Glitches, Maybe
American Institutions

52 Authors: Week 18 - T.S. Eliot

(T.S. Eliot's first importance is as a poet, but he is also a major figure in criticism, and a significant, possibly under-rated, one in cultural and social commentary. I'm only going to consider the poetry here, and that excluding the plays, for the simple reason that I haven't read any of them except Murder in the Cathedral. If there is need later in the year, I might do an Eliot 2 on some of the prose works.)

I don't know whether “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was the first poem that ever thrilled me, but it was certainly among the first. And my reading of it may have been the first occasion on which I was conscious of the experience as an experience specifically of poetry. At any rate I do remember my first reading of it. I was in my teens, I think not more than sixteen. And I think I had sought out “Prufrock”because I had read that it was very modern and advanced, which I wanted to be. I must have gotten a Selected Poems from the library, as I doubt that “Prufrock”would have appeared in a textbook (though in high school “The Hollow Men” did). I distinctly remember opening the book, and the pleasure of those opening lines; there was a physical pleasure, centered in the chest, and an emotional pleasure that was a sort of sad yearning, both arising from the music of the words and the images they invoked. And there was something that occurs more rarely: the exhilaration that comes from encountering a work of art that is not only very good but also seems to touch some deep part of one's own soul.

Sound and sense, then, but at a pretty basic level: there was no intellectual pleasure, really, apart from the process of comprehending the literal sense of the words. That is, I did not understand it in any sense beyond the fact that it was the voice of an unhappy man. I certainly didn't get the significance of Prufrock as a type, or his situation as a commentary on the state of his civilization. A few years later I learned about all that, and it was fascinating, and I grasped the place of the poem in the history of our culture. But on that first reading it was only the poem itself.

Now, fifty years later, it is once again only the poem itself that matters very much. The cultural history is interesting, to be sure, but it is history: the battles of early modernism are long since over. The modernist revolution has come—but not gone. It has permanently altered our culture, and become normal; it no longer agitates us. The alienation of modern man has been described and discussed so much that it is as much a part of our mental furniture as Duty was to a Victorian. As the shade of Dante says in “Little Gidding”: “These things have served their purpose: let them be.” But the poem is still very much alive. When I read it now, the sensation it produces is little different from what it was then.

Anyone who has even a slight interest in poetry has heard of “Prufrock” the poem, but I've just now looked over Prufrock the book (Prufrock and Other Observatiosn, 1917) for the first time in many years, and am struck by the fact that every poem in it is first-rate. There aren't many of them—Eliot was never prolific—but although they are not all equal they are all very fine. I had forgotten that the book includes “Preludes,” among my favorites of his shorter poems, which contains these lines, an image which has recurred to me now and then for decades:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Only five years after Prufrock came the poem which is probably what most people would think of first when they hear Eliot's name, if they recognized it at all: The Waste Land. Yes, it is a landmark of literary modernism, and even if you came to it with no knowledge of its reputation it would be a very striking work. But I've never considered it a great work, except by virtue of its fame and influence. Or say perhaps that it is a great work, but a singular one, like Ulysses: an end rather than a beginning, and a constriction rather than an expansion. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”—yes, I understand, but fragmentation has definite limits as a poetic technique, however fragmented the world appears to the poet, and Eliot himself saw that his technique in this poem was not a foundation upon which he could continue to build. The poem itself, and the poet, seem all but buried in those ruins; you have a sense of a partially collapsed structure, with walls rising out of rubble from which someone is trying to dig himself out. Still, there is a great deal of wonderful poetry in it:

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Between Prufrock and The Waste Land there were a handful of shorter poems that I've never been very enthusiastic about, with the exception of “Gerontion.” “The Hollow Men” (1925) is a relatively straightforward poem which probably encouraged a lot of literary adolescents in the mistaken belief that it is easy to write free verse (I was one), and also gave us a famous (and now overused) verdict on the modern world:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Then came a movement toward both poetic and spiritual stability which bore fruit in “Ash Wednesday” (1930). “Ash Wednesday”gets less attention than it deserves—or perhaps I'm only describing my own habit. It's not a big and intense statement like The Waste Land, and although it's hardly traditional in form there's nothing startling about it, no juxtaposed fragments, no interjections of lines from Elizabethan drama, almost no French or Italian or German or Greek or Latin or Sanskrit.

