess match is over, and life once again takes ahold of T.S. Eliot.
A current under the sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool (Waste Land 315-318).
T.S. Eliot was a master of mirroring his own emotions and life through such works as The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, and most notably, The Waste Land. He endured many harsh realities during his life, such as the passing of his father and one one his best friends, Jean Verdenal, and he even had to witness the mental breakdown of his wife, reflecting this idea heavily in the latter piece. Every author is seeking something, an idea that Eliot tried to express through the use of archaic symbolism, and a reflection of his own ordeals in his poetry.

Hay, Eloise K. “T. S. Eliot: A Life.” Rev. of T. S. Eliot: A Life by Peter Ackroyd, by Peter Ackroyd. T. S. Eliot: A Life by Peter Ackroyd Sept. 1985: 485-90. JSTOR. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.
Holbert, Carolyn. “”Stranded in the Wasteland:” Literary Allusion in The Sharpest Sight.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 2nd ser. 14.1 (2002): 1-25. JSTOR. University of Nebraska Press, 2002. Web. 02 Mar. 2015.
Hollahan, Eugene. “A Structural Dantean Parallel in Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”” American Literature 42.1 (1970): 91-93. JSTOR. Duke University Press. Web. 02 Mar. 2015.
Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. Print.
Sicker, Philip. “The Belladonna: Eliot’s Female Archetype in The Waste Land.” Twentieth Century Literature 30.4 (1984): 420-31. JSTOR. Hofstra University. Web. 02 Mar. 2015.

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