The strongest of emotions and feelings often arise from a conflict; a battle between two states of mind, two outlooks on the world. When this conflict manifests itself in poetry, it can provide a tantalising glimpse into not only the mind of the writer, but also present a new, vivid perspective on common aspects of everyday life. It is one such conflict that lies at the centre of much of T.S. Eliot’s early poetry; on one hand the lust and passion of sexual desire, on the other the more tranquil, serene notions of religious belief. With poems like The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock straddling the awkward middle ground between these two elements of life, Eliot delves into the revelations this struggle unearths.
As Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land stands as a conflicted creation by the very nature of its setting. London represents the ultimate modern battleground, a melting pot of countless beliefs, cultures and ways of life. As Eliot describes in the line ‘the river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, silk handkerchiefs…’, the Thames usually stands as a testament to the discarded remnants of everyday life. Each citizen leaves his trace on the landscape, a human imprint on a natural world. The next line is more telling however, the reader is told ‘the nymphs are departed’. Here the sexual desire is made clear, a yearning for these young maidens that have now disappeared, along with all the other trappings of an exciting cosmopolitan lifestyle. In the new barren ‘wasteland’ world that the narrator describes, there is only frustration that these pleasures are no longer available. The direct opposition between sexual desire and religious beliefs is also emphasised here – by specifically choosing nymphs as the manifestation of their lust, the narrator creates images of pagan Greek mythology that stands at odds with traditional Christian teachings.
This conflict between desire and religion continues throughout ‘The Fire Sermon’ section of The Waste Land – indeed, the title itself alludes to this juxtaposition of the two. The fire of passion standing against orderly religious sermons. With the two combined into one, as they are in the title, there is an uneasy allegiance between them that is emphasised in the sexual personification of the River Thames in this section of the poem. ‘Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song,’ is clearly directed at the river itself, the narrator calling out as if to some lover. With words like ‘sweet’, ‘softly’ and ‘song’, there is a kind of poetry within the poem itself; the narrator’s sexual desire spilling out in linguistic form, as flowing and elegant as the river itself. ‘Sweet’ in particular gives impressions of tasting, in much the same way Adam and Eve gave into temptation and tasted the forbidden apple.
Here, lust and sin stand opposed to religion, and while – with its physical nature – sexual desire might seem to be far more prominent in this section of The Waste Land, the immaterial power of religious beliefs appears as a chilling reminder at the end of the first stanza of ‘The Fire Sermon’. ‘But at my back in a cold blast I hear / The rattle of the bones’ tells not only of a kind of stale, sickly sexual frustration, but also conjures up images of mortality. Here, religious beliefs come to the fore, skeleton-like manifestations of death and visions of a distinctly Christian hell play into the imagery; adding to the awkward tension between the desire and spiritual beliefs.
This sense of decay is also present in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock where Eliot talks of ‘restless nights’. The refrain of ‘In the room the women come and go’ also adds to this feeling; in both cases the sensation is one of a breaking down of normal moral constraints. There is a tense impermanence to everything, a constant state of change and no hard rules. ‘Restless nights’ comes with multiple connotations; on one hand it might represent a night of passion, but equally it may represent a scenario similar to the encounter with death in The Waste Land – speculation and an awareness about one’s own mortality making sleep impossible. It is this conflict that lies at the heart of Eliot’s poetry; no matter how strong the sexual urges and desires of the physical body become, there is always that constant reminder that we all die eventually. And then, the only reassurance comes in spiritual beliefs. Thus, religion is impossible to ignore.
The stream-of-consciousness nature of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock particularly lends itself to exploring these themes. Placing itself in the mind of the narrator, the reader is given direct access to their thoughts. Sentences span entire stanzas, the traditional rules of grammar and presentation breaking down – another kind of decay. In many ways, presenting this kind of thought process is essential – a ‘tacit belief’ is one that is difficult to convey to another person because it is not something explicit or definite. It is a notion that can encompass both sexual desires and religion – in both instances they are immaterial concepts, and while desire involves physical aspects of the body, attraction and lust stem from the mind too.
Eliot explores this idea of something that cannot be truly explained in the line ‘To lead you to an overwhelming question… / Oh do not ask ‘What is it?’’. Here the reader is presented with the idea of a question that is overpowering and impossible to grasp. It is something that cannot be fully understood, emphasised by the ellipses ending the first line; they represent that taciturn quality. There is an air of silence in the face of a failure to comprehend. The narrator can only ‘lead’ to the subject, never explain or conclude. The poem is given an aimless, unsatisfied feel that ties in with the theme of sexual frustration. Indeed, later in the poem the narrator utters the hopeless ‘And how should I begin?’ – in this instance, the knowledge has departed completely, in much the same way as the nymphs in The Waste Land.