Eliot had been received into the Church of England in 1927, turning his back on the watery liberal Unitarianism of his background. It was around this time that he described himself as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” (according to Wikipedia, the lower case “anglo-catholic” is Eliot's). In the 1920s the Anglo-Catholic party within the Church of England was a significant presence, and it was no doubt less difficult to see oneself as truly Catholic within it then than now. In any case, “Ash Wednesday” is a very Catholic poem, a poem of Marian devotion in fact, full of addresses to Mary and quotations from the traditional prayers to her.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee

If you have somehow escaped reading Eliot, or perhaps remember only being bewildered by The Waste Land in school, “Ash Wednesday” might be a good place to start, especially if you're a Christian, though I suppose the Marian slant would put off some Protestants.

Or perhaps the “Choruses from The Rock” (1934). These are a set of rather prosey, openly didactic commentaries on the state of things in the de-Christianizing civilization of England. They were spoken by a chorus in a sort of pageant called The Rock, which I don't know much about. They are not Eliot's best work, and they are not a great work, but they are unmistakably in his voice, and what they have to say is still very much relevant, and often memorably said:

Do you think that the Faith has conquered the World
And that lions no longer need keepers?
Do you need to be told that whatever has been, can still be?
Do you need to be told that even such modest attainments
As you can boast in the way of polite society
Will hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance?
Men! polish your teeth on rising and retiring;
Women! polish your fingernails!
You polish the tooth of the dog and the talon of the cat.
Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of system so perfect that no one will need to be good.

To a contemporary in 1935 it might have seemed that Eliot's career as a poet had run its course, and that he might be one of many who have produced brilliant work early in life, but then fallen into repetition, or faded away altogether. The Prufrock poems were written when he was in his twenties, The Waste Land in his thirties. His forties (1928-1938) produced fewer poems, and those less notable than his earlier work. If you had read “Choruses from The Rock” when it appeared, and been unsympathetic to their very direct and not very “modern” Christian statement, you would probably have thought that he was finished.

But in 1935 he published the first poem in the series that would become his greatest work, and in my opinion the greatest single poetic work in English of the 20th century: the Four Quartets. “Burnt Norton” first appeared in Collected Poems 1909-1935. The other three poems, “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding” were written and published during the early years of the Second World War. I don't know enough literary history to know how many readers and critics recognized the greatness of the achievement in those first years—or, never mind greatness, how many simply liked them. But I do know that my opinion of them is not unusual, though it is probably not universal, either. Eliot said "I stand or fall on them." I believe the majority of critical opinion says that he stands.

Four-quartets

I first read the Quartets in the early 1970s. I had no real idea what they were about, nor did I fully recognize the Christian theology and philosophy in them. But I loved them almost immediately. I recall reading them in a time of intense personal distress and finding them comforting, although I didn't understand them. The sound and imagery in the descriptive passages, and the sense of serenity conveyed in the philosophical ones, gave me a sense of peace which didn't depend on a full grasp of meaning.

Forty or so years later, having read the poem, I suppose, at least a dozen times, and having come to cherish it, what I just said is still applicable. I'm still more than a little puzzled by some passages, and could certainly not produce an answer to the question “What is Four Quartets about?” that would be both brief and useful. The Waste Land is of course known as a difficult poem. But Four Quartets may be more so. The former is difficult in great part because of its technique—its fragmentation, its dependence on allusions which the reader may not get (thus the famous or infamous notes, which I have read may have been intended as a joke). The latter is difficult because it deals in complex ideas. There is some difficulty of the modernist poetic sort, beginning with the question “what are the voices or instruments comprising the quartets?”; the answer is not at all obvious. But the greater difficulty is intrinsic: the “complex ideas” of which I just spoke are probably not even best described as ideas. I'll call them instead, simply thoughts, mindful that the word is one frequently used in a banal way. Perhaps it would sound more dignified if I said “thought”, singular. A newspaper columnist offers us his thoughts, a philosopher his thought.

