, Volume 31, Issue 1, pp 32–38 | Cite as

Old man—young man: T.S. Eliot’s Gerontion and the problem of identity

  • Moritz E. WigandEmail author
  • Hauke F. Wiegand
  • Markus Jäger
  • Thomas Becker
historical case



In his poem Gerontion (1920) Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot uses powerful language to give a fictional, highly condensed, first-person account of medical and psychological conditions that arise with old age: physical frailty, cognitive decline, sensory impairment, depressive symptoms with embitterment, social withdrawal and the psychological strain of having to face old age and make meaning of one’s life. Surprisingly, he wrote the poem as a young man.


In this qualitative study, we used a hermeneutic approach to interpret Gerontion from a psychiatric perspective. We considered how Gerontion could help us to further an empathic understanding of these mental states, why a young man expresses himself through the voice of an old man and how the depressed–aggressive tone of the poem with its contempt and anti-Semitism can be interpreted.


We concluded that Eliot was grappling with his identity as an American in England, as a sexually inhibited husband to a demanding wife, as a banker and poet and as someone who had witnessed the effects of WWI. Readers of the poem can simultaneously experience the suffering of an old man and the identity crisis of a young man. The poem can thus further insight into the development of contempt and promote empathy and professionalism in dealing with states such as late-life depression. Consequently it is well suited for use in medical classes on these issues, particularly because it is much shorter than a novel or film.


Identity Late-life depression Embitterment Contempt Hermeneutic approach 

Alter Mann – junger Mann: Überlegungen zum Identitätsproblem in T.S. Eliots Gerontion



In seinem Gedicht Gerontion beschreibt Nobelpreisträger T.S. Eliot aus der Sicht eines alten Mannes fiktiv, aber medizinisch genau, die Probleme des Älterwerdens wie Gebrechlichkeit, Einschränkungen der kognitiven Fähigkeiten und der Sinneswahrnehmungen sowie depressive Symptome mit Verbitterung, sozialem Rückzug und der Aufgabe, das eigene Leben retrospektiv mit Sinn zu füllen. Erstaunlicherweise war Eliot zum Zeitpunkt des Verfassens noch ein junger Mann.


In dieser qualitativen Arbeit wählten wir einen hermeneutischen Zugang. Wir interessierten uns dafür, wie Gerontion uns helfen kann, ein empathisches Verständnis für seelische Zustände zu erlangen, die lange als unverstehbar galten, warum ein junger Mann sich künstlerisch die Stimme eines alten verbitterten Mannes gibt, und wie der depressiv-aggressive Ton des Gedichts voller Verachtung und Antisemitismus interpretiert werden kann.


Eliot steckte beim Verfassen von Gerontion in einer tiefen Identitätskrise als Amerikaner in England, als sexuell inhibierter Ehemann, als Banker, der versucht, sich einen Namen als Dichter und Kritiker zu machen, und als jemand, der die Auswirkungen des ersten Weltkriegs beobachtete. Wir als Leser können gleichzeitig die Leiden eines alten Mannes und die Identitätskrise eines jungen Mannes miterleben und mitfühlen. Weiterhin kann das Gedicht Einsicht verleihen in die Mechanismen, die zu Verachtung führen, kann helfen, Empathie und Professionalität zu vermitteln und könnte einen Platz in der psychiatrischen Ausbildung finden, zumal es viel kürzer ist als ein Roman oder ein Film über die oben genannten Themen.


Identität Altersdepression Verbitterung Verachtung Hermeneutik 



The authors would like to thank Jacquie Klesing, Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences (ELS), for editing assistance with the manuscript.

Conflict of interest

M.E. Wigand, H.F. Wiegand, M. Jäger and T. Becker declare that they have no competing interests.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Wien 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Moritz E. Wigand
    • 1
    Email author
  • Hauke F. Wiegand
    • 2
  • Markus Jäger
    • 1
    • 3
  • Thomas Becker
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry IIUlm UniversityGünzburgGermany
  2. 2.Epilepsy Center Berlin-Brandenburg, Epilepsieklinik TaborBernau bei BerlinGermany
  3. 3.Department of Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and PsychotherapyBezirkskrankenhaus KemptenKemptenGermany

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