Saturday, March 15, 2008

Preludes and The Wasteland

The annonymous voice of "Preludes" speaks with god-like compassion, as follows:

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

As I read this poem, the dully animate city itself with its volices and images of passive despair, is the "thing" referred to in these lines.

The images and the compassion are wiped away with a bitter but cynical laugh: what are you getting all teary-eyed about? It's the way of the world, brother: the smart and the tough and the lucky get rich and rightly so; the others end up in furnished rooms contemplating their sordid lives, or gathering fuel in vacant lots.

What might such a poem have been a prelude to? Well, it was followed by "Prufrock"(1915), a dithering and ineffectual esthete, who ends up on the beach wondering who he is and what's it all about. Not a promising subject, you would think. Is this what Eliot thought of the literary culture and his fellow poets in 1915, when a thousand years of European civilization were going up in smoke? But the subject is almost irrelevant: no one had ever written free-verse of such sinuous, stunning intensity before. Who, having read this brilliant monologue by Eliot (and there were more to come), would ever again be satisfied by Browning?

The Wasteland (1920) surprised the hell out of everyone. Nothing in either "Preludes" or "Prufrock" would have led one to expect such a cataclysmic repudiation of modernity. (We now know that Ezra Pound, who had his own gripes about modernity, is responsible for giving the poem its present form, if you could call it that. The war, Pound thought had been fought for nothing, "For a botched civilization... For two gross of broken statues, for a few thousand battered books.")

Eliot's poem is generally thought, mistakenly, to be obscure. At first no doubt many found it so but there is now no way anyone can miss Eliot's point which, interestingly, is the same point that Shakespeare had made four hundred years previously in Troilus and Cressida: no longer nourished by its own moral and spiritual traditions, Western civilization has become a sterile wasteland where nothing new or good can grow, and people die of boredom or expend their energies in frantic but futile efforts to amuse themselves. Joseph de Maistre would have agreed.

And what of the city that the poet had tenderly grieved for in "Preludes"? Here's what the voice of the modern wasteland has to say (echoing Dante's at the gates of Hell):

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his own eyes before his feet.

1 comment:

  1. THE WASTE LAND is not obscure, but perhaps Eliot didn't realize that. He added deliberately unhelpful footnotes at the end of his great work. Yet despite the genius of the poem itself, Eliot was wrong about Western civilization. It hasn't ended. Neither a bang nor a whimper has taken place. Instead, there have been striking, unexpected advances in areas like minority rights, women's rights, and gay rights. We even have the internet, whcih gives us access to Piers Lewis's wonderful blog.