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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. 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).
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'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 term is a little too bland. It is an odd procedure to devote minute attention to elucidating the most recondite allusions, and then sink the poem in a phrase. It is pointless merely to execrate because execration is precisely what the poem seeks to provoke. It is a hate poem, and when this is grasped its allusiveness … is understood as part of its central emotion, the wadding and buffering of raw places, disguises worn by the violence and despair enacted by stanza and syntax. This wadding becomes in turn an element of overcontrol or repression, which in turn generates further verbal violence.
Yet we must allow that the stanzaic poems of the 1920 volume represent an attempt to reconstitute what Eliot sees as a fragmented ruin. Meditation alone will not allow Burbank to put his fractured world together again. Eliot recognises that his poetry will never take form from a spontaneous unity of culture and consciousness. Unity has to be imposed by an act of willed juxtaposition of fragments. One cannot but feel that the epigraph to 'Burbank' is the doctrinal heart of the poem; the poem itself depending from it as an emotional exemplum. The epigraph's dashes both sunder and hyphenate their discrete materials. The order of language survives, at least partially, 'Time's ruins'.
'Burbank' and the other stanzaic poems of Poems 1920, are consciously clever, contrived and wilful. Their rage and social disgust have to be gathered by a kind of inductive leap behind their paraded façades. The poems of Prufrock and Other Observations are, by contrast, debile, fluctuating, helpless and self-ironic…. Poems 1920 represents a deliberate hardening of the will. Fluctuating and self-ironic emotion is forcibly contained until it becomes explosive. (pp. 90-1)
'Gerontion' is haunted by the ghost of Henry Adams ('dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas' are quotations from The Education); Adams's view that the kinetic theory of gas proved that 'Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man' complicates my explanation. One has to say first that Adams's view of nature was the product of his view of history which in turn was, fairly avowedly, the product of his own experience as a disinherited political aristocrat. Eliot, inherits this disinheritance and 'Gerontion' shows its hold on his imagination. The 'flowering judas' of the quotation, however, alerts us to the degree of Eliot's distrust of Adams: he must have found his instinctive sympathy insidious. I interpret the presence of Adams in 'Gerontion' much as I interpret the figure of Burbank. He is there to be encompassed: the forces which caused his self-ironic despair are to be confronted, attacked and transcended. None the less, the kinetic theory of gas and Adams's view of history as a progressive complication and dissipation towards chaos doubtless excited Eliot's imagery of 'fractured atoms'. Eliot did believe Adams and only one thing could save him from his conclusion, the blind leap of faith in a providential divine agency. This explains why 'Gerontion' implicitly demands the Logos, and why, at the same time, the Logos does not naturally inhere in the ordering of the poem.
Eliot, by creating a self-substantive verbal universe, obviously continues the symbolist tradition into the twentieth century and into Anglo-American literature. Yet I would suggest that he is not so much in the tradition as using it and being used by it. Ultimately, his poetics cannot be made synonymous with his poetry. For Eliot, unlike Mallarmé, self-substantive verbal structure can never really hope to create 'un Livre explication de l'homme suffisante à nos plus beaux rêves …' [a book interpretation of man equal to our most beautiful dreams]. Such a creed is itself, for Eliot, a manifestation of a social and historical predicament, and this predicament becomes in turn a central issue of the poetry. The result is 'the intolerable wrestle with words' of Four Quartets. Verbal art fails to transcend and order social experience. Instead, social experience gets locked up in words and this imprisonment, too, becomes an issue of the poetry. The problem for Eliot was how to get them out again and so master the situation that necessitated symbolist aesthetic. Eliot's discursive writings, critical, social and theological, is one attempt to do this. In 'Gerontion' we see clearly for the first time the escape route that Eliot will use for the rest of his career.
Eliot took the logic of Symbolism to an extreme and then attempted to return it to experience by connecting the word with the Word. The Word, within its creative potency, must contain all experience. It is the Christ child who contains god and adult man and all creation; but paradoxically it is all these imprisoned in Eliot's own language, which, like the child, is dumb:
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness.
The indefinite article of 'a word' seems deliberately to reflect on the handling of words as discrete objects elsewhere in the poem. 'The word', by contrast, is articled but uncapitalised. For light, maturity and the coronation of the capital, it has to wait until the fifth movement of Ash-Wednes-day…. Eliot regards himself as living among 'an evil and adulterous generation'. As a poet he lives by the word and is afraid to die by the word. Moreover, the poet is peculiarly liable to mistake, as Mallarmé mistook, his signs for wonders. (pp. 92-4)
By converting the word into the Word, even though the Word remains a silent prisoner of words, Eliot seeks to be justified, even at the risk of damnation; for, as the later poetry insists, damnation is at least reality. 'And there shall be no sign given' amid a purely verbal world is the real despair. This despair is savagely vented by 'The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours.' The syntax becomes suddenly almost over-coherent, particularly in contrast to the syntactical disembodiedness of
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
a ghostly parody of the sacrament. The assertive 'Us' (typographically assertive, indeed) of 'Us he devours' sounds, amid such whispers and the sexual, historical and mental involutions that surround it, like a genuine tiger's roar. This may not be the roar of outer reality, but it shakes the inner walls of the poem's verbal system.
For Eliot, Symbolism is a poetic inheritance but also the manifestation of a predicament. The inheritance is complicated by the way that Symbolism is itself a formulated resistance against the debasements of bourgeois democratic mass society. This alone would explain Eliot's adoption of this tradition. (p. 94)
Yet Symbolism offered no way of confronting and mediating the social reality that created it. Inherently, it transforms experience into verbal metaphysic, an autonomous universe as against the autonomisms of society.
