Alienation in Auden and Eliot

By Sara Jewell

Introduction to Poetry


The theme of alienation is one of literature’s most enduring subjects, and it remains a topic that is often explored through poetry. This kind of poetry illustrates the unbridgeable gap between the you and the them.  It addresses the very human question of how we can understand groups of people, society itself, in relation to us. More importantly, it addresses the aching impossibility of ever truly knowing another person. These and other aspects of being alienated are explored brilliantly in the poetic works of both T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden. The poems “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Morning at the Window” by T.S. Eliot, as well as “The Unknown Citizen” and “Museé des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden, all study the two main forms of alienation: the individual’s alienation from the group, and one individual’s personal, often reciprocal alienation from another. While Auden often writes poems about generalized audience surrogates and how they are alienated by the world, Eliot usually prefers to address a person’s alienation from the society they live in (and the nameless people it is comprised of) on a more personal scale. Both poets skillfully illustrate the problem of feeling like an alien, whether from the perspective of an “unknown citizen” or from the viewpoint of a specific individual like Eliot’s Prufrock. All of these four poems incorporate the theme of alienation in a unique way.

T.S. Eliot’s “Morning at the Window” is a powerful example of both his talent as a poet, and of how he addresses alienation in his work. “Morning at the Window” hints brilliantly at dissociation from the title alone: being at a window means that you can view the outside world but that you are not a part of it. In this poem, that narrator is experiencing the people outside his window. But he is not merely separated from them by a literal pane of glass, but also by a metaphorical barrier. The narrator reinforces this feeling throughout the first stanza by referring to himself as “I” and everyone else as “they”, reducing all of the people around him to a collective of which he is not a part in the very first lines: “They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,/And along the trampled edges of the street/I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids/Sprouting despondently at area gates.” (1-4) Here we also realize that the narrator is not just literally observing what is outside his window, but reflecting upon society. He cannot literally see into basements where the breakfast plates are rattling. He does not see the housemaids, but is “aware” of them and their melancholy. He is reminiscent of a scientist observing life in a test tube, or, indeed, an alien watching life on earth. His diction implies that he views people as an almost entirely different species, “sprouting despondently” like some kind of plant.

In the second stanza, Eliot maintains the attitude of an impartial observer. He continues to note the sadness of those around him, but he appears untouched by it and unsympathetic. In the lines: “The brown waves of fog toss up to me/ Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,” (5-6) the narrator reveals that he has more contact with the fog than with other people. “Twisted faces” evokes a hostility and/or misery, but the narrator is unsullied by it. In the last few lines, the fog “tear (s) from a passer-by with muddy skirts/An aimless smile that hovers in the air” (7-8) Here Eliot hints at the second form of alienation. The woman here smiles, but it is an impotent form of communication, “aimless”, connecting with no one. Though she is part of the group that the narrator is removed from, she is also somewhat alienated within it. Here, Eliot suggests that alienation is not just an isolated phenomenon, but a part of the human condition. The narrator, separated by the barrier between him and all others, cannot even receive the woman’s smile, even though he has witnessed it. It merely “…vanishes along the level of the roofs.” (8)

In contrast to the very personal tone of this poem by Eliot, W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” addresses alienation not from the standpoint of an embroiled narrator, but rather from the voice of a mournful observer: he is not one of the characters in his poem. This impression of a removed narrator is heightened by the fact that much of the poem references a painting by Brueghel called Icarus. Auden is not just figuratively observing the human condition in terms of suffering and alienation, but literally observing a painting in which he believes these aspects are present. Auden deals broadly with both forms of alienation on a large, global scale. With “Musée des Beaux Arts”, he is interested with alienation in terms of suffering, how empathy and sympathy, sparingly exercised as they are, cannot truly allow one person to feel, notice, or understand another person’s pain. He opens the poem by talking about suffering, and its implicit link to being alienated; “About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters; how well, they understood/Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;/” (1-4). With these lines Auden relates his premise: human suffering occurs in the vacuum of the individual, at the same time as someone else is doing mundane things. This, Auden says, (echoing the “Old Masters”, he admits), is the “human position” of suffering: an alienated state, disconnected from other states of being.

Auden also talks about the alienation of the old from the young, the disconnect that occurs as a result of a difference in age. “How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting/For the miraculous birth, there always must be/Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating/On a pond at the edge of the wood” (5-8) Here Auden reinforces the prevailing theme that people are alienated from one another, because experiences are largely subjective. Auden juxtaposes an event some view as miraculous (birth) against the indifferent feelings and ordinary play of children, skating on a pond by a forest. This is the main theme of the poem, illustrated by the contrast between mundane everyday life and personal turmoil: that we are individually so separate from one another that life goes on blithely even in the face of the worst tragedies. “…even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course” Auden writes “Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot/Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree” (10-13) The simple, uncomplicated lives of these animals go on, oblivious to the human tragedy surrounding them.

The second stanza of this poem deals directly with the painting “Icarus” by Brueghel. RA York states in “Auden’s Study of Time” that “As in Brueghel’s painting of the crucifixion, where the actual event occupies one small corner of the canvas filled with busy crowds, or as in his picture of Icarus which is the subject of Auden’s Museé des Beaux Arts, life continues almost indifferent to the tragedy which, morever, the speaker and his fellows can barely recall. They have “outlive[ed] their act;” they have become abandoned souls, strangely like the abandoned branch-lines so familiar to the poet” (234-235). York eloquently states the theme of the poem embodied in Auden’s observation of Brueghel’s painting: that “life continues almost indifferent to tragedy”. The lines in the poem read “In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may/Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,/But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone” (14-17) To understand these lines, you need to be loosely familiar with the Greek myth, in which Icarus, the headstrong son of gifted craftsman, flies too close to the sun with the wings his father has made for him. Consequently, the wax on the wings melts and he plunges to his untimely death. Auden describes how, ironically, it is the same bright sun that killed Icarus which causes to ploughman to believe it is a good day. The ploughman is another alienated figure. He is alienated from Icarus, and Icarus is alienated from him; their differences of perspective result in them being unable to relate to one another. Icarus, who died from the sun, wouldn’t have thought it great like the ploughman does. To the ploughman, though, Icarus’ death means little. He turns “quite leisurely” from the event which, Auden confirms, is a “disaster”…but only to Icarus and Daedalus. Here it is again: one individual alienated from another.

The next lines shift the focus to Icarus’ alienation from the group, an unspecified number of passengers aboard a ship. Auden describes how, “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on” (19-21). This set of lines drives Auden’s point home. Specifically, the line “sailed calmly on” practically mirrors the poem’s assertion that “life goes on”; and why? Because we are alienated from one another, because we aren’t all crippled by tragedy that befalls one of us. Icarus falls, but the ploughman admires the sun and the ship sails on its way. One person has died, but many more are still alive and “have somewhere to get to.”

Auden’s generalized descriptions of life, where only mythological figures receive names, again contrasts sharply with the deeply personal tone of Eliot’s work, evident (and perhaps even more strikingly so than in “Morning at the Window”) in what some would consider his magnum opus, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. “Prufrock” is a long, dramatic monologue in which alienation is one amongst many themes. The poem encompasses feelings of isolation, loneliness, regret, frustration, and a disturbing hyperawareness on the narrators’ part of his mortality. The title does not foretell the thematic content, but you needn’t delve far into the poem to realize that it is no conventional “love song”. The first hint is the Italian epigraph that Eliot chose to precede “Prufrock”, which is taken from the part of Dante’s Divine Comedy titled Inferno. The words are spoken by a denizen of hell, who feels safe saying them because he believes that they will not leave the underworld. This perhaps foreshadows Prufrock’s conviction to tell his story in the poem because he doesn’t believe it will be read. This is ingenious, because the irony will be apparent to anyone reading it. James Ledbetter makes a similar conclusion about this in his piece “Eliot’s the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, and how it relates to Prufrock’s alienation: “The hermeneutic circle--from transcendent inspiration, to poet, to audience, back to worship of that divine source of inspiration-cannot be broken without devastating consequences. However, Prufrock believes that he has no audience, and the consequences of his alienation will ultimately be, he fears, poetic sterility--the loss of the very source of his creative life. The loss of Prufrock's poetic inspiration might explain Eliot's cryptic epigraph. The epigraph is taken from Dante's Inferno (27:61-66), where the false counselor Guido da Montefeltro, enveloped in hell's flame, explains to Dante that he will speak freely only because he has heard that no one ever escapes from hell” (45). This epigraph is the first of many allusions and outright references to other works in “Prufrock”, such as mention of the biblical figure Lazarus in line 94.

