T. S. Eliot was and remains renowned for his disheartening poetry and bleak outlook on life. His modernistic poems were centred on ideas of despair, futility, decay and general disappointment of what life has provided. It can be argued, however, that his poetry evolves into a more hopeful form of expression after he became a Christian. Of his renowned poems, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘East Coker’ are two comparable pieces that, together, provide insight to Eliot’s life, values and styles both pre and post conversion.
In ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Eliot has a cynical, pessimistic understanding of the world. In it, he writes of regret, longing, decay and despondency. Given the author’s milieu and context, ‘Prufrock’ is a poem which encompasses the desolate feel of America during the early 20th century. Prufrock’s focus on life’s futility and his awareness of mortality act as an unintentional foreshadowing to his life post-conversion.
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His dissatisfaction with the world around him, a world of “sawdust restaurants” and “cheap hotels,” compels him to believe that there is more to life as he sees it, that there is something he’s missing. The epigraph from Dante Alighieri’s ‘Inferno,’ a poem in which the protagonist travels down the sequential levels of Hell, suggests a lowering of Eliot’s life’s value, a descent into the saturnine, the dark. Indeed, ‘Prufrock’ takes responders on a largely downward ride, from the skyline in the first stanza, to street life, down stairs during a party, and ending the poem on the sea floor.
Prufrock gradually feels worse about himself in these situations; the reference to “Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” is the ultimate in melancholy, but they have more resonance when the Dante epigraph is considered. Prufrock, and by extension, T. S. Eliot himself is descending into Hell. ‘East Coker,’ like his pre-conversion poems, does not stray far from T. S. Eliot’s morbid writing style. He insinuates his previous poetry, claiming that all of his life’s achievements have “already been discovered once or twice, or several times / By men whom one cannot hope to emulate. It is in this new state of mind that Eliot shares similarities with the unknown author of Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. ” Eliot’s poetry becomes gradually more biblical in nature as he becomes more aware of himself as a Christian poet. His allusions to past poets become less frequent, and Eliot uses the Holy Bible for textual reference instead, but this does not necessarily provide the poem itself with a hopeful tenor.
Eliot, in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ is concerned of his reputation. The poet is fixated on how the public views and judges him. Eliot utilises vivid imagery to reduce himself to an insect, “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” to describe the way he feels under the gaze of critical eyes. However, in ‘East Coker,’ responders are presented with an alternate T. S. Eliot; one that does not care for Earth’s mortal criticisers. “For us, there is only the trying. / The rest is not our business. It is apparent to Eliot’s audience that he has realised the futility in attempting to please the masses, and has redirected his efforts to a more important, immortal cause. ‘East Coker,’ while being a post-conversion poem, is not light-hearted. In it, T. S. Eliot focuses on life and death, in whatever order. Eliot recognises the disorganized nature that humans share, and the invalidity of the sciences. Eliot insists that science and logic only leads mankind to warfare, and that humanity must develop humility in order to escape the cycle of damage inflicted on the world.
By provoking images of “wounded surgeons” and “dying nurses,” the poet emphasises the vainness of hospitals and medicines and, by creating allusions to biblical passages, points to Christ as being their only way of truly ‘healing’. “The dripping blood our only drink, the bloody flesh our only food. ” T. S. Eliot maintains his bleak outlook on man, but claims that there is indeed hope for all humanity, through Christ. The earlier poetry of T. S. Eliot, poems such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock, is filled with despair of the human condition.
Man is a weak soul, easily tempted and filled with covetousness, who has no hope for redemption. Having experienced World War I and The Great Depression first-hand, it is not unrealistic to assume his experiences and context had an impact on Eliot’s pessimistic demeanour and poetic style. After his conversion to Anglicanism, responders notice a more hopeful nature in T. S. Eliot’s distinctly modernist poetry. He adamantly maintains his ideas of man’s desperate plight, but supplemented that belief with the notion that man has some hope through the work of Christ, Earth’s “wounded surgeon. “