Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Poet And Poem

I am about to do the very thing I said critics shouldn't do: connect poet and poem. But then I am not a critic but something far less important, a student of literary as well as other kinds of history i.e. "a harmless drudge" as Samuel Johnson says.

Let us suppose--as others have--that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a satiric self-portrait. It is of course a virtuoso performance which Prufrock himself would have been quite incapable of. Eliot, however much he may have resembled Profrock in his relations with women, is not only a brilliant poet but an accomplished scholar, learned in the ancient languages, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and ABD in Philosophy. He is studying philosophy in Germany in the summer of 1914; when Europe descends into the state of war, he moves to England. He is 26 years old. He writes to his friend Conrad Aiken, "I am very dependent upon women (I mean female society)" and complains that he is still a virgin. He meets a young woman, intelligent, gifted and no doubt pretty, named Vivienne Haigh-Wood who, I guess, promptly seduces him. They are married in June, 1915. It is a miserable marriage. Vivienne, it turns out, is not only gifted but deranged--"hopelessly so" perhaps, says Hugh Kenner. Later, in his sixties, Eliot had this to say: "I came to persuade myself that I was in love with Vivienne simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land."

Eliot worked on that poem for a long time but couldn't pull it together or finish it. Like his marriage, it was an incoherent mess when he took it to Pound and asked him to make sense of it. Which Pound did--though it is not at all clear that poem as we now have it is the poem that Eliot intended to write. One thing, however, IS pretty clear: the mind that created this poem was in a state of despair.

To read The Wasteland is to encounter a cacophony--or echo-chamber-- of disparate, disconnected voices. That in itself would seem to be a metaphor for modernity: Once upon a time, the poem implies--the time of the universal Church, perhaps--life was more liked a choir than a cacophony. If there were nothing more to the poem than that, I don't suppose we would still be reading and thinking about it. But the voices of this poem, even the annonymous voice or voices of the poet, are voices of strangely intense individuality--even the flat banality of this one: "In the mountains, there you feel free." One of these voices is almost certainly the voice of Vivienne, in Part II ("A Game of Chess"). This section begins with an allusion to Shakespeare's Cleopatra: "The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne/ Glowed..." but then Cleopatra disappears, to be replaced by an extraordinary (and, I believe, intentionally incoherent) tangle of allusions, metaphors and images. Then we hear this:

Footsteps shuffled on the stair.
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.
"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes bad. Stay with me.
"Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? Think."

The Wasteland is a desert where nothing can grow; Eliot's marriage was equally barren. He and Vivienne had no children. Later, Eliot allows himself to dwell briefly on a world where things might have been otherwise--as here in Marina (1930) for example:

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping at the bow
What scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter....

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

Whispers and small laughter bwtween leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep where all the waters meet.

Burnt Norton (1936) begins with a glum meditation on the hopelessly unredeemable nature of time: "If all time is eternally present" (as it would be in the mind of an omniscient God), then "All time is unredeemable," and

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibiliity
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden....
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world....

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitely, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might of been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

The following poem by Yeats would seem to sum up the sad life of T. S. Eliot. It is called The Choice:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.

Eliot said it himself: since he was not a prolific poet, every poem (and he never knew after he had written one whether he would ever write another) had to be "perfect." But there was one poem that was not perfect--The Wasteland--which he published anyway.

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