Commemorating T.S. Eliot

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An anniversary has almost passed us by, unnoticed by the Boston media, and one eminently worthy of celebration.

One hundred years ago, T.S. Eliot, the great poet who notably defined himself as “an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics,” published his first poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Eliot started composing the poem at Harvard in 1910 and finished it in Munich, Germany in 1911. The poem’s imaginative subject matter contains many hues of Boston and Cambridge. Though published in 1915, it aptly expresses our modern world and the fog of spiritual unrest surrounding us that has yet to clear.

“Prufrock” begins with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno. Dante always was a frequent presence in Eliot’s work, and served as a guide for him in his journey through the fractured world of modernity. Eliot opens the poem with an invitation: “Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky.”

As a student at Harvard, the poet walked Boston’s streets — originally meandering cow paths. He described them as “Streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent.” In Boston, Eliot took boxing lessons and was fond of the Vaudeville shows in the South End. Here at these venues, he saw the “one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with Oyster oyster-shells.”

Eliot was born of old Boston stock in St Louis, Missouri. As a philosophy student at Harvard, he moved among his social class but was never truly one of them.  His position as a perpetual outsider made him an excellent observer.  And also, his poetic vision gave him insight into the problem of modernity. Eliot used Brahmin society as a vehicle to express the cultural decline he saw in the modern world. The poet believed people were not fully alive. His fictional characters figures are trapped in a semi-conscious dimension, “like a patient etherized upon a table.” Such folk never ask Eliot’s “overwhelming question” of human existence. What is it? What does it all mean? Is there a God?  Is there hope of an afterlife?

Rather as we do, in Eliot’s poem people avoid and never formulate meanings, but seek diversion from reality. Brahmin society resorted to teas and “measure out their lives in coffee spoons.” At these gatherings there was a false veneer of culture to protect them from the genuine truth of art, which sincere artists and poets confront: “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.” In his world, poetry and art were reduced to the snobbery of social status.

The protagonist in “Prufrock” is troubled and moves toward asking the overwhelming question, but he is afraid. He has been subsumed by his society and was “formulated in a phrase” by his peers, “wriggling” like an insect specimen pinned on a laboratory wall. If this would-be poet/prophet (who may be young Eliot himself) decides to ask the overwhelming question, he is sure it will be rejected. “That is not it at all!”

Cleanth Brooks wrote, “Eliot suggests that many of those who live in the modern world have been drugged and numbed by it. One task of the poet is to penetrate their torpor, to awaken them to full consciousness of their condition, to let them see where they are.”

Eliot viewed the modern world as materialistic, deterministic, and devoid of God.  He went on to ask the question and disturb the universe of modernity with his conversion to Christianity in 1927. The centennial commemoration of “Prufrock” reminds us that Eliot always defended what he called “the permanent things.”

In “Thoughts after Lambeth,” Eliot left us with a warning: “The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail: but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization and save the world from suicide.”

Patrick J. Walsh is a writer in Quincy, Mass.