Gerontion : by T. S. Eliot || Summary and Analysis

Also Read


          Thou hast nor youth nor age

          But as it were an after dinner sleep

          Dreaming of both.

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,

Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.

I was neither at the hot gates

Nor fought in the warm rain

Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,

Bitten by flies, fought.

My house is a decayed house,

And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,

Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,

Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.

The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;

Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.

The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,

Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.


                    I an old man,

A dull head among windy spaces.


Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign”:

The word within a word, unable to speak a word,

Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year

Came Christ the tiger


In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,

To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk

Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero

With caressing hands, at Limoges

Who walked all night in the next room;

By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;

By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room

Shifting the candles; Fraulein von Kulp

Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. Vacant shuttles

Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,

An old man in a draughty house

Under a windy knob.


After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors

And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,

Guides us by vanities. Think now

She gives when our attention is distracted

And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions

That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late

What’s not believed in, or if still believed,

In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon

Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with

Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think

Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices

Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues

Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.

These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.


The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last

We have not reached conclusion, when I

Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last

I have not made this show purposelessly

And it is not by any concitation

Of the backward devils

I would meet you upon this honestly.

I that was near your heart was removed therefrom

To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.

I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it

Since what is kept must be adulterated?

I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:

How should I use it for your closer contact?


These with a thousand small deliberations

Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,

Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,

With pungent sauces, multiply variety

In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,

Suspend its operations, will the weevil

Delay? De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled

Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear

In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits

Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,

White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,

And an old man driven by the Trades

To a a sleepy corner.


                    Tenants of the house,

Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.

Introduction :

      Title, Gerontion was included in a volume of poem published by Eliot. The title of the volume is Poems-1920. It marks the development of Eliot's poetic genius and style. It stands midway between the first volume entitled Prufrock and other Observations 1917 and The Waste Land 1922.

The old man is thinking of his past and the present as also his physical surroundings. There is no movement towards any set purpose or goal.

Summary :-

      Gerontion's Career : In the beginning Gerontion describes his own career and environment. He is an old man, almost blind. A boy is reading a book for him. It is the dry season of the year. He is anxiously waiting for rain. The dryness stands for his spiritual barrenness and also of the civilisation to which he belongs. Rain stands for divine grace. At this age Gerontion looks back to his past. He realises futility and barrenness of his own life. He has no achievement to his credit; he could have won glory if he fought in any war. He has also not taken part in any colonial expedition and brought no honour or wealth to himself or to his country. He is quite disillusioned about himself and the so-called achievement or the modern civilisation. Man in this mechanical civilisation is like the cog in the wheel. He looks at his dirty rented house. His landlord is a jew who sits opposite to him on a sill. The Jew was born in Antwerp and sowed his wild oats in Brussels and London. The mind is also ill and sleepy. She cooks his meals. Outside the house, the goat coughs at night. His house is encircled by stone, mass, iron-piece and human excreta. He realises that he is like a dull head lost in the vastness of the universe.

      Causes of decay of civilisation : Gerontion now reflects on the corruption around and the causes thereof. The most important reason for this miserable plight is the loss of faith. People under the influence of science have adopted a rational outlook towards Christianity. They are unaware of the need of developing their spiritual potential, the need of disciplining the mind of heart, before they can understand the message of Christ and its relevance today. They demand proof for whatever is mentioned in the Bible. The modern man wants proof and reason for his faith. He does not believe in miracle. Similarly, the Jews ask Christ for a sign i.e. miracle. Gerontion feels that the birth of Christ is itself a miracle and we refuse to believe in it. Like the Jew, our loss of faith in Christ is a reason for the darkness of our soul and the degeneration of civilization.

      Christ, The Tiger : The image of the baby Christ brings to Gerontion's mind the other image of Christ - Christ the Tiger mentioned by Blake. Christ came as the Saviour to destroy evil. Weeds grow even in the best of fields, so as corruption is grown in the fruitful land of Christianity. Similarly people with the materialistic outlook do not find anything significant in Christian worship or art. Formerly the rituals of man, the eating of bread and drinking of wine were regarded as symbolic of man's participation in the crucification of Christ. This belief made the early Christian society a closely-knit unit. Now-a-days church-going has become a formality and people whisper scandal just as they would do in a club.