We have to say, then, that Eliot remained inside the Symbolist tradition and yet profoundly subverted it by translating it first into doctrine and then out of doctrine back into experience. It is that partial circuit which is the real shape of Eliot's career. I say partial, because the translation back into experience is so tentatively achieved. One senses both the logic and the failure of the logic most clearly within the clumsy schematisms of The Rock…. Obviously Eliot had a great time being the Rock…. But it does represent in its own way a return to the world. So indeed do the three plays written after The Family Reunion. They are messages to the world, societal in their concerns if always manipulated by doctrine. It is a matter of critical taste in the end, but my judgment on these plays is that while obviously products of an ingenious and subtle mind, they creak too loudly with the effort of unbending. Their human materials are coerced phantoms, delay is substituted for development and intervention for surprise. No one convinced of their value will be affected by these ex cathedra assertions. It is another argument. Yet, if I am right, one has to see their failure of dramatic life as a revenge of life itself. After so much denial of social experience, when Eliot seeks to return to it, all it offers are the shadowy stereotypes of the fictional worlds of Dorothy L. Sayers and Noel Coward. You cannot spend a career firmly informing your fellow men that 'The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you' without finding the world, when you want to return to it, a pretty dry terrain.
But there is the marvellous recovery of Four Quartets, achieved partly through splitting doctrine down into a core of mystical experience on the one hand, a romantic celebration of the mystery of childhood on the other, and relating these, in a formal pattern, to the experience of history and some guarded personal confession through a structure of musical analogies. Four Quartets comes as close as possible to producing a complete coincidence of poetics and poetry. Despite this, the four poems seem to me more flawed than criticism generally allows. One is aware of a good deal of management in the scrambling of the major symbols in the last movement of the poem. 'The Dry Salvages' in particular is full of some very ponderous commentary. The interspersed lyrics have a slightly surprised and ragged air, as though they had been torn out of the prose of the poem rather than naturally condensing it. The assertions of mystical experience remain assertions rather than being proved by the poetry.
These failures are in fact the seams opened up between verbal behaviour, doctrine and experience. This certainly accounts for wonderful moments within the poetry, and the delicate, almost ballet-stepping movement of argument over syntax that we find in, for example, the first section of 'Burnt Norton'. This should not obscure the degree to which the whole poem departs from the movement of experience itself and fails to unify it except as a complex of verbal echoes and associations. (pp. 95-6)
Eliot saw himself, and came to see his poetry, as essentially priestly. The poetry ends by moving between the confessional and the liturgical, uneasy where to settle. Murder in the Cathedral obviously gathers up all these tendencies; but Harry in The Family Reunion seems destined for the mission field, Celia in The Cocktail Party is actually martyred, while Colby in The Confidential Clerk is rather coyly permitted to remain artist as well as becoming priest:
You'll be thinking of reading for orders.
And you'll still have your music.
There is something very sad about the punctuation. This, then, is the final issue of the grandfilial recapitulation. It does not seem, as indeed it was not to prove, very fruitful. The real drama of Eliot's career lies in the initial repudiation of America and in the violence of repudiation that rocks and shatters the symbolist aesthetic that sought to contain it. Naturally, repudiation involves the reality that it excludes. We need now to read Eliot not so much for the truth he proffers as for the truth he cannot conceal. He is a seismograph from which, negatively, we can infer the force of the quake. And finally there remains the existential courage with which his absurd choices were assumed and then sustained.
It is, I believe, the violence of the initial motive that has launched Eliot into premature pre-eminence. He is so canonically installed in the landscape that we have lost the ability to imagine what it would look like without him. (p. 100)
Gabriel Pearson, "Eliot: An American Use of Symbolism," in Eliot in Perspective: A Symposium, edited by Graham Martin (© Macmillan and Co. Ltd. 1970; reprinted by permission of Macmillan, London and Basingstoke), Macmillan, 1970, pp. 83-101.
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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 authority as poet and critic, Eliot strengthened the impression that the problem of verse drama was, simply, to find a type of verse that would work on the stage. It has always been a convention of verse drama that there was an agreed type of verse, as the Elizabethans used blank verse or French classicism the alexandrine. Given this basic premise and the dramatic quality of his poetry, Eliot's move into the theatre is extremely logical. Murder in the Cathedral (1935) was, in context, very successful but the context was not the world in which his audience lived and to which they returned at the end of the play. And Canterbury Cathedral was not the commercial theatre; it had a congregation rather than an audience…. Because he suspected that [a] wider audience would have a largely unthinking familiarity with theological matters he decided that such matters, which were the substance of his plays, would have to be presented in secular terms. He therefore modelled his plays on Greek myths which had provided the form for Murder in the Cathedral and now provided matter. He may have been influenced in this by the French dramatists although he works in a different way to them. Rather than rewriting the myth with modern characters he starts with modern characters and filters the myth through them and their actions. The Family Reunion (1939), as Eliot himself recognised, was not successful in adjusting Greek myth to a modern situation and ten years later he corrected this mistake in The Cocktail Party (1949). If the opening of the play reminds us of Noel Coward the basis of the play is the Alcestis of Euripides. Eliot has also removed the exceptional person from the centre of the play, although she still makes her choice and accepts the consequences in a way that suggests existential drama. The verse is largely the poetry of statement and critics have already begun to object that the verse is very nearly prose. Eliot, writing on the poetry of Dr. Johnson, had suggested that the minimum requirement of good poetry is that it has the virtues of good prose. But it is not easy to create a verse which is flexible enough to cover making a telephone call and the crucifixion of Celia. At high moments the verse works…. (pp. 35-7)
Many critics feel that after The Cocktail Party there is a general loss in matter and verse. The Confidential Clerk (1953) showed Eliot moving towards comedy as a means of examining the choice between the ordinary routine and the dedicated life that leads to beatitude. [Denis] Donoghue loyally suggests that what Eliot has achieved here is not anaemia but sostenuto and by shifting the division between spiritual and secular to one between commerce and art Eliot has solved the division that threatens the unity of The Cocktail Party. But even his sympathetic critic D. E. Jones places this play 'just across the border from prose'. Eliot's last play The Elder Statesman (1958) shows a return to tragedy and a new version of The Family Reunion. The issues of guilt are reconsidered but contrition seems very easy and the pain is spoken about rather than made felt, while the verse is scarcely recognisable as verse.