At any rate what I mean is that what is being expressed is not an idea or set of ideas that can be stated in a straightforward manner, but the full product of consciousness, which includes propositional sense, intuition, emotion, and sensual apprehension. This is always true of poetry, of course, but in the Quartets the object of consciousness—not necessarily the object obtained, but the object sought—is metaphysical. And so the poet as well as the reader finds himself in difficulties. There are two or three passages in which he complains:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

I see I'm over two thousand words here, which is enough to ask of people reading online. And anyway it would be foolish of me to attempt much commentary on the poem without a good deal of study and thought. So I'll end this with one remark, and another quotation. The remark: Four Quartets is an extended and profound meditation on time, eternity, consciousness, history, culture, faith, and the Incarnation, and it is more important to me than any work of theology. The quotation, which begins where the preceding one leaves off:

                                                                And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps there is neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

—”East Coker,” V

By the way, I did not forget Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. It is a perfect work and needs no commentary.

—Yr hmbl srvnt, the proprietor of this blog.

Comments

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I too read "Prufrock" at 16, with exactly the effect you describe so well. I had thrilled to read "Jabberwocky" and "The Death of Ned Kelly" and "Ozymandias" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (and perhaps others that I now forget) - but uncritically, without consciousness of the poetic.

A few weeks ago I finished my American Literature course with "The 'Boston Evening Transcript'". I thought "Prufrock" would be too much for the time available. I told them it was worth reading, but who knows if they'll ever read it now? Perhaps I shouldn't have withheld it from them.

Really excellent. I can't wait til I have time to re-read it more slowly.

AMDG

Depends completely on the students, I guess. My immediate reaction is pessimistic, based on what I see of college students. But then those who would be interested in "Prufrock" have always been few. The one about Cousin Nancy might be another good short one.

"Ozymandias" is the exception to my general lack of response to Shelley's poetry.

Yeah, but I like Sandburg's take on that better. ;-)

AMDG

Glad y'all like the piece, but Eliot did most of the work.

So, all those lines of prose are some kind of spirit writing?

AMDG

No, I have no patience with Shelley but for that one poem.

I just watched an episode of Inspector Lewis where Shelley was darn near venerated.

AMDG

exactly the same view here about Ozymandias

my name keeps getting wiped out below too - on my desk top, my lap top, and on my phone!

I was once reading "Four Quartets" while on holiday, reclining on a rock beside a stream. Two men walked by and one of them, as he was passing, said with some hesitance: "Are your reading 'Four Quartets'?" I nodded, and I'll never forget the look of happy amazement that came over his face. He shook his head and walked on. I wish I knew what he was thinking.

Another time I was reading it in a Vietnamese restaurant over a big bowl of noodles. A gentleman leaving the restaurant paused by my table and began reciting the lines about "...and know the place for the first time". This was a few blocks from the university campus, so he may have been a professor.

Is Eliot generally regarded as among the great 20th century poets by academics? His technical brilliance would be hard to overlook, but I would imagine that many of his thoughts -- or, to put it as you did, much of his thought -- is not palatable to certain types. I wonder if there might be a kind of ideological disqualification at work. I hope not.

I read Prufrock in HS, too, as an assignment and got it right way--I had a good teacher. Being already under the influence of Tolkien and the "back to the land" movement (which attracted me to C&T in the first place), I did everything I could, and have since continued to do so, to avoid having an interior life like that. I actually believe it is possible to avoid. I think I'm in the minority on that point, even on this blog.

Your quote from the Four Quartets is tantalizing. I'll probably get to it this summer after rereading Grammar of Assent. "The rest is not our business." Indeed! Tolkien said something very similar--or at least Gandalf did.

I have my kids memorize Ozymandias.

