Imagery in The Cocktail Party

Imagery in The Cocktail Party

Imagery in The Cocktail Party


In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot had used a neutral style since his subject was medieval, and he wanted to point out its contemporary significance. It was a style neither of the past nor of the present. In his versification, his constant endeavour was to avoid echoing Shakespeare, for he realised that the traditional Blank verse had become exhausted after centuries of use for non-dramatic purposes. The style and versification of The Cocktail Party are a further development of the style and versification he had used for the earlier play.

The Versification

For The Cocktail Party he chose a contemporary subject in a contemporary setting, and for such a subject it was essential that he should try to capture the rhythm and idiom of contemporary speech. With this end in view, “he evolved a rhythm close to contemporary speech, in which the stresses could be made to come wherever we should naturally put them, in uttering the particular phrase on a particular occasion.” As D.E. Jones points out, “Going back to the root principle of English prosody, organisation by stresses, he devised a line of varying length but a fixed number of stresses, normally three, with a caesura coming after the first or the second stress”. This is the basic verse form which he has used in The Cocktail Party, as well as in other plays in the contemporary setting. In this way, he has avoided echoing Shakespeare as well as captured the rhythm of modern life. He has succeeded in the play in expressing every kind of contemporary speech, “from the banal conversation of a drawing-room at tea-time to the revelation of the heart’s depth and the terror of eternal things” (Martin Browne). The verse is dramatic in the true sense of the word, it heightens the tension and sharpens the characterisation. The verse has grown so flexible that he can now move easily from the small-talk of the opening of the play to the impassioned insight of Celia in the consulting room.

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Its Flexibility

Moreover, the verse in this play approaches very near that transparent simplicity to which Eliot aspired. The poet has put his diction and versification on a very thin diet, indeed. According to Raymond Williams, the verse of The Cocktail Party is at every level, statement of a deliberate lucidity, and with the minimum of imagery and evocation. “It is verse of the surface although not superficial.” However the play as a whole may be judged, this development of flexible, lucid verse manner, based very closely on speech and yet capable of the greatest precision and distinction, is unquestionably a major achievement” (Raymond Williams). The verse is so flexible that it can even express the hesitancy of someone seeking the exact words to express his or her experience, as in the following:

“It is not the feeling of anything I have ever done,

Which I might get away from or of anything in me

I could get rid of but of emptiness, of failure,

Towards someone, or something, outside of myself.

And I feel I must…….atone is that the word?

Can you treat a patient for such a state of mind?”

or the sudden shifts of thought and feeling in a quarrel, as in the-bickering between Edward and Lavinia on her return. In fact, it is so deft that it seems fit for anything required by the dramatic situation. It is a remarkable achievement, for it is speakable as also the instrument of complete precision in the expression of feeling.

Nearness to Prose

His audiences were used to prose on the stage, and regarded verse as unnatural and artificial. Therefore, Eliot has systematically eliminated everything in his style that might remind the audience that they were listening to poetry, and deliberately brought it nearer to prose so that they shall not be aware of the medium, but instead let it work upon them at moments of intensity as only poetry can. Eliot has been so successful in this, “ascetic rule”, that often his verse is very much like prose, though at key-points he achieves that heightened awareness of which only verse is capable. Commenting on the verse of the opening scene A.L. Pattisson writes, “The number of syllables per line vary considerably but three heavy stresses are persistently there, and soon the omission or increase of one would cause us as much disquiet as a sudden irregularity of our heartbeat. As we settle to the rhythm, the over-emphasis becomes unnecessary and the affectation of the party manners is allowed to give way a little to unobtrusive sincerity, still couched in the most everyday terms.”

The Imagery; Its Meagreness

Indeed the poet seems to have learned from Dante that the greatest poetry can be written with the greatest economy of words, and with the greatest austerity in the use of metaphor and simile. Eliot has practised the greatest austerity in the use of imagery. As Denis Donoghue points out, “it is characteristic of The Cocktail Party that its main images are (a) common and domestic, (b) employed in the Alcestis of Euripides, from which Eliot’s play is remotely derived, and (c) capable of supporting a heavy spiritual burden when required”. Neutral images frequently pick up a Christian infection. However, it is the imagery of vision, closely related to the theme of spiritual progress, which is of the utmost importance in the play. Main images in the play are those involving sight and blindness, light and dark. Witness for example, Julia‘s “I must have left my eye glasses, here I simply cannot see without them”. Reilly’s, “And me being the one-eye Reilly”, Celia’s, “I can see you at least as a human being.” Edward’s “I am completely in the dark”, and Peter’s “That is when you are not concerned with yourself, but just being an eye”. “This imagery of vision generally carries spiritual implications. Eliot is constantly assigning spiritual dimensions to physical facts.” His use of imagery is functional, and not decorative. It helps him to communicate his meaning.


To conclude, the language of the play is virile, clean and easy. The verse is so pliant that it can be used for every purpose, and the dramatist no longer has to use prose, as he had to do in the earlier plays. The presiding virtues of the diction are chasteness, restraint, terseness and precision.

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