      Even Christian art has suffered at the hands of modern man. They do not go in the significance of the Christian painting, but rather into their formal and technical assessment. For example Mr. Silvero while examining the beautiful works of art in the shrine at Limoges, found nothing remarkable. Similarly others understand nothing of Christian paintings. Their minds lack faith. Therefore they do not understand the mysteries of the Christian church. Spiritualism has degenerated into the ritual of calling spirits as in the case of Madamede Tornquist. Their activities indicate that pseudo-faiths have taken the place of true Christian faiths and culture. Even the Renaissance which brought humanism and rationalism, diverted people's attention from religion to art. Such things cannot bring spiritual comfort. Gerontion, too, has lost in the metaphysical. He, therefore, like his contemporaries finds himself lost. Eliot here seems to make a strong plea for a true understanding of, and belief in the Christian church.

      History - a prostitute : Why was the modern civilisation failed? Can history help in giving an answer to this question? Can it give knowledge? The world knowledge in the Biblical sense means sex knowledge. Therefore, history is considered as prostitute as a cunning but charming Cleopatra. History deceives man and thereby prevents his mind. History has many intricate and confusing side-tracks, cross-currents and problems. It is a record of human ambition, vanity and crime. As such it may misguide man. Courage may lead man to gain ambition and fear may bring with itself a sense of humiliation. The experience of the First World War shows the great crime committed by politician and army general. The knowledge of history is like the Tree of Knowledge which was responsible for the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. History cannot give any guidance for spiritual salvation. It distorts human values and places a premium on treachery, double-dealing and violence.

      Rationalism - no remedy : Rationalism of modern civilisation cannot save civilisation from decay. Rationalism and intellectualism are responsible for the loss of faith. Gerontion feels sorry for the decline in his faith:

"I that was near your hear was removed there from,

To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition."

      As A.G. George remarks : "When intellectual scrutiny brings, the terror itself vanishes, and the debasement of faith is complete". Gerontion feels sorry for the loss of faith in Christianity. But he feels that the doctrines have been adulterated and cannot therefore provide consolation and relief.

      Sex stimulants : Some critics feel that Gerontion laments the loss of his passion for his mistress. In view of his old age, he cannot have close contact with her. But such artificial methods and remedies like creams, perfumes, medicines, herbs etc. cannot excite his sexual passion. The sex cannot prevent the natural process of ageing and decay.

      Certainty of Death : One thing is quite certain - that every human being will die. So all efforts to prevent decay and dissolution are bound to fail. Man is helpless like a lonely ship, caught in a sea-storm or a sea girl blown hither and thither by a snow-storm. Man's ultimate destiny is death. His broken atom will be mixed up with the earth. Human life is, therefore, meaningless and futile. The poem ends on a pessimistic note.

      The two worlds : "Prufrock" belongs to the contemporary aristocratic world. His society shows the perfection of urban civilization with its sophisticated, luxury, artificiality, hypocrisy, loneliness, make-belief and the gay-record of social parties. It is a world disgusted with itself, bored to death, and finding some relief in love, and gaiety. The words of Prufrock come straight from the drawing-room and the fashionable clubs. This modern civilization preserves its formal manners and mechanical bits of conversation. Actually this society is rotten, and hollow at its core. It has no emotional or spiritual reservoir of strength.

      Gerontion, on the other hand, is the story of an old man living in the low society. His house is rented, dingy, and foul smelling. He calls it a decayed house watched by the land-lord, a Jew. The maid keeps the kitchen but she is ill and bored. Outside, the goats cough at night. The language of Prufrock is plain and straightforward. It is quite different from padding, repetition, and decoration of the language used in The Love Song.

