Aestheticism and Instrumentalism (Eliot and Brecht)


My essay and the diary I was keeping at the time. Out of interest my essay was marked at 87%.

Eliot’s modernism is primarily led by aesthetic considerations while Brecht’s is driven by his political agenda.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement? Discuss with reference to Life of Galileo and at least two poems from Prufrock and Other Observations. 

The idea that literature should reflect or even intervene in modern social and political concerns was challenged by many modernists, who emphasised the aesthetic dimension of their work. But, as Brecht’s views indicate, an interest in relating quite consciously to the social, political and ideological currents of the time was also a powerful source of energy for certain twentieth-century modernists.[1]

Walder’s comments explore the juxtapositions of aesthetic and instrumental considerations in modernist writing and may suggest that some writers place a higher emphasis on one of these positions. But, as Gupta states, texts generally do not fall neatly into either of these categories. No writers with ‘primarily aesthetic principles were indifferent to social and political realities’ and similarly, ‘primarily instrumentalist’ writers were not ‘indifferent to aesthetic criteria’.[2] However, I hope to show that Eliot’s modernism was primarily led by aesthetic considerations whilst Brecht was driven by his political agenda.

For the purpose of this essay I will consider ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ in order to illustrate how Eliot’s modernist poetic structure rejected the traditional conventions of the late nineteenth century and raised questions about reality and the ‘truth’ by its self conscious style and technique. I intend to illustrate how the mundane is made aesthetically pleasing, and how Eliot’s modernism aesthetically imparts a sense of fragmentation and personal individuality and a concern with understanding the self and the meaning of life. I will then consider Life of Galileo and show how Brecht’s modernism is used to encourage social change by use of the effects of alienation and the epic theatre. I will show how Brecht is influenced by Marxist views, his work reflecting the doctrine that individuals are conditioned by their social circumstances and can change if their circumstances change, and how the play encourages audience engagement by providing links to contemporary society. Finally I will consider the techniques used by Brecht to persuade the viewer to reflect on the degree of responsibility that the scientist has to the world.

Realist writings aimed to convince the reader that real life was being represented and indeed, George Eliot in her novel, Middlemarch actually sort to convince us of this reality by subtitling her novel, ‘A Study of Provincial Life’. Eliot however, in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ invites us to expect a poem about love but we soon experience a conflict between our expectations and the content of the poem as this is ‘not in any obvious way a love song.’[3] Unlike the novel, this is puzzling and raises questions about the ‘truth’ but is perhaps also suggestive of a general uncertainty about the world. Eliot is perhaps using this confusion to reflect the myriad of possible human responses to the representation of reality. His modernism, by rejecting realist techniques, may encourage the individual thought that realism sought to curb but does not overtly channel those thoughts in a particular direction.

The dreary setting is transformed into something beautiful as the ‘yellow smoke’ (p. 3) is likened to a cat with all its connotations of feline grace. This ‘grace’ is confirmed in the fourth stanza as the smoke ‘slides along the street’ (p. 3). The transformation of an ordinary topic into an ‘aesthetically pleasing’ work juxtaposes the beauty of language with the environment and suggests that the ordinary can be transformed by language.[4] Eliot’s modernism uses poetic language to transform the mundane into pleasing imagery in order to unite the dull and commonplace with the beauty of poetry. Eliot’s emphasis on the beauty of language shows how he is led by aesthetic considerations, though of course, poetry as a genre is more suited to such considerations.

The rhyme scheme of the first stanza of this poem (a a b c c d d e e f g h) is irregular and consists of half rhymes, such as ‘hotels, shells’ (p. 3). The line lengths follow no standard pattern or metre. The number of lines per stanza varies widely from just two, to the longer stanzas which all contain twelve lines. The result contributes to a sense of informality, fragmentation and confusion, and adds to a sense of rambling thoughts. The ‘yellow fog’ of the evening gives way to ‘the taking of a toast and tea’ and to the worry of a ‘bald spot’ and the contemplation of the ‘universe’ (p. 4). This diverse sequence of thoughts is not unlike the stream of consciousness technique associated with Virginia Woolf and highlights an emphasis on inner random thoughts, which she considered more realistic than the presentation of thoughts in a linear progression, whilst also suggesting that all certainty and regularity has disappeared. Eliot’s modernism shows a primary concern with innovative use of technique and not with political persuasion. 

