A commentary on a classic Eliot poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Gerontion’ is notable for being the only English poem in T. S. Eliot’s second volume of poetry (the collection also contained some French poems) which does not adopt the regular quatrain form found in ‘A Cooking Egg’, ‘Sweeney Erect’, ‘The Hippopotamus’, ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’, and ‘Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’. (There was another non-quatrain English poem, about a honeymoon night gone terribly wrong and titled simply ‘Ode’, in the original printing of the volume but Eliot was not happy with it and removed it from later editions.) You can read ‘Gerontion’ here before proceeding to our analysis of the poem below.
How to summarise ‘Gerontion’? Stylistically, ‘Gerontion’ is much indebted to the blank verse of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. However, like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’ from Eliot’s previous volume, ‘Gerontion’ is a dramatic monologue, spoken by an old man (‘Gerontion’ means ‘little old man’, and should be pronounced with a hard ‘G’) who, in a decaying rented house, sits and waits for rain. As he talks, we learn about his character and background: for instance, he tells us that he has not been in war service (‘I was neither at the hot gates’ is a coded allusion to Thermopylae – literally, ‘hot gates’ – a decisive battle between the Greeks and Persians in 480 BC). It’s possible that Eliot is drawing obliquely on his own non-participation in the war (he applied to do war service but was declined owing to poor health); though, as always with Eliot, it is dangerous to proffer any reductive ‘Eliot = Gerontion’ reading of the poem. There follows a series of ‘signs’ and symbols. Why is Christ called a ‘tiger’, and what is the significance of the ‘flowering judas’? It’s possible to see ‘Gerontion’ in a number of ways, but we’ll briefly sketch out one possible interpretation here, which we’ve hinted at above: that ‘Gerontion’ is a response to the war. The war can be glimpsed not only in those references to battles in the poem’s first few lines, but also elsewhere, for instance in the later talk of ‘courage’ and ‘heroism’.
But that’s only one way to approach the poem. Before we consider the presence of the First World War and its aftermath in the poem, it’s worth considering another of its other prevalent themes: religion. For just as easily, one might approach ‘Gerontion’ as a poem about religious belief. The Christian overtones include the reference to ‘Christ the tiger’ (with the later announcement that ‘The tiger springs in the new year’, suggesting the Second Coming?), ‘forgiveness’ (‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’), and the line ‘The word within a word, unable to speak a word’ (this is a slight misquotation of a Christmas sermon by Lancelot Andrews, a seventeenth-century bishop whose sermons Eliot much admired; ‘the word’ refers to the infant Christ, the one referred to in the line of the Gospel of St John, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, so, to paraphrase: the word or message of God was found within Christ, but as Christ was an infant, he was unable to speak it).
And then there are the lines which tell us that History ‘Gives too late / What’s not believed in’ and go on to refer to ‘reconsidered passion’. This talk of belief could refer to the difficulty of believing in a higher power in the wake of the horrors of the First World War, and ‘passion’, as well as referring to spirit or enthusiasm, could also refer to the Passion, or crucifixion of Christ. Indeed, the double meaning of ‘passion’ may well sum up one crucial tension in the poem, that between worldly desires (whether sexual desire or lust for power) and spiritual or religious drives (or the lack of them). Is Gerontion a sinner who, now he comes to reflect on his life, tries and struggles to find meaning in it all? Eliot was not a Christian when he wrote the poem (he would not convert to Anglicanism until 1927) but his interest in religion, especially Christianity and the work of Christian theologians like Andrews, predates his conversion and obviously feeds into ‘Gerontion’.
Another important factor to consider when reading ‘Gerontion’ is the Treaty of Versailles, which was drawn up and signed in summer 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference. Eliot wrote ‘Gerontion’ in around July 1919, shortly after the Treaty was agreed at the end of June of that year. The Treaty agreed terms of peace between the nations involved in the First World War, and included punitive financial measures against Germany, the losers in the war. There was a sense that the Treaty marked a decisive turning-point in twentieth-century history: John Maynard Keynes, whom Eliot knew a little, resigned his place at the Paris Peace Conference because he disagreed with the terms of the Treaty, and foresaw that punishing Germany too harshly would cause further problems (as indeed proved the case, with Germany’s economic recession creating the environment in which Hitler and the Nazis could gain support and, eventually, power).
Eliot, who was working in Lloyds Bank when he wrote ‘Gerontion’ and was responsible for settling the pre-war debts Germany owed to the bank, disliked the Treaty. The Treaty was famously signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, which Eliot alludes to when Gerontion refers to a ‘wilderness of mirrors’. But Eliot does not seek to make this allusion solely about the Treaty and a specific moment in history; instead, like the very phenomenon of a hall of mirrors, the meaning of the phrase glimmers with multiple meanings, with the poem relating not just to this point in history but to all history, all wars. ‘Gerontion’ was Eliot’s first great poem to address the fallout from the First World War, and would pave the way for The Waste Land (to which Eliot initially considered appending ‘Gerontion’ as a preface until advised against it by Ezra Pound).
But this is merely one suggestion of how to respond to the ambiguous and elusive images and statements in this poem. ‘Gerontion’ is one of Eliot’s most enigmatic poems and its images continue to baffle and surprise readers. It is a poem that resists easy analysis, instead inviting many interpretations, like that ‘wilderness of mirrors’ Gerontion refers to.
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.
Image: Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles, via Wikimedia Commons.