I am now re-reading (or perhaps reading for the first time after Janet’s fine introduction to Thomas Howard) Thomas Howard’s Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I am remembering from long ago the line “the light is still / At the still point of the turning world.” According to Howard’s explication in Dove Descending, “it is that still point to which we must come if we are not to be forever whirled and whirled . . . there is no escape, even among the lovely things, from our End. The choice is ours: either to opt for perpetual distraction and hence blunder on to the End and find it to be calamity or to ‘descend’ toward the still point and find light, not eternal darkness.” And of course there is the pun on “still” – enduring-- or - unmoving – as a compass point of a circle. Some reading is in store, both of Howard and Eliot. Thanks.

I often think of that still point as the Eucharist, and the place where we can really rest in it is Eucharistic Adoration. I've often thought about writing something about that to put in the bulletin, but I never seem to have time.

AMDG

I also encountered Prufrock as a teenager, in an essay by Leonard Bernstein, of all people. I was reading that because I was working myself to death trying to get into music conservatory on a violin and viola scholarship, with the end goal of becoming a conductor. Ideally symphony, but I was realistic, and admitted that as a female I would be beyond lucky if I could secure an appointment in opera or ballet in a third-tier city. I would have taken that, back before that too vanished off the menu of the conceivable.

I was fascinated by the excerpts and went and bought myself a Dover edition of some Eliot, a kind of "best of" compilation, I think. I knew about Dover editions because of their scores. It was less than a dollar, and I skimmed the funds for it from my bus fare allowance, probably. I was fascinated, and dazzled by it. From high school English classes, I had assumed that literature of the 20th century was all about ugliness, dreariness, violence, politics, and sex, brash and crass and painful. But there was transcendent beauty in these poems, and I wanted more.

About the same time, I had a class project about American religious diversity, and I visited a Russian Orthodox church. I wasn't raised religious, but was inherently religious and searching by nature. I still remember everything about that church, the colors, the sounds, the prayers I sounded out from cyrillic script, the dress I wore, the gold blessing cross, the antidoron, the little baby next to me and her mother. And how much I wanted to be there again, how I longed to go back, always, how I wished there was another excuse to return. In my mind now, all these things are connected in a shimmering web, a rapturous time when the heavens opened for me: My teacher loaned me a book on St. Hildgarde, the bus trip to find the Eliot, the morning I went to the Russian church, the nights I stayed up late studying the Mahler 2, trying to get it all into my memory.

O Röschen Rot...

I couldn't have known where it was going. Of course I thought I knew. I got the scholarships, and got ready to go to conservatory across the country. On the last day of school, my English teacher gave us all a xeroxed sheet with CP Cavafy's Ithaka and a stanza from the end of the Four Quartets. I still have this somewhere. I went back and spent a princely $5 on a nice edition of the Four Quartets, a little book that I can reach out and touch right now, today, and it has followed me everywhere, as have the contents.

I was supposed to be working around the clock towards greatness, overcoming everything I was to achieve something and be significant and earn my keep in the universe, prove that I was more than a mistake or a burden or a thing in the way. Did I dare to eat a peach? It was not so much a hypothetical question as a constant dilemma, for me. Everything was always at stake, and the pressure was unbearable. Meanwhile, I heard another call but could not place it. Like a pilgrim without a pilgrimage, I wandered, aimless, through a Brahms allegretto, through the middle of Little Gidding, looking at the moon.

In college I found that my fascination with this radiant beauty was not profitable and was apt to make me an object of ridicule. I found some solace in the Classics department, where I was lead by Eliot's footnotes. I learned Greek and read the Quartets again and again, trudging through the snow on a sunny day thinking midwinter spring. I wrote a paper about the Quartets for English but was scoffingly told I didn't get it, that it wasn't about beauty or faith but something edgier, I can't recall what, and that Eliot was an antisemite. I probably didn't get it, and I still don't buy the latter, really, but it was humiliating, still, to be scoffed at for my gushing appreciation for something I loved so much. I was striving to be important, cosmopolitan, well-read and worldly, erudite and respectable. But here I had just revealed myself again, a naive, sentimental buffoon. Eventually had to leave that school when my body collapsed under the strain of all that striving and the music dried up, and my chances were gone.

I worked the deli counter with that book in my backpack, rode the bus, went to work in the telemarketing office--selling subscriptions to the Symphony where I had interned, some years before.

