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T.S Eliot and Woolf- Urban Anxieties

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Give a critical account of the approach taken by any one or two Modern writers depiction of urban life

‘Why do I dramatise London so perpetually’ Woolf wondered in the final months of her life. This essay will seek to examine Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Eliot’s The Waste Land to observe their perpetual fascination with expressing metropolis as a vision of modernity. It will attempt to scrutinize the overwhelming nature of urban life, urban life’s effect on humanity, metropolis being the forefront of society, and also the depiction of a single urban consciousness. Through examining these depictions of urban life, this essay aims to observe the effects rapid urbanisation had on the modern movement and its respective authors.

Woolf presents Mrs Dalloway’s consciousness as a vessel to voice the overwhelming nature of urban life and the problem of anxiety experienced in modern metropolis. Immediately in the first paragraph Clarissa’s anxieties are voiced as she embarks to the city to prepare for her party. Clarissa’s consciousness jumps to her memory of a ‘girl of eighteen’ and the solemn and ‘feeling that something awful was about to happen’. The contrast to her feeling of excitement to a feeling of anxiety is stark. The protagonist begins by exclaiming ‘how fresh how calm’ and then to experiencing feeling threatened as her attention reverts from the natural to the ‘uproar of the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans… she loved; life; London’. Woolf plunges the reader into Mrs Dalloway’s consciousness, where the protagonist experiences both awe and anxiety at the spectacle of the metropolis. The writer achieves this sense of nervous excitement through the manipulation of syntax, alliteration and the sheer denseness of Clarissa’s observations. Sandwich men ‘shuffling and swinging’, ‘brass bands and barrel organs’ overwhelm the reader as Clarissa remarks on their ‘swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and uproar’ of the street. The excessive use of commas mimics the protagonist’s fluid stream of consciousness and the short sharp phonics of ‘swing, tramp, trudge’ create a strong sense of hypertension and motion which imitate the vibrant street. Sociologist Georg Simmel attributed this sense of anxiety to the ‘intensification of nervous stimulation from…threatening currents and discrepancies of this external environment’. The sociologist explains how the ever changing nature of urban life resulted in a feeling of alienation, as one transcended into a modern urban climate that was a vast contrast to the experience of towns and country living.

If Woolf were to portray the modern metropolis as an intimidating concrete jungle, Eliot’s depiction of urban life would be a phantasmagoria wasteland. Eliot’s depiction of urban life paints vast macabre landscapes which aims to mirror what Simmel observed as being the urbanisations‘damaged psyche of humanity’. The narrator walks the reader through the streets of London that is inhabited by a population of ghosts. The line ‘the brown fog of winter dawn’ illustrates a city under a sordid veil of pollution, which is then wrapped around ‘the crowd that flowed over London Bridge’. Eliot subverts classic Romantic natural imagery resulting in a macabre portrayal of urban desolation. ‘The crowd flows over London Bridge’ uses the image of a waterfall to depict the overpopulation of people and cultures London was experiencing. Critic Frank Leavis explains how in early nineteen century metropolis ‘traditions and cultures mingled…resulting in a break down of forms and a sense of absoluteness which seems necessary to a robust culture’.Eliot relates this overpopulation of culture to death, remarking ‘death had undone so many!’. He subverts water and its romantic notion of life to the carrier of death to illustrate this loss of culture. Organic images are continually turned on their head as the narrator asks a fellow soldier, Stetson, if a buried corpse has ‘sprouted’ and ‘bloomed’ this year. Critic Yeshodhara Rao notes on the contradiction of Romantic imagery explaining that ‘romantic poetry were not necessary for him…(Eliot) is more preoccupied with men in their real world of suffering-the struggle which envelopes their world’. This struggle is captured in the motif of ‘crowds of people walking around in the ring’. Here Eliot is depicting to the unthinking crowds of London, unaware of the social decay going round and round in circles, bedecking the metropolis in apathy. This dead suffering population is also reflected through the unresponsive Stetson and through the ‘short and infrequent’ sighs from the London crowd. ‘Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhauled’. Closely examining these lines, Eliot uses caesura to slow the pace of the poem so that the diction mimics the crowd’s breathing. Eliot uses these poetic devices to magnify the suffering and despair within the city. In doing so Eliot utilises this suffering ‘as a weapon to jostle men into awareness, bringing them to a reality of life and its truths’. These truths magnify the stagnant and inactive nature of urban life, a stark contrast to the vibrant portrayal we see throughout Clarissa’s London. Throughout the ‘The Burial of the dead’, Eliot embarks on the true wasteland of modern society; the modern city.

