The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock”, contains elements that coincide with Decadence and that diverge from it. One commonality between the two can be found in Eliot’s attention to surface details. He writes, “Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;” so as to say that something as trivial as a coffee spoon is how he is counts his entire life. He says too, “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” This brings importance to things that are purely surface details. We  also see sophistication of taste when Eliot writes, “Talking of Michelangelo”, “the taking of toast and tea”, “the cups, the marmalade, the tea, among the porcelain”, and “my morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, my necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.” These kind of sophisticated appearances of taste is common in Decadent writing, but I believe Eliot is using them in a much different way than, say, Wilde would. Wilde would perhaps say that taste and pleasure are more important than morality, but Eliot is using these examples of taste as a way to say that not even taste matters. We can find this when he writes, “I am no prophet- and here’s no great matter.”

Contrasting with Decadence and the sophistication of taste, however, we see Eliot write of things considered ordinary or even low-class. He writes of “sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells” and “the pools that stand in drains”. He also mocks those who speak with sophistication when he writes, “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-” and this is purposely meant to contrast with the examples of high taste mentioned above. He, like the modern age itself, is bringing “common” life into the “sophisticated” life. This is seen heavily through the food he mentions, alluding to the modern availability of varying kinds of food to the lower classes in cheaper ways.

our society at cranford.

Throughout this story, Elizabeth Gaskell makes the them of Darwin’s “natural selection” very evident. Natural selection is define by google as: the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. The author focused heavily on the external aspects of the characters describing some as “20 shades prettier” and others as sickly and pale. This represents the difference between those who may have been “selected” as opposed to those who have slim chances. The idea is that beauty is connected to strength and adaptability but it is not always the case. Some may have all the physical aspects yet not be able to adapt. This is manifested in her writing. The only character that represents all the qualities as explained in the previous stated definition is Miss Jessie Brown. She being the only one that survives proves that and especially being able to adapt and get married. Which is the second part of the definition; to produce more offspring. Being one that survived and adapted she will produce offspring who will be stronger and more capable of serving as well which will reinforce the idea that Darwin put forth.

It is very clear that the qualities we talked about in class (sweetness and beauty) are representative of the ability to adapt and survive. Darwin may suggest that maybe inherently people are subconsciously looking for a “mate” who will allow their offspring the best chance at survival.

The Victorian Age Youth

The Victorian age, preceded by the urban/industrial migration led to an increase in the population of the major cities in the United Kingdom. Although this period heralded an industrial revolution in which there was an improvement in the overall economy of the country, there was a growing disparate distinction between classes of the citizens. Set in London, Henry Mayhew, in his narrative titled “London Labor and the London Poor” sheds light on the predicament of the youth on the lower rungs of the economic ladder in the city. John Rosenberg describes the economic class distinction as “a vast, ingeniously balanced mechanism in which each class subsists on the droppings of the stratum above…”(1108), with Mayhew elucidating on the lowest class citizens of which the majority were the youth.

In all honesty, it is probably a stretch referring to the girl first interviewed in this narrative as a “youth”, however, her experience characterizes the quite unusual maturity possessed by the youth of that period. At the tender age of eight, the amount of responsibility shouldered by the girl is remarkable, and one that Mayhew finds difficult to come to terms with initially. Trying to adapt to this scenario, Mayhew “treated her as a child, speaking on childish subjects” so as to “remove all shyness, and get her to narrate her life freely. However, maybe even more incredulous is the way in which she takes her unusual situation in her stride. Mayhew narrates that her response to his attempts at childish prompts was a “look of amazement that…soon put an end to any attempt at fun”(1108).

Youth is quite rightly associated with a reckless abandon with possessions and a less to no-considered approach to wealth or money. The young girl in this narrative however responds to an inquisition on her spending habits with an interesting response. Mayhew writes that she says:

“All my money I earns I put in a club and draws it out to buy clothes with. It’s better than spending it in sweet-stuff, for them as has a living to learn.”(1110)

This highlights the maturity of the youth in this period, necessitated by the economic situation and the reluctance of family to add on responsibility besides themselves. Abandonment and having to fend for oneself is the theme of the narrative on the crossing-sweeper boy.