One of the more disorientating and conflicted aspects of steam of consciousness writing is that often the links between the disparate elements are not at all logical, but instead represent an innate and far more subconscious link. In one stanza, Eliot juxtaposes the ‘among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me’ with ‘To have squeezed the universe into a ball’ only three lines later. Here we have a dramatic difference in scale – from the trivial accoutrements of everyday life, to the vast interstellar expanse of space. At first, the contrast is disorientating and seemingly unrelated; but this forces the reader to search for meaning. Throughout the poem it is hard to determine what is literal and symbolic due to the flowing, ever-changing nature of the stream of consciousness technique. But looking at lines such as these from a psychological angle instead of a logical one, we again find links to the spiritual. With the ordinary life of the ‘porcelain’, ‘marmalade’ and ‘tea’ starved of any sexual content, the narrator is forced to speculate on far greater matters like the universe to fill their life with any kind of excitement and purpose. Again, the uneasy conflict between desire and religion hangs in the balance – two means of personal fulfilment that stand at odds with each-other. On a literal level, the lines may mean very little, but on a symbolic level, they are open to a great deal of interpretation.
The sense of frustrated isolation displayed in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ultimately leads to its most grotesque conclusion in part three of The Waste Land when Eliot uses the character of Tiresias. Unable to achieve satisfaction in a singular existence, the narrator now establishes themselves as a dual-sex being – ‘I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, / Old man with wrinkled breasts…’ Now the narrator is simultaneously one being, but also two – somehow melded together into a single creation that possesses both male and female characteristics. The image painted by ‘throbbing between two lives’ is deeply unsettling in its connotations of the Tiresias character somehow engaging in a sexual encounter with itself. The solution to the isolation has come at a cost too; this being is again prey to the overarching sense of decay that pervades Eliot’s poetry – it is ‘blind’, ‘old’ and ‘wrinkled’, a decrepit individual near the end of its natural life span. Just as London can be seen as the geographical manifestation of the tension between differing beliefs, Tiresias is the personal symbol for this conflict. As a character from Greek mythology they are at odds with Christian religious beliefs; a being centred around sexual satisfaction and wrapped up in the tension at the heart of Eliot’s poetry.
Eliot’s Preludes presents a different outlook on an all-encompassing individual. Whereas Tiresias is a thing of multiple sexes, the narrator of the Preludes expands themselves to an even greater size. We are told of the narrator and how ‘His soul stretched tight across the skies’ – the scale of the individual in question now spans the entire world. The most bizarre element of this image is that the inner element of their being – their soul – is now the outer part, a kind of skin that covers the Earth. Not only does this tie into the confused physical and sexual nature of the Tiresias character, but it also presents a visual symbolism for the conflict between the physicality of desire and the spiritual aspect of religion. In this globe-spanning state, the ‘infinitely suffering’ individual is attempting to escape isolation by covering the entire world, encompassing each and every of its countless peoples. To achieve this physical connection however, it must enter an impossible spiritual state – Eliot’s narrative states specifically that it is the ‘soul’ stretched over the world. Only this intangible, tacit, unexplainable part of a person is capable of achieving this feat – but in doing so it is ‘stretched tight’, close to breaking point; beliefs are challenged. Should man even be capable of achieving this feat of mental capacity? Or are they trying to play God in their search for pleasure? The links here with the tense conflict between desire and religious belief are clear.
Despite these grand, sweeping conceptual ideas of the conflict – tension on a universal level – Eliot is also capable of exploring the themes in a far more domestic capacity; as displayed in part two of The Waste Land. A scene of colloquial, everyday dialogue, it centres around a seedy truth; ‘He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time, / And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will’. Here, the innate human need for sexual encounters is exposed, the colloquial style almost lending it even more credibility; it is the word of the common people, the salt of the Earth. Any regards for specific partners and long-held bonds are disregarded – this is a chilling ‘any will do’ scenario. The general vagueness of ‘others will’ and the way it leaves itself open to a limitless number of potential sexual partners stands at odds with traditional Christian ideals of monogamy. Here, desire is the prevailing force, impossible to resist.
What makes Eliot’s poetry so strong is the way it deals with this fundamental conflict in a variety of ways. As would befit themes that stand as such a central part to human life such as desire and religious belief, he places these concepts at the heart of his poems. Influenced by his own sexual frustration and marital problems, there is an innate truth to what he writes. Whether exploring them through expansive, thought-like streams of sensation or placing the themes in realistic everyday situations, there is a power to the imagery – we understand the conflict and are made to experience every tension that is played out within the poems.
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Laity, Cassandra & Nancy Gish, Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Moody, David, The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)