Eliot uses punctuation, as a form of Symbolism, to convey a more precise expression of something that is difficult to express by language alone. In ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ the use of ellipses, ‘To lead you to an overwhelming question . . . ’ encourages the reader to stop and ponder what this question might be (p. 3). The ellipses in question actually seem to hint at the poet persona’s inability to express his feelings; there are no words to adequately articulate his awe of the universe and he finds it ‘impossible to say just what I mean!’ (p. 6). This searching is emphasised by the frustrated and rhetorical question ‘Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ (p. 3). The indentation of several lines ‘And how should I begin?’ (p. 5) and ‘that is not it, at all’ (p. 6) stresses the yearning questioning of the poet persona and the inability to reach any answers. A feeling of something being unanswerable pervades the poem and, indeed, there are fourteen uses of the question mark. This punctuation throughout adds to a sense of human powerlessness and searching to successfully understand the meaning of life. Overall, the poet’s use of fluid punctuation with frequent use of caesura and enjambement draws attention to the construction of the poem as a work of art and invites consideration of its aesthetic qualities.

In ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ symbolism is evident in the depiction of the street lamp. Its personification ensures that it is seen as a more active presence than the passive presence of the poet persona and we are encouraged to consider an inanimate object with the human capacity for thought and speech. Similarly, we can consider humans as automatons acting mechanically. Indeed, the poem suggests this reversal in ‘so the hand of the child, automatic, / Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay,’ (p. 16). The human is portrayed as the automaton and it is the inanimate toy that is personified by ‘running’. The reality of the street setting contrasts with this obvious unreality to suggest that the ‘man-made’ element of society may control an individual who therefore loses some degree of freedom in his life. Eliot’s modernism, by upsetting reality in this way, draws attention to an individual’s position in society but primarily highlights a new aesthetic approach.

A characteristic theme of modernist poetry was time and its passing and artificiality. In ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ each stanza begins with an announcement, ‘twelve o’clock’, ‘half-past one’ (p. 15). Eliot’s work shows a ‘somewhat agonized consciousness of the passing of time’.[5] The announcement of time pervades the poem and its repetition highlights its presence. Though we are encouraged to focus on this passing of time we are also drawn to its artificiality as the time is announced by a street lamp, ‘The lamp said, /’four o’clock,’’ (p. 17). As well as inviting us to view happenings in the present time, ‘the cat which flattens itself in the gutter’ (p. 16), the poem also encourages a reflection on past times, ‘Memory!/You have the key’ (p. 17). We are therefore aware of the existence of current clocked time alongside remembered times which promotes a feeling of disorientation. Time, split into minutes and hours, is an unnatural concept, which is only a valid phenomenon in the present, and ceases to exist as one remembers the past. This striking of the clock reminds the reader of human mortality and of the transience of human existence and aesthetically provides an underlying structure to the poem. 

Rorrison, in his commentary to Life of Galileo states that:

For Brecht the traditional, or dramatic theatre was a place where the audience were absorbed into a comforting illusion which played on their emotions and left them drained, but with a sense of satisfaction which predisposed them to accept the world as they found it. What he himself was looking for was a theatre that would help to change the world.[6]

Brecht’s development of the ‘alienation’ effect and of ‘epic’ theatre served Brecht’s political agenda by discouraging an audience from empathising with the characters on stage, leaving viewers emotionally uninvolved and free to reflect on what they have seen rather than be encouraged to accept a predetermined view. Alienation refers to those effects that prevent us from identifying too closely with characters and epic suggests an emphasis on narrative rather than dramatic action and ‘appeals less to the feelings than to the spectator’s reason’.[7]

In Life of Galileo we are immediately distanced from the action on stage as the play opens with an explanatory headline and ditty which informs the audience of Galileo’s scientific intentions. This ditty, sung by a chorus in Losey’s film version of the play, draws attention to the artificiality of the scene. The audience is not invited into a ‘realistic’ setting but is made aware of the stage as a constructed art which encourages a detached interpretation. Though the title of the play should suggest, to an informed audience, the nature of the plot, this additional information removes any last suspense that an audience might feel. The result is a focus on narrative and context rather than on dramatic experience.

The creation of Galileo as a character also serves to ensure that the reader does not instinctively endear him/herself to Brecht’s protagonist. We are invited to witness the initial intimate scene showing Galileo ‘washing down to the waist’ (p. 5) and can therefore identify with him in an everyday context, despite his being one of the ‘most important scientists in history’.[8] Galileo is presented as enthusiastic in his teaching, ‘let’s examine it’ (p. 6) and Brecht’s use of technical jargon such as ‘armillary sphere’ and Galileo’s insistence on using the technical term ‘describing a circle’ (p. 5) ensures that we are made aware of Galileo’s scientific brilliance. However, Brecht does not present the scientist as faultless. Instead, he allows Galileo to be deceitful and cruel. Galileo shows no guilt as he presents the telescope as his own invention ‘with deep joy’ (p. 20) and he shows no remorse for breaking off his daughter’s engagement. Brecht’s modernism contributes to his political agenda by encouraging the audience to form their own views on the morality of the scientist.