Nevertheless T. S. Eliot made verse in the theatre a commercial proposition. He believed that 'the craving for poetic drama is permanent in human nature' but, as a poet, did not foresee that such drama might not have to be in verse. However secular his plays contrive to appear [they] all fulfil his maxim of religious usefulness. His plays were supposed to surprise people into the meanings and implications of Christianity but audiences could feel that they had not been to the theatre so much as tricked into attending church. Salvation presents the dramatist with difficulties as a theme since it is far less dramatic than damnation and does not lend itself to action, which, after all, is the mainspring of drama…. The theatre loves strong emotions and will ultimately reject him however noble his attempts to be serious, in verse, in a play. (pp. 38-9)
Arnold P. Hinchliffe, in his British Theatre 1950–70 (© Basil Blackwell 1974), Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.
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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 history, of his early essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," are signs in time which signify an order that originates outside time and therefore seems to speak for the traditional idea of presence. But such signs in Eliot repeatedly become comments on themselves, and point to the silence of their own center. The sign is not of the center, but a mediation, a supplement. Eliot's symbolism is Episcopal, not Catholic, and thus a sign of history's lack, of language as a part of the universal problematic. Signs, and poems, become aesthetic objects …, each of which affirms its own center, its own silence, and not a creative origin outside itself. They are "symbols" of a lost significance. But by their own objective presence, their supplementation, they signify the Incarnation, itself a supplement that signifies the closure of history. These works, then, are evidence of man's desire to recover lost presence, and to redeem his original fault.
The enigmatic thing about Eliot's poetics, and the entire poetics of the New Criticism that derived from him, is the urgency with which it detached art from life into its own self-contained system, thus affirming the artifice of the center as the fiction of presence. The impersonality of art which Eliot asserts in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" cannot affirm a center or source outside the system of the work, except in some mysterious, lost origin. And those interpretations of Eliot's work which ascribe to him the faith in something like a Jungian universal unconscious, or which accept the fundamental structure of the Christian logos as an explanation of his ideal of the "autonomous" poem, do not honor the discourse of his method. For the Eliot who traveled to Spain or Southern France to stand in the presence of the prehistoric cave paintings, before he wrote "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and the one who derived his aesthetic from both the Symboliste and the Metaphysical poets, is a poet fully involved in the Modernist problematic.
What Eliot "interpreted" as the associated sensibility of the Metaphysical poets was the structure of the "self" as an aesthetic whole, a cosmos of centered elements in tension; or in other words, something different from the modern Bradleyan self, which is composed of those fragments of perception of which it is conscious. He aestheticized Renaissance philosophy, but in doing so, he brought into question the center which, because it is both within and without the "great chain of being" (both beginning and end), could hold otherwise irreconcilable opposites in tension. Eliot's metaphysical "conceit" becomes wholly an aestheic trope; his ideal of a reassociated self is the mark of contemporary dissociation. Poetry separates itself from life by feigning wholeness, by declaring itself a sign of wholeness. It is nostalgic for the old order. (pp. 265-67)
Eliot's poetry self-consciously separates itself from the world of sense experience, from life, from history, by the very acknowledgment of its centeredness and its artifice. Only by indulging the metaphors of religion as analogous to the metaphors of art can he bridge the distance between life and art. The metaphor of the Incarnation becomes his bridge, and selflessness (the state of innocence or will-less-ness) his definition of recovered wholeness. But behind it all lies the problematic, what he called in the Four Quartets the "primitive terror" that confronts anyone looking backward "behind the assurance / Of recorded history" toward the lost origin. What he evidently saw in the depths of the prehistoric caves was the silence and darkness of the center, at once the terror it inspired and the potentiality for signification it admitted. What he saw in his poetry was the sadness of the absence of presence, and the guilt which animated every effort toward its recovery. For him the poem becomes the supplement of an ideal of wholeness which is itself a sign of history's lack.
That Eliot chose, willfully, to substitute the metaphor of God for the "Something that is probably quite ineffable" which lay at the origin should not tempt one to define his poetics in terms of his professed orthodoxy. It is not historical cunning, or the "contrived corridors" of a history made up of multiple spars of Knowledge, that motivates Eliot's passiveness and impersonality or his orthodoxy. On the contrary, the admixture of innocence and intellectualism, emotion and knowledge, that bewilders his critics, discloses the kind of interpretion in which his poetry is involved. From beginning to end, from the dissociations of "Prufrock" to the "complete consort" of "Little Gidding," his effort is to reconstitute a lost whole, to recover a lost origin. His theme is fragmentation and guilt, the history of language and thus the history of history itself. His desire is to recover, if only in the game of art (so like the ritual of religion), the sign of the lost origin: the ineffable "still-point," the "silence" so fundamental to the structure of words and music.