The poem starts with an invitation from Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky” (1-2), either to the reader or an unknown party. He foreshadows the fact that the rest of the poem will explore certain difficult questions near the end of the stanza “Streets that follow like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent/To lead you to an overwhelming question …/ Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”/ Let us go and make our visit” (8-12). The question “What is it?”, obviously not the “overwhelming question” that Prufrock alludes to, suggests that not only is the answer that the poem seeks elusive, but that the question itself is, as well. The next stanza is only a couplet, and it is repeated more than once in the poem: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” (13-14). It is in this line that the theme of alienation begins to become apparent, especially Prufrock’s frustration at what he perceives to be the inscrutability of the opposite sex. Prufrock goes on to describe, extensively, the “yellow fog” that appears to permeate the city in which he lives, a deeply ambiguous and possibly symbolic mist. Prufrock then begins on a second key idea that the poem explores, the conundrum of inevitable aging and mortality that he cannot reconcile, which could indeed be interpreted as the “overwhelming question” he mentions earlier on. “There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;/There will be time to murder and create,/And time for all the works and days of hands/That lift and drop a question on your plate;/Time for you and time for me,” (26-31). The repetition of “there will be time” indicates procrastination and regret, putting things off, deferring acts as dramatic as creation or murder until they are out of your reach. Prufrock continues in this vein; “And indeed there will be time/To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”/Time to turn back and descend the stair,/With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—”(37-40). Prufrock continues to wonder if he dares to do anything great, as time goes on and evidence of his age starts to show, a bald spot. “Do I dare/Disturb the universe,” (45-46) he thinks timidly, the underlying answer being “no.”

His world-weary tone continues, “And I have known the eyes already, known them all—/The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,/And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,/When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,/Then how should I begin/To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? (55-60). He has “known the eyes” but feels that they are malicious, eyes sharp as pins that seek to reduce him to little more than a specimen. In the next stanza Prufrock’s feelings of disassociation from the society he lives in continue, again pointed towards his hopelessness in love: “It is perfume from a dress/That makes me so digress?/Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl./And should I then presume?/And how should I begin?” (65-69). These lines reinforce the description of Prufrock’s impotence, his inability to act on his impulses because he feels isolated and unsure. He asks “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,/Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” (79-80) So self conscious of his own desires that he must ask of the reader “should I?” It is easy to see how his doubt has driven him to this point: “And would it have been worth it, after all,” (87) he queries, bolstering his own cowardice with that doubt. This lack of surety poisons all of Prufrock’s interactions, his alienation from others causing his inability to know how to act towards them. Consequently, he always questions himself. He doesn’t understand people, and he repeats twice “If one, settling a pillow by her head,/Should say: “That is not what I meant at all,/That is not it, at all.” (96-98) evidencing how he misunderstands others, or perhaps how he fears they will misunderstand him should he take a leap of faith. Little light is shed on specifically why Prufrock has so much apparent trouble relating to other people. He seems resigned to his fate. He says “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/Am an attendant lord, one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two,… Almost, at times, the Fool.” (111-119). Always, always he comes back to his own desperate mortality; “I grow old … I grow old …” (120). Prufrock highlights his own alienation from “the group” (society), personifying it in a group of mermaids “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each./I do not think that they will sing to me” (124-125). These mermaids will all sing to one another, but not to Prufrock: he is the odd one out, the alien. The poem ends ominously with “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (129-131). This ending literally ends Prufrock’s life, with death by drowning, brought on by “human voices” that have ostensibly woken Prufrock from what appear to be dreams. Drowning denotes a stifling, airless death where one becomes mute and choked. This suggests that Prufrock’s alienation from others has been to his detriment. “Human voices” have drowned him, and he has tragically never really even lived.

