T. S. Eliot Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. As a playwright, he experimented with poetic drama, attempting a modern equivalent of Elizabethan blank verse. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

In a little short of 900 lines, [the] subtle, magnificent religious poems [in Four Quartets] contain more beauty and sense than any book within recent memory. They are capable of charming, and teaching, many thousands among the great general reading audience.

T. S. Eliot has never been an artist likely to please the bulk of that great audience. Simply as a rather solemn American-turned Englishman, he is personally unsympathetic to many. His work lacks commonness in the good sense of that word as well as the bad. It requires a patience of ear and of intellect which many readers lack; patience not merely in one reading but in many. For a long time, too, it was easy to misjudge Eliot, thanks to certain of his admirers, as the mere precious laureate of a Harvardian coterie….

Eliot is, to be sure, not a poet in the grand antique sense of spontaneous and unprecedented song. But as a devoted artificer of words and as a distiller of experience, he has always been a poet, and a particularly fine one. Unlike many greater and lesser poets, moreover, he has constantly grown and changed. In his youth he was most notably a satirist; then a mosaic artist of exquisite sensibility, a man who used the perfected expression of past artists as frankly as he used his own, to arrange, fragment by fragment, edge by edge, an image of the desolation of his time…. (p. 120)

Of all his poems [the Four Quartets] are the most stripped, the least obviously allusive, the least ingratiating in image and in diction, the most direct. They are set in a matrix of subtly intensified, conversational style. To many readers they will look, and remain, flat and forbidding. But those who will give them the care they require will find, here, the finest work of a distinguished lifetime.

Readers familiar with the great "last quartets" of Beethoven will suspect that Eliot derived from them his title, much of his form, elements of his tone and content. They will almost certainly be right, for no other works in chamber music fit the parallel. Both Beethoven and Eliot are working with the most difficult and quintessential of all materials for art: the substance of mystical experience. Both, in the effort to translate it into art, have strained traditional forms and created new ones. Both use motif, refrain, counterpoint, contrasts both violent and subtle, the normal coinage of both arts, for purposes more profound and more intense than their normal coinage, for purposes more profound and more intense than their normal transactions.

Beethoven was a man of colossal genius, originality and definitiveness; Eliot is not. That might make all the difference in the world; it makes a good deal less than might be supposed. For Eliot, if he lacks major genius, is nevertheless a man of fine intellect, of profound spiritual intelligence, and of poetic talents which, if "minor," are nevertheless unmatched in his generation. And his subject is of a dignity which, if approached with these abilities, makes excellent poetry unavoidable and great poetry possible.

There is poetry of both kinds in Four Quartets.

The heart of Eliot's meditation is Time. Not time as that hypnosis of clocks and of history which holds all human existence captive—though this sort of time gets his attention too—but time as the mystic apprehends it, "at the still point of the turning world." (pp. 121-22)

There is an opposite pole to this stillness. It may be discerned behind "the strained time-ridden faces, distracted from distraction by distraction," of any great city, any "place of disaffection" … a darkening of the soul whose opposite and whose one cure is "the darkness of God."… (pp. 123-24)

Time, moreover, is our savior as well as our destroyer. It is the air we must breathe, the lens through which we perceive timelessness, through which we become conscious….

Upon this theme, in poetry rich in paradox and reward, in mystery, in symbol, in despair and, ultimately, in hope, Eliot develops his great variations…. Each of the poems has not only its earthly-mystical locals but its season of the year and its Aristotelian element as well—which for which is not in every case clear. Of the first, the season seems to be spring, and the element air. Of the second: summer and earth. Of the third: fall and water. Of the fourth: "Winter spring" and fire. (p. 124)

"At the Still Point," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly News Magazine; copyright Time Inc. 1943), June 7, 1943 (and reprinted in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Fall-Winter, 1976, pp. 120-25).

Gabriel Pearson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'Gerontion' must be seen as central to Eliot's poetic practice; here he initiates and exhaustively explores permanent features of his basic idiom. Here also he enacts the logic—the social as well as verbal logic—of the conversion of words into the Word. Thereafter, the Word within the word is immanent as doctrinal justification for each poetic act. 'Gerontion' may well end in Eliot, as [Hugh] Kenner claims, one whole phase of Anglo-American linguistic practice; but emphatically it inaugurates that marriage of doctrine and poetic which determines our final sense of Eliot's career. (p. 83)

'Gerontion' by common agreement is a dramatic monologue in which the drama has collapsed into incoherence and the monologuist has disintegrated into fragments of his own memory. So much is indicated by the epigraph, a quotation from the Duke's speech to Claudio in Measure for Measure:

Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both.