The ideal of the "right" sentence in "Little Gidding," "where every word is at home, / Taking its place to support the others," tying end to beginning, is the ideal of "Every poem an epitaph." "Little Gidding," the last of the Quartets, those ritualized poems which attempt to evoke a figurative (still, silent) center within the brilliant articulations of their sounds, confesses to the endlessness of the search: "We shall not cease from exploration …" in search of a "condition of complete simplicity." That condition is of course the condition of unity, of the "fire and the rose" as "one." But it is only realizable in art, in the poem, in ritual, in those "signs" or "monuments" which are in history yet hint of the center which is outside it and known only by the slanted names. "History may be servitude, / History may be freedom"—thus a line in the third section of "Little Gidding," the section which introduces the metaphor of the hanged man (here, Christ) and leads to the figure of the Dove descending in section four. It is the figure of the "symbol perfected in death," and the perfect symbol of the problematic of language in Eliot. It links his poetry with Gnosticism in its attempt to transcend the paradox. Into the darkness at the center of the prehistoric caves, or into the silence at the center of words ("Words, after speech, reach / Into the silence"), the Word descends "With flame of incandescent terror / Of which the tongues declare, / The one discharge from sin and error." "Little Gidding" ends the Quartets by summing up the Eliot poetics. If history is either "servitude" or "freedom," history is the problematic; and therefore language is the universal problematic. The gesture of poetry's "exploration" is a gesture toward the recovery of what is lost. In Derrida's words, it "dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which is free from free-play," and thus free from the condition of the very medium, homeless words, to which it is condemned. (pp. 267-69)
Joseph N. Riddel, in his The Inverted Bell: Modernism and the Counterpoetics of William Carlos Williams (copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1974.
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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 not then the only kingdom, the only death. Now for the Absentist, absence is irremediable and insuperable; it pervades and limits everything; the 'broken jaw of our lost kingdoms' is all. By contrast, the hollow men torture themselves with knowledge of a numinous other realm—and please themselves by hanging back from it. 'Let me be no nearer', they pray as it were inversely, 'Let me also wear / deliberate disguises'. What is this if not self-willed? Their despair is disingenous.
Yet, spurious as spiritual destitution may be in his poems, Eliot provided models for Absentist forms. Introducing into English poetry an 'insidious' principle of disorientation, he dispersed the spatial and temporal closures of traditional verse. He exposed the medium itself to hesitations and reluctances, frustrations and panics. And he forced it to acknowledge the negative otherness of the world and the precipitate, arhythmic progress of mortality.
Thus beyond the suspended lines and through the unpunctuated breaks of 'The Hollow Men' gapes as you read it an alien space. 'Shape without form', the poem correlates visually with both the external and internal space of the hollow men. The poem looks like 'broken stone'. Asymmetrical in themselves, the verse paragraphs also fail to mirror one another in form…. [The poem] is not only visually but logically scattered, the isolated epithets being grammatically 'sightless', 'gesture without motion'. Then, too, the disconcerted rhythms send us forward unsatisfied, still on the surface. Absent is the repetition with variation that gives depth and life to rhythm; except for the nearly symmetrical quartet of epithets, with its treacherous paralysis, there is nothing here of the reservoir of duration formed by traditional metre. The unpredictable line length and (so to speak) rubbed-out punctuation also amplify despondency beyond the resources of traditional verse. Enigmatically fractured, simultaneously restive and paralysed, the poem is proto-Absentist. (pp. 18-19)
Calvin Bedient, in PN Review (© PN Review 1976), Vol. 4, No. 1, 1976.
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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. Then comes the third line:
Like a patient etherised upon a table …
With this line, modern poetry begins.
In the first place, the third line proves that the author of the first two lines did not mean them. They were a come-on, designed merely to get the reader off guard, so that he could be knocked down. The form, again, is reductive; an expectation has been created only to be diminished or destroyed…. And the word "then"—"Let us go then"—is really very unpromising; if he had only said, "Let us go," it would have sounded much more as if they were going to go; "Let us go then" sounds as if he had been giving it thought, and thought suggests hesitation. Of course he never goes at all: the visit, involving the "overwhelming question," the proposal of marriage, is never made. Here again we come on a reduction.
Also, the simile is not visual: it only pretends to be. No reader could possibly be assisted in seeing the evening spread out against the sky by having his attention suddenly and violently called to a patient laid out on an operating table. The device of simile is being put to a novel use, violating the ordinary logic of verse, just as the abrupt vision of a hospital violates the lyrical notion of an evening stroll.
What does the line mean? We are obliged to resort to suggestion, not to logic. The situation of a patient under ether is unenviable, risky: he is about to be cut into, soon he may be dead. This fear is basic to the poem: Prufrock finally says, in fact, "I was afraid." On the other hand, the situation of the patient can be regarded as desirable in that he has made a decision and now the result is out of his hands, he has no further responsibility, it is up to the surgeon to save him or not. This desire—to have made the proposal, and to have his fate left up to the woman—is also basic to the poem. We may think of that as quite a lot of work to get done in one line. Of course, the suggestion that Prufrock sees himself as ill is important also, and we will return to this.
Between the title, with its slight effect of double-take, and these opening lines, with their full effect of double-take, the poet has inserted an epigraph in Italian, six lines of it. A knowledge of Italian is of very little help. All the lines say is, "If I thought what I am going to tell you would ever get back to the world, you would hear nothing from me. But as it is," and so on. One has to know who is speaking in Dante's Divine Comedy. This is a lost soul, in Hell, damned in particular because he tried to purchase absolution before committing a crime. We are obliged to consider, that is, as of Prufrock with his dilemma of whether or not to propose marriage, whether the fundamental reason he does not do so—his sin—is his refusal to take the ordinary, inevitable human risks: he wants to know beforehand whether he will be accepted or not—in fact, he does think he knows already what will happen—but this belongs later for us.
Everything we have been saying paints a picture as different as possible from that of a writer sitting down to entertain, beguile, charm, and lull a reader or readers. Obstacles and surprise, of no pleasant kind, are this poet's stock-in-trade. The reader's expectation that one thing will happen is the first to be attacked. Several things are going to be happening simultaneously. One feels, even, a certain hostility on the part of the poet. The modern poet, characteristically, has lost confidence in his readers …, but so far from causing him to reduce his demands therefore, this loss of confidence has led to an increase in his demands. Good poetry has never been easy to read with any advanced understanding, but it has seldom been made so deliberately difficult.
