T. S. Eliot

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Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 9)

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Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) 1888–1965

Born in the United States and later becoming a British subject, Eliot is considered by many to be the major poet and critic of our time. With The Waste Land came a radical, new poetry, filled with innovative rhythms and woven with foreign phrases and classical allusion. Eliot sought a union of intellect and feeling, frequently dealing with themes of time and disillusionment with the modern world. Initiating a new tradition in criticism as well as in poetry, Eliot wrote from a Christian, anti-Romantic viewpoint, and gave new importance to such writers as Dante, Donne, and the French Symbolists. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

The Waste Land … and the cultural attitude it fostered have fallen out of fashion. The past civilization Eliot taught my generation to mourn would hardly be missed by the majority of today's students who believe firmly in the present and themselves as the tests of relevance and meaning; sexual enigmas are studied and solved in clinics where every effort is made to keep human copulation from being inhibited by old mythologies of fertility and regeneration; "the awful daring of a moment's surrender" must seem a quaint line to those who have been copulating since puberty; Coriolanus is the last Shakespearean character anyone wants to revive: Detta, Dayadhvam, Damyata would find meaning only in becoming a Third World revolutionary slogan.

The Waste Land is a poem for those who entertain at least the possibility of spiritual action, of a world formed by sin and redemption that is beyond political sentiment and social law. It is a poem for those who would fret and speculate even in the best of times, and who confirm their prisons with each thought, preferring such confinement to the freedom that comes when life is made a matter of rational progress and harmless pleasure. Perhaps after all it is best that the Waste Landers should at no time be regnant, and that there should always be something cultic and comic about those who insist on remembering moments of excellent joy that the majority of mankind has learned long ago to forget.

I, at any rate, by the time the original manuscript of The Waste Land was published, had traveled a long way since those days when all one sought was a personal lacrimae rerum note. I was glad no one talked about, or quoted from The Waste Land any more, for the poem had taken on the aspects of a cultural commonplace to those who had grown up with it, and like many other themes of young adventurous conversations, The Waste Land was best left a matter of private memory. Then came the publication of the original manuscript and the discovery of plans, scaffolding, and rough adumbrations that promised once and for all to solve the puzzles of The Waste Land. For a long time I put off buying a copy out of respect for the decision I'd made never to enter the poem deeply again. But I, too, had moved with the times, and I had to admit that such a vow now seemed excessive, hysterical even, the sort of romantic reaction which as a literary professional I'd often ridiculed. (pp. 67-8)

I spent days reading and collating various versions of the manuscript. It was a compelling experience in lucidity, a lesson in practical poetics that fully compensated for any feeling of spiritual loss which that part of me still mired...

(This entire section contains 9777 words.)

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in the 50's might have felt. The energy of the intellects that carved, pared down, and shaped the poem infused even the blurred photographs of the original manuscript pages, and far from making one embarrassed by old enthusiasms and reverential feelings for the finished poem, these signs of argument and rough labor proved them justified. The sacrifice of hundreds of almost perfect lines Eliot made to his own and Pound's judgment confirmed his status as a poet almost as much as did the poem that remained. (p. 68)

Jack Richardson, "Looking Back at 'The Waste Land'" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, August, 1975, pp. 65-9.

So far as fertility and sex are concerned … Eliot's poetry from the beginning presented its readers with failure, impotence, disgust, and even revulsion. Eliot lacked Pound's passion for life. He began for that reason closer to fin de siècle weariness and to the lassitude before and after World War I than did his compatriot…. By 1914 the age of the heroic achiever was over. That was, in fact, the truth that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" finally pinned down in a startlingly new and creative way for an entire generation.

In all probability it was a truth "Prufrock" helped clarify in a new and creative way for Eliot himself. Eliot's first wish seems to have been like Pound's—to mock his generation and its pale failures; but that is not what "Prufrock" turns out to accomplish. Eliot's own failure—and it was to be the road he took to all his successes—was that he could not break with what he scorned; his deepest nature pushed him from the start toward participating in his age's shortcomings, and clarifying rather than crusading against them. He moved steadily toward that deliberate choice, though it is impossible to say at what point he clearly made it. By 1911, when he finished "Prufrock," he had already abandoned as had no previous poet the mode of writing which creates, out of words on a page, a "point of view" from which the world can be judged; and he had done so in an effort to seek objective correlatives of word and rhythm that would allow the quite unheroic feelings he shared with his contemporaries to reveal themselves as the feelings they actually were. To the degree that he succeeded, neither he nor his readers knew toward what end his poetry was moving.

To begin with, only one thing about Prufrock himself seemed completely clear: that the words he addressed to his listeners in so slyly conspiratorial a fashion objectified the terrors of a relationship that existed—or failed to exist—between all his arts and artifacts and his sense of time:

    There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
    There will be time to murder and create,
    And time for all the works and days of hands
    That lift and drop a question on your plate;
    Time for you and time for me,
    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
    And for a hundred visions and revisions,
    Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In "Prufrock" nothing actually happens…. Prufrock speaks to his listeners as if they had come to visit him in some circle of unchanging hell where time has stopped and all action has become theoretical. He talks compulsively, but his words bear no relation to anything actually present; nothing is real enough to be redeemed or clear enough to judge, and all he speaks of remains clouded therefore in an unreality which Eliot's compelling and hypnotic new poem forced its first readers to experience without having a precise intellectual grasp upon anything at all. Today, with Eliot's subsequent work to guide us, we see more clearly perhaps where the poem leads; but the poem's first readers came to know who Prufrock was only after the fashion he himself insisted upon: by sharing his circle of hell and his journey to nowhere with him, and in the process finding his relation to present time, in some way they could not define, to be their own.