The youth of that period possessed independence along with the maturity earlier discussed. Even though she was the only family he had left, his sister gave him some money and told him to go get his own living. (1111) With that in mind, it is important to note, however, that the youth of that period still had that innate nature of the common youth with the need to be cared for. The boy narrates that “I saw sister after I left her, many times. I asked her many times to take me back…”(1112)

Mayhew’s narrative paints a picture of an unusual breed of youth forged by the difficult economic times, and in my opinion, neglectful adults, who have evolved to develop maturity way beyond their years and survive in the independence forced on them.

 

To the Lighthouse and the Desolation of the War

In “Time Passes,” Woolf uses the abandonment and decay of the house to foreshadow the desolation and loss of identity that England experiences following World War I. From the very opening the darkness that the war has brought to England is suggested. In the first chapter, all of the lights are put out. Following that, it begins to rain, and it seems as if “Nothing… could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness” (125-26) that comes creeping in and blurs all distinctions. The blurring of distinctions represents the loss of a clear sense of identity that has befallen the English. The house, abandoned by the fractured family that once maintained it, falls further and further into disorder as the family breaks up more and more. This represents England’s steady fracturing of identity which will make the country unable to forget what happened and return to the way things were.

There is a hint that the decay is contested in the person of Mrs. McNab who is first introduced as coming “to open all windows, and dust the bedrooms” (130). Being an older person, Mrs. NcNab probably represents the attempts of the older generation, and older traditions, to hold this new, desolate England together. However, as the war progresses, she eventually gives up. The task is “too much for one woman” (137), especially a woman who creaks and moans as much as the house itself. She  is forced to leave “the house alone, shut up, locked” (137), mirroring England’s own frozen, gloomy state.

At the same time, “Time Passes” demonstrates how the War renders human life meaningless, and yet nature does not care. The major events that will forever define and divide the family occur in brackets, almost as afterthoughts. It is a jolt when the reader suddenly learns that Mrs. Ramsay has “died rather suddenly”, leaving Mr. Ramsay to stumble in the dark (128), that “Prue Ramsay died that summer of some illness connected with childbirth” (132), that “Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsey” (133). The change of the seasons and the slow reclaiming of the house by nature become the main focus of the story. As the title tersely states: “Time Passes.” Humans’ petty lives are of secondary importance.

Eliot critiques education, isolation of individuals

Arnold believed that through education men could become (more) perfect individuals. As such individuals, they would be concerned with the social welfare of those around them and would work hard (within their respective classes and spheres) to better themselves and others morally and intellectually. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot presents the failure of this notion of culture. He depicts a place lacking in knowledge, and any kind of emotional attachment, occupied by isolated individuals.

The lack of knowledge, or the failure of education, is stated beginning on line 19: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stormy rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images…/ And the dry stone no sound of water” (19-24). Here, education is depicted as being thoroughly inadequate; men have no notion of their history (symbolized by the image of roots), or even of themselves in the present time (symbolized by the branches). Rather than the real, useful, knowledge and education that Arnold believed in, Eliot depicts a world in which men have only “A heap of broken images” for guidance. The lack of knowledge is further seen in the lack of water (“no sound of water”). Eliot emphasizes this towards the end of the poem, saying: “If there were water we should stop and drink / Amongst the dry rocks one cannot stop or think” (335-36). As water is often associated with knowledge, the inability to find any spring, pool, etc. anywhere to drink from symbolizes the ignorance of the modern age.

The fragmentation of culture is also reflected throughout the poem in the lack of any kind of emotional connection between individuals. Eliot describes London and a crowd in that “Unreal City” (60), but as the crowd moves “..each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (65), suggesting that there is no connection and no desire for connection among anyone. Everyone is only interested in his own business. This is also reflected in the interaction between the typist and the “young man carbuncular” (231). They sleep together but have no real connection; the typist “is bored and tired” (236) and the young man “makes a welcome of indifference” (242). This scene presents both an emotional and a moral decay. Whatever culture these two are a part of, it has not made them better human beings.