Throughout Mrs Dalloway Woolf presents the reader with spatial metaphors representing urban life and the city being the pinnacle of society. Woolf’s uses Bond Street as a diorama to portray the progression of both technology and man. Richard Lehan explains how throughout literature ‘urbanism is seen as the heart of culture…the city is the source of intellectual excitement and challenge’, it is the forefront of a society.The inclusion of the motor car reflects this forefront of society, as soon as ‘the violent explosion’ from a backfiring car. Clarissa relates the automobile to status and pinnacle of high society, guessing if its passenger is the ‘Queen, or the Prime Minister’. The narration then changes to the war torn consciousness of Septimus as he notices a ‘gradual drawing together to one centre before his eyes’ as everything ‘comes to a stand still’ . The significance Woolf gives to this scene is substantial. All the streets occupants are going along their daily lives and halt; there is a rare moment of unity where all the streets consciousness becomes a collective. Simmel comments on ‘the sphere of significance and influence of a city…does not end at its geographical boarders, but rather extends over the entire country in intellectual and political waves’. Here the city is the precipice of modernity, it is the progression of man and the nexus of society which transcends past the streets of urban life. Woolf uses the technology of automobiles and transport to reflect this collective progression of man. This can also be seen through the metaphorical action of the street dwellers as they all stop and ‘look up to the sky’ .The symbol of the sky and the plane is significant, as Clarissa herself says it is the ‘symbol of mans soul; of his determination’. Here Woolf is using both the city and the advances of travel to depict urban living as representing the success of man in ‘the forms of a new civilisation’. Contrasting to this success of man Eliot uses the motif of a ship to show the degenerate destructive nature of man. Eliot depicts ‘Red sales’ sailing down the Thames as the ‘river sweats oil and tar’ to illustrate the damage urban living is having on both the environment and culture. Both authors use travel motifs in their depiction of urban life to show either the progression or deterioration of man in the modern world.

The most intriguing aspect of Woolf’s depiction of urban life lies in the juxtaposition of loneliness while experiencing being a collective. The protagonists search to be accepted and to communicate is seen throughout the novel in her determination to throw a party in an attempt to bring people together. Clarissa’s isolation is established through the line ‘she had penetrated a sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out to sea and alone’ . Woolf utilises the image of the water to capture the struggles one has to face in the urban sea. The sea encompasses the sheer gravity and the overwhelming struggle to keep afloat while not being overwhelmed in a modern society. Woolf’s comment on urban loneliness also appears in the penultimate chapters of the book where Clarissa contemplates Septimus’s liberation from his loneliness and contemplates her own isolated existence next to her neighbour. Clarissa is fascinated by the elderly woman ‘going to bed, in the room opposite…going alone’.She muses over the mystery of existing alone while there are other urban inhabitants that exist also in isolation . Simmel marked the rise in urban boundaries at the beginning of the century, explaining how social boundaries ‘place a geometric line between two neighbours’. He remarked on how urban social boundaries were not physical ones as seen with Clarissa and the old woman, but rather they are psychological ones . Simmel explains how borders of living are ‘psychologically active boundaries, which produce not only passive resistance, but very active repulsions’. Woolf presents us with two women that are parallels of each other. They are the same sex, same class and both isolated in their urban environment; they are both in close proximity yet both of them ‘go to bed alone’. Woolf uses this alienated neighbour dynamic as a microcosm for urban life and the problem of loneliness in the modern city.