Shall we … suggest that the poet's impatience is based on the fact that the reader's mind is full of vague and grandiose assumptions which seem to the poet contemptible? The poet sees himself as a warning voice, like a Hebrew prophet calling on the people to repent, to understand better themselves and the world…. Eliot had pretty certainly not read Freud when he wrote this poem. In some ways, however, their thought is parallel, for the "you" whom Prufrock invites to go with him for the visit must be another part of his own personality, whom he vainly invites to join him in the great task before them…. (pp. 270-72)
But the "you" is perhaps also the reader, addressed thus surprisingly in this dramatic monologue; and this device is French, part of the general air of elaborate sophistication adopted by Eliot in this poem. This tone is not original; it is borrowed from the French symbolist poet Jules Laforgue (1860–87), under whose influence Eliot first found his own voice. Some of the characteristic properties in "Prufrock" are Laforgue's, allusions to Hamlet and the sirens. But there is influence also from Elizabethan drama, in the speech rhythms (the poem is written in what is called "free verse," which only means that the laws it obeys are different from those of traditional stanza or blank verse); and there is influence from prose works, especially the expatriate American novelist Henry James's. In any event, Laforgue could never have conceived or written the poem. He only supplied the manner, and anyway his music—very beautiful sometimes—is hardly Eliot's.
Eliot's manner is highly sophisticated, but perhaps we ought not to call the poem sophisticated. Let us call it primitive. The poem pretends to be a love song. It is something much more practical. It is a study—a debate by Prufrock with himself—over the business of proposing marriage…. The first half of the poem looks forward to the proposal, the second half looks back on how it would have gone if it had gone at all. The poem is intensely anti-romantic, and its extremely serious subject, in a so-called Love Song, is another rebuke to the [reader]…. It is clear that the poet sympathizes with Prufrock. It is also clear that the poet damns Prufrock. Some of the basic emotions of the poem are primitive also—fear, malice—but lust is absent, and the prevailing surface tone is one of civilized, overcivilized anxiety. Prufrock's feelings are rather abstract; he never makes the woman real at all, except in one terrible respect, which let us reserve a little. He is concerned with himself. He is mentally ill, neurotic, incapable of love. But the problem that he faces is a primitive problem.
Eliot brings to bear on Prufrock's dilemma four figures out of the spiritual history of man: Michelangelo, John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet. (pp. 272-73)
The resort to these four analogues from artistic and sacred history suggests a man—desperate, in his ordeal—ransacking the past for help in the present, and not finding it—finding only ironic parallels, or real examples, of his predicament. The available tradition, the poet seems to be saying, is of no use to us. It supplies only analogies and metaphors for our pain. (p. 275)
It must be obvious … that this extraordinarily ambitious poem, including as it does acrid sketches not only of man's spiritual but of his biological history, is not designed as entertainment, whatever the author may say to us (Eliot has defined poetry as "a superior amusement"), and whatever his mask inside the poem: the sophisticate, the disillusioned, the dandy with his particular social problem in Boston…. The poet has adopted the guise of light verse, but he writes as a prophet, without any trace of conciliation toward any possible audience. He does not write directly. He uses the mask of Prufrock—whose fate is like that of what are called the Vigliacchi in Dante. These sinners did neither good nor evil, and so they cannot be admitted even to Hell, lest the damned feel a certain superiority to them; they suffer eternally in what is called the vestibule of Hell. It is better, as Eliot says in one of his critical essays, to do evil than to do nothing. At least one exists in a relation to the moral world. Under this mask he sets up a ruinous antithesis to Victorian hope—in particular, to what must have seemed to him the vacuous optimism of the most recent master of dramatic monologue in English before him, Browning. Civilization is not condemned. The results of civilization are dramatized, that is all; above all, the destruction of the ability to love, and—in the well-meaning man—to be decisive. The poet speaks, in this poem, of a society sterile and suicidal. (pp. 277-78)
John Berryman, "Prufrock's Dilemma," in his The Freedom of the Poet (reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1949, 1960 by John Berryman; copyright © 1976 by Kate Berryman; renewed copyright © 1976 by Kate Berryman), Farrar, Straus, 1976, pp. 270-78.
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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 of disdainful surmise, implies some more hopeful relation to sources of health that the poems can only point to off-the-page. In certain of the early poems, some nicely turned pieces of grumbling are symptomatic of the banishment to an interior world or, more accurately, a composed and witty stage idiom, one incapable of offering any representation of the social world that is not immediately thrown into doubt by its own ironic self-regard, its appetite for appropriation and dissembling gestures.
It is of course understandably easy, and for polemical purposes useful, to allow Eliot's knowledge of certain intimate modern gestures to yield a large proposition about an entire way of life. Certainly "The Waste Land" sweeps up into one bold but under-articulated structure a great many intimations of decline and exhaustion, in this respect resembling other works written between the wars…. Eliot's intimations were bolstered by Frazer, and then were free to go their way, the common ritual that made the scaffolding of the poem being an immemorial fiction rather than a superior vision from whose standpoint behavior could be confidently judged. Part V solicits a vision that will not appear, and the composite figure it addresses disappears into the chaos that follows, the tottering capitals of Europe reduced to figures in a nightmare. This argues for Eliot's attraction to incantation as a way of resisting the temptation to transform indignant perceptions into a lawyer's brief, or overmoralized lament…. [One can, however,] point to what keeps the poem from being a half-hearted jeremiad or Spenglerian tract on the decline of the West; and this can only be its art, its chosen mode of language.
