A critical reading of Eliot’s short prose-poem – by Dr Oliver Tearle
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) published his first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917. This slim volume included poems written in a wide variety of styles and modes, from vers libre to Shakespearean blank verse, from dramatic monologues to short lyrics. The volume also included one prose poem, ‘Hysteria’, which T. S. Eliot had written in November 1915. Below we offer some notes towards an analysis of ‘Hysteria’, which you can read here.
‘Hysteria’ is a short prose poem spoken by a man in a dining room with a female companion. The woman is laughing – hysterically so, hence the title of the poem – and the man feels as if he is in danger of being sucked into the woman’s mouth as she opens it to laugh. An elderly waiter asks if they would like to take their tea outside into the garden, suggesting that he is aware that the woman’s laughter may be disrupting the other customers.
However, the poem does not make this clear; we infer it from the context and from his ‘trembling hands’, suggesting that he, as much as the male speaker of the poem, is uneasy about the woman’s hysterical laughter.
The poem ends with the male speaker deciding to try to salvage the rest of the afternoon by endeavouring the calm the woman down and stop her breasts from shaking from the ‘hysteria’. And this is where this intriguing little poem ends.
How should we analyse ‘Hysteria’? It seems a slight poem, yet it has a number of curious features, despite its unexceptional setting and situation.
For instance, should we so readily assume that the woman in the poem is laughing hysterically? The presence of the waiter suggests that the speaker’s assessment of her may be correct – and she is indeed disturbing the other diners – but this may merely be the speaker’s subjective interpretation of the waiter’s behaviour. His hands may be ‘trembling’ because he is ‘elderly’ (arthritis, perhaps?), and he may be asking them if they’d like to take their tea in the garden because they’ve requested a garden table prior to the moment the poem captures, and the (unreliable) speaker neglects to tell us as much.
Neither of these alternative explanations may entirely convince, but one of the things which make ‘Hysteria’ more than just a minor exercise is precisely the fact that it encourages us to ask such questions, questions we have already been primed to ask when reading Prufrock and Other Observations after having listened to the two rather unreliable and unusual male speakers of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’.
And perhaps we should bear in mind the fact that, by 1915, the term ‘hysteria’ was no longer exclusively used to describe the psychological behaviour of women: after the work of Freud in the 1890s, male hysteria was a recognised concept. Given the unreliable speaker of the poem, then, perhaps the hysteria is his, rather than the woman’s.
Like many of the poems that appeared in Prufrock and Other Observations, ‘Hysteria’ reveals the influence of Jules Laforgue (1848-87), the French-Uruguayan poet who was a pioneer of French vers libre. Laforgue’s work is associated with the French Symbolists of the nineteenth century, but what he specifically taught Eliot was the use of masks and personas, and the comic – or tragicomic – potential of writing slightly exaggerated and faintly surreal depictions of everyday events and situations (parties, dinner, breakfast, that sort of thing).
Laforgue’s depiction of women as simultaneously down-to-earth and ethereal – ‘angels in knickers’, as Lyndall Gordon succinctly summarises it in her The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot – would also leave a mark on Eliot’s early work, and we can analyse ‘Hysteria’ in light of this. There’s something vulnerable but also predatory about many of Laforgue’s women. The same is true of the woman in ‘Hysteria’.
Readers who know something of T. S. Eliot’s life are often tempted to posit a biographical analysis of ‘Hysteria’, viewing it as a response to his first wife’s mental and emotional unpredictability. It’s true that when Eliot wrote ‘Hysteria’ in November 1915 he had already met his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, in March of that year; the pair had, indeed, already married. But Eliot may only have became fully aware of his wife’s emotional instability after he wrote ‘Hysteria’.
Eliot often wrote about hysteria, and although later poems dealing with such a theme, from the woman in ‘Sweeney Erect’ to the nervous woman in ‘A Game of Chess’, the second part of The Waste Land, may have leapt into Eliot’s imagination as a result of Vivienne’s mood swings, ‘Hysteria’ suggests that Eliot was already interested in – perhaps even unconsciously drawn to – such features in women.
Whether or not the poem was inspired by Eliot’s own experiences with Vivienne, ‘Hysteria’ is an interesting example of Eliot’s early work, his attitudes towards women and female sexuality, and his versatility as a modernist poet. It also deserves careful and close analysis to unpick some of its subtler elements, elements which may not be fully apparent upon first reading.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.