In a powerful contrast to the personal, individual account that Prufrock presents in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, W.H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” purposefully describes a nameless everyman who Auden uses to help him illustrate a point about society and alienation. The title’s use of “citizen” immediately evokes social themes, namely the form of alienation in which an individual is alienated from a larger group, such as society itself. Auden uses the whole poem to describe how people are often not how they are perceived. His poem could be taken as a criticism of bureaucracy, an observation of how the quantification of people’s lives does not shed any true light upon them as human beings. His poem starts with “He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be/One against whom there was no official complaint,/And all the reports on his conduct agree/That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a/  saint,” (1-5). Here, a person is judged, and on what basis? Information from a “Bureau of Statistics”, and a modern societal definition of sainthood. Society didn’t think he was strange, either: “Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,” (10) the poem tells us. The entire poem sarcastically states that the citizen’s normalcy is a logical basis for judging him to be a “good” person. It tells us that “The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day/And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way” (15-16). Another couple of lines reads “Our researchers into Public Opinion are content/That he held the proper opinions for the time of year” (23-24) which indicates not only that public opinion changes on a seasonal basis, but that there is a “right” opinion to have depending on the time. Auden’s citizen doesn’t think for himself, but allows others to think for him, obvious here: “When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went” (25) Yet he is alienated from everyone in the worst way. There is an account, a public record of the things he did and how he acted. But while everyone knows about him, no one really knows him. The poem ends “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:/Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard” (29-30) but the poem is a parody, lambasting the quantification of individuals. No one is perfectly happy, Auden implies sarcastically in this sentence, so how can the perception of this man offered by society be accurate? Society is as alienated from him as he is from them.  They know of him in only the most superficial sense, yet they claim to be intimate friends of the man who can describe him as a “saint,” thanks to his outright conformity.

There are many differences between the styles in these four poems, as well as how they choose to address their respective themes. While the theme of alienation is present in all of them, they also individually address other ideas. Length is variable in Eliot’s two poems: “Prufrock” is over 100 lines, while “Morning at the Window” is only 9. Auden’s, on the other hand, are consistently of a short-medium length. The major difference, however, is the choice of narrator or character focus. Eliot’s poems are deeply personal. “Morning at the Window” uses the word “I” and the character at the window is presumably Eliot himself. “Prufrock” is about a fictional character, but the poem is again centered on a specific, named individual. Auden’s poems are broader and he describes things from the place of an uninvolved observer. “The Unknown Citizen” relates the view society has, and includes the narrator among them, saying “our” “(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)” (12). “Museé des Beaux Arts” skips from character to character, and is again narrated in the voice of spectator making observations.

The rhyme in the poems is also varied. Unlike the other three poems, “Morning at the Window” does not utilize rhymes at the end of each line. Every line in Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”, by contrast, rhymes with another. “Prufrock” rhymes words consistently throughout the poem, but not in a set pattern. “Musee des Beaux Arts” rhymes inconsistently; some lines rhyme while others do not.

All four of the poems by these two great poets are very different in terms of how the poets chose to write them. They even diverge on the themes they address besides alienation. But the common thread that runs through all of them is their exploration of the maddening dissociation that plagues human existence. Prufrock cannot fathom women, cannot see himself in the endless drudgery of social life, though he has performed the motions, “measured out his life in coffee spoons”. Auden despairs as he looks at a Brueghel painting and sees how locked inside of ourselves we are, wonders how empathy or sympathy can really exist at all, when our experiences divide us so drastically. Eliot stands at a window and thinks of a world to which he doesn’t seem to belong. The “unknown citizen” is truly unknown by everyone who knew him.

Whether through the eyes of a lone figure experiencing the world, or from the perspective of an invisible spectator observing it, both Eliot and Prufrock convince us that we are not alone in feeling alone. Others have asked that age-old question “do I really know them?” Others have felt words to be insufficient to express themselves. Perhaps this is the true point of poetry: to discern aspects of the human experience that every person shares, to connect for a second with a tenuous line of truth. In this, at least, our disparate experiences are similar; we have all felt like aliens at one time or another.


Works Cited

Auden, W. H. "Musee des Beaux Arts." 134. Southern Review, 2000. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 19 Nov. 2010

Auden, W.H. “The Unknown Citizen.” Academy of American Poets, 1940. Web. 10 Dec. 2010.

Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”, Inc, 1917. Web. 10 Dec. 2010.

Eliot. T.S “Morning at the Window.”, Inc, 1917. Web. 10 Dec. 2010.

Ledbetter, James H. "Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Explicator 51.1 (1992): 41. Academic Search Premier, EBSCO. Web 19 Nov. 2010. 

York, R.A. "Auden's Study of Time." Orbis Litterarum 54.3 (1999): 220. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.

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