All Eliot's subsequent poetry assumed as its basis Prufrock's desperate failure to exist; but by the completion of The Waste Land that existential failure had undergone an amazing metamorphosis. Although Eliot later claimed that when he wrote The Waste Land he was not "even bothering whether I understood what I was saying," we are nevertheless tempted to suspect that he must have interpreted central emotions in his poem in Buddhist-ascetic fashion: that is what "The Fire Sermon" and its footnote clearly suggest. Because we are so tempted, it is important to notice how insistent The Waste Land is that any significant desire to escape from time's wheel comes only to those who must intensely experience time's emptiness—to Augustine, Buddha, and Tiresias, not to the typist in her apathy, nor to Elizabeth and Leicester in their gilded boat. The Waste Land is a purgatorial poem, as everyone grants; as such its strongest affirmation is that the agony of one's actual life (in all its painfully timid failure) be known and fully accepted: this is what the journey through the sterile land to the empty chapel signifies. And no escape at all is offered. The voice of God that speaks out of the thunder at the poem's end (the clouds are "far distant" and there is, it has been pointed out, no rain) only sends its hearers back to experience once again their failure to give, sympathize, and control, and—as the lines clearly show but never in fact say—to romanticize and so evade those failures still once more in memory and desire. The fragments at the poem's close move in a similar pattern—from Arnaut Daniel's prayer to the quite different order of yearning expressed in the "Pervigilium Veneris," and from there to Tennyson's self-pitying "O swallow, swallow," to end in just two lines with Gerard de Nerval, who is, as Hugh Kenner has said, "enclosed in a mood, in a poetic stance, surrounded by his own symbols." To miss this return to being the shallow creature one is is to miss what was becoming the central motif in all Eliot's endeavor and to see him, as in general his critics have, as moving toward an escape from time when he was in fact moving toward a greater submission to it.

What Eliot was deciding in the years after writing The Waste Land was that only in Christian terms and images could time's meaning be made clear…. In the years between The Waste Land and Ash-Wednesday Eliot came to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that this search [to find meaning in time's movement] (and not the search to escape from this world to a better one) was essential to what had made the West a Christian civilization.

In his exploration of that belief Augustine became of necessity Eliot's primary guide, for Augustine had first called Christianity's attention to the importance of its taking time more seriously than the Greeks had, and he had done so in such a way as to set the course of all subsequent western thought. Like Eliot, Augustine greatly longed to escape from this world to eternity; but Christianity suggested to him that the meaning had become incarnate and this world therefore all-important: all the rest, he said in the Confessions, he could find in neoplatonism. Thinking of time as real and important, and not merely the stage on which some already written play is acted out, perhaps over and over in cyclical fashion, he realized that change had to be really change (what Eliot was to call a "new and shocking/Valuation of all we have been"). This meant that only a God out of time, for whom all time is an eternal present, can know the pattern time makes. Immersed in this temporal world at a point where its meaning is only emerging, man lives of necessity in a state of inescapable frustration, caught between his sense of meaning and his sense of meaninglessness, between being and nonbeing, between what is dying and what is not yet alive. One might almost say that Augustine saw all human history as the story of man's response to the tension that results.

This view is the one Eliot adopted, though to prove it is beyond any question Augustine's would be impossible…. (pp. 449-53)

[The] view of time Eliot sought to adopt was Christian in origin and by the time he adopted it a western tradition, and R. G. Collingwood's Idea of History (1956) would let me make this point with comparative ease and without worrying about Augustine. It is Collingwood's conclusion that the West's very idea of history was fundamentally remade during the third and fourth centuries A.D. by what he calls (barely mentioning Augustine) "the revolutionary effect of Christian thought." First, the pattern of history came to be thought of as God's and therefore beyond the grasp of the actors themselves: history as a matter of deep currents only coming into clarity, of what seemed to man contingency and accident, of human wishes and actions which all too often revealed their true import only later and in totally unforeseen ways. This view of history's nature and complexity was to persist even after belief in God became an option at best, becoming in time the view that characterizes modern history as a secular discipline. No writer as sensitive to his traditions as Eliot was could have scrapped such a view easily. Indeed it informs Ash-Wednesday and the Four Quartets.

The second change Collingwood defines is an even more important one. He argues that westerners during the third and fourth centuries A.D. began to think of history as a temporal process that so altered individuals and nations (as God shaped them out of nothing to His will—a process beyond their understanding) that neither individuals nor nations could any longer be thought of as having subsisting natures. Time became change in a radical sense, bringing those total valuations of all we are which Eliot spoke of again and again ("You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,/That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.") This view of history also persisted after belief in God lost any vital significance for most people, and is our view today perhaps more strongly than ever. Eliot adopted both views, with God still fearfully present in both—to the degree his roots in western thought went deep enough to make him a Christian poet of any relevance to western tradition so that he had to adopt them. Given these views, little else is needed to explicate his poems, except his lifelong and perhaps heretical desire to escape from time altogether; what he got from specific philosophers, eastern or western, is peripheral. (pp. 454-55)

Augustine … set an example, as [Etienne] Gilson argues [in The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine (1960)]: an example that has forced those who read him or who come under his influence to turn away from philosophic precision and look back at crucial points upon their own historical reality, where they are compelled themselves to try to understand the historical process in all its ungraspable tension and ambiguity. Augustine's method had then its point, being implicit in the point of view he was exploring. Since we meet the same mixture of philosophic questioning and evershifting personal psychological experience in the opening lines of "Burnt Norton" and again and again throughout Four Quartets, and find it used in the same ways, we must consider it an indigenous Christian way of thinking about time which Eliot learned how to renew.

