Updated: Jul 12
As the most popular text studied in Module B (Critical Study of Literature), it’s no easy task to separate one’s analytical essay on Eliot from the thousands of others students also writing about his poetry. Having topped NSW in English Advanced during my HSC, I’ve learnt a thing or two about what it takes to truly distinguish oneself from other students vying for the top spot. But I believe that with Eliot, this is a challenge requiring both a critical eye and skilful ability to re-orientate ideas that have already been spoken about by the many students that have come before us, in fresh, new, innovative ways that invoke a highly personal understanding of his works.
Whilst we don't necessarily need to have the most outlandish ideas or opinions about his works, it is important to express our interpretation of his poetry in a nuanced, critical and personal way whilst backing up our analysis with critical opinions and judiciously selected evidence. We should have a very strong understanding of the purpose of his works and construct a powerful thesis around this central interpretation.
What are the general ideas of Eliot? How should I approach analysing Eliot more generally?
The general consensus on Eliot’s poetry is that he explores the emotional, existential and spiritual paralysis pervading the modern world. Typically students draw a connection between the context in which Eliot is writing (i.e., the Modern period) and how certain events like urbanisation, industrialisation, World War I etc. informs the purpose of his work.
For example, the ‘Hollow Men’ has been read and interpreted widely as a poetic diagnosis of the faithlessness in a post war milieu wherein the dissolution of moral and spiritual belief leads to a sense of inner void that thwarts man’s visions of reality. This interpretation is linked to the more general effects of destruction as periods characterised heavily by suffering eventually embeds the individual inside what seems to be an indefinite state of spiritual irresolution, terminating in disillusionment where they relinquish any sign of spiritual belief. The “hollow men”, as a leitmotif, raises our attention to this state of inward void, and it is this very dark, palpable subjectivity which allows us to consider the role that conviction and belief play in saving us from inertness.
Clearly, the context plays a key role in shaping our interpretation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with integrating such information when molding your arguments - in fact, this is inarguably one of the most important factors required for success in Module B (along with an appreciation of the form of the work).
Another example of this would be ‘Rhapsody on A Windy Night’, where Eliot invokes a world where the persona is painfully sensitised to his own discontinuous mental state; his mind is held only loosely by a series of dark, repulsive images. The surreal impression of time, memory and consciousness achieved through Eliot’s fragmented stream-of-consciousness style, once again makes clear how he was responding to a new sense of reality that no longer resided in an objective universal order accessible through conceptual categories, but was present in the irrational and unconscious flux of experience. Considering this, ‘Rhapsody’ is Eliot’s attempt to showcase the breakdown of consciousness in the midst of a crisis of belief, activated by radical changes to cultural norms and redefinitions in physical and psychic relations.
Modern incongruence forged a rift between our interpretation versus experience of reality, and it is within this liminal formless space that this poem is being created. The preoccupation with memory in ‘Rhapsody’ has also been construed by Paul De Man as the modernist’s impulse to “wipe out all anteriority, everything that came earlier, rejecting temporality to reach a point of true origin existent in a singular, non-historical present.”
The point in providing you with these handful of examples is so that you know exactly what the major concerns of some of Eliot’s poems are, and how they intertwine with context. Though this may be a tricky thing to wrap our head around, this sort of ‘integrated’ analysis forms the basis of our analysis for Module B. But, as I said previously, we want to accent our work with flair, personality and critical insight to differentiate our response and signal to the marker that we have a very comprehensive hold of our text, deserving of the top mark.
So, how can we deepen our analysis?
On the surface, Eliot’s work allures with its benign simplicity; his poetic voice is largely centred around issues more generally symptomatic of what we may deem as the ‘modern condition’, such as emotional paralysis and spiritual isolation, along with the ontological uncertainty surfacing from the breakdown of tradition, previous moral systems, philosophy, sociology and knowledge. Put simply, his poetry is an examination of the fragmented modern psyche in the midst of epistemological ruin which leaves man both frayed and tired, unable to resolve his desire for friendship, meaning and purpose.
His poetry speaks without any temporal and spatial limits to a problem that contemporary readers so deeply resonate with, as we too possess the intelligence to envision greatness but are spiritually and emotionally inept to repair it. Throughout his poetry, he alludes to the idea of being suspended in between desire and reality, radiance and darkness, greatness and impotence, answers and irresolution - with this space of liminality becoming a concern in itself worthy of mentioning in our response. Whilst these ideas are great, we want to try and separate ourselves from other students in the following ways:
Incorporate critical readings into your essay response. Not only does critical research deepen your understanding of the work itself, but if you quote certain critics once or twice in your essay, this automatically signals to the marker that you have taken a step further in developing your opinion and informing yourself of the discourse surrounding Eliot. The point of referencing critical readings in your work is not to make your essay sound difficult or confusing just for the sake of it, but it is meant to meaningfully contribute and enhance your own interpretation and appreciation of what Eliot is trying to communicate through his poems, informed by the opinions of scholars who have an undoubtedly much more sophisticated take on his work by virtue of their experience.
Add flair and personality in your essay. This is done by focusing on how you express your ideas, the words that you use and the general style in which you write. Writing an essay can sometimes be a very repetitive process, and you may be using a well rehearsed formula (structurally speaking) when crafting extended responses. It’s good that we have a well-oiled machine - but I would strongly encourage you to take the time to consider the ways in which you could potentially play around with your expression to make it more compelling, unique and perceptive. Admittedly, this takes time and it could even be a while before you are even comfortable with your ‘typical’ essay voice. However, those students whose analysis of Eliot feels different simply because of the way they describe the ideas tend to perform much better than those who resort to the predictable lexicon and vernacular of Eliot essaysFor instance, consider how we can transform a sentence like “Eliot explores the negative consequences of modern life upon the individual’s spiritual and emotional state, and how leads to one’s alienation from others in a sordid urban world” to something more along the lines of “Arising from the spiritually stillness that lingers in an urban world, Eliot reveals the emotional passivity to which one succumbs when they are isolated from a greater purpose in life, unable to affect meaning.”
Make it your own. Lastly, to ensure that your essay does not fall into the sea of every other essay that the marker will read for Eliot, make a statement - an impact - on them through vocalising your personal opinion about the text. Don’t be afraid if it's a bit controversial or unique, as long as you have the points and evidence to back up what you're saying. For example, I’ve read a response in which a student interpreted ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ as a self-crippling monologue of a man’s unresolved crisis towards both his psychosexual repression and emasculation in a culture he paradoxically resents yet submits to. This student went on to top NSW despite having a slightly more off-centre analysis.
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