Within ‘Gerontion’ a reader will have to consider war as a major theme as well as religion and political upheaval. This poem was written in the same year and season as the Treaty of Versailles was signed (1919). It was an important turning point in the twentieth century. Eliot’s own personal history plays into this interpretation.The poet worked at a bank while writing this poem and was responsible for settling pre-war debts that Germany as a country owed to the bank. He disliked the Treaty. Phrases like “wilderness of mirrors” have been linked back to the signing of the Treaty.
It should also be considered that the man “Gerontion” is a symbol himself. He could represent something of what was then contemporary history and a new secular way of seeing the world.
Summary of Gerontion
This poem is quite complicated and filled with imagery, symbols, and allusions to places, actions, literature, art, and personal experience. There are a range of interpretations a reader might have in regards to what this piece is about. Broadly though, it takes a reader through life in 1919 and the changes, from an old man named Gerontion’s perspective. He was in the war and spends time at the beginning of the poem juxtaposing it against his current life. He’s old now, long past his days of fighting and takes a very strong dislike to the money-hungry, religiously ignorant and politically willful people who live around him today.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Gerontion
The text is a dramatic monologue and comes from the perspective of an old man, Gerontion, who is located in an old house. Some scholars believe that he is an older version of Eliot’s most famous creation, J. Alfred Prufrock.
A reader should also take note of the epigraph that appears at the beginning of the poem. It reads: “Thou hast nor youth nor age / But as it were an after dinner sleep / Dreaming of both”. These lines come from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure’.
Poetic Techniques in Gerontion
Eliot makes use of several techniques in ‘Gerontion’. These include alliteration, personification, repetition, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “man” and “month” in the first line of stanza one and “flight, fought” in line six of the same stanza.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. There are several examples in text, especially in stanza seven in which the speaker talks about bats, bears, and spiders.
Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. For instance, the repetition of “Think at last” in the sixth stanza. Anaphora is another kind of repetition, it can be seen when the same word or words are used at the beginnings of multiple lines. For example, lines four and five of the fifth stanza, both of which begin with “Nor”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines two and three of third stanza and lines four and five of the fifth stanza.
Analysis of Gerontion
In the first stanza of ‘Gerontion’ by T.S. Eliot the speaker begins by locating himself and giving the reader a few details about who he is. He’s old and living through a “dry month”. He’s in a liminal space in which he’s waiting for something but also experiencing something. A boy is there reading to him. He doesn’t say who this boy is, he’s just as important as any other item in his immediate surroundings.
The speaker is not focused on what’s going on around him though. Rather, he’s looking back into the past. He takes note of the fact that he’s not “at the hot gates” or “in the warm rain”. The first of these statements is a reference to Thermopylae, a history-changing battle between the Greeks and Persians in 480 BC.
He is not in the war, fighting “in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass”. These images are scary, painful, and uncomfortable to imagine but for the speaker, they hold more appeal than his current location. Eliot uses juxtaposition in order to compare his present situation to the war. Now, he is in a decayed house. It’s not decaying, it’s already decayed, as if its life is entirely over. The old man rents the house and there is some kind of pressure from the owner of the establishment.
The speaker takes his mind out of his home and into the landscape surrounding the decaying house. He tells the reader how the “goat coughs at night” in the field and all around there are “Rocks, moss, stonecrop” and more. The world is different than it was when he was at war. Now there is a woman making tea and “poking at the peevish gutter” and he is “an old man”. He uses a metaphor to describe himself as “A dull head among windy spaces”. This description alludes to an inescapable emptiness and an inability to fill it.
Stanzas Two and Three
The second and third stanzas of ‘Gerontion’ are much shorter than the first, at only four and five lines each. These lines are much harder to pin down than those which came before them. It’s here that the many different interpretations of the poem come into play. There are a series of “signs” introduced in these lines. These are symbols, many of which can be linked to the political and religious atmosphere of the time, as referenced in the introduction.
The line “The word within a word, unable to speak a word” originated from a speech by seventeenth-century bishop about the Christ child and God’s word.
Eliot goes on to use natural imagery to describe the speaker’s immediate surroundings and the happenings of the season. The flow of names and images in the final lines of the third stanza provide the reader with bits of information about those who live around him. There is “Mr. Silver” who cares for his possessions more than anything.
There is also Hakagawa, who is “bowing among the Titians,” appearing to be worshipping a dead artist. Also, “Madame de Tornquist” who’s “shifting candles” in a dark room. This is a foreboding phrase in ‘Gerontion’ that might suggest some kind of untoward ceremony. Lastly, Fräulein von Kulp who appears guilty of something with “one hand on the door”.
These ghost-like neighbours are followed by the speaker stating that he has “no ghosts”.
The fifth stanza of ‘Gerontion’ is longer than the previous three, stretching out to fifteen lines. The speaker makes a series of statements about history and how hard it is to grasp and understand. “history,” personified as “She” has “many cunning passages” and “contrived corridors”. There are complications to be navigated and everyone is guided by “vanities,” alluding more broadly to how history is playing itself out.
The next lines are complex, but while continuing to speak about history the speaker addresses how and what “she gives” and what it does to those who receive. One quite powerful phrase comes at the end of this stanza. Gerontion says “Think / Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices / Are fathered by our heroism”. He is looking back to the past, considering what it was like and what it has now fathered. That is the world he feels growing around him and that he’s like to change.
Repetition plays an important part at the beginning of the sixth stanza of ‘Gerontion’. In these lines, the speaker reuses the phrase “Think at last” a few times while proposing ideas about the past, present, and future. By making use of the phrase “the tiger springs in the new year” Eliot might again be considering what he saw as negative changes to the social and political landscape. The world is progressing, but not necessarily becoming safer. The fact that they have yet to reach a conclusion is connecting to his “Stiffen[ing]” in the rented, degraded house.
In the middle part of this stanza, he invites “you” to “meet upon this” and speak honestly about loss, his removal from “your heart,” and passion.
In the last lines of this stanza, the speaker returns to discussing loss, and valuable loss at that. He speaks about losing the parts of his life that were worth something. His passion is gone and even if it wasn’t, he doesn’t think he should keep it. Everything that remains has to be “adulterated” or manipulated, changed, or even dirtied. The last two lines of this stanza depict the speaker’s loss of his senses.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
The seventh stanza contains the greatest variety of compelling images of the poem. He continues to speak about thoughts, understandings, deliberations and agreements while alluding to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and necessarily the signings of the Treaty of Versailles in the summer of 1919.
Most of the phrases and images in these lines are very much up for interpretation. From the “weevil” delaying and the “shuddering Bear / In fractured atoms”. At the end of the stanza, it comes back around to the “old man” who is at the centre of these thoughts and predictions. He is driven by the trade winds “To a sleepy corner” where he waits out the rest of his life.
The last stanza of ‘Gerontion’ is only two lines long. It reminds the reader of the “dry season” and refers to all these thoughts as coming from a “dry brain”. The speaker’s separation from the contemporary world, specifically present trends in politics, religion, and social life, is quite clear.