When he wrote Ash-Wednesday Eliot probably knew little more about the Christianity he had accepted than the fact that he had accepted it, and that he would seek escape from the tension it implied in neither attachment nor indifference in neither hope nor despair. Ash-Wednesday was as a result a ritual and a prayer: "Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still."

As Hugh Kenner has said, in Ash-Wednesday "every noun, verb and adjective pulls two ways. The heart is lost to the world and in the world. It stiffens with life and with rebellion." The prayer to the lady is full of contrarieties:

                  Lady of silences
                Calm and distressed
                Torn and most whole
                Rose of memory
                Rose of forgetfulness
                Exhausted and life-giving….

The speaker's wish is not to escape from this world; it is to accept that state of tension caught between time's meaning and time's lack of meaning in which he finds himself. Despite the purging renunciations demanded and sought, we return at the end of Ash-Wednesday—as we did at the end of The Waste Land and will again at the end of Four Quartets—to earth, time, and the sea:

   And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
 In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
 And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
 For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
 Quickens to recover
 The cry of quail and the whirling plover
 And the blind eye creates
 The empty forms between the ivory gates
 And the smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth.
                                              (pp. 455-56)

Eliot now found himself able to work out consciously what he wished to say as he had not been able to do earlier. Prufrock had escaped from present anguish by living self-pityingly and blindly in memory and desire. The Waste Land had mixed memory and desire also, stirring dull roots with spring rain to bring its readers emotionally (but with little intellectual clarity) back to the purging possibilities of their earthly existence. Eliot's final poem possessed more intellectual definition than either of these earlier works because it proceeded in full awareness of a fact Augustine had discovered: that it is only through his memories and desires that man knows his life in time at all. Using that knowledge (Eliot now decided), man moves, if he chooses, through a never-ending submission toward freedom:

                          This is the use of memory:
       For liberation—not less of love but expanding
       Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
       From the future as well as the past.

Eliot critics have tended to see the Four Quartets as an attempt to relate a mystic's insight into a realm beyond time to his sense of the world in time. That, in part, the poem certainly is; but the modes of relation discovered by starting with this idea in mind become too easily what this way of putting the matter suggests: Platonic, a matter of getting from flux to meaning, of relating the "seemingly-at-first-real" to the "really real."… Eliot, disliking time as much as Plato but having become a Christian, found himself like Augustine forced to try to understand this world's importance despite his desire to escape its seeming meaninglessness. The platonic pull is no doubt present in Eliot as in Augustine, but in both men it is—as both of them say—at war with what they see as the meaning of the Incarnation ("the hint half guessed, the gift half understood"), and so a temptation to be resisted.

In my judgment Eliot decided that time exists as an essential and unending purgation: one in which the fire of this world's agony and the rose of eternal love are finally seen as one, not coterminous but one…. The submission demanded by this view is endless, but—as we are told over and over—once accepted, the end becomes the beginning; the torture, the way:

      We must be still and still moving
      Into another intensity
      For a further union, a deeper communion
      Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
      The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
      Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

The perception of reality expressed here reminds us of another that is not Christian at all: that Greek awareness of the human condition which we find in the Iliad, where the mortals, who know that they will die and who taste the bitterness of their insignificance, reach thereby love and significance in ways the gods, who neither die nor truly suffer, do not. Perhaps Eliot's response to life owed as much to this enduring western toughness of mind as it did to the Christian good news. I would not hasten to make that argument, however: Eliot's Christianity may or may not be orthodox; the question is often raised. For him the exploration of man's failure to be in time, which began with Prufrock in the fires of hell and continued through the fires of purgatory with Arnaut Daniel in The Waste Land, reached, in "Little Gidding," a vision of paradise where the fire and the rose became one: "A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything)": he believed the view Christian:

           Who then devised the torment? Love.
         Love is the unfamiliar Name
         Behind the hands that wove
         The intolerable shirt of flame
         Which human power cannot remove.

Whether Eliot's Christianity was or was not what he thought it, he did differ radically from Pound…. Pound believed Eliot had chosen the wrong one of the "two opposing systems of European morality"; his renunciations sounded to Pound like Atys and emasculation. In The Idea of a Christian Society Eliot agreed that our tradition gave us only two options, but did not agree that the choice was between approving of copulation as "good for the crops" or opposing it as "bad for the crops." The alternatives, Eliot suggested, were between believing or not believing in Original Sin—between thinking with Pound that all is united in a single "process' which man can understand and embody, and realizing that man lives in a world where tension rather than unity gives significance to his life. Eliot thought the first view might properly be called "pagan" and the second "Christian." Given these terms, he agreed with Pound that we had to choose between the two alternatives Pound had sketched: "I believe that the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one." The alternatives were clear: "It must be kept in mind that even in a Christian society as well organized as we can conceive possible in this world, the limit would be that our temporal and spiritual life should be harmonized: the temporal and spiritual would never be identified…. There would always be a tension; and this tension is essential to the idea of a Christian society, and is a distinguishing mark between a Christian and a pagan society." To desire a pagan society was, Eliot decided—and here he used one of Pound's favorite words—to yearn for a "totalitarianism" in which man would abandon the very agonies that made him fully human: "Totalitarianism appeals to the desire to return to the womb. The contrast between religion and culture imposes a strain: we escape from this strain by attempting to revert to an identity of religion and culture which prevailed at a more primitive stage; as when we indulge in alcohol as an anodyne, we consciously seek unconsciousness. It is only by unremitting effort that we can persist in being individuals in a society, instead of merely members of a disciplined crowd."… (pp. 457-60)

