Tradition as (Disembodied) Voice: “The word within the word” in “Gerontion”

  • G. Douglas Atkins


For a while, Eliot considered appending “Gerontion” to The Waste Land as a preface. Although it is not, and should not considered as, a part of the greater work, the poem spoken by “a little old man” is more important than often realized. With another look at the seminal essays “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (also 1920) and “The Metaphysical Poets” (1923), this chapter shows how “Gerontion” represents a critique of post-Renaissance civilization with its separation of mind and body, thinking and feeling. The speaker (and title character) here emerges as a “medium” for tradition, which is Eliot’s expressed definition of the poet.


Individual Talent Title Character Selected Essay North American Literature Rhetorical Role 
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    B.C. Southam, A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot, 6th edn (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace, 1996), 68.Google Scholar
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    T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion,” Poems 1909–1925 (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1925). As has been frequently acknowledged, “Gerontion” connects with a later poem as well, the second Ariel Poem, A Song for Simeon.Google Scholar
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    R.P. Blackmur early on wrote that Eliot did not “complete” the poem, leaving completion up to his reader. He calls Gerontion “an ideal figure self-seen, self-dramatized in a series of rapid, penetrating statements.” Although each of these, he supposes, makes sense in itself, “the material between” them matters, and several times the reader finds his breath inexplicably cut short (Outsider at the Heart of Things, ed. James T. Jones [Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989], 47). The point is suggestive, including for “The Hollow Men,” where “between” plays such a powerful thematic and rhetorical role.Google Scholar
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© G. Douglas Atkins 2013

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