English Advanced Module B Exemplar Essay - T.S. Eliot
Module B Essay Question
“When you engage with works of quality you often feel, and continue to feel, that your internal planes have shifted, and that things will never quite be the same again.”
To what extent does this statement resonate with your considered perspective of TS Eliot’s poetry？
HSC English Exemplar Essay Response
Good literature has the power to take us as readers on a journey with the author. This is evident in TS Eliot’s modernist suit of poetry TS Eliot: Selected Poetry, particularly ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (Love Song) (1915) as well as ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925). These texts and their use of literary devices provide readers with a glimpse into another perspective from a time long gone. As a result, our own views and internal planes are challenged and altered. This change is permanent, exposing readers to ideas beyond their own. Thus, these poems have shaped the views of countless individuals and will continue to do so to a large extent.
When confronted with literature that is challenging and engaging, the individual has no option but to ponder its central messages. In ‘Love Song’, Eliot establishes this through prolific use of the Flanuer, connoisseur of the streets and a lonely, observing wanderer. Created within a context of mass urbanisation and mechanisation, this figure walks through new streets and society that is continually changing. Personally, this poem was finished shortly after the death of Eliot’s close friend, Jean Verdenel in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 and hence this poem encapsulates the futility of conflict as well as modern society. This is evident in the opening lines as the flaneur says “Let us go then you and I / as the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherised on a table.” This stark and confronting juxtaposition mirrors that of the title where ‘love song’, with musical and romantic connotations, is juxtaposed with ‘J Alfred Prufrock’ as a proper noun. This consequently results in readers immediately feeling uncomfortable as their expectations for what to expect within traditional poetry are crushed. Exacerbated through repetition as he writes “There will be time, there will be time.”, Eliot comments on how his society has made him passive, procrastinating the search for meaning with temporary satisfactions. He further comments on British high society, questioning whether “Should I, after tea and cake and ices, have the strength to force this moment to its crisis?”. Here, Eliot and the flaneur are begging themselves to find the strength to create their own meaning in society. Thus, they reach out to the audience to change their ways，acting as a cautionary tale for the ambivalence the two experience. Finally, this is exemplified as Eliot writes “I have seen moments of my greatness flicker” and the visual connotation of achievements as flickering like a candle indicate how Eliot believes that a modernist society inhibits individuals from being their own person and finding meaning. As John Xiros Cooper so effectively summarised, “[modernist society] make us passively abject.” This highlights how Eliot’s context minimised his ability to find peace and understanding. Within a world of upheaval, the individual becomes lost. Reading this as a contemporary audience, it is impossible to ignore our own suffocating society of change. Consequently, this poem allows for readers to understand the futility of their attempts of finding the meaning of life and existence. This ultimately shifts their internal understanding irrevocably and unchangingly.
Further, the futility of life and religion leave readers with no guidance or advice in finding continuity. This is evident in Eliot’s The Hollow Men, which uses an extended metaphor of the river Styx (the purgatorial border between life and death) and intertextual references to establish the meaningless nature of a life without faith. After suffering a nervous breakdown and institutionalisation in 1921, this poem is a manifestation of this desolation and pain. Evident as he writes “This is the dead land. This is the cactus land.” the allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedies, a text discussing hell and purgatory, it becomes evident that the setting of the poem is one of indecision and judgement. This is further established through the epigraph alluding to Guy Fawkes, “A penny for the old guy”and to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as he writes “Mistah Kurtz - he dead”. Both these allusions discuss legacy and how you’re remembered once you die. Fawke’s death is celebrated by children to this day, with Mr Kurtz repenting on his deathbed, begging “What have I done?”. Consequently, Eliot’s inclusion of these two epigraphs at the beginning of his poem create lingering questions of what death means and what an unsatisfying life means. Hence, as he writes “We are the Hollow men. We are the stuffed men.”, the inclusive language of ‘we’ draws all readers into the discussion of whether they’ve lived a worthy life. Eliot links this to religious pursuits as he writes “Lips that should kiss / form prayers to broken stone”. This alludes to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, comparing their romance to the paradoxical nature of religion. Providing both a mechanism for damnation in Hell as well as eternal salvation，Eliot questions whether a religious life would in any form change his circumstance. Xiros Cooper effectively expands on this, arguing that “We are not surprised when it ends with a defeated stammer”. Essentially, Eliot’s consistent allusions to other texts and metaphors to being ‘hollow’ create a questioning persona surrounding life and religion and its influence on judgement. Consequently, readers are forced to go on this journey with Eliot as they engage with this poem, considering their own answers relating to life, death and purgatory. And, once these questions are in your head, they are impossible to get out.
Having considered Eliot’s suite as a whole，it is evident that his poetry impacts readers on a fundamental level because it discusses issues pertinent to everyone. This is particularly true for The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Hollow Men, discussing the dangers of a changing society and purgatory itself respectively. As a result, the reader’s understanding of themselves and their broader society is fundamentally and permanently altered.