By the end of the 1930s Pound and Eliot knew that their disagreements were marked and significant. Despite them they shared much, even more perhaps than they realized. Although Eliot sought to affirm a Christianity which Pound rejected, both men were products of a civilization which had for centuries both shaped and been shaped by Christian teaching and Bible reading; and neither could escape the results: whatever they choose to do about it, they shared a sense of time woven into the very fabric of the Old and New Testaments. (p. 461)

Time changed Eliot and Pound more than superficially. Eliot wrote a passage in "Little Gidding" which makes something of what they shared sharply evident:

   Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
       To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
       First, the cold friction of expiring sense
   Without enchantment, offering no promise
       But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
       As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
   Second, the conscious impotence of rage
       At human folly, and the laceration
       Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
   And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
       Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
       Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
   Of things ill done and done to others' harm
       Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
       Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.

Eliot saw such final agonies as the last steps in a necessary purgation leading toward beatitude, a view Pound could never adopt. Yet Eliot might as accurately have been foreseeing Pound's final decade as his own; his friend's last years were characterized above all else by the rending pain of reenactment of all he had done and been, and by the shame of motives late revealed and the awareness of things ill done and done to others' harm which he had once taken for exercise of virtue. (p. 462)

To some readers today Eliot's late poetry seems the work of an aged avuncular, the "Grand Old Man" of modern Christian poetry, withdrawn from action with a too clear grasp on everything, talking. Some people see Pound's late Cantos as better poetry, believing that their final fragmented and tortured drifting off into nothingness presents rather than discusses from a safe and falsifying distance man's agonies in time. Pound's late poetry and Eliot's certainly differ, but not in so simplistic a fashion. Again what the two men shared is more fundamental than what separated them. Pound all his life intended the Cantos to move toward philosophic statement, as he thought the Commedia had. At the end his mind failed and he turned back; he spoke afterward of Eliot as "the true Dantescan voice." He may only have meant that his own agon was of a different order; he may very well not have understood his own accomplishment; but his praise for Eliot's late poetry is clear. He made no reservations and was as determined as he had been in 1914: "I can only repeat, but with the urgency of 50 years ago: Read Him."

Pound's plea suggests that we may (perhaps in reaction to the long Eliotic years) be reading Eliot today as shallowly as we read him in 1922. We might begin to reconsider his significance for us by remembering that it was Eliot and not Pound who began his career as a poet as well as ended it in attempting to find verbal equivalents to express what a submission to time's laws would mean in our age. (p. 463)

Vincent Miller, "Eliot's Submission to Time," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1976 by The University of the South), Summer, 1976, pp. 448-64.

The sense of the aridity of relationships in The Waste Land, say, or The Cocktail Party, has often been pointed out; and there is the feeling that in his later work Eliot simply retreats from the complexity of human love into a somewhat attenuated and disembodied idea of religious love…. The implication seems to be that Eliot, in moving towards a religious sense of life, is lacking in humanity and real vitality. But the case is surely more complex than this. The argument of this essay is that Eliot developed a poetic technique which could explore beneath the surface of his earlier experience and allow its seeds of creative life to grow in a new context. It was a means not of turning his back on the human perplexity of the earlier experience, but of redeeming its creative elements and seeing beneath the aridities of the surface. Eliot's poetic technique is primarily one for creating new patterns out of his experience: certain images or motifs frequently recur in his poetry in changing forms, images which are intensely personal though not necessarily autobiographical. And the way the images recur in different contexts is a way of searching more deeply into their reality and their relationships with life as a whole. In relation to love, it explores new possible dimensions for the word, and in the precise meaning of Johnson's words 'calls new powers into being'; and it does this by never losing touch with what was vital in earlier experience…. [By] means of a changing technique Eliot is attempting precisely to give that elusive word [love] a personal meaning, to create it as a reality, a new power.

This change in technique might be characterised as a shift from a predominantly 'imagistic' mode to a predominantly 'symbolic' one. That is, in his earlier poetry Eliot's style is particularly vivid and visual, and also employs structures of narrative or seeming narrative. It uses sharply defined personae and actual dramatic situations. It is particularly, as Helen Gardner has suggested, a poetry of the surface. And an important part of the style is the preoccupation with 'gesture' and 'pose' in every sense, the pervasive human habit of striking, or taking up, attitudes. The later poetry, from Ash-Wednesday onwards is more meditative, discursive, and aural rather than visual; it also abandons vivid dramatic 'events' and refers more obliquely to actual, narrative situations. The images of the earlier poetry, like that of the weeping girl, are more briefly and sparingly employed, though they are still important. They take their place as part of a larger structure, in which they are detached for the surroundings of actuality, become more allusive (alluding back to the earlier poetry) and grow in symbolic power. Donald Davie, in an essay on Eliot's 'Symbolism', has written: 'At the bottom of symbolist method, it has been said, is the discovery that words may have meanings though they have no referents. And most of the misreadings of Eliot derive from a failure … to recognize this fact about the way language works'. In his later poetry, one might say, Eliot is using words less referentially and more symbolically: the earlier poems seem much more to 'refer' the reader to specific events and situations; in the later poetry the settings are often in the realm of fantasy (as in Ash-Wednesday or 'Marina'), or where they are actual, indeed biographical, as in the place names of the Four Quartets, these are merely felt to be the starting points for certain meditations. The world of Prufrock and the man in 'Portrait of a lady' are not, certainly to be thought of as biographical: nevertheless they are, as it were, imaginary biographies, scenes from the lives of the personae. This technique leads to a very direct confrontation with the problems of the poetic characters. The resulting poetry is often particularly intense, 'as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen' as Prufrock says, which suggests also the way it sometimes seems to play on our nerves rather than our deeper feelings, and the way it is very much concerned with the state of the characters' nerves. The later poetry goes below the vivid and dramatic surface to explore deeper recesses of feeling.