To take a minor instance of framing reverie, the somberly intoned "Unreal City," rather than leading us into the scene it frames, suspends a melancholy rhythm upon the mind; it leads to the marvelous lines, "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many," lines chiming to inner lament and casting a pall ahead from which, as the poem goes along, there are to be moments of relief. The reflective, theatrical quality of such lines, at once self-interested and distressed, may spare the intellect's overstating its case…. Eliot's anti-romanticism told against putting the social claims of poetry in any such exaggerated way. In the poetry itself, at least, the effect of theatrical idiom is to preclude the possibility of making social sense of who or where one is, or why one must be disguised in order to speak. Perhaps that was the province of prose, and more or less official proclamation. In "Prufrock," for example, the famous line "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas" comes across as a comfortably poised conceit, too well turned in a Tennysonian way to be anything but an agreeable lament. It intones rather than articulates distress, and no account of its symbolic position in the poem will make it any more intelligible. Symbolism, in this sense, goes with the poetics of the Image, not with a composed, or superior, vision to which the Image tends, a presupposing belief that draws everything toward its center. (pp. 489-90)
Eliot was far from timid about enlisting poetry to the task of disencumbering the poet of certain violence-prone attitudes and feelings, some of these evidently odious to the man who contemplated them in the poems. Addicted to phantasmagoria, he was given to decomposing what, to the intellect, might have been overly familiar and overcomposed, as "Gerontion"—the most enticingly theatrical and hollowly exciting of the poems—shows…. [The] famous doctrine of impersonality in Eliot may simply endorse the need to pass beyond the limits of the old story, there to discover what might decompose or lighten or at least discomfort it, or perhaps just make it more monstrously entertaining than it already may be (pp. 490-91)
In "Gerontion" the obliqueness, the sense of high address followed by sudden decline, the broken or shifting accents may have followed from a belief about the "insubstantiality" of the self; the self as coterminous with its perceptions rather than a separated subject standing over against experience, assessing, explaining, organizing it…. [In] "Gerontion" at the start certain human actions are cited as though they offered autobiographical testimony, as though they made real reference to a real past. But the poem offers little that allows for our moving confidently from brisk allusion to constituted figure, and thus discourages our taking its language as anything more than gestures erupting from a private, anonymous space…. The teasing obliqueness, however, may resemble that of earlier and simpler poems, where some resolving, if hesitant and ultimately canceled, moral commentary is offered to supply a drift of images with "meaning."
In "Preludes" (1909–1911) the poet-observer provides an urban landscape out of a series of seemingly flat notations; but not entirely flat or detached, since some gesture of the composing mind is inserted…. [The] poem solicits a vision that would make a moral meaning out of what it joins together…. [Eliot in the second poem of "Preludes"] appears perplexed by the gesture of sympathy he produces—it is transposed into a too agreeably romantic phrase—so that it is dismissed for another gesture that imputes to the scene an unfathomable and immemorial necessity. Something like acceptance, however embittered, appears then to be the final, but equivocal, poise in which the poem rests. But if we think of the poem as an action taken to compose bits of "data" into a whole meaning, then the poem would appear to be confessing the impossibility of there being such meaning. So it ends with a kind of metaphysical flourish—an embittered and despairing flourish—that is provoked by the poet's recognition of what he lacks.
"Preludes," of course, is to be sharply distinguished from "Gerontion"; its last embittered gesture arises to confess the defeat of moral statement; whereas "Gerontion" ends with a lame stab at closure, "Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season," as though it were lamenting and, at the same time, apologizing for its incoherence…. The strategy of the poem, then, is to cast an ironical disclaimer in its midst, but one that functions as an all too easily decodable clue…. In "Gerontion" no logical, or structural, link exists to provide a context for the first triad of negatives in the poem, "neither … nor … nor," so that, correspondingly, no sense of a person living through, or recreating, an intimate memory can be forthcoming; the poem contrives a voice without a body, a purely mental universe. (pp. 491-93)
The declarative vigor of the start, with its pseudo-adverbial "placing" of the scene, gives way to a fudging together of literal and metaphorical, so that the innocuous and isolated phrase—"My house is a decayed house"—can suggest both a piece of oddly resonant information and a kind of disembodied whine…. What clues we get to the identity of the monologist are literary rather than narrative-autobiographical, and may be contrived to fit with a sad tale of undeserved cultural disgrace, a world passed over into "other" hands. "Dry month" grows by the addition of "dull" and "windy spaces" and "peevish gutter," and finally by "stiffen in a rented room," but it is really part of the apologia of the poem, suggesting that its gestures can only be self-reflecting, a play upon the nerves. (p. 493)
To be haunted by something means to be removed from it, and this covers what enters the poem with the Lancelot Andrewes bit from the Nativity Sermon, where the language plays ambiguously on Christ's simultaneous presence and absence, the annunciation and—as the lines mime this, act it out—the abandonment to history, Christ at our mercy. The speaker hesitates between being drawn to and drawing away from the thought of Christ, evidently being thrown into doubt by the memory of a pagan Nature in the midst of which the god stands:
In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas
The doubt is registered in the words "In depraved May," and what follows enacts the abandonment of the figure of speech to the ghostly company who then emerge…. (p. 494)
The trouble comes when we think what to do with [the Christ-figure], obliterated but yet existing as a power for life, in connection with the meditation on history that follows…. [The] poem laments deceived or superannuated passions, while it can say nothing for the person as agent, as willing—rather than taking—what he gets. It is significant, of course, that the weak pronouns in the passage—"our" and "us"—barely figure as presences, and that it is the curse, in the Christian sense, visited upon action in which all the disappointments associated with history come to a rest. (pp. 494-95)
In Eliot's poem the speaker rises at the start of the last part to both entertain and resist the suspicion that, as poet, he may have been arranging an agreeable aesthetic spectacle, one allowing the image of his disgrace to father his eruptions. (p. 495)
The line "I would meet you upon this honestly," with its air of last-gasp urgency, introduces the passage lamenting the failure of some ideally full engagement of being, and what follows shows the major preoccupation of the poem: the speaker's subtilizing a familiar agony into familiarly theatrical gesture, these belonging to Jacobean dramatic verse. This puts us at a distance from him, as a man writing at a point where two nightmares cross, echoing the aftermath of some dissolution of sense, not just what can be imagined as some sustaining, life-giving contact. It is in this sense that the language of the poem becomes a language of gesture, since what it is "about" must not be other than dimly apprehended; this being the condition of its existing at all. Poems of whole vision came with "Ash-Wednesday" and Four Quartets, where the painfully affecting pass ages in a whole life, and in the memory of other lives, are raised into significance, illuminated, and self-transcendence works.