This describes well enough the situation of Gerontion as a representative human figure, caught in time and shorn of grace. The epigraph serves to insist that Gerontion is not merely an emblem of modern man; his futility is the futility of all men at all times sundered from supernatural power by their refusal of faith. (p. 84)

Eliot's instinct in his choice of epigraph is unerring. If Measure for Measure is dramatically disintegrated in favour of its 'truth', then Eliot has pushed beyond every remaining coherence to recover his truth in the heart of the vortex of lost meaning, barely contained by the residual framework of dramatic monologue, a half-fractured shell merely:

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain….
Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season….

The usefulness of calling 'Gerontion' a dramatic monologue practically disappears, since the major premise of the form—stable personality within an admittedly unstable order—has itself become one of the ghosts which Gerontion claims not to have…. (pp. 84-5)

If 'Gerontion' is not a dramatic monologue, then how do we read it? My sense is that 'Gerontion' is literally unreadable. What we 'read' are words, syntax, grammar, associations. Consider the line: 'Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds'. In an approximate way this could be an inventory of 'the field overhead', and, more generally, of the rubbish dump of memory. But for the reader the declarative import of the line is its least important. What he attends to is words as words, isolated in their strange completeness, as substantives, bonded, adjacent and yet discrete…. One thing is sure: though one gets images, a landscape of sorts, one hardly reads past and through the words to a world without.

Finally, we pause upon the word 'merds', sensing a complication—a social murmur almost—in the term's self-insistence. It is a stunned term for an explosive category: the silence of the word is noisy with what it names but does not say. One can attempt only the crudest translation. We find ourselves silently applauding the century or so's puritan urbanity that allows Eliot, by a dexterous deviation though his French culture, to render faeces as innocuous as tea-leaves. (p. 85)

The controlled good form that selects the term enacts an aristocratic repugnance and arrogance bred out of a loss of effective power in the face of bourgeois philistinism and democratic vulgarity. It becomes an exquisite mode of retaliation. As audience, we share, momentarily, in the values that permit the disdainful tact of its handling. Yet we are excluded, too: and before its audacious decorum we crouch as apenecked as Sweeney. The poet's skill and deftness are counters for a lightly carried superiority. There is insult, too, in the term: Eliot murmurs 'merds', and we are insulted and exult in the dexterity of insult….

Eliot's words and cadences are memories, largely memories of literature. Eliot's world is itself constructed as a huge, sounding memory in search of a contemporary identity to attach itself to. Such a condition arises when the present has lost its meaning. It represents an acute crisis of disinheritedness. Memory, and with it necessarily personal identity, ricochet back, as it were, off the blankness of the present. With no present to order and compose them, they have to form their own order, which often consists of construction and orchestration along associational filaments and zigzags. (p. 86)

Eliot, in Four Quartets, tries to cure this disease of autonomously active words with theology, but his real cure is more words, above all the beautiful cadence that suddenly harmonises the disorder, 'The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera', but which remains, after all, but words. One feels that throughout his career Eliot is shaking his bars, trying to get out, but his means of escape are through the very words that imprison him. The quest for 'the still point of the turning world' clearly goes deeper than theology.

One form of attempted escape is an implicating assault upon the reader. A crude large-scale version of this is the Knights' address to the audience at the end of Murder in the Cathedral or Becket's stab at the audience at the end of the first Act when he tells us

… you, and you,
And you, must all be punished. So must you.

Here, as with 'merds', the words seem calculated to detonate a series of small-scale explosions in the reader: the aim is to trap, arrest and implicate us. (p. 87)

[In] Eliot's case there is an unusual isolation of, and concentration on, language as direct enactment of social attitudes. Poetry has traditionally mediated social existence through conventions, genres, myths, symbols. For Eliot, this mediation has largely collapsed. Eliot is reputed a peculiarly learned and literary poet, and this is true. It is true also that a good deal of raw personal and social emotion is fed back into the action of the language; this need not involve contradiction. Traditional forms no longer compose an inherited order. Rather, they become themselves manifestations of despair and anxiety, because no longer credited and sanctioned. Hence the ultimate unfruitfulness of reading these poems as reworkings of traditional modes. These have become themselves objects of historical attention within a universe of relative values. They lie exposed on the surface of history like withered roots. When the poet self-consciously uses them and discriminates among them, he can no longer derive nutriment from them. Instead, he has to feed them out of the substance of his own life. From this derives the highly personal impersonality of much modern art, and the inevitably ironic uses of tradition. (p. 88)

