Language, History, Self-deception and an Old House

There he is, Gerontion, “an old man in a dry month,” watching the world burn. His life has not been one of feats, of any remarkable deeds whatsoever, and it is coming to an end. Gerontion’s house is decayed, just like his body, an expired vessel that has nothing to do with the universe that surrounds him. He has lost the capacity of doing things, almost everything, but he has not lost the ability to see what his world, and everything contained within it, has become; frightened, in a sleepy corner, he is trying to understand how pathetic his life, and everyone else’s for that matter, is. Perhaps he is forcing himself to the edge of an intellectual journey that he might not be able to conclude, that we, as readers, will never know when it stopped. Gerontion is old; Gerontion is exposed; Gerontion is nothing, and everything at the same time; Gerontion is we; and Gerontion is exactly whom everyone is afraid of turning into.

T. S. Eliot’s magnificent poem, “Gerontion”, is an expedition into the core of anxiety, panic and fear. It is a morbid picture of what life really is, of what we do not want to see or even comprehend, even though it is already here; in Grover Smith’s words: “Gerontion symbolizes civilization gone rotten.”[1] Painted in black, Eliot’s cosmos that reside inside his stanzas force the reader to feel nauseated by his words that describe the “futility of a world where men blunder down the blind corridors of history, guided by vanity and gulled by success, asserting no power of choice between good and evil but forced into alternatives they cannot predict—this is the futility of a labyrinth without an end.”[2] Gerontion is a maze, but the humanity seen from his eyes is even worse, even more unintelligible. This poem, just like the poetic voice embodied by Gerontion, just sits quietly, while the wind obliterates everything but it.

The labyrinth in which Gerontion is trapped is history, “a system of corridors ingeniously contrived to confuse and finally to corrupt the human race.”[3] What can be read from Eliot’s words, and heard from Gerontion’s speech at some point at least, is self-deception, resignation. The reader has to accept that there is nothing else to do, that “neither passive fear nor active courage will save us, […] because history has duped us, perverting our heroic intentions.”[4] Eliot succeeds in convincing the reader that history is the mere rationalization of one’s powerlessness to act, feel or, basically, do anything about it.

The choice of words made by Eliot for his creation is somewhat perfect. Words boost Gerontion’s feelings and ideas. They “have no metaphysical buttressing, and his language is studded with puns, words within words.”[5] It is a language that evolves, that transmutes constantly throughout the poem. Just like John Paul Riquelme asserts, “the language, which is full of dislocations, tends to float; it refuses to be tied to a limiting scene or to a limited meaning.”[6] It permeates everything contained by the poem, but it trespasses the paper and stains the “real” world.

Gerontion is old; Gerontion is exposed; Gerontion is nothing, and everything at the same time; Gerontion is we; and Gerontion is exactly whom everyone is afraid of turning into. And Eliot makes us acknowledge it, even though we refuse to do so.


[1] Grover Smith, T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956. [http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/gerontion.htm]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Eloise Knapp Hay, T.S. Eliot’s Negative Way. Harvard University Press, 1982. [http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/gerontion.htm]

[4] James Longenbach, Modernist Poetics of History: Pound, Eliot, and the Sense of the Past. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987. [http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/gerontion.htm]

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Paul Riquelme, Harmony of Dissonances: T.S. Eliot, Romanticism, and Imagination. Copyright © 1991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press. [http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/gerontion.htm]

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