      Stream of consciousness in "Gerontion" : The action of the poem is set not in any place, but in the mind of the old man himself. The old man is thinking of his past and the present as also his physical surroundings. There is no movement towards any set purpose or goal. There is hardly any progress in the development of thought. The poem ends in the same way as it begins. The words "dry session" of the last line echo the words of the first line "dry month." Gerontion is an inner monologue. The thoughts of the protagonist recollected in tranquility, reflect the essential barrenness of the modern civilization. Modern life is vain and futile ike the days passed by the old man. He is quite disillusioned about himself and about the purpose of the modern world. He regards himself "dull head" "among windy spaces."

      Importance of "Gerontion" : Gerontion was carefully planned. It affirms the views of Eliot about modern life and civilization. In fact, it has the same theme as The Waste Land - Gerontion was originally intended to form an epilogue to The Waste Land. However, on the advice of Ezra Pond, it was published separately in "1920-volume."

      After math of the First World War : The end of the First World War did not lead to any great political or social results. Many thought that the war was the result of utter human stupidity and the colossal waste of natural resources. It shows that there was something entirely wrong with the modern civilization. Thinkers offered three explanations of the decay and futility of modern civilization. Firstly, European civilization had lost its rich religious heritage; secondly, it was dominated by commerce and money values; thirdly it was marked by sexual perversion, squalor and rottenness. Gerontion reflects on the above three issues and comes to the conclusion that only faith and moral values can save the modern civilization. The decayed house of Gerontion is the symbol of decadence of modern civilization.

      The treatment of the poem : The theme of the poem is the post-war decay and degeneration. The treatment of the theme is highly philosophical. Eliot deals with the causes of decay and corruption which, according to him, are loss of Christian faith and moral values, the wrong assumption of history, the distortion of values, the evils of rationalism, the drying of spiritual resources, the futility of artificial stimulants like wine and sex and inevitability of decay and death. The image of Christ - the Tiger in place of the "babe in the manger" - is very effective. It is the stern warning to our political and social leader that Christ - the Tiger will destroy the sinner. This myth heightens the contrast between the vital past and the barren present.

      Newman's "Gerontion" : The poem may be compared with Cardinal Newman's The Dream of Gerontion. In that piece, the hero is a man of faith who looks to the end with joy. He accepts sufferings because it would purge him of impurities. His sufferings and miseries become bearable on account of his faith in God. Therefore, he faces death with calm and serenity. Eliot's Gerontion lacks faith. He is a victim of modern civilization, its scientific knowledge and commercial spirit. His sufferings lead no where; they do not mean the salvation of soul. His old age is symbolic of the decay of the modern civilization. Stephen Spender writes in his book Destructive Element, "Gerontion is an old man, empty of desire and whose activities are over, save for the 'thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season'. He corresponds to Tiresias in The Waste Land. His age, in the life of a single man, is an old as Western Civilization in the life of Civilizations (between 70 and 80), so he is particularly well qualified to be a sympathetic observer."

      Impersonality of the Hero : Gerontion is a representative figure of the modern civilisation. He has no character of his own. F.R. Leavise remarks "Gerontion has rally a dramatic detachment. In this respect it represents a great advance upon anything printed earlier in Poems 1909-1925. Prufrock and Portrait of a Lady are concerned with the directly personal embarrassments, disillusions and distresses of a sophisticated young man. It is not a superficial difference that Gerontion has for persona an old man embodying a situation remote from that of the poet. From a position far above his immediate concerns as a particular individual, projecting himself as it were, into a comprehensive and representative human consciousness, he poet contemplates human life and asks what it all comes to.... Gerontion has the impersonality of great poetry.

      The impersonality of the hero is so pervasive that it almost becomes an abstraction. He becomes a symbol of human consciousness, turning its attention on basic problems of the contemporary world and linking them with the happenings of the past. At the same time, his setting and environment is quite concrete and he has a place as a spokesman of the modern civilization.

      Conclusion : The poem is an embodiment of the popular discontent caused by the first world war and the wave of disillusionment which swept Europe. Modern civilisation has reached a breaking point; the process of disintegration and dissolution has set in. It is therefore impossible to prevent the collapse of civilisation. All plans to salvage it are like the spider's web which will snap at any moment. Eliot's strong belief is that civilisation can be saved if it revives its Christian faith and follows the moral values of church.

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions