T.S. Eliot’s ‘modern man’ is embodied through the characters in ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘Preludes’. His depicts a man who is forlorn and irrational, living amongst a superficial, monotonous society, in a squalid urban setting. Modernist poetry challenged the conventional style of poetry of the time, through the use of technical innovation and free verse. Modernist poets, such as Elliot, formed a new style of writing as far contradicting the romantic genre as possible.
Modernist poetry emerged in the early 20th century, when the prospect of war was imminent, and continued to develop into the 21st century. Besides literature, similar changes took place across other art forms, such as the development of Cubism by Picasso and Braque, and Stravinsky and Schoenberg on the music scene. Eliot’s main focal point and the one of many artists around him was WW1 and the tension it incited. The changes that took place were a cultural reaction to the rapid change that Europe was going through. Eliot’s characters show a loss of faith and spirituality, rooted in the idea of living in a godless universe.Order now
Eliot describes the decadence of modern living in both poems. In ‘Prufrock’ he depicts ‘one-night cheap hotels’ and says ‘women come and go talking of Michelangelo’, they also seem a little pretentious. In ‘Preludes’ there is a lot of imagery in the first and second stanzas relating decadence to food and smells, ‘faint stale smells of beer’ and ‘smell of steaks in passageways’. The food has already been consumed so the smell is second-hand and like other objects in ‘Preludes’ it is the remains of something.
It seems that morals have been thrown aside and life has become overly structured and entirely disconnected from nature. The characters in both poems see the need to create occasion so they can interact with others, to cover up what is clearly a problem of social paralysis. In ‘Prufrock’ Eliot describes ‘the taking of toast and tea’, he does not use the word ‘eating’ or ‘having’. It is as if it is a medicine they must take every day. This is because it seems people are not only superficial around others but towards themselves, they will not think as an individual about their actions and how they respond to the people around them. As Pirandello stated ‘We think we understand each other, but we never really do’. Eliot’s characters do not even understand themselves.
Eliot’s main focus is on the isolation of the individual. Prufrock is held back by his own psychological fear of rejection, and the characters in ‘Preludes’ are physically isolated. In ‘Preludes’ everyone does things as a part of a group, they ‘press to early coffee stands’ with what Eliot describes as ‘the other masquerades’, no-one does anything as an individual, no-one is himself or herself. They become automatons in an urban mechanical setting. Solipsism features heavily in ‘Preludes’ as it shows a weakness in what otherwise comes across as a mechanical un-assuming race. Eliot’s description of the public as ‘the other masquerades’ conjures up strong imagery. The people seem to be haunted by an almost Freudian feeling of neurosis, being judged by the rest of society. This is ironic as that is how Prufrock and the characters in ‘Preludes’ feel.
Eliot uses the emotionally stilted Prufrock as an extreme example of modern man. He is over-educated and lost. His isolation from society leads to him not knowing himself. There is a belief that you can only understand yourself from the criticism of others, otherwise, like him, you would only see one view of the world. He has an obsession with himself that would verge on Narcissism if it were not for his uncertainty as to how he feels about himself.
When thinking about the beach he states in confidence ‘I will wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled up’ in an attempt to be youthful, but then contradicts this with ‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each, but I do not think they will sing to me’. When he thinks about himself Prufrock seems to feel he is not as good as other people. However, he cannot express his feelings to himself, which indicates a failure of language to communicate, ‘It is impossible to say what I mean’ – Prufrock. It seems we can only understand Prufrock to the level we do, through Eliot’s fragmented modernist style.
Eliot seems to focus on the outcasts of the groups, such as the insomniac in ‘Preludes’ and Prufrock. They amplify what is a problem for society on the whole. They are probably more interesting as they see things from a different perspective and are enlightened, although they are neurotic. Everyone else is physically and psychologically alike. The message that comes across is that everyone is an ‘outsider’, but their lack of communication with others means they cannot ever understand themselves. They all suffer from a failure to connect in what is clearly a fragmented and chaotic modern world.
Eliot’s portrayal of ‘modern man’ is pessimistic and confused. The characters in both ‘Preludes’ and ‘Prufrock’ struggle to make sense of their lives and how to cope with working in the city. In ‘Preludes’ it is particularly evident that modern man has become detached from the natural world and caught-up in fulfilling the tasks other people have given him, to the extent that he does not consider his actions and life has become routine. Prufrock is insecure and retiring, Eliot is perhaps using him as an example of what happens to peoples’ minds living in the modern world. Eliot’s modern man is shallow and un-spiritual, he is scared to think to himself about life as it seems to be one long struggle and a race against time, yet he will not interact with others because of their fear of judgement and rejection.