?Compare the ways in which Eliot and Yeats write about relationships between men and women- in the response you must include detailed critical discussion of at least two Eliot poems. In T. S. Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, themes of insecurity, masculinity, propriety and theatricality are addressed. Similarly, W. B. Yeats also draws upon these themes in his poem He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven. Both poets successfully weave these characteristic ideas so skillfully that the reader obtains a real sense of relationships in modern society. In The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock, the narrative voice is one of a neurotic, pathetic man who manages to be both vain and insecure at the same time. Eliot presents Prufrock to the reader as a bumbling, anxious wreck who has to ask “Do I dare to eat a peach? ” The fact that Eliot has Prufrock use the word ‘dare’, a verb that is usually associated with adventure and pushing boundaries, in such an ordinary context shows the reader that they are faced with an impotent character who finds it hard to contend with everyday life. He has never had a meaningful relationship, consigned to ‘restless nights in one-night cheap hotels’.
Eliot’s use of the word ‘restless’ indicates his disillusionment with modern relationships, alluding to the fact that peace cannot be gained when the physical embodiment of love is ‘cheap’. ‘Cheap’ is a powerfully damning word that hints at sordid encounters which diminish love’s essence- something that was once regarded as eternal is now commonplace. Eliot also explores Prufrock’s preoccupation with his body image, when it is “Time to turn back and descend the stair/With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-/(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!
’)” He is worried about people judging his physicality behind his back and his fear of ageing consumes him to the point that he imagines voices judging him. However, the reader is not encouraged to feel empathy for Prufrock’s predicament, as his self-absorption is made clear when he asks ‘Do I dare/ Disturb the universe? ’ Not only is this question conceited, it is also hopelessly self-doubting, furthering the reader’s assumptions that the protagonist is paralysed with indecision. He truly believes that his actions could have a negative impact on the entire
universe. In this way, Prufrock is shown to be held back by his own inertia, scared to do anything, revealed by Eliot’s repetition of ‘Do I dare? ’ The repetition of ‘Do I dare’ embodies the reason why Prufrock has never had a satisfying relationship- he because he is unwilling to do anything to change himself, he is a character stuck in stasis, forever hoping that ‘there will be time’. In Portrait of a Lady, Eliot presents the relationship between man and woman as being contrived, overshadowed by an overwhelming sense of theatricality.
Immediately we understand the artificiality of their love from the first line of the poem, ‘Among the smoke and fog’. ‘Smoke’ being a cheap parlour trick used throughout the ages to strengthen a weak magician’s show and therefore highlighting the staginess of the couple’s relationship. Alternatively, smoke could imply that their love is choking and stifling, unhealthy and poisonous. ‘Fog’ also hints at a lack of communication, as fog is a weather condition that is extremely hard to see through and connotes clouding of judgment, perhaps indicative of the man’s reluctance to proceed further in the relationship.
The motif of the concert is cleverly manipulated by Eliot to provide an insight into the performed nature of their relationship, introduced ‘through attenuated tones of violins’, the word ‘attenuated’ being key as it already indicates that the man and woman’s bond is thin. However despite this weak foundation, it ‘begins’ but soon enough, as is inevitable with performances, becomes tired and the man indicates his boredom with the insight that ‘inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins’.
The use of the adjective ‘dull’ leaves no questions as to the man’s feelings and Eliot’s onomatopoeic ‘tom-tom’ informs us of the repetitive nature of the relationship. Eliot relates this distancing from the relationship to his view of modernity as a whole, with his mocking statement, ‘there is at least one “false note. ”’ Eliot believes that love in modern society has taken a turn for the worse and reeks of falsities, lacking in substance and ingenuity. This is corroborated by his grand denunciation of love’s once sweet music as a ‘capricious monotone’.