That slim little book of poetry was always a beacon of hope, those words always new and ancient to me at the same time, pointing to something ever-present but mysterious and of unfathomable depth, the memory of the garden and the roses...

After many years of hell, I showed up at church. And after more years of wrestling and agony in the most classical sense, I began to really believe. After I was baptized, after I was confirmed, finally, after everything, I really was changed. And every week in the life-giving mystery celebrated in the Byzantine Catholic Church, I am changed a little more again. I remember in a flash the calligraphy banner with 1 Cor 15:51-2 in my music teacher's musty garage studio and I see that God was there, all along, and that the story is not a series of disconnected moments but each stitch in its place. And I go back to that little volume of Quartets and see every note and every stanza, every moment between the lines. And now I have some inkling of what it means that all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Ack sorry that became a novel. I should have just written "Eliot means so much to me, don't get me started!"

if only all novels were so beautiful and so true

Just to say: Monday is my very busy day, and today more so than usual. I will catch up and join the conversation later this evening.

While I really like--I guess even love--some poetry, it's rarely poetry that pierces me in that way--some novels, some music, some non-fiction even, Josef Pieper for example.

These quotes are wonderful. I particularly like that line from the Anima Christi set in the middle of a Marian prayer.

The one that begins, "So here I am..."--that particularly hits home.

So, of course now I want to read all this, but I've about decided that I am going to have to wait to read the things we're talking about until after I've written all my posts. It's one or the other.

I think that 2000+ words has been more the rule than not so far. I haven't had any trouble reading the posts because they've been good enough to make me want to read more.

As for Old Possum..., when you said The Wasteland is what people would recognize, I would have said that most people, if they recognize Eliot's name would have been thinking, Cats.

Lovely, Cailleachbhan--not too much at all.

AMDG

By "people" of course I mean English majors.

Seriously, I would have thought that although a lot of people have heard of the musical Cats, they wouldn't connect Eliot's name with it. But I don't know anything about the musical so maybe his name is reasonably prominent in the publicity and credits. I wouldn't have expected all that many people to be familiar with the book but maybe Cats made it popular. In short, yeah, maybe you're right.

Yes, that was beautiful, Cailleachbhan. Thank you. I've never been *that* attached to the Four Quartets, but for a while I kept a copy in the case of the laptop I took back and forth to work every day, and often slip it into my bag if I'm travelling.

I guess the response you got to your paper is a partial answer to the question someone posed about the academic attitude toward Eliot and his Christianity. I don't know about that myself. I know that in Eliot's time there was disappointment among some who felt that their radical modernist leader had surrendered to reactionary forces. I would be surprised if there are not at least some in academic/literary circles who basically despise Eliot, though they can't deny his achievement. What their proportion is I don't really have any idea.

Regarding Thomas Howard's Dove Descending: I was a little disappointed in it. I had been looking for something that would explicate the knottier passages and Howard didn't really do that. What he says is good, it's just not what I was hoping for.

Very interesting Quartets-based encounters, Craig. I've read the book on airplanes more than once, but I don't recall anyone ever asking about it.

Cailleachbhan, beautiful writing -- poetry itself -- very moving and inspiring to me. I am hoping to refer to the narrative again from time to time. Thank you.

...when you said The Wasteland is what people would recognize, I would have said that most people, if they recognize Eliot's name would have been thinking, Cats.

Not just Cats that's out there in popular culture -- there's also a series of popular British novels that take their titles from some of Eliot's lines:

The Mermaids Singing
The Wire in the Blood
The Last Temptation
The Torment of Others
Beneath the Bleeding
Fever of the Bone

The books are about a shrink who works with cops to find ghastly serial killers. I looked at a couple of the books on Amazon, and Eliot's given credit for the titles. The author read English at Oxford. Poor Eliot.

Depending on the books, he might not be too unhappy. But I suspect he would be: "Her novels, in particular the Tony Hill series, are known for their graphic depictions of violence and torture.

Cailleachbhan - another Byantine Catholic here who was inspired by Eliot years ago, and still plumbing the Fire and the Rose.

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