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T.S. Eliot's Poem "Hysteria"

T.S. Eliot, in the short poem "Hysteria," explores and indirectly comments on a frantic state of mind, which in the poem is associated with the female gender. Certainly part of the association of hysteria with a woman in the poem is due to the predominance of Freudian therapy at the time of the writing of the piece. At the same time, there is the sense in the poem that the male speaker is himself hardly immune from participating in or being seduced by the hysteria of the woman. The hyperbole of the poem ("dark caverns of her throat") at times suggests a comic intention. Finally, by the end of the poem, the speaker who has been puzzled and perhaps intimidated by the woman and her boisterous laughter decides to look at her breasts in an attempt to stop them from shaking. The poet is certainly writing with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek in this piece.

The speaker of the poem is not merely standing outside of the woman's excited state of mind in order to judge or assess or ridicule her. At the very moment he seems to begin to be aware of her hysteria--as expressed in her laughter--he also seems to be drawn into it almost hypnotically, as if he must try to fight that seduction. He seems to be the stereotypical male who does not understand a woman and slips himself into a kind of hysteria as he tries to discover her reality.

He writes: "As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it," and there is no doubt there that there is a power in the woman's excitement, and that he is drawn into it and yet remains aware of his being drawn in at the same time.

However, within the seduction of the hysteria there is also a repulsive or ridiculous aspect: "until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill." He sees her teeth as marching artificial stars, a sight which allows him or causes him to withdraw somewhat from the seductiveness he felt from her hysterical laughter.


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