Starting with "What will the spider do" the poem may say something about the violence of history that descends upon everyone, but especially upon the disaffected; more immediately, however, it contrives a valedictory gesture out of its own exhaustion, declaring thereby both the impossibility of producing a structure that would contain its disparate gestures and what it finds most appealing about its own impulses: the "chilled delirium" that displaces "sense"; the pretending ignorance, the holding of ideas in abeyance, that allows it to become a poem; the exploration, in a language both self-condemning and self-exculpating, of some last wearied version of the familiarly complaining self—the self that elsewhere could become a writer of prose polemic addressed to the humanist ascendancy; and, finally, its way of refining nearly out of existence the grievance that first compelled it, by taking that to exist at a far remove from what it means to "take thought" about it, and by accepting that it could only be reflected in a "delirium" from which all the heat had gone out—a "delirium," that is to say, that would make a motive for a poem. In Eliot's practice symbolist theory allowed for making the "delirium" both accessible and distant, a piece of excited reverie to correspond to what must be assumed to be a devastation but may have been only an invitation to the making of poems. (p. 496)
Jack Behar, "Eliot and the Language of Gesture: The Early Poems," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1978, Hofstra University Press), December, 1977, pp. 487-97.
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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 emotions. Reading Eliot's lines sympathetically, one enters into a drama (often incomplete) of moral judgment imposing itself on a flux of contradictory moods. His ambitious effects are formal equivalents of the process by which insight interrupts experience.
The reason Eliot assigned such importance to ambiguous or paradoxical states is that he required high purpose to live by; and purpose involves choice. The eliciting of true decisions from evasive moods became for him a fundamental occupation….
[Eliot conceived] of discipline rather than freedom as the first need of humanity. "At the bottom of man's heart," he said when he was twenty-eight—in a phrase that anticipates a line of "Gerontion"—"there is always the beast, resentful of restraints of civilized society, ready to spring out at the instant this restraint relaxes…. As a matter of fact, the human soul—l'anima semplicetta—is neither good nor bad; but in order to be good, to be human, requires discipline."
The relation between humility and discipline is obvious enough, and Eliot never lost sight of it. Years later, contrasting totalitarian government with his own idea of a Christian society, he said of the latter, "That prospect involves, at least, discipline, inconvenience and discomfort: but here as hereafter the alternative to hell is purgatory."…
In traditional literature (especially plays and novels), it is through the education of the affections that the soul achieves moral intelligence: famous examples are Tom Jones and Sophia, Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. The pursuit of the beloved offers tests and challenges that dissolve impurities and clarify virtue. But Eliot distrusted the easy parallelism between courtship and illumination unless the lover's hopes were unsatisfied. In an early "Song" he yearns for significant passion but anticipates deprivation. This poignancy of revelations missed, of love evaded, was to stay with Eliot to the end of his course:
The moonflower opens to the moth,
The mist crawls in from the sea;
A great white bird, a snowy owl,
Slips from the alder tree.
Whiter the flowers, Love, you hold,
Than the white mist on the sea;
Have you no brighter tropic flowers
With scarlet life, for me?…
The economy, meticulous sound patterns, evocative imagery, and exact versification of this Tennysonian lyric all suggest the eagerness for self-denial that the poem expresses. Not only does one recognize the triple motif of humility, sacrifice, and barely attainable love. One also recognizes the poet's submission to an ascetic conception of art. It is in this spirit that an older Eliot was to say of unrhymed verse, "The rejection of rhyme is not a leap at facility; on the contrary it imposes a much severer strain upon the language."
Humility, I think, contributed to his habit of using other men's words rather than starting afresh with his own. Partly this is an acknowledgment of the older writers' excellence, a hint of the foolishness of making newborn speech do jobs that inherited language can do better….
In discussing Eliot's deliberate allusions, our danger is to take them as referring to concrete persons or situations, particularly to conditions of life or heroic figures of the past, supposed to be offered as preferable to those of our own time. But it is always a poet's rendering that Eliot retrieves for us, rather than a fact or deed in its nakedness.
So he produces not the murder of Agamemnon but the tragic resonance of that crime for Aeschylus; not the routines of Italian monasteries under Boniface VIII, but Dante's idea of the contemplative life. (p. 3)
So also in finding out images, Eliot strove to be true to himself without celebrating his personality. He wanted images to be authentic, and therefore drawn from his own experience—if possible, from the deepest level of that experience. But they were also to belong to the archetypal sensibility of mankind, or at least be such as evoke strong, lingering associations in most men. He further preferred that they should have appeared in the work of earlier masters. Even for imagery as apparently original as the "Preludes'"
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
in the palms of both soiled hands …
he turned to a passage in a French novel he admired.
Yet again, the images were to suggest the paradoxical nature of moral judgment—that what seems meaningless now may be drenched in meaning later, that what seems like renunciation at dusk may be self-fulfillment at noon. Putting the elements together, one gets highly charged ambiguities in reverberating speech.
So it is that winter may represent both life and death, in words that echo the Victorian James Thomson (Waste Land, I). November may be confused with spring, in an image borrowed from Campion (East Coker, II). Fire may mean lust or purgation or divine love, in terms used by Buddha, St. Augustine, or Dante.
For the poet himself, the authority of his predecessors validated the images and their meaning. For the listener who picks up the reverberations (whether or not he identifies the source), they enrich the force of suggestion. But at the same time, as an expression of humility, such images diminish the personality of the poet. He hovers over the work without manifestly entering it.
Working within these limits, the poet makes himself something of a martyr. In a sense, he exchanges his identity for his poetry. But he wins a substantial reward; and this is the powerful, tenacious quality of verse that stirs us with its right rhythms, its mysterious overtones, and depth of meaning—verse that belongs to us like our early memories.