The developing technique is a part of Eliot's changing sense of his own experience, and here one touches on a familiar area of complexity in discussions of Eliot's work. To some it might seem a truism to say that Eliot's poetic effort is to express his experience. To others it might seem positively wrong: Eliot (so the argument would run) is trying to express much more than his own personal experience; and Eliot's remarks against mere 'self-expression' or the expression of 'personality' might be invoked. One could mediate between the two by saying that Eliot is trying to express (and first of all to discover) his most significant experience, something which goes below the level of 'self' or 'personality' and may lead him to take completely non-autobiographical forms of expression. But there is a danger here for the poet: in seeking to go 'below' or 'outside' his own personal history he may leave his own authentic experience behind completely. The idea leads in fact to the famous (by now perhaps notorious) statement in 'Tradition and the individual talent' that the poet is simply the neutral medium for disembodied 'poetic' experiences; and to the statement 'The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates'. The statement completely belies Eliot's poetic effort, which was to bring the two, the 'man' and the 'mind', into a proper relationship. But that Eliot should make it is explained by the fact that his artistic development is conditioned by the search for a technique which would enable him to stand in the right relation to his subject, neither too close to it nor too far from it. To stand too close involves being too absorbed in a chaos of surface details; to stand too far away involves taking refuge in lifeless abstractions.

For Eliot to make sense in his poetry of the subject of love he had to find a technique which would neither simply dramatise the painful realities of the surface nor retreat into an attenuated idealisation. It had to deal with the elements of his own experience but in a way which brought out the deeper significance of that experience. He moves from a treatment of the subject which is at first romantic and ironic at once, to a treatment which avoids the collision between romanticism and irony (as in 'Prufrock') and in which love is conceived of more selflessly but still personally…. Eliot's concerns are of course more specifically religious in his later poetry, but he … can be seen as looking for unconventional ways of giving the idea of love a meaning. Human relationships are not strictly a primary concern, but even in a religious poem like Ash-Wednesday the experience of relationships are used in an oblique way to create the idea of a relationship with the divine. And in 'Marina' a monologue addressed to 'my daughter' is the medium for expressing a finely achieved sense of relationship with life and creativity in general.

The development of Eliot's technique allows him to use an 'imagery' of personal relationships at certain points as a way of discovering certain religious feelings. The relationships are not focused on so exclusively as in 'Portrait of a lady' or The Waste Land but treated in a way which allows their inherent creativeness to emerge, not to be submerged in the surface painfulness of failure. The 'human' does not disappear, to be replaced by the 'divine', but rather the 'divine' as Eliot conceives it draws on possibilities latent in the 'human'. The approach to the wider significance of human life, the 'meaning', allows the human experience to return…. In terms of technique, this … involves using the imagery of personal relationships in a more oblique way, with less emphasis on their dramatic and often visual actuality. Instead of, as it were, catching or trying to get into sharper focus the details of an experience, 'a gesture and a pose' (which however clear visually or in tone are ultimately baffling), the mind gives itself to a movement in which there are no longer any poses, and in which gestures become indefinite in themselves but significant as part of a whole experience; and in the process lose all elements of artificiality. The precisely seen gestures of the woman in 'Prufrock',… gestures which are so distinct yet so contrived (hiding the woman's feelings behind a frosty politeness)—this kind of precise visualisation gives way to the indefiniteness of, say, the 'familiar compound ghost' of 'Little Gidding', whose presence and words are so significant, but whose identity is indistinct, and whose gestures are vague…. It is the sharp definition [of J. Alfred Prufrock] that I want to emphasise: for Eliot is able to be so sharp and clear just because he is not in the end Prufrock…. One might say that Prufrock is created so that Eliot can express certain feelings or ideas without implicating himself in them too completely.

The poem is the striking of an attitude…. But both the poet and Prufrock are aware that they are striking attitudes, so that we can never criticise them more than they criticise themselves, except of course by point to the limitations of the whole performance.

The equation I want to make is between the 'image' and the 'pose'. Prufrock's images express his attitudes or states of mind, and share their artificiality…. Prufrock explicitly tries out rôles, and then abandons them…. In a similar way, the poet tries out images. (pp. 5-10)

['Portrait of a lady'] is a more searching exploration of the problem of attitude than 'Prufrock', which is content merely to play with attitudes, and through them to half-reveal, half-conceal a human dilemma. It employs far less 'imagery'—disparate and oddly juxtaposed poetic configurations—than 'Prufrock': it deliberately avoids their obliqueness and independent attractiveness. With its greater drama and actuality, the 'Portrait' takes upon itself the task of challenging the poet to define his own attitude. (p. 11)

One might reply [to the critical view that Eliot's poetry is flawed by its absence of love] that Eliot is concerned with little other than 'love'; and that his preoccupation with the subject of relations between the sexes is central to his whole poetic development. The subject is perhaps the leading clue to the unity of The Waste Land, a unity which does not have to be substantiated by going outside the poem. Both 'Prufrock' and 'Portrait of a lady' are about the failures of love, which need not be the same as its absence. (pp. 11-12)

