Friday, November 19, 2010

The Trouble With T. S. Eliot

This quotation—"these fragments I have shored against my ruins"— virtually concludes The Waste Land, a poem cobbled together by Ezra Pound out of a collection of fragments that Eliot had written without knowing, it seems, what kind of poem he was trying to write. Pound did, but he had to do some pretty radical editing to make it happen.

For me, all of Eliot's poetry thereafter is fragmentary—unless one shares, as I am unable to do, his belief in the Christian doctrine of incarnation and the eucharist, or his unchristian disdain for the masses of ordinary people. When I read lines like "human kind cannot bear very much reality" (Burnt Norton) or the lines in East Coker describing the "mental emptiness" of the people in the London subway, or the lines (re: the eucharist), "The dripping blood our only drink,/ The bloody flesh our only food," I turn away. Since I cannot share Eliot's beliefs and prejudices, Four Quartets becomes, for me a poem of fragments, like The Waste Land—beautiful fragments, often, like this from East Coker:

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides.

Or these strange and magical lines from Burnt Norton:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
And reconciles forgotten wars.
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

I like these lines, from the beginning of East Coker:

                                                  Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotized. In the warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence
Wait for the early owl.

But the lines that I find most moving and wonderful are the lines about the rose-garden that I discussed, briefly, in my last post. Those lines, which may be about the children that Eliot
never had, remind me of an earlier poem that is probably not very well known nowadays, Marina, which may be about the daughter Eliot never had:

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping at the bow
And 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 between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.

The rigging weak and canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life  for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.

The image of "whispers and small laughter beween leaves" will be picked up in Burnt Norton.

Eliot's contempt for ordinary humanity, implicit in that other message of the thrush— "human kind cannot bear very much reality"—will be elaborated on in the other Quartets as well as here, in Burnt Norton:

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul . . .
                                                Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London, 
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness in this twittering world.

That word "twittering" was prescient.

Do you suppose that Eliot ever felt a flicker of sympathy for those "strained time-ridden faces," or the "unhealthy souls" belching from "unwholesome lungs" into the faded air of this "twittering world"? Not a chance.

You can also hear Eliot's contempt in East Coker when he is describing how people "in the tube" respond when the train

stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about . . .

or when he is complaining about the shabby state of the "equipment" he must use as a poet—the English language—as it deteriorates "in the general mess of imprecision of feeling/ Undisciplined squads of emotion."

At this point, I want to call Eliot's bluff: what do you mean by precise feelings and how are they related to disciplined squads of emotion? That phrase has military, even totalitarian overtones; who or what is to do the disciplining? Who gets to to define the precision of our feelings? Some sort of Jesuitical super-state? (We know that Eliot, like Pound, had fascist sympathies, at least for a while.) Do we even begin to understand how feelings are related to emotions and vice-versa? And what does all this have to do with the deterioration of a language—even if we grant Eliot's assumption that such a thing is possible? For me, Eliot's language at this point is full to bursting with imprecise feelings and undisciplined emotions.

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