While loneliness in urban dwelling is predominant throughout Woolf’s work, it seems ironic that the novelist should also include collective homogony. Initially the reader is given Clarissa’s consciousness through first person narration as she embarks into the city. Woolf then uses free indirect discourse to allow the reader to flutter between the each urban dwellers consciousness giving a collective experience. This interchange between consciousness is extremely fluid, as if all the perspectives and viewpoint merge into one consecutive experience. These collective viewpoints almost serve as what Yeat’s coined a Spiritus Mundi in which the viewer is provided with a interconnected experience of urban life. This fluid switch of experience seen than in when Clarissa switches from first person to describing the times she has lived in Westminster, to then the homogenous line ‘one feels in the midst of traffic’. The inclusion of the impersonal pronoun ‘one’ as Hana Wirth- Neser explains ‘blurs the line between a public generalisation and a personal individual sensation…this marks the elevation of the individual into the collective’. Throughout Woolf’s own writing in Street Haunting, she also remarks on the collective sensation of entering the city and feeling ‘no longer quite ourselves…as we shed the self…and become part of the vast republican army of anonymous trampers’.

When embarking on Eliot’s Waste land, one cannot help but feel disorientated much like a clueless newcomer of a city. Like Woolf, Eliot also uses multiple narrators to depict the city that create a single consciousness of urban life. Woolf presents us with a very distinct consciousness of London, while Eliot’s multi cultured voices and intertextual sources lack a distinct London voice. Instead Eliot depicts urban life as one single vision of the modern metropolis, reflecting all aspects of urban life in one consecutive depiction. Eluned Summers-Bremner remarks on how ‘The London of The Waste Land…contains a relative lack of London Voices and social historical detail, instead we find a montage of references to other cities cultures and languages’. . In the opening stanza the narrator switches from English to the German line ‘Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsh’ .‘I am not Russian, I come from Lithuania, a true German’ is a nonsensical line depicting three different regions of Europe. Eliot uses this line to break the flow of the stanza, to abruptly stop the idyllic memoirs of a German girls youth. This line captures Germany’s identity dilemma in the aftermath of First World War and also the splintered identity of European cities as they began to merge into one collective union. Joseph McLaughlin remarks on how Eliots uses such abrupt incisions to ‘capture the experience of the urban jungle through techniques of close juxtaposition, compactness, linguistic disjuncture to portray the tangled urban experience’. This tangled collective experience is also seen through The Fire Sermon where a new narrator exclaims a Smyrna mechant asks in ‘demotic French, to luncheon at Cannon Street hotel, followed by a weekend at the Metropole’ .Not only is the Turkish merchant not speaking in his native tongue, he is also attending a fashionable resort at odds with his class. Here Eliot is expressing the cosmopolitanism of the modern city, and the loss of social identity, class and tradition. These condensed consciousness and multi lingual characters as Michael Levenson says; ‘offers multiple fragments of consciousness, various presentations to various viewpoints, which overlap, interlock, melting into one another to form emergent wholes.’.This emergent whole is as if a cultural grenade has exploded at the start of the nineteenth century, where the poet has picked up the cultural fragments of the past, and set them together in one consecutive account of urban life.

Throughout both texts the writers successfully capture the anxieties and angst that was experienced at the turn of the nineteenth century. Going back to Woolfs initial quote ‘Why do I dramatise London perpetually’, it seems logical for both writers to use the city as the nexus of modernity. It is pinnacle of societies progression, the epicentre of change, which would have first experienced the anxieties of the changing decade. Urban life it seems is the perfect microcosm for modernity. A stage, where the social consciousness of the early twentieth century can be preformed.