Yet on the opposite side, ambition constantly affirmed its claims. In his critical prose Eliot exhibited from the start a magisterial self-confidence that barely glanced at opposition. His assurance and assertiveness demolished an old orthodoxy and established a new one. They also served, I believe, to fence off Eliot's doubts about his poems.
But the style of the prose is not experimental. It was in verse that Eliot resolved to experiment, innovate, change. He wished to join his name to fundamental transformations of the technique of poetry: hence the variety in the small body of his oeuvre. Having mastered one set of devices, Eliot went restlessly on to another, bolder scheme—Prufrock, "Gerontion," The Waste Land—till he reached the audacities of Ash-Wednesday. Then he swerved on himself in a movement of conservation, from "Animula" to the five-part sequence of "Landscapes" (1933–1934). These embody the sense of place and the emotional trajectory of the final masterpiece, the Quartets, which came soon after.
We may estimate the height of Eliot's ambition from his aspiring to work not only with new metrical patterns but also with fundamental aspects of language itself: disruptions of syntax and meaning that startle the reader into attention while forcing him to reconsider the purpose and value of literary experience: proper names intruding with no reference to identify them, until we question the significance of identity; verb tenses slyly melting into one another, till we ponder the reality of time; third persons becoming second and first, till we stumble in the relativity of perception.
Eliot practiced confusing the literal and figurative sense of the same word; he gave intangible subjects to concrete verbs, and let the verbs themselves look like participles in one clause while serving as predicates in another. It becomes clear to attentive listeners that speech can separate men from each other, as well as join them; and the mystery of a divine Logos begins to seem not so different from the mystery of communication between self-contained persons.
Meanwhile, from "Prufrock" on, the experiments in versification were seducing and startling those who followed them. I think we may distinguish persistent modes related to changing themes. For example, the old poignancy of evasive moments and missed opportunities kept returning on the reader in patterned lines, incantatory and subtly regular: "She has a bowl of lilacs in her room" ("Portrait of a Lady," II); "Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair" ("La Figlia che Piange"); "He passed the stages of his age and youth" (Waste Land, IV).
The nostalgic moment recurs in passages of free verse, blank verse, and lyric stanzas: "Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown, / Lilac and brown hair" (Ash-Wednesday, III). It triumphs in Eliot's lament over the destruction wrought by the Second World War; and here the echoes of Tennyson are distinct. (The ash is dust settling after an air raid):
Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house—
The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.
The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air.
Frail and transient are the things that feed such pathos—too fragile for a man to live by, although they tempt him to make the effort. As Eliot acknowledges and stands back from the temptation, he finds a second mode—irony, or his consciousness of the impotence of momentary yearnings to sustain high purpose. This consciousness may appear in the gentle mingling of pathos and irony, as in "Portrait of a Lady." It may also slip into satire—both self-satire and the ridicule of social types like oneself; or it may sink further, into loathing of oneself and others, as humility becomes a bottomless sense of unworthiness.
Here is the aspect of Eliot touched by Laforgue. We hear the satiric voice restrained, in free verse that tightens at points into blank verse; we also hear it bitter or even raging, in rhymed quatrains. The risk of such satire is that readers can ignore the poet's sense of degraded kinship with the figures he mocks; for his attitude is that of Baudelaire in "Les Sept vieillards." If Eliot did not blame himself far more harshly, he would never stoop to injure someone like "Cousin Harriet."
Deeper yet is the risk of the spiteful rants against "Apeneck Sweeney" and "Bleistein—Chicago Semite Viennese." With these one must see that it is the squalor of the poet's own mind, the shallowness of his own culture, the lusts of his own eye, the passivity of his own will that he excoriates in the caricatures. (p. 4)
I have been suggesting a relation between Eliot's styles and his responses to the human condition. I would also suggest that the satiric impulse died after he wrote The Waste Land because to separate himself from any class of humanity, if only in appearance, became in his eyes an immoral act. So also the impulse to embody the various modes in dramatic speakers faded after Ash-Wednesday as the poet grew less covert about doctrine. The hidden springs of his poetic energy had always been didactic. With age he seemed to accept the fact and to let his unqualified voice be heard. Perhaps the writing of plays absorbed the imagination he had drawn on when assuming roles in verse.
The familiar images and motifs persist amazingly and in many forms, because the poet deliberately built his later work on the earlier. By a cunning irony the motto of East Coker, "In my beginning is my end," reminds one not only of Mary Stuart but also of the Lady in Eliot's "Portrait" saying, "But our beginnings never know our ends!" Thus the close of his career bows to the opening.
Yet the momentum of change continued. In technique the poet kept his instinct for matching form to meaning, but the experimental ambition dwindled. Instead, Eliot concentrated on refining and transforming his habitual modes. By gradations he arrived at the counterpoint of four modes in the Quartets….
[It] is in the Quartets (1935–1942) that the great change of direction after Ash-Wednesday culminates. Here an unmasked poet gives voice to his reflections. He uses a four-fold mode of meditation derived from blank verse but freely expanding and contracting, turning inward and out on immediate thought and perception; rising to brief visions; interrupted by nostalgic memories; sinking to grim prospects of death in life.
Against the flow, the poet thrusts intensifications of the extreme modes: formal lyrics of purgatorial vision and prayer. And now he resolves the strain between humility and ambition by letting the theme of art emerge, and openly commenting on the labors of creation. In the brilliantly expressive versification of the last important poem he wrote (Little Gidding), the poet once more triumphs in paradox; for he reviews the disappointments of the creative imagination in a style of absolute mastery, and dramatizes his own personality in the voice of Dante. (p. 6)
Irvin Ehrenpreis, "Mr. Eliot's Martyrdom," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), February 9, 1978, pp. 3-4, 6-8.
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