The theories of Marxism suggest that the nature of mankind is determined by an individual’s social conditions and that people will change if their conditions change. Brecht believed that literature could ‘change society and the way people think.’[9] In scene 8 of Life of Galileo, the Little Monk explains to Galileo how his parents’ religious view of life is essential to their understanding of the world and that any change to this would upset their ‘feeling of stability’       (p. 65). Galileo’s rejection of the Monk’s plea to keep the ‘peasants’ ignorant and his insistence that the enlightened could go on to ‘develop the virtues of happiness and prosperity’ (p. 66) despite the upheaval to their social understanding, endorses Brecht’s view that people react to differing conditions. Though the Monk is saddened by the potential plight of his parents, Brecht refrains from engaging the audience’s emotion by ensuring that we are left with an image of the Monk absorbed in a new manuscript eager for further scientific knowledge. The Monk clearly does not relish, for himself, the ignorance he desires for his parents. This contradiction encourages the audience to consider the pros and cons of upsetting the political status quo.

Brecht’s play ‘remains the most searching examination of the ethics of science that has been written for the stage’.[10] Galileo’s finding that ‘there is no difference between heaven and earth’ (p. 24) had enormous implications for society in the early seventeenth century but to a twentieth century audience, Galileo’s findings are accepted facts. In scene 15, an audience in the 1930s would be aware of the infancy of aircraft and the very real possibility of the benefits of commercial air travel. Andrea’s comments that ‘people can’t fly through the air on a stick’ (p. 113) would have amused viewers who were aware of such scientific advance. However, this known benefit of science is contradicted by the scene’s opening ditty that urges caution in using scientific knowledge ‘lest it be a flame to fall/Downward to consume us all’ (p. 110). Brecht’s reference to the possible consequences of the atom bomb serves as a contemporary reminder to the audience of the responsibility that scientists have to the world and lead us to question whether indeed, Galileo was right to continue with his research or whether accepting the Church’s desire for status quo would have been the more responsible option.

The scope of this essay has considered works from two very different genres. By its nature, poetry is a medium more suited to the expression of aesthetic considerations and drama to political comment and the primary considerations of the writers in question may be influenced by or reflected in the genre of choice. However, I hope to have shown how Eliot’s modernism which shows ‘aesthetic and poetic daring’[11] by rejecting traditional poetic structures and themes, explores the differing notions of reality and truth and encourages an inner reflection on human awareness. Eliot’s modernism and its ‘fresh and invigorating’ form which is not constrained by rhyme and punctuation, and which challenges our understanding of the ‘truth’, creates a sense of fluidity away from the constraints of previous traditions of writing. A new way of writing and a new way of seeing the world, perhaps. The result is the creation of poetry which draws attention to its construction in order to encourage reflection on inner thoughts and impart a consideration of man’s changing position within society without seeking to change it. Brecht’s writing on the other hand, with his choice of historical subject matter, encourages a new contemplation of the political implications of scientific advancement and seeks to initiate change. Although the play does not answer any questions on the ethics of science, at least it raises them for the audience to consider. Brecht’s use of alienation and epic theatre was primarily to influence his audience in order to ‘upset people into changing the way they saw things’ and his furtherance of Marxist doctrines served his political agenda.[12] In order to initiate political change Brecht sought to ‘make the spectator into an actor who would complete the unfinished play’.[13]


Brecht, B. (1994) Life of Galileo, trans. by J. Willett, with Commentary and Notes by H. Rorrison, Methuen Student Editions, London: Methuen.

Brown, R. D. and Gupta, S. (eds) (2005) Aestheticism and Modernism: debates in Twentieth-Century Literature 1900-1960, London: Routledge in association with the Open University.

Eliot, T.S. ([1917] 2001) Prufrock and Other Observations, London: Faber & Faber.

Gupta, S. and Johnson, D. (eds) (2005) A Twentieth-Century Literature Reader, Texts and Debates, London: Routledge in association with the Open University

Open University A300 course material – CD2 (readings by T S Eliot)

Open University A300 course material – DVD2 (Galileo, directed by J Losey)

[1] Walder in Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 326

[2] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 225

[3] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 232

[4] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 232

[5] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 253

[6] Brecht, (1994), p. xxxv

[7] Gupta and Johnson, 2005, p. 129

[8] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 324

[9] Quote taken from A300 tutorial handout by Dr. M Denby

[10] Brecht, (1994), p. xli

[11] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 272

[12] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 327

[13] Brown and Gupta, 2005, p. 327


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