Yeats offers an opposing view to Eliot’s on relationships in He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven by evoking images of old-fashioned, pre-modern, traditional love. Yeats’ protagonist despite being ‘poor’, claims that if he had ‘heavens’ embroidered cloths/enwrought with golden and silver light’ would ‘spread the cloths under your feet’. Yeats evokes opulent imagery of heavens’ finest materials mixed with the most precious of metals and this romantic imagery signifies that love is not as tarnished as Eliot makes it out to be, drawing parallels with Shakespeare’s vivid depictions of courtly love.
Furthermore, this ‘poor’ man who would benefit greatly from these possessions, makes the ultimate sacrifice and proposes his lover walks upon them, glorifying her to the point that even her feet deserve these ‘cloths of heaven’ indicating that he believes she is worth more than riches and signifying that he believes richness resides within the heart. Throughout The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot shows disregard for relationships and highlights Prufrock’s resignation to isolation as a result of his low self-esteem and degraded sense of masculinity.
Prufrock is so forlorn that he asserts ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas’. This denotes his self-pitying manner and announces that he places himself at the bottom of the social order, ‘floors of silent seas’ being the lowest point one can reach before descending into the molten core of the earth. He compares himself to a crab, a detritus feeder that cannot hunt its own prey and instead relies on scavenging the victories of others.
Crabs are also solitary animals and this is perhaps Eliot having Prufrock admit that there isn’t time and he resigned to a life alone. ‘Scuttling’ is a verb that suggests sideways movement, highly indicative of Prufrock’s inertia and failure to move forwards with his life. His emasculation was typical of men in his day, affected by the aftershocks of the Great War, where they struggled to find their place in a radically altered society, where the foundations of the once great British Empire were crumbling.
Prufrock is so concerned with his masculinity that he is hypersensitive to the voices of others, which say “but how his arms and legs are thin”. He feels that he does not represent the masculine ideal that women who talk ‘of Michelangelo’ desire. Prufrock’s tale is made immeasurably tragic when he claims ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons. ’ The fact that he can even begin to think of measuring his life indicates how little he has achieved. ‘Coffee spoons’ serving as Eliot’s device to further ridicule his static life, being an extremely small measurement.
Eliot subverts the gender stereotypes of conventional relationship dynamics in Portrait of a Lady, by having the woman endeavour to enamour the man and in doing so substantiates his thesis that modern relationships are discordant. The male shows a distinct lack of effort, needing to ‘take the air in a tobacco trance’ to deal with his relationship. The fact that he requires some kind of intoxication to cope with his ‘insistent’ partner shows obvious disregard for their relationship. Eliot’s continued use of the motif of ‘smoke’ indicates pretense and serves to create a barrier between the man and woman.
On the other hand, it can also be seen as a sign of the relationship having burnt out, leaving nothing but ‘smoke’. o The man’s total lack of emotion is epitomised when he claims ‘I must borrow every changing shape to find expression’. The verb ‘borrow’ suggests that he does not own the emotions he portrays, he simply prepares a face for an assumed role and when he is done with it, simply returns it. This is an example of the man acting as he feels necessary due to social propriety, rather than representing his true nature and is perhaps indicative of an inherent insecurity, drawing parallels with Prufrock.
Despite Yeats’ proposed attempt to showcase a romantic ideal, similarities can be drawn with Eliot, in the sense that due to uncertainty of modernity, the male is not always as confident as assumed. Despite Yeats’ protagonist doing his best to describe the vivid, magnificent tableaux of the superlative ‘embroidered cloths’, it is suddenly exposed that ‘being poor, have only my dreams’. He has spoken with such conviction in the lines before about what he is willing to offer up to his love, when suddenly it transpires that nothing he was talking about existed or ever will.
Alternatively, this could be read as Yeats’ belief that the changing face of modernity at the turn of the century left people with nothing but ‘dreams’. Yeats also has his protagonist weary of heartbreak, made apparent when he pleads ‘tread softly, for you tread on my dreams’. He recognises that he is opening himself up to her and is therefore more susceptible to hurt. The use of ‘tread softly’ belies a certain apprehensive and nervous approach to courtship, atypical of the stereotypical male lover.
Courtney from Study Moose
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