Eliot's treatment of love and his poetic use of the 'image' are linked in this way: Eliot's tendency is to stand back from experience in order to be able to deal with it in his poetry. His whole poetic development could be charted in terms of his 'nearness to' or 'distance from' his subject…. An ideal way of standing back or apart from experience is to let it formulate itself in an image, or configuration, which need not be taken from personal history…. In The Waste Land, generally, Eliot is … able wonderfully to objectify and generalise his experience. But these 'fragments' of experience only really leave us with 'a heap of broken images'. The poem offers no solution and no way forward. The technique keeps Eliot (and us) at a distance, however fully we are implicated, in the sense that it simply shows us ourselves and suggests no way of changing. (p. 12)

['La figlia che piange'] dramatises the perplexities of art and memory, the conflict between the artistic desire for form and finality, and the continuing inescapable agency of the memory. In its conflict between formal, idealised yet 'posed' beauty, and the unanswered questions of reality it could be compared with Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian urn' ('O attic shape! Fair attitude!'). It also dramatises the relation between mind and experience (or between 'soul' and 'body'), in a way that offers a radical criticism of Eliot's separation in 'Tradition and the individual talent' of 'the man who suffers' from 'the mind which creates'. Here, in the first stanza, the mind is indeed 'deserting the body', or the experience as a whole, in order to create a simplified and idealised moment of beauty, 'incomparably light and deft', with the resulting faithlessness and preciosity.

This is why the poem seems so central to the questions both of 'love' and 'imagism' in Eliot's poetry. This is a love poem, but I do not think we can say with F. R. Leavis that it is simply 'love in the lyrical sense, with no irony in tone or context'. There is irony in tone and context, but it is not of a destructive kind: rather it questions the power of Eliot himself to achieve a complete view of the experience by trying to catch it in a single image, a single 'gesture' or 'pose'. For the undertaking tends to disembody, idealise and diminish: it removes the poet too far from the experience, and it fails really to give an account of it. (p. 14)

The failure of love is nowhere in Eliot (and might I add,… in few other places in modern literature?) so intensely and so personally expressed [as at the end of the second section of 'The Burial of the Dead']. It is almost as if the intensity is too much for the poem to 'bear': the passage closes by falling back into the pathos and melancholy of the Wagnerian lyric, turning the feeling into a more general one and moving it to a distance. It is the great achievement of The Waste Land that by its fragmentary and allusive technique it allows poetic moments to take place which would have been impossible to reveal in a more direct approach. The memory rises up here slightly changed, not in any way posed and with no gestures struck, but in the simplest and most natural way. (There are other moments of warm human feeling which seem to me some of the incomparable things of The Waste Land, though they are noticed less often than the typist or the girl at Richmond: I am thinking of the passage where Eliot escapes, poetically speaking, from the typist's flat into 'O City, City …'; or the response to the question 'What have we given?':

        My friend, blood shaking my heart,
        The awful daring of a moment's surrender
        Which an age of prudence can never retract
        By this, and this only, we have existed

They are poignant because they are fragments: because of the sincerity of the poem which will not allow them to be forced into a remedy, which can only close with 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins'.) (pp. 15-16)

The gestures of the earlier poems, those precise but often enigmatic glimpses of actuality, are [in The Hollow Men] paralysed and dead. There are no even quasi-biographical or quasi-narrative images in the poem, only disembodied ones…. The elements of the earlier poem (the eyes, the sunlight, the garden urn,) are condensed, changed, and broken up, and the mind retreats to indirectness by translating the painful into the beautiful ('the eyes are/Sunlight on a broken column'). The rhythms, the open vowels at the ends of lines, are drawn out, attenuating the experience; the voice drifts off into vagueness. But in the distancing and spiritualising the substance of experience is almost lost. The symbolism of the poem shows a failure (the failure is part of the poem's subject) really to contain the experience. (pp. 16-17)

The actualities of event and incident in the earlier poems are [in Ash-Wednesday] renounced for a different kind of poetry, which meditates upon experience in a forward looking syntax, to see if it can construct a life in which it can live, in which life can happen again; as opposed to a poetry which assembles images, trying to make them strong by clarifying them and taking a 'right' attitude to them, in the attempt to shore up an existing building. It is therefore a less dramatic and in a sense less vivid kind of poetry. The vivid moments of Ash-Wednesday are presented as fading. (p. 18)

Marriage seems to take its place for Eliot as part of the cycle of the seasons and the years, a rather relentless process of time passing and repeating itself. Eliot can not finally, as Lawrence could, see marriage and procreation as a mystery, but sees it rather as a process essentially of this world and part of the cycle of time which at its most intense moments Four Quartets seeks to transcend. Nevertheless, love finds other objects and meanings in the poem. Love of country is one of the strong sentiments behind 'Little Gidding', though it is a love that leads beyond itself. And we are here also made to think again of the preoccupations with liberation from desire and from what is 'actual only for one time/And only for one place', and from the 'faces and places' of Ash-Wednesday and previous poems…. [In 'Little Gidding' we have]:

                                   See, now they vanish,
  The faces and the places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
  To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

