Post-War Existential Crisis and Spiritual Struggles Depicted in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot

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Quality poetry possesses an extensive ability to illuminate the complexities of human existence, through the representation of the flawed aspects evident within humanity. T.S Eliot's poetry is a powerful portrayal of the existential crisis faced by humanity in a post-war society, which leads to paralysis and confusion of individual thoughts and actions. Eliot’s fragmented imagery in both “The Lovesong of J.Alfred Prufrock” and “The Journey of the Magi” conveys the vulnerability of human existence through the depiction of individuals who suffer to find purpose within the modernised world. Human existence is portrayed with the absence of meaning and hope where individuals are encapsulated by inherent suffering and are completely fragmented, isolated, and alone. T.S Eliot’s representation of the turmoil and confusion faced by individuals conveys the inescapable suffering experienced by humanity.

“TLSOJAP” encapsulates inherent suffering within human existence through the portrayal of an individual who is overcome by internal suffering from paralysis of will. Prufrock's anxious thoughts of uncertainty “Do I dare? And do I dare? Time to turn back and descend the stair” depicts the fragility and futility of humanity through such rhyming syntax and rhetorical questions as Prufrock's anxious thoughts heighten the awareness of his own mortality. Prufrock’s internal questioning portrays his immense suffering with indecision, despair and that he is paralysed upon undertaking any action. Furthermore, the repetition of the image of weeping within the line “But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed” conveys the inescapable internal suffering experienced by Prufrock resulting from his personal instability and emotional turmoil. Similarly, “TJOTM” encapsulates the human experience of suffering but Eliot, in turn, depicts that it is necessary to endure hardship to bring about change. The anachronism within the first lines “A cold coming... very dead of winter” portrays the Magi’s journey as one encapsulated by never-ending suffering. The use of vivid imagery as they endure unimaginable weather, uncooperative camels, and hostile townspeople displays physical suffering alongside the mental and emotional suffering felt as they realize the imminent death of their way of life. Eliot initially creates a tone of trepidation to reflect the turmoil of the experience, however, such distressing images are later juxtaposed with arrival to “temperate valley” which “smells of vegetation”. These contrasting images of fertility and life signify the journey as one of fulfillment, after all the complexities faced the Magi were able to find a sense of spiritual enlightenment.

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Eliot’s poetry resonates with the reader as he conveys that in order for spiritual growth, suffering is and will always be a complexity faced as part of the human experience. “TJOTM” explores individual alienation and despair within a changing world, as it’s persona mourns for their own lost identity. As the Magi attain the spiritual enlightenment they desire they are left encapsulated by isolation and alienation. The unease present within the persona caused by such conflicting emotions illustrates the complex nature of humanity as it portrays the difficult human search for one's place here on earth. Through the use of vivid imagery within the line “With alien people clutching their gods, I should be glad of another death” Eliot reveals the depth of isolation felt by the Magi, emphasizing the Magi’s struggle of being isolated in a society full of individuals who hold no faith. Eliot dehumanizes the individuals through the imagery of “aliens” and he depicts the futility of human existence through the oxymoron between “glad” and “death” illustrating the only salvation from such isolation is death. The Magi’s journey is a symbolic representation of Eliot's own personal conversion from Unitarianism to Anglo-Catholicism, where Eliot's personal rejection of a secular nature brought him closer to his spirituality but isolated him from humanity.

Similarly, in “TLSOJAP” Eliot’s use of form in which irregular stanza length is coupled with a stream of consciousness deepens the presence of disconnection, isolation, and fragmentation evident within the poem. Eliot emphasises the discontinuity of Prufrock's mind, portraying him as a man who does not know where he fits in the world. Through the use of synecdoche where Prufrock describes women as “arms that are braceleted” or “eyes that fix you” Eliot conveys such alienation where the world and the people within it are fragmented and reduced to nothing more than body parts. Such fragmentation of women illustrated by synecdoche, emphasizes Prufrock is paralysed by his inability to connect with them. Through the portrayal of Prufrock's lack of confidence and indecision Eliot powerfully conveys the complexities evident within humanity where human beings experience isolation, alienation, and are completely alone. Eliot's quality poetry conveys that one of the most significant complexities faced by human existence is the search for meaning and hope within the modernised world. “TLSOJAP” was written by Eliot following the destruction of the war, where humanity opposed a belief in a 'God' who could allow such massive loss of human life. “TLSOJAP” encapsulates the absence of hope and the lack of a belief in an afterlife evident within Eliot's own world at the time. The use of a metaphor within “I have measured my life out in coffee spoons” alludes to the loss of spiritual guidance as it symbolises that Prufrock's life is meaningless without hope or faith for any greater purpose within the world.

As Eliot makes a definite statement about the fate of human existence, “Humans wake us and we drown” he emphasizes one of the great complexities of humanity; humans live in a world of spiritual void that holds no greater meaning or hope. Along with the individuals within the poem, Eliot also forces the reader to accept that we all live in an inescapable world with nothing to save us. However, following Eliot's spiritual conversion “TJOTM” contrasts “TLSOJAP” as it affirms that through embracing spirituality, despite the challenging experiences of faith, it can lead to a deeper sense of purpose. The biblical allusion to the birth of Christ within the line “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death” presents the paradox that the birth of the saviour embodies death. The paradox signifies that humanity must suffer as it is only through death that their souls can be reborn. It is through the complexities of pain and suffering the Magi experiences that he is granted spiritual rebirth, conveying that if humanity holds faith and hope in life's greater purpose there is meaning within existence on earth. Quality poetry compels the reader to consider the complexities of human existence as it encapsulates the fundamentally flawed aspects evident within humanity. Both “The Lovesong of J.Alfred Prufrock'' and “Journey of the Magi” represent the existential crisis faced by humanity, through the portrayal of individuals who are faced with isolation, inherent suffering and the absence of meaning and hope within the modernized world.

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Post-War Existential Crisis and Spiritual Struggles Depicted in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 20, 2024, from
“Post-War Existential Crisis and Spiritual Struggles Depicted in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot.” Edubirdie, 01 Feb. 2023,
Post-War Existential Crisis and Spiritual Struggles Depicted in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 May 2024].
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