[Burbank, the character from the poem of the same name,] is clearly close to Eliot himself. The poet, by encompassing Burbank and identifying and attacking the forces that make him a cultural eunuch, escapes becoming Burbank himself. (pp. 89-90)

The pieties of exegesis divert consideration from the poem's verbal behaviour which amounts to precisely 'execrable taste'. But that...

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Arnold P. Hinchliffe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The English verse dramatists sought to restore verse plays to their central place in the English theatre. T. S. Eliot began with certain advantages over poets like Claudel and Yeats because he had already brought back ordinary words and situations into poetry. Even so he experienced the inevitable difficulties of getting modern characters to speak verse convincingly…. Eliot saw his task as twofold: to overcome the prejudice against verse in the theatre and to prevent the enjoyment of verse for itself. Such enjoyment would distract the audience from the serious purpose of the plays, for Eliot had turned to the theatre to gain a wider audience for the ideas in his poetry.

Because of his great...

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Joseph N. Riddel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Despite Eliot's professed historicism, and his concern with the tradition, the thing which characterizes the rhetoric of his criticism (and his poetry as well) is the absence of presence. To put it another way, history and art can only be an imperfect sign of the divine, an immanence available not to the will but only to an ascetic ecstasy. History and knowledge bear marks of guilt, as in "Gerontian," and only in the silence and innocence of the unspoken Word is the Word known in the world. As in the borrowing from the sermon of Lancelot Andrewes, the "sign" signifies an absence in itself in order to signify the "wonder" that it stands for—"The word within a word, unable to speak a word." The timeless monuments of...

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Calvin Bedient

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Eliot of 'Gerontion' and 'The Hollow Men' … is a quasi-Absentist, his protagonists the seeming victims of an incapacitated faith. The poems tempt us to share despair—at least they feel their way into it with a relish. At the same time they allow us to infer that not faith but the protagonists are to blame. They may be said to refer Christian belief to the reader and even to judge and as it were wait to receive the repentant speakers, who meanwhile enjoy their backwardness. So somehow the 'sightless' hollow men know that a holy plenitude is possible for others—others have crossed the tumid river with 'direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom'. Their desert Absentist realm, with its belatedness, its impotency, is...

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John Berryman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To begin with Eliot's title, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," is the second half quite what the first led us to expect? A man named J. Alfred Prufrock could hardly be expected to sing a love song; he sounds too well dressed. His name takes something away from the notion of a love song; the form of the title, that is to say, is reductive. How does he begin singing?

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky …

That sounds very pretty—lyrical—he does seem, after all, in spite of his name, to be inviting her for an evening; there is a nice rhyme—it sounds like other dim romantic verse....

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Jack Behar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The common observation of the coldly apocalyptic gesture in Eliot, the intoning of favored set phrases ("Unreal City"), the self-concealing reverie that proved a peculiarly satisfying mode, fit nonetheless with [Gabriel Pearson's account of the social situation of Eliot as an embattled aesthete]; but with the proviso that we take this in its spirit, since with slight alterations it could cover any symbolist retreat to language, any style enamored of obscure intensities of speech. Disinheritance being a general modernist theme, various social situations may lie behind it, not merely that of a poet who may have felt expelled from a world more sturdily composed than the one his poems would reflect. The tone of lament, or...

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Irvin Ehrenpreis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The strength of T. S. Eliot's poetry depends on insights that mediate between morality and psychology. Eliot understood the shifting, paradoxical nature of our deepest emotions and judgments, and tried to embody this quality in his style. "All that concerned my family," he once said, "was 'right and wrong,' what was 'done and not done.'" It became the poet's discovery that what is wrong when acted may be right when remembered, that today's gladness justifies yesterday's grief, and that religious serenity may be the upper side of skepticism.

Most of Eliot's innovations of poetic technique strive to disorientate the reader. They give one a literary experience that follows the contours of reversible...

(The entire section is 2246 words.)