Bibliography:

C.F Jonathon Schneer, London 1990: The Imperial Metropolis (New haven: Yale University Press, 1999)

Elund Summers- Bremner Unreal City and dream Deferred: Psychogeographies of Modernism in T.S Eliot and Langston Hughes (eds.Laura Doyle and Laura Winkeil) Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity (Indiana: Bloomngton,2005)

F.R Leavis The significance of the Modern Waste land (edt. Michael North) The Waste Land (New York: W.W Norton, 2001)

Georg Simmel Metropolis and Mental life in: (eds. Richard Sennet) Classical essays on the cultures of Cities (New York: Appleton Century Crofts-1969)

Georg Simmel Spatial and Urban Culture (eds. Mike Featherstone) in Simmel on Culture (London: Sage Publications, 1997)

Joseph McLaughlin Writing the Urban Jungle (Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 2000)

Michael Levenson Genealogy of Modernism (Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press,1984)

Richard Lehan The City in Literature (California: University of California Press, 1998)
T.S Eliot The Waste Land (New York: W.W Norton,2001)

Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992)

Virginia Woolf Street Haunting: A London Adventure (edt. David Bradshaw) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Virginia Woolf Virginia Woolf and London (edt. Mary Anne Caws) City Images: Perspectives from Literature Philosophy and Film (New York:Breach Science Publishers,1991)

Yeshodhara Gopala Rao T.S Eliot and the Romantic Poets (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers,1996)

--------------------------------------------
[ 1 ]. Virginia Woolf Virginia Woolf and London (edt. Mary Anne Caws) City Images: Perspectives from Literature Philosophy and Film (New York:Breach Science Publishers,1991) p99.
[ 2 ]. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992),p1.
[ 3 ]. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992),p4.
[ 4 ]. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992),p4.
[ 5 ]. Georg Simmel Metropolis and Mental life in: (eds. Richard Sennet) Classical essays on the cultures of Cities (New York: Appleton Century Crofts-1969) p.48
[ 6 ]. Georg Simmel Cultrue and Crisis in: (eds. Richard Sennet) Classical essays on the cultures of Cities (New York: Appleton Century Crofts-1969) p73
[ 7 ]. T.S Eliot The Waste Land (New York: W.W Norton,2001) p.7
[ 8 ]. F.R Leavis The significance of the Modern Waste land (edt. Michael North) The Waste Land (New York: W.W Norton, 2001) p.172
[ 9 ]. T.S Eliot The Waste Land (New York: W.W Norton,2001) p.7
[ 10 ]. Yeshodhara Gopala Rao T.S Eliot and the Romantic Poets (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers,1996) p.36
[ 11 ]. T.S Eliot The Waste Land (New York: W.W Norton,2001) p.7
[ 12 ]. Yeshodhara Gopala Rao T.S Eliot and the Romantic Poets (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers,1996) p.36
[ 13 ]. Richard Lehan The City in Literature (California: University of California Press, 1998) p.3
[ 14 ]. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992),p12.
[ 15 ]. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992),p13.
[ 16 ]. Georg Simmel Spatial and Urban Culture (eds. Mike Featherstone) in Simmel on Culture (London: Sage Publications, 1997) p.139
[ 17 ]. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992),p18.
[ 18 ]. C.F Jonathon Schneer, London 1990: The Imperial Metropolis (New haven: Yale University Press, 1999) p4
[ 19 ]. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992),p7.
[ 20 ]. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992),p158.
[ 21 ]. Georg Simmel Spatial and Urban Culture (eds. Mike Featherstone) in Simmel on Culture (London: Sage Publications, 1997) p.142
[ 22 ]. See Yeat’s ‘The Second Coming’ William Butler Yeats W.B Yeats Selected Poems, (London: Penguin Books, 2000) p124
[ 23 ]. Virginia Woolf Street Haunting: A London Adventure (edt. David Bradshaw) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
[ 24 ]. Elund Summers- Bremner Unreal City and dream Deferred: Psychogeographies of Modernism in T.S Eliot and Langston Hughes (eds.Laura Doyle and Laura Winkeil) Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity (Indiana: Bloomngton,2005) pp.268-69
[ 25 ]. T.S Eliot The Waste Land (New York: W.W Norton,2001) p.5
[ 26 ]. Joseph McLaughlin Writing the Urban Jungle (Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 2000) p.182
[ 27 ]. T.S Eliot The Waste Land (New York: W.W Norton,2001) p.12
[ 28 ]. Michael Levenson Genealogy of Modernism (Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press,1984) p.90

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