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A Disturbing Portrait of Uncertainty Amidst The Turmoil of Modern Life

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The poetry of T.S Eliot often portrays an unsettling, ominous portrayal of inherent modern-day turmoils as he depicts an atmosphere fuelled by anxieties yet is futile, and through his works he ponders the internal struggle of the modern man. The modern era saw an age of heightened anxiety and the collapse of traditionalism. With industrial advancements and technological developments came spiritual and moral uncertainty, creating breakdown and disorder within society. Eliot’s insightful poetry examines these widespread sense of despair, framing the turbulent nature of modernity. His poems ‘Preludes’(1917) and ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’(1917) both depict the uncertainty concerning this fragmented society. Particularly, these works explore a sense of disconnection as a consequence of rapid technological advancements which is manifested in the modern man. It is Eliot’s ability to express and comment upon the modern world in our contemporary society, where human interaction dissipates as a result of advanced technologies that allows his body of work to take its stance as a canonical text.


Eliot expresses the disturbing uncertainty plaguing modern societies prior to, during and following devastating revelations of the modern world, such as the World War I of Eliot’s era and the disenchantment associated with such turmoil. These circumstances fostered a sense of loneliness, and due to rapid industrialisation and the spread of urban life, the individual isolated from community and connection is reflected in “Preludes”. Eliot’s lack of detail regarding the city in which the poem takes place, this desolate environment. Eliot’s anti-Romantic imagery is expressed through a lexical chain of “grimy scraps”, “withered leaves” and an oppressive sense of hopelessness. This centers the universal nature of the struggles of modernity – the setting could be any big city and the inhabitants could reflect any of the readers. Eliot extends this despondency to the people through the images depicted by Eliot, which perpetuated his notion of the objective correlative. As such, the individual as reflected in the objects and images depicted reinforce the slow decay psychological and even moral decay of humanity. Such images as “the thousand sordid images /Of which your soul was constituted” as they “flickered against the ceiling” reflect the subconscious preoccupation with moral degradation. Further, the individuals of this modern urban society, don’t notice their own suffering, because they are like others in the city landscape, reduced to the perfunctory worker with a busy schedule of “insistent feet/At four and five and six o’clock”, which is a metaphor for the oppressive demands of urban city life, the rhythm of the accumulative statement suggesting the trampling of feet in the bustling environment. *LINK SENTENCE*

Eliot, once more represents the world’s urbanisation that fostered feelings of disenchantment and disconnection of individuals from community and which ultimately led to the fragmentation of society in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’. Eliot articulates an authentic reflection of life in this society, “An old crab with barnacles on his back” depicting the despondency of the modern man, despite the supposed ‘progression’ of society, through the synecdoche of the crab, presenting him as unable to move forward in life despite the rapidly changing modernist world. The same manner in which Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ paints an accumulation of sordid, fragmented images of the persona’s physical surroundings as a means to express the state of mind of the individual in a fragmented society. A similar form is adopted in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ as audiences traverse the streets with the persona as he reminisces on an array of similarly sordid images. In both of these poems, Eliot in turn symbolises the state of society and the internal state of individuals within this despondent modern world. Particularly in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, Eliot depicts a woman who “hesitates towards you in the light of the door whose dresses border is torn and stained with sand” through the purposeful diction, he alludes to the hesitancy of the woman and her actions, as she gauges the persona’s reception of her and expresses the tensions present between individuals despite living in the same society. Eliot furthers this disconnect through his imagery of the shadows symbolising such disassociation and also evokes a sense of detachment from the conscious-self and as such, represents the widespread disconnection felt within this fragmented society. Similarly, ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ explores this sense of disconnection. In the fourth stanza, the persona articulates “the hand of a child, automatic, slipped out and pocketed a toy… I could see nothing behind that child’s eye” Eliot illustrates a homeless child who, like the woman, has been desensitised to his surroundings as suggested by his lack of emotion in what is normally perceived as an act of youthful anticipation. Eliot illustrates this disturbing portrait of the dissociation of individuals to their emotional self, as a result of the societal turmoil in the modern era.

Although Eliot’s poetry, to an extent, paints a dark picture of despondency and turmoil of the modern era, it is also arguable that he ponders the possibility of hope and wisdom within his poems. Despite his seemingly weary and disconsolate poetic tone, Eliot also explores the individual yearning for existentialism and transcendence. The voice of moral and spiritual degradation provides scope to the transcendental themes. This is evident in his poem ‘Preludes’, in stanza IV where the persona says: “I am moved by these fancies that are curled around these images, and cling: The notion of some infinitely gentle…thing”. This sombre tone, brought about by an authorial interjection, alludes to the ‘clinging’ to a desperate hope for meaning beyond the modern mundanity of society. Eliot’s terminology of ‘infinitely’, having transcendental connotations, further suggests this yearning something more substantial. Although this existential tangent is short-lived, it provides audiences with a glimpse of hope for a purposeful life, hence enabling them to see the value of humanity, even amidst a cold, suffering society. In Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody of a Windy Night’ he explores similar notions as the poem begins with: “Twelve o’clock. Along the reaches of the street held in a lunar synthesis, whispering lunar incantations.” The time Eliot establishes often has many connotations to a ‘witching-hour’ and magic, establishing a sense of dark enchantment. Furthermore, Eliot personifies the moon as a source of wisdom, as suggested by ‘whispering’, encouraging the persona to presume his exploration of the night and, perhaps, to presume his personal existential reflection on both society and himself. Rather than introducing these concepts at the end, Eliot introduces them at the start as the audience journeys with the persona on his reminiscence during the late hours of the night. These late hours of the night are often associated with vulnerability and existential contemplation, which in turn, may be what the persona is ‘weighing up’ as he reflects on a series of vignettes. The poem ends with the persona returning to his tedious life, where these recollections will be forgotten. For the modern audience, this may have been perceived as encouragement to consider these concepts of a greater individual purpose; to consider the prospect of something beyond a life of banal routines. Eliot highlights the brief but evident notions of hope and yearning for transcendental meaning in his poetry and their embedment in humanity; even in the modern era.


Both Eliot’s poems ‘Preludes’ and ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ address the turmoil and confusion of modern existence. Eliot sought to enlighten audiences of the widespread despondency felt by individuals, condemning them to a life lacking in both meaning and purpose. However, Eliot also introduced slight glimmers of the yearning for meaning throughout his poetry, as a means to provide a sense of hope in the desolate era of modernism.  

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A Disturbing Portrait Of Uncertainty Amidst The Turmoil Of Modern Life. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 28, 2021, from
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