What gives the passage its poignancy is the way in which the imperative breaks in on the calm deliberation [of the previous lines about memory and history]. [The] poignant regret at the loss, the keenly felt sense of transience, is somehow caught within the verse and made to serve as a part of the new pattern which Eliot is constructing. In something like the same way, an intense feeling for the 'familiar compound ghost' is generated in the previous passage, even while the 'ghost' is giving the most powerful and pessimistic piece of wisdom in the poem, and as the compound of all Eliot's 'dead masters' bidding farewell to his pupil. The 'ghost' is, in a piece of human wisdom, bidding the poet to pass beyond merely human wisdom; and bidding him to forget the ghost's teaching, and to 'forgive' it; and indeed to pass beyond the ghost himself. The feeling of the poet for the speaker is so mysterious and moving that I do not see why one should withhold from it the word 'love'. It is these experiences which would seem to lie behind the explicit use of the word in section IV of 'Little Gidding':

            Who then devised the torment? Love.
            Love is the unfamiliar Name
            Behind the hands that wove
            The intolerable shirt of flame
            Which human power cannot remove.
              We only live, only suspire
              Consumed by either fire or fire.

The lyric in the fourth section of each of the Four Quartets is explicitly religious, indeed Christian, and takes this more abstract general form, so that this passage conforms to a predetermined structure. Whether the use of the word 'Love' here, almost a Christian personification, is entirely convincing, depends perhaps finally on the reader's theology, and takes one almost beyond the bounds of poetic criticism. One might feel that the transition is a large one in terms of the predominant language of the poem. Nevertheless it seems indisputable that Eliot has extended our feelings about the use of the word in some of the other parts of the poem. And he does this by never entirely losing the sense of continuity with earlier poems and earlier experience, and other uses of the word. The full examination of this would need a full examination of Four Quartets as a whole, but perhaps these remarks will suffice to suggest the wider applications of the word 'love' and the wider examples of the quality of spirit it seeks to define undertaken in the four poems. It also suggest a rare liberation Eliot had achieved from the distracting elements of earlier experience and the way in which nevertheless he had retained a vital thread of feeling connecting with that experience. The last part of this essay goes back one stage in Eliot's poetic career, to examine the particularly fine and beautiful poem 'Marina', in which Eliot seems to be at a rare turning point in his art, the point which seems to enact a moment of transfiguration of earlier experience, a kind of pattern of renunciation which draws into itself faint echoes of the earlier poems in a quite new context, and leaves the poet's feelings free to explore the world of Four Quartets.

Eliot's concern with the failure of love in the earlier poems was expressed in terms of vivid glimpses of drama, of gestures and poses which he sought to define and fathom. The poems were fragmentary, but the clarity of outline of those fragments was often intense…. [Their] images are primarily disturbing in their vividness, and the technique which embodies them is somehow confined by its own nature to the disturbing surface. In 'Marina' on the other hand, the images are largely indeterminate, and the precision of feeling is achieved in a different way…. And it is notable that … the negative and destructive elements of experience are presented not in terms of vivid particularities, but powerful generalisations, which control and hold at a distance the details of the earlier poems. These elements

         Are become insubstantial, reduced by a wind,
       A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
       By this grace dissolved in place.

—'reduced', it might be noticed, by experiences of the senses, but by those of touch and smell, not by those of sight. And 'dissolved in place' suggests a dispersing of actual scenes of memory, a continuation of the meditation in Ash-Wednesday that 'what is actual is actual only for one time/And only for one place'. After the dispersing of the destructive elements of the memory, visual images can return, but in a new way. The faces of the earlier poems, the face of 'fugitive resentment', the 'eyes I dare not see in dreams', the 'blessèd face' renounced in Ash-Wednesday have disappeared only to return with a new indistinctness:

     What is this face, less clear and clearer
     The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
     Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye.

Visually the face is less clear, but is recognizable on a more profound level. Similarly, the pulse in the arm is felt rhythmically as a gentle undercurrent of physical life in the poet or another, quietly there, but less physically importunate than, say, the 'dull tom-tom' inside the speaker's head in 'Portrait of a lady' or the pulsing insistence of feeling in [the last stanza of "La Figlia Che Piange]:

       Compelled my imagination many days,
       Many days and many hours:
       Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers….

And 'the stars' and 'the eye' take up and change images of the earlier poems which embodied the fear of close confrontation ('eyes I dare not meet') and the desire for distance and idealisation ('more distant and more solemn than a fading star'). Here the face and pulse in the arm are closely, intimately felt, but without losing their ideal and mysterious spirituality.

The meaning of these lines depends for its full effect on the rest of the poem. It is as if the images of love from the other poems were understood better by not looking at them too closely, by not scrutinizing them but by letting them return in their own oblique way. And Eliot does this by concentrating not on the images themselves but on his art. The section about the boat can be seen as a metaphor for the artist's concern with his art: his desire for exactness and specificity is satisfied not by the visual clarity of the images he has been evoking, but by the clarity of this symbol of his 'craft'…. The passage gives a new feeling about the relation of poet, art, and subject. One might see it as a precise symbol for the process he spoke of in Ash-Wednesday, 'having to construct something/Upon which to rejoice'…. There is a suggestive play between the concreteness of the boat and the indeterminate area of experience the poet is trying to make his own, between the exactness of the art and the mysterious nature of the experience. (pp. 19-23)

What Eliot has achieved is an art that can be exact without claiming to make the experience it is dealing with exactly understood, in the sense of fixed, summed up, dealt with. It gives up a precise definition of 'gesture' and 'pose' for a seeing beneath the surface. It is a way of manipulating words without manipulating the experience they are trying to convey; a finely developed technique for allowing what was creative in experience to emerge as creative in art. The 'face' of the earlier poems returns in a way that leaves behind its limited actuality 'for one time and one place': it is unidentifiable, general, but still intimate and personal, 'this face', but not concentrated on in its visual form, and got into proportion by its position between 'this form' and 'this life':

