John Paul Riquelme: On "Gerontion"

Many lines of "Gerontion,", including the opening ones, are conversational in character: "Here I am, an old man in a dry month, / Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain" (CPP 21). But the poem provides no continuing determinate scene or narrative within which such lines can confidently be placed, though there are sporadic indications of possible scenes and narratives. The relatively disjointed quality of both "Prufrock" and "Gerontion," especially the lack of good continuity between the verse paragraphs, makes it hard to ascribe the language to a speaker, even one who is in the kind of extreme situation mentally or physically that is sometimes portrayed in dramatic monologues. Instead of being located, grounded in a referential way, the language, which is full of dislocations, tends to float; it refuses to be tied to a limiting scene or to a limited meaning. The conversational language is not sustained, for instance, in the lines that follow the opening ones in "Gerontion":

I was neither at the hot gates

Nor fought in the warm rain

Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass, 

Bitten by flies, fought.

(CPP 21)

We find out where this "I" was not and what it did not do, not where or what it is in any positive sense. The passage gives rise to questions that it does not answer and that are not answered elsewhere in "Gerontion." Stylistically, both the sequence of negatives and the repetition of "fought" at the end of the sentence indicate the composed, written character of the lines rather than the spontaneous utterance of an "I" with a personal voice.

The difficulty of maintaining the illusion of an "I" who speaks becomes greater as "Gerontion" proceeds, for example, in the fifth stanza with its sequence of sentences beginning with the verb "Think," which continues into the next stanza. The sentences may be in the imperative mood. Or the subject of an indicative verb may have been omitted. The grammatical indeterminacy disturbs the statements' coherence in ways that resist resolution. The language pertains not to a character whose name indicates that he is a person but to one who is named artificially. Like a figure in a medieval allegory whose name points to a concept that is abstract and general rather than personal and individual, Gerontion is not a person but one among many possible incarnations of the meaning of his name in Greek, "little old man."

From Harmony of Dissonances: T.S. Eliot, Romanticism, and Imagination. Copyright © 1991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title John Paul Riquelme: On "Gerontion" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Paul Riquelme Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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