Gerontion by T. S. Eliot: Critical Analysis

Gerontion is a dramatic monologue of an old man who reminisces about his lost power to live and his last hope of spiritual rebirth which is a symbol of sterility and paralysis. It is the most important poem in 1920 volume. It is well-known that Eliot intended the 'Gerontion' of 1920 to be a part of The Waste Land of 1922, which was already in preparation, and that Ezra Pound dissuaded him. Hence the poem stands by itself.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

The beauty of the poem lies in the way Eliot has so boldly used his source material. Unlike "Prufrock" Gerontion is constructed out of echoes of literature, and Eliot has fitted these quotations together like parts of a fishing rod. Yet the suggestion of a voice, a character, a personal tragedy is very strong. Benson's life of Fitzgerald supplies the main setting, the "waiting for rain", the boy, the blindness, even the housekeeper making tea. Henry Adams supplies the pessimistic philosophy of history, and of Nature as chaos. Blake and the Bible (plus Jonathan Edwards and possibly Lancelot Andrewes, both theologians) supply Jesus Christ as the tiger and the wrath-bearing Cross. Many phrases and lines were suggested by Eliot's reading of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. Among the plays directly quoted or used in other ways (for theme, material or parody) are Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy, Chapman's Bussy D' Ambois and Biron, Jonson's The Alchemist, Middleton's The Changeling and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and The Merchant', of Venice.

The old man in Gerontion is neither completely realistic character as Prufrock and the Lady were, nor does he symbolize a particular social class. He is an allegorical figure who represents the shrunken state of Western religious 'tradition and the morbid preoccupation of modern man with his own degradation. Gerontion symbolizes a civilization founded on money values and secular rationalism, with no religious communion or human sense of community, a nightmare world of isolation and instability of restless nervous and intellectual activity, emotional stagnation and spiritual drought.

Superficially, in this poem, as in the The Waste Land, what appears to be contrasted is the "good old days" and "the bad new days. But it's easier to see, in this poem, that if such a contrast exists, it is extremely superficial. The contrast that is important is the contrast between the secular history, western man and the promise of salvation through Christ. The history of western man is paralleled by Gerontion. The mysterious figures - Mr. Hakagawa, Madame de Tornquist, Fraulein Von Kulp - are symbols of the modern inheritors of the desolation: they are, as their names imply, international, rootless. He comes in "Depraved May" the Easter season, the time of the crucifixion and denial. Depraved May returns annually, rhythmically, in any age without love. Spring both stirs lust and answers lust. It is the spring, which stirs the aged Gerontion into his monologue.

The poem is interesting largely as a training ground for The Waste Land. All of the techniques which Eliot brought to fruition in the latter poem were tested in this one. The dissolution of time, the system of allusion, and even the metrical experimentation within the limits of a much order metrical system, tested in Gerontion. The religious ideas, the philosophical ideas, from Bergson and Gourmont, the literary ideas, from Joyce, are all woven into the fabric of this poem, foreshadowing the more sophisticated use of all of them in The Waste Land.

While the poem is a prelude to The Waste Land, it is still a significant work in its own right. It is certainly an advance over Prufrock, a poem in which the problem is personal so that its social applicability has to be inferred. By contrast, here the overt statements about history constitute a critique of civilization. But even, so the poem is a symbolization of a problem which the Fisher King myths in Jessie Weston's book made him possible for him to objectify in The Waste Land. This poem helps to point up the continuity of Eliot's thinking, for Gerontion is a Fisher King figure without the framework of the myth. There is a real kingship between Gerontion and Tiresias.

The admirable blank verse of the poem is based on Eliot's careful study of the post-Shakespearean dramatists. Eliot not merely revives the blank verse rhythms of the Jacobean dramatist; he develops them so that in his hands, they become something new with a genuine relationship to contemporary speech. The feeling and the tone are desperate and deeply pessimistic. There is a blackness and bleakness of the soul, unlike the self-mocking failure of middle-aged Prufrock. It is as if Eliot had moved decisively towards despair.

The poem is difficult, chiefly because of the fusions it creates. Firstly, there is a fusion of individual humans and humanity. Gerontion is an old man and any old man. Mr Silvero and the other sinister-sounding foreigners in that section are specific representatives of the general decline of religion. Secondly, there is a fusion of present and past. Gerontion's mind shifts continually between his present situation and his past memories. His very name recalls the ancient past, as does the war reference to Thermopylae; but modern events are also part of history, hence the references to present (1919) events at the end of the First World War. Gerontion also worries about the decay of religion from Christ to the present debasements, the whisper of devotion now offered to decadent gods : Mi. Silvero (silver = money?) worhips his valuable porcelains; Hakagawa (as in Japanese, could haka = tomb, gawa = take the side of?) worships dead artists; Madame de Tornquist (does her name suggest something torn, tattered and twisted?) is holding some kind of spiritual sense, perhaps a Black Mass (the candles as on altar), with Fraulein von Kulp (Latin culpa = guilt?) apparently a guilty accomplice or client.

The poem is laden with quotations from the literatures of the past and present, woven into the central emotive and tonal structure. In 1917, Eliot had written about the necessity for tradition in his famous essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. According to this essay, no poet is an island. He is, whether he likes it or not, a link in a chain of writers passing from the remote past through him and on to the future. There is simply no such thing as a totally original independent talent. The new writer is not only the product of tradition, he is part of it, and what he does may well alter it. New poets mean new and fresh assessments of the old hierarchy. In Gerontion, T. S. Eliot puts his theory into practice by weaving quotations and references so closely into his own text that it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Gerontion by T. S. Eliot: Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 6 Oct. 2017,