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The Function of Epigraph in T.s Eliot's Poetry 

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Conclusion
  3. Works Cited


The Love Song of John Alfred Prufrock, The Wasteland, and The Hollow Men poems are written by Thomas Stearns Eliot. In the beginning of the poems, all of them have epigraphs. And this paper aims to analyze the background of the poet, background of the epigraph, information about poems and finally the relation and function between epigraphs and poems.

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Thomas Stearns Eliot was US-born English poet, playwright and literary critic. The poems of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land are among the most prosperous exampleso of the 20th century modernist poetry. Harward University graduate Eliot worked as a clerk in a bank. Later he founded the Faber and Faber publishing house, where he published his poems. He was deeply influenced by the anti-romantic feelings and we can say that he was an anti-romantic poet. Because their too much emphasis on the feeling of the heart, on the subjectivity makes the other part of the psyche. It makes the human nature totally fragmented. He tries to express his vision in precise and clear images. But these images are not integrated or holistic. They are like parts of the puzzles. T. S Eliot has always been restless to find his own on place in the hierarchy. And he was deeply interested in becoming a great poet like Homer, Shakespeare or Dante in the past. Anxiety of influence is a psychological trauma T. S Eliot suffers from. This modern man has lots of hesitations whether unshould act or not. A poet experiences whether he can become a giant figure like the past poets. He died in London in 1965. Believing that art and philosophy are two great powers that keep society alive, Eliot believes in the views of ‘art to live’ and ‘philosophy to ascend.’

Epigraph is a sentence, quote or poem at the beginning of a work or a chapter. The short quotations taken by another literary work or written by the author are referred to at the beginning of the chapter. These are the short directions and messages that an author offers to the reader at the beginning of the section.Reader should establish a link between epigraph and poetry. The epigraphs have enigmatic meanings. Initially, we cannot able to understand totally the aim of the quotation which is taken from other works. Here, We must establish a connection between the work we read and the epigraph. Only when we establish the link between epigraph and poetry, we can understand the purpose of epigraph. I will indicate some epigraphs which are taken from T. S Eliot’s poetry. And I will mention the relationship between the poem and the epigraph.

“S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,

Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.”1

(Dante, Inferno, Canto XXVII, II. 61-66)

The Love Song of John Alfred Prufrock is written by T. S Eliot in 1910 and published in 1915 which is considered one of the excellent works of modernist period. Alienation, isolation, indecision, aging, passivity and time themes are very important for this period This poem is a dramatic monologue. In this poem, we see the speaker’s anxieties, preoccupations of his inner life, his indecision and his cowardness. This poem’s title is highly ironic. Actually this is a love song of modern man is totally stuck in coffee houses thinking not the big matters but the small issues. The epigraph’s english translation is that.“ If I thought my answer were to one who ever could return to the world, this flame should shake no more; but since none ever did return alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer thee.” The Love Song of John Alfred Prufrock poem’s epigraph date from Dante’s Inferno xxvıı.61-66. Actually words in epigraph are to Dante of Guido da Montefeltro. However, we can see that the relation between Dante and T. S Eliot. This epigraph proves this situation. Guido de Montefeltro was a former Captain of the Ghibellines. And he was a collaborator of the Pope Boniface. Siebzehner-Vivanti tells us that ‘Dante ebbe per lui grande ammirazione per il suo carrattere indomito e il suo valore di condottiere;

per quanto condannasse i mezzi astuti e ingannevoli cui spesso ricorse.’ 2 Guido da Montefeltro was being punished in the eight circle of the Inferno. Guido da Montefeltro was a condemned spirit. And in the epigraph Prufrock identities with the Guido da Montefeltro. He is a character which is condemned for doing wrong and devious counseling. Guido hesitates whether to answer to Boniface. But he knows that there are two ways damnation or salvation. He must choose one of them. As for Prufrock, he is the representative of the modern man. Guido resides in the Christian world of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Epigraph puts forwards the hesitation and obscurity of Guido and Prufrock. Guido decides to inform Dante about his sin. Because he was ensured by Dante. Dante says that you will not return to earth. But he is in hell. There is no chance to come back. And Prufrock is a indecisive, coward, meticulous a fool character. Both of them are indecisive coward characters. They have overwhelming questions. Guido looks like a person speaking of his problems.On the other hand, Prufrock did not do that. They are not brave enough to explain their true feelings and thoughts. Actually we understand from the epigraph, like Guido, ; Prufrock is an indecisive character.

“NAM Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: :Vj3vXXa TL 6&XL1; respondebat illa:…”3

(Petronius, Satyricon, sec. 48)

