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Alexander Gonzalez on T. S. Eliot

Eliot's Imagery
Home | Biography | Analysis of Eliot's Style | Themes of Eliot's Work | Themes, Analyzed | Eliot's Imagery | T. S. Eliot and the Modernist Movement | Eliot's Influence on Other Writers | T. S. Eliot's Influence on World Literature | Sample Work: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock | Literary Criticism for "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" | Quotes | Sample Work: Burnt Norton | Sample Work: East Coker | Sample Work: The Dry Salvages | Sample Work: Little Gidding | Favorite Links | Images | Works Cited

Unlike most writers with his level of difficulty, T. S. Eliot makes copious use of imagery throughout his work.  In many cases, over half of a poem, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” will consist of imagery delivered in various forms for various reasons.  Eliot shows impressive variety in the implementation and style of his imagery, but several patterns emerge on closer examination.


Especially in “Prufrock,” Eliot prefers metonymy over other methods of employing imagery.  He often refers to a person or idea via an associated one or a component part, or even a list of such things, to offer an idea of the obliqueness of the thought processes of his narrators:


And I have known the arms already, known them all--

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare

(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

Is it perfume from a dress

That makes me so digress?

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.

--“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”


In this selection, Eliot uses arms, and perfume, with references to bracelets, hair, and dresses, to refer to a group of women who recur throughout the poem and at the same time to offer a piecemeal impression of them to the reader.  The effect of referring to the whole by a part, particularly one externally visible but not actually part of the object or idea in question, is to create a fragmented, partial impression of the subject.  In turn, keeping the subject from assuming its full potential allows Eliot’s protagonist to treat it more like an object, heightening the bizarre, hopeless detachment that pervades most of his work.  Prufrock, for example, harps persistently about how he lacks the will to make the changes in the universe he so ardently desires, and in his despair he does not address the humanity of the women who are the focus of these desires, seeing them only as a means to his end.


Eliot’s images, similarly, are all linked by his pervasive themes of hopelessness, desolation (particularly in an urban context), and failure, as evidenced in this selection from “East Coker”:


The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.


In this case, he delivers the comparison between the entire world and a hospital via a simile, and continues the comparison with the accompanying metaphors, beginning with “Wherein…”  Characteristic of him, and likely surprising to the reader, is the demonizing of the hospital, which he contends is only a means of repression of the human spirit.


Overall, Eliot is one of the more prolific originators of imagery in poetry, and makes impressive use of such details within his work to convey ideas and themes even where they are unexpected.  He delivers his images in a variety of methods and with as many different results—metonymy, simile, and metaphor being his preferred methods and desolation and hopelessness his preferred themes.

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