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Essay: Why the poetry of T.S Eliot is musical

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: June 18, 2021*
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  • Why the poetry of T.S Eliot is musical
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In this essay I will be discussing why I whole heartedly believe that the poetry of T.S Eliot is particularly musical. The modernist poet employs many poetic methods to create melodic and dulcet musical sounding tones through his poems. I will explore Eliot’s poetic canon and detail the musical techniques featured in various poem.

Firstly, Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’ is filled with effective sound techniques. “The Hollow Men” opens with a chorus like chant of “We are the hollow men We are the stuffed men Leaning together”, adding a distinctive melodic rhythm to the poem. The poem features vivid auditory descriptions which the reader can hear. Eliot uses aesthetic language in the line “As wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass…” appealing to the senses and allowing the reader to hear the whistling of the wind through the grass and the pitter patter of the rodents feet on shards of glass. This adds a level of realism and allows the reader to connect with the poem and hear the sounds which are described.

Eliot also uses repetition in ‘The Hollow Men’ in order to create music like stanzas. At the end of the poem the line “This is the way the world ends…” is repeated three times, reminiscent of a ritual chant. By repeating the assonance tinged line three times, Eliot is not only creating a musical rhythm but also enhancing the meaning of the line and connecting the end of the poem to the beginning of the poem with a similar chorus of song. Repetition is also seen in the lines “Here we go round the prickly pear Prickly pear prickly pear here we go round the prickly pear”. The use of alliteration by repeating the P sound creates a nursery rhyme like tune, producing pleasant sounding music. The final line of the poem “Not with a bang but with a whimper”, contains onomatopoeia in the words “bang” and “whimper”, creating sound effects to add to the musical tone and dramatic theme of the poem and to appeal to the readers senses.

The poem entitled “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is particularly musical, as the title would suggest, referring to the poem as a love song. The tone of the poem is mostly positive as the narrator speaks of a love that he longs for in a romantic way. This poem follows a typical rhyming couplet style, making the poem accessible and easy to read. The rhythm of the continuous lines gives a sense of constant thought throughout the poem, which makes sense as the poem is presented as a monologue of J. Alfred Prufrock himself. Eliot creates perfect rhymes by rhyming words such as “hotels” and “shells” or “stair” and “hair”, resulting in an easy transition from line to line as the reader goes through the poem while also contributing a musical rhythm.

Once again Eliot uses auditory images with the line “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each”, enticing the reader to imagine the mermaids and hear them singing sweet songs to one another. The mermaids in the poem may be symbolic of the love that Prufrock cannot obtain, because the mermaids are mythical creatures and thus unobtainable. Sounds plays a big part in setting the mood of the poem as Eliot uses alliteration in the fourth stanza by beginning three lines in a row with the letter L. This alliteration. Of the letter L enhances the romantic tone of the poem with the words “Licked”, “Lingered” and “Let”

“The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock” opens with an extract from “Inferno” by Dante in the Italian language. The reason for this is unclear until the end of the poem when the narrator speaks the line “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” The narrator of the poem has drowned and is possibly in hell, relating back to the opening lines of the poem from inferno. The romantic language lends itself to the musicality of the poem as Eliot uses it as a pre chorus to the poem, containing its own rhythm, rhyming Italian words such as “mondo” and “fondo”.

“Portrait of a lady” is another poem with abundant musical features and instruments. The poem contains the line “Among the winding of the violins and the ariettes of cracked cornets inside my brain a dull tom-tom beings”, which is rhythmically and descriptively musical. Eliot aesthetically describes the instrumental sounds like “winding of the violins” and the onomatopoeic “dull tom-tom” to add realism to the poem and make it accessible. Orchestral instruments are incorporated through out the entire poem such as a “street piano” and “broken violin”. By describing the instruments as “broken” or “cracked” Eliot is enhancing the overall melancholy theme of an unrequited love. These descriptions of damaged instruments suggest that they can no longer create beautiful music, the music sounds fractured, just like the relationship in the poem.

This poem also features dialogue from the female character to the narrator, who she is pursing romantically, such as “And so you are going abroad; and when do you return? But that’s a useless question…” By incorporating dialogue Eliot is breaking up the poem from continuous narration to direct speech. These segments of dialogue contain repetition, “…you do not know, you do not know…” and “…you let it flow from you, you let it flow…” creating rhythm and also enhancing the meaning of the lines, making the female speaker’s opinions understood clearly. The poem ends with the line “This music is successful with a “dying fall”…” which puts an end to the harmonious nature of the poem. The phrase “dying fall” creates a sense of stillness and quietness which matches the sombre mood of the narrator.

Lastly, “The Waste Land” by Eliot also showcases his musicality through poetry. The poem contains many auditory scenes full of dialogue. Dialogue is a central part of this poem with different voices and multiple speakers contributing to the symphony of sound. A Game Of Chess is filled with back and forth dialogue between a husband and wife containing melodic rhythm such as “Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? I never know what you are thinking. Think.” From this broken and repetitive dialogue it is easy to hear the frustrated tone of the wife’s voice as she speaks quickly and wildly. The juxtaposition of the husbands answer is obvious as he says “I think we are in rats’ alley Where the dead men lost their bones.” His speech is articulate, controlled and almost rhythmically slow. The juxtaposition of these two voices creates well balanced music, the wife offers sharp, rapid noise while the husband speaks in smooth mellow tones. This conversation also contributes to be meaning of the poem as the husband speaks of the baron, deserted “rats’ alley” full of “dead men”, connecting with the “wasteland” scenery which the title describes. The poet uses these tools to enhance the meaning of words and to intensify the mood.

The Fire Sermon also posses an abundance of musical aspects such as aesthetic descriptions which add noise to the poem and creates realism like “… the wind crosses the brown land…” and “A rat crept through the vegetation dragging its slimy belly on the bank”, as in this instance the rat is used to represent the decay and death throughout “The Waste Land”. Eliot also creates music by using euphonic words to imitate the sounds of various things such as “Twit twit twit Jug jug jug jug jug jug…” which the reader can assume is Eliot’s onomatopoeically describing the sounds of birdsong. This section of the poem is written as a sorrowful lament as the speaker “wept” beside the riverbank, setting the tone as a musical requiem. Eliot uses creates melodious rhythm with the lines “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, Sweet Thames run softly, for I speak not loud or long.” This like adds rhyme to the poem while also conveying a clear message that the speaker is in pain and needs to weep about his grief, relating to the theme of sorrow in this poem. Eliot’s use of grammar and structure also impact on the melodious rhythm.

In summation, T.S Eliot uses a plethora of poetic techniques such as aesthetic descriptions, onomatopoeia and rhythm through repetition and structure to create euphonious and harmonious melodies. The modernist poet treats his poems as an orchestra, with many voices and speakers contributing to the symphony of sound. This is why I believe T.S Eliot to be poet who creates musical sounding poetry.

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