  This form, this face, this life
  Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
  Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
  The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

That final gesture, 'lips parted', quietly takes its place among the more general symbols, not importuning the poet's imagination like the earlier gestures, not theatrical or expressive of one dramatic moment, but rather unwilled and symbolic. It pertains primarily to the life for which the poet is resigning his life, but also, in the total feeling of the close, it seems to express the new feeling of the poet: the hope seems to stir in the speaker himself. In the earlier poetry the preoccupation with vividly recorded gestures was reflected in a technique which involved the striking of poetic attitudes. Here, the facial expression which the poet records and the poetic expression in which he records it are again linked: in seeing life in a new way, the poet shares the life that he sees. And what he sees, what he shares, and what he expresses are the same: not so much a gesture as a reflex, the unwilled reaction to a new sense of wonder.

By concentrating on the construction of his art, rather than on specific images of memory, Eliot brings into being a completely new feeling, and a new object for his feelings. The poem echoes his earlier material, but completely transforms that material. What comes into being is a new birth of the imagination, the 'daughter' to whom the words are addressed. The daughter might be said to represent the new life for which Eliot is 'resigning' his life, and in this sense is 'symbolic'. But 'symbol' is too impersonal a word for the intimate sense of personal relationship achieved in the poem. Eliot has created not just a symbol but a new being, a poetic 'daughter'; and the feeling of love for this 'daughter' is what the poem is about. An object for love has been found not by scrutinising the experiences of the past but by letting them play their part in the construction of the imagination, 'renewed, transfigured, in another pattern'. One has to concede, of course, that Eliot has managed to create this new sense of love by transforming his earlier experience so completely that sexual love is no longer part of his concern here, except as a part of what is 'dissolved'. And yet one has to say too that the feeling in this poem is anything but ascetic, that it is not 'anti-physical'. The 'face' and the 'pulse in the arm' ensure that the feeling is warmly human and intimate. And the feeling for 'my daughter' presupposes, after all, a kind of reconciliation with the human sexuality that brought her into being. Eliot's achievement here seems to be that he develops a highly personal sense of love out of what was initially very unpromising material. A direct treatment of relations between the sexes is not within his scope, except in the early poems of failure. But it is his great achievement that he salvages a distinctly human sense of love from the 'ruins' of the earlier poetry, a sense that does not lose its humanity while moving towards a religious realisation. (pp. 24-5)

Martin Scofield, "'A Gesture and a Pose': T. S. Eliot's Images of Love," in Critical Quarterly (© Manchester University Press), Autumn, 1976, pp. 5-25.

Of the themes that occur in both Eliot's poetry and critical prose and in the informal, gossipy "London Letters" [published in Dial during 1921 and 1922], a major one is the emphasis on the continuous parallel between contemporary life and antiquity—what Herbert Howarth calls "the continuity of the human predicament." This theme occurs in a large percentage of the essays in The Sacred Wood, it is a major unifying device in The Waste Land, and it is in fact essential to all Eliot's later poetry. Relating to this continuity—and to its implication of the vital importance of the past to the present and future—is the necessity of the artist's creation of new forms; he must "explore" new worlds in a continuing attempt to establish order and to impose structure. Thus Eliot took the "green and pleasant England" his contemporaries in England were writing of and transformed it into "the dead land," and "this stony rubbish."

Eliot's interest in poetic drama is apparent throughout the "London Letters" and is closely related to his interest in both the "low" art of the music-hall performers and the "high" art of the ballet. The honesty and directness of both the Elizabethan and Restoration drama and the humor of the music-hall comedians were a delight to Eliot; and he considered the music-hall comedian as perhaps the ideal type for performing verse drama. The importance of the audience's participation in any art is emphasized; Eliot deplores the growing apathy and disinterest of the people. He had, of course, already engaged in the formulation of his ideas on poetic drama before the "London Letters" were written. But he expands and redefines many of his ideas in the letters, for this was an ongoing development. The ultimate results of Eliot's interest in poetic drama culminated, at last, in his later plays. His earliest attempt (of record) at putting his ideas into practice was Sweeney Agonistes (1932), which shows strongly the influence of the farcical music-hall style. Much of Eliot's theory of verse drama was carried out in The Rock (1934), though it was an unsuccessful attempt primarily because of the various limitations, arranged by the producers. (pp. 381-82)

While the "London Letters" cover a brief period in the long career of T. S. Eliot, they are significant because of their comparative "wholeness" and because of their evident importance to Eliot's development during a crucial time in his life. They are representative of the major preoccupations—themes, images, revelations of hints that inspired and directed him as poet and critic—of his poetry and prose during 1920–22. Further, one discerns in these eight documents a great variety in style and in tone; they allow a freedom and a charm foreign to the major criticism. Here, by turns, Eliot is witty, satirical, lyric, prosaic, sad, delighted, and delightful. He frequently demands excellence and is dismissive when he fails to find it; but he is never snobbish or lacking in sympathy for the ordinary working man and woman, quite the contrary. And all this from a writer who is forever being accused of snobbishness and puritanism! (p. 382)

Nicholas Joost and Ann Risdon, "Sketches and Preludes: T. S. Eliot's 'London Letters' in the 'Dial'," in Papers on Language and Literature (copyright © 1976 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville), Fall, 1976, pp. 366-83.


Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 3)