Gerontion, as the Greek root of the name suggests, means “old man”, which is confirmed by the voice in the poem in the first verse: “Here I am, an old man in a dry month” and later “I an old man”. Still, prior to the first verses we find an epitaph (a paratextual element): “Thou hast nor youth nor age / But as it were an after dinner sleep / Dreaming of both” whose function is to interpret the matrix of the text: it refers to the spiritual emptiness left from having an empty youth and the desire to fill that emptiness, to give it meaning. Gerontion’s physical age corresponds to his aging, spent, stale spirit and mind. The narrating subject in the poem, the old man, goes on to tell us that he is living in a “decayed”, “rented house”, “among windy spaces”, and there is nothing in his surroundings that would indicate fertility or any kind of fertile activity, but on the contrary: “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.” The introductory stanza implies decadence, inertia and complete aridity. Maybe that is why Gerontion says that he is waiting for the rain, a symbol of regeneration. As to his physical condition, Gerontion says: “I have lost my passion…”, “I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch”, and at one point he metonymically refers to his whole being as “a dull head”. But the winds that shake Gerontion’s house are also infertile—here they are neither the harbinger of rain nor any kind of harbinger for that matter, but a reminder, a tormentor of the old man’s sombre, (in)experienced consciousness. The winds stir his memory of the past and of history.
Gerontion, in the poem of the same name first published in T. S. Eliot’s Poems in 1920, tells us that a boy is sitting next to him, reading something to him, and Gerontion, as if by association, starts listing the things he has not done in life: he has never taken part in anything that would ensure him a heroic place in history, and he tells that in a calm, defeated tone.
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.
These verses refer to the Battle of Thermopylae and the Battle of Marathon, two opposing historical events: the first sees the victory of the Persians over the Greeks, and the second of the Greeks over the Persians. It is interesting that Gerontion is presented to us with a Greek denomination, although he has no name. “His personality merges with historical figures” (Gross, 1958) of which he learns only through reading/listening and exist only in his memory, but whose heroism he has not achieved nor hopes to achieve in life. Moreover, the unnamed land he lives in, if brought into correlation with his surroundings, is none the better nor can give rise to heroic figures of the present. The inability to stand up and act is Gerontion’s illness, the very fact that he is aware of it, that his head aches from the constant historical draft that keeps interfering with the present that he dislikes.
The inability to bring the situation to a logical conclusion forces the voice to turn to religion in search for a miraculous answer because “Signs are taken for wonders”. His memory, however, immediately reminds him of those who sought a sign (“‘We would see a sign!’”), a proof of Christ’s divinity, thereby implicitly indicating a crisis of faith and the inability to find a way out of it. Gerontion tries to speak about that inability, maybe in the hope of finding an exit, but fails even in that venture: “The word within a word, unable to speak a word, / Swaddled with darkness”—the word of the speaker/writer, which always bears in itself God’s word, has no power to utter what needs to be uttered, it cannot come to light and is hidden in the darkness. The historical sense outweighs the religious, “by knowing too much about a religion’s past, we recognize its absurdities and untruths” (ibid:300). That is why “In the juvescence of the year / Came Christ the tiger”—no longer a lamb, a peaceful symbol of man’s salvation, but a tiger, a blood-thirsty beast, seemingly ready to take action against those who wanted proof in the form of a sign and did not believe in him (Anchevski, 2007:113). And the people who in disbelief (or in blasphemous belief) wanted to eat, divide and drink the body of Christ, in Gerontion’s mind and narration are all people who are themselves hollow and do that in secret, “Among whispers”, as if ashamed or in repentance, for they are the reason why the decadence in Gerontion’s waste land has taken such proportions. The people the voice mentions are obviously people of different faiths and nations and their actions, although they can be interpreted in different ways, are all somehow connected to indecisiveness, disbelief, inconsistency. These “Vacant shuttles weave the wind” that torments Gerontion, whereas he, as he says, has no ghosts, no sins, nothing to brag about nor to be sorry for (in which regard he appears to be an old Prufrock), but still, for one reason or another, he is desperately trying to find a way out of the situation. There is a hint of Gerontion’s role here, which some critics interpret as a sacrificial lamb (when the saviour is a tiger) in the ritual needed to make the waste land fertile again; it is also associated with the wounded, sick Fisher King, the keeper of the Holy Grail (ibid:117-8), who is also waiting for some sort of salvation for his powerlessness and who, in the meantime, languishes in inertia. The impossibility of finding a solution, forgiveness, for the historical chaos of religion, in the ungraspable that we want to grasp, urges Gerontion (or the voice, the mind, the word) to turn to history, towards the graspable that is only seemingly so, but which, it seems, is the only way out. Gerontion begs the listener, the reader, himself, to think, to find a solution, although his own contradictory and fragmented babel for what history is leaves him in a continuous and even more profound powerlessness.