The ignorance of the isolation together help to undermine any kind of culture that unifies individuals to become some “people” who work for the public good and ordaer. Instead, every human thinks himself a prisoner (“We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (414-415) ). In this manner, Eliot critiques Arnold’s notion of culture, showing that it leads only to confusion and the fragmentation and withdrawal of the individual from others.

BLAST, the Individual, and WWI

 

To me, reading BLAST was more heartbreaking than it was interesting or surprising. The magazine represents the beginning of a tenuous attempt to glorify the individual, to make every individual, no matter his or her class, into a human being capable of art and artistic feeling. These individuals are not isolated though; they are united in a community of other individuals while maintaining their own individuality. The last line of “Long Live the Vortex” reads: “Blast presents an art of Individuals.” This struck me particularly hard. I feel a certain kinship I had not expected to feel; these authors seem to share my own zeal for the right and the worth of the individual. And yet, in a terrifying irony, these men, who believed so strongly in the individual, who founded a movement devoted to the individual, were about to enter into a war that would destroy the individual. WWI was a time of machines and statistics that showed horrific human fatalities. The concept of the individual that started to blossom in this magazine was buried beneath the overwhelming mass of the dead.

The way the magazine focuses on the individual is also found in the Manifestos. I read the contradiction of “blasting” and “blessing” the same thing simultaneously as an acknowledgment that good and evil exist in all things, and it is up to the individual to piece out what is worthwhile from what is broken and suffocating. Again, these individuals are part of a larger collective of individuals who transcend sides: “We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours” The individual is even sometimes promoted over countries, to the point where the magazine proclaims: “Blast First… England” (later England is blessed). This is gut-wrenching when one thinks of the war that is to come, and how it shall bind people more tightly than ever before into nationalistic units in an attempt to survive the carnage. Clearly, the magazine wished to knock the individual out of complacency, out of the mechanized, divided, modern times, but all of this was undone by WWI. Such notions of the individual as an artist and as on no particular side became vulgar and contemptuous, divisive when the country needed to stand strong. I cannot help but wonder what this movement would have become, what England and European literature were building towards in this and other similar journals, before the war interrupted.

Arnold: Using Hellenistic Education to Combat the Woes of Modernity

Arnold is dissatisfied with modernity to a greater extent than many of his contemporaries. This becomes clear in “Dover Beach” when he speaks of the wonders of modernity and technology that seem “So various, so beautiful, so new,” as having “… neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” The end result of modernity, as evidenced by the riots and unrest that Arnold say in his time, is a nation of men “…on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night. “ He echoes this ominous warning in Culture and Anarchy when he says: “[we English have] blind faith in machinery, because of our want of light to enable us to look beyond machinery to the end form which machinery is valuable” (1598). The English, and the moderns in general, have been swept up in the crush of modernity without real understanding of how they should be aiding their fellow men. They follow their trivial, selfish desires.

In his solution to the problems of modernity, Arnold is like many of his contemporaries. He feels that it is duty to use moral and intellectual methods to enact social and cultural reforms which benefit everyone. He sees education as the primary means to accomplish this reform. His definition of what kind of education is different; he advocates the liberal arts. Rather than a trade and machine oriented education, Arnold feels that the English must turn to an older Hellenism, which he believes would aid men in “the pursuit of sweetness and light (1598)” that is necessary to build a society committed to the welfare of the whole. He believes that Hellenism and a Hellenistic education allow “our consciousness free play and enlarging (1603),” which will help individuals look past their own selfish personal, class, and professional interests, and consider the good of the country as a whole. This theme is also echoed in his reference to Sophocles in “Dover Beach,” who hears the roar of the ocean, and into whose mind “it brought… the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.” Sophocles was one of the Ancient Greek tragic playwrights, and his themes echoed the disastrous consequences of the selfish individual.