The epigraph’s translation is that : “Yes, and I myself with my own eyes saw the sibly hanging in a cage ; and when the boys cried at her : ‘Sibly, Sibly, what do you want?’ ‘I would what I were dead ; she used to answer.” This epigraph derives from Satyricon written by Petronius. When we look at the epigraph, we see the main themes of Wasteland that death, infertility, hopelessness. Wasteland is an English writer T. S Eliot ‘s masterpiece that reflected the crisis of the first years of the 20th century was published in 1922. The beginning of modern poetry and it is hard to understand the poem. After the First World War, human character highly changed. People’s world view, thoughts, their attitudes and approaches to life changed. People’s psychological and emotional state of Britain changed aftermath the first World War. And the authors sought new ways of writing. They saw traditional ways of writing as inadequate. And so, They used stream of consciousness and interior monologue technique in their writings. Because they wanted to show their inner and psychological realities of man. Lack of communication, aloneness, solitariness, existentialism, trauma and gloom are some of themes of modernist writing. And they believed that there is no absolute truth. In Wasteland T. S Eliot wanted to show us that there is no sense of life in modern society. The Wasteland has five sections, these are ‘The Burial of the Dead’, ‘A Game of Chess’, ‘The Fire Sermon’, ‘Death By water’, and ‘What the Thunder Said’. The Cumaean Sibyl had asked Apollo for long life but neglected to ask for long youth. This is the context of the epigraph. Sibyls were prophetesses who were piece of the mythology of several cultures in the ancient world in Greece. Cumaean Sibyl wanted to eternal life. But he did not to worry for eternal youth.And so, time passes and she was incapable to die. She was like in a jar. She wanted to die because she is old and ugly. Youth and beauty are very important reason to live. And this suffering is eternal because of her vanity. This is a sort of death in life. We can resemble the Cumaean Sibyl to Wasteland. Because she is like a trapped mouse or we can look alike her like a caged bird. Therefore, she is in the wasteland. She is in disillusionment. Like Wasteland, she is in hopelessness.

“Mistah Kurtz-he dead.4

(Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness,’ Youth

and Two Other Stories, New York, 1925, p. 150)

A penny for the Old Guy.” 5

(Guy Fawkes Day chant)

The Hollow men is written by T. S. Eliot. The poem’s theme is like T.S.Eliot’s other poems. The poem is divided into five parts. This poem has many traces from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The characters of the poem are Guy Fawkes and his friends, who attempted to blow up the British Parliament Building with the famous Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605, but failed and were executed and executed. In the UK, ‘festivities’ are organized among the locals, called Guy Fawkes Night, where strawmen are burned every year to represent the conspirators. There are two epigraphs in the poem’s beginning. The first is that ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’ and ‘ A penny for the Old Guy’ are important allusions to the Guy Fawkes and also Joseph Conrad’s character. Of course, there is a relation between the epigraphs and the poem. And also, there is a link between Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and The Hollow Men. One of them epigraphs refers to literary allusion and the other one is historical allusion. The Heart of Darkness deals with topics such as wars that left their mark on one of the bloodiest centuries in history, the abyss opened by developing . The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad describes the horrors behind the colonization of Africa by Europeans on the pretext of taking civilization. Firstly, Mr. Kurtz is a character in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness in 1899. Marlow who travels to the branches of the trading company in Belgium, where they are assigned to find the mysterious Kurtz, encounters horrors he does not expect in this geography where darkness has collapsed.As Marlow moves towards Kurtz, he also realizes that his trust in civilization is fragmented. Joseph Conrad’s this novel illustrates both the value judgments of the period and the destruction caused by imperialismIn his masterpiece, Kurtz is a degenerate ivory trader. Charles Marlow witnesses Kurtz’s death on a boat on the Congo River. His last words are ‘The horror! The Horror!’. We can understand that there is an implication the horrors of European imperialism. Then his death is announced by a boy suddenly. “ The second epigraph—’A penny for the Old Guy’—alludes to Guy Fawkes, a notorious conspirator who tried to blow up British Parliament in the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Fawkes was a Catholic seeking to overthrow the Protestant monarchy of King James I. Britons celebrate his downfall on November 5 by burning his likeness in effigy and lighting fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day. The epigraph ‘A penny for the Old Guy’ is in the voice of a child, offering an effigy of Fawkes to burn, while begging for money to buy fireworks.”6 Guy Fawkes and Mr. Kurtz chose immoral libes of violence and absence of laws and government. So, they attempts to devastate Protestant Christianity. After all, both failed and they died with inglorious death. These quotes put forth the piteous situation for these hollow men. These men are immoral and villain characters but the tone of the poem is melancholic and we can say that it is an elegy tone or it can be a lament the deaths of these characters. There is an irony between these sentences. Because this situation is an anomalous to the ethics and the death. Kurtz dies when he attempts to cross a river on a boat. This is a foreshadowing and it is an significant symbolic setting in the poem.

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All in all, three poems are highly important and epigraphs taken by other author’s works highly critical. And he uses epigraphs in his poems to a reference, allusion to the poem. And also it is hard to understand without epigraph

Works Cited

  1. ‘Translated by J. S. Carlyle, The Inferno, Temple Classics. p. 303: ‘If I thought my answer were to one who ever could return to the world, this flame should shake no more; but since none ever did return alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer thee.’
  2. Giorgio Siebzehner-Vivanti, Dizionario della Divina Commedia (Milan, 1965), p. 288.
  3. Translated by Michael Heseltine, Petronius, Loeb Classical Library, pp. 85-87: ‘Yes, and I myself with my own eyes saw the Sibyl hanging in a cage; and when the boys cried at her: ‘Sibyl, Sibyl, what do you want?’ ‘I would that I were dead,’ she used to answer.’ The epigraph has been identified by W. Thomas and S. G. Brown, Reading Poems (New York, 1941), p. 720.
  4. ‘Identified by Matthiessen, OP. cit., P. 52.
  5. Commented upon by Elizabeth Drew in Directions in Modern Poetry (New York, 1940), p. 134.

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