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by T. and A. Constable Ltd.
at the University Press
Patrick Tuohy, Painter
Died in New York
I should like to thank my friends Jean Coulomb and Charles Prentice for helping me in various ways in the preparation of this essay.
It is always pleasant to be able to say truthfully that one finds the most recent work of a genius his best. Very often, as
a matter of fact, it is his best. Mr. T. S. Eliot is a poet of undoubted genius. But his most recent book of verse, Ash Wednesday, must be a serious disappointment to those
who have not been following his career closely
since The Waste Land. And even for those who understand why, the distinct falling off in vigour and vividness, in pregnancy, suggestiveness of
words, in technical adequacy
to the subject, not only from the quality of The Waste Land but from that of the much earlier Prufrock, is fairly disconcerting. The book has virtues, but they are, to use an
inadequate phrase, negative virtues rather than positive. I think I should not say or write this had I less faith in Mr. Eliot's genius. For when he writes:
Because I do not hope to turn again
I feel that I know better than he does, that I not only hope but I know (since he is a poet and poets are always turning)
that he assuredly will turn again. (What is more, I think I can divine the direction in which he will turn next.) More menial
writers than poets turn. One does not compare a garden cabbage to a lemon tree, and one does not compare,
say, Mr. St. John Ervine to Mr. Eliot. But Mr. Ervine, after writing three plays, Mixed Marriage, John Ferguson, and Jane Clegg, and a novel, Mrs. Martin's Man, which in their own crass Belfast way were sincere and effective, went through a long period of utter barrenness, producing a dreary succession of ineffective
and serious but insincere plays and novels; (he had, of course, gone through the paralysing experience of the war in between);
now he has, I understand, suddenly rediscovered his talent and written a comedy that is, at any rate, effective and, in its
own way, sincere. Mr. Eliot has been going through a period of literary barrenness also, and though he once uses the words 'I rejoice' in his new book,
Because I do not hope. . . .
I rejoice that things are as they are—
it is certain that the impression left by the book as a whole is of a distinguished artist in despair (though resigned)
because of his own sterility:
Because I do not hope to know again
But the saints, on whose experience Mr. Eliot often lingers wistfully, had their periods of sterility—come to that, who hasn't? And I think we may discount this sterility
Eliot's muse, sympathetically, lightly even, for Mr. Eliot, during the time of the writing of Ash Wednesday, has been
turning forty, and as a sensitive man he has inevitably taken it badly. He talks of himself as old:
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again.
Why should the agéd eagle stretch its wings?
All this will pass, but the moment is obviously suitable to take some stock of his achievement up to date and to try to
get some idea as to where it places him in the history of modern poetry written in English.
The greater part of Mr. Eliot's output cannot be considered as the work of an English poet. It is not so much that he remains outside of the English tradition. Like all traditions, the English tradition has room for newcomers. Mr. Eliot will ultimately fit into it easily enough and, what is more, will influence it in the future. Only he too definitely originates in another distinct tradition to be considered quite English yet. The spirit of his poetry is decreasingly American, but, in considering his work, it is essential that his American origin should be kept in mind, otherwise one is in danger of being less than just to his very remarkable personal qualities.
It is, I suppose, generally accepted that America as a whole is the most vulgar plutocracy that the modern world has seen. Even the poor American is proud of all the millionaires, and of all the splendid skyscrapers they build for the biggest big businesses ever. I have known an American critic who could, in the same breath, talk with intelligent appreciation of Rimbaud, and with enthusiasm of a five-cent Chicago imitator of that fivepenny English master, Mr. Arnold Bennett, who had made a hundred thousand [p.4] million or billion dollars out of a clever but utterly materialistic novel of Long Island life. Schopenhauer remarked that Americans might say of their own vulgarity what Cicero said of science, 'Nobiscum peregrinatur.' Where they do not worship money they worship power. And, with that, America itself is not so much a country as a mass meeting.Acknowledgments to my brother. Its only unity is a tendency towards the ideas, the culture, the civilisation, of those Americans who do not go to the meeting, the New Englanders. Whitman went to the meeting, Henry James did not, Mr. Vachell Lindsay goes but Mr. Wallace Stevens stays away, Mr. Sinclair Lewis goes, Mr. Hergesheimer does not. These are the masses, those are the classes; these are in the pit, those are up stage; these are action, those are reaction. The ideas are the same, but the material resources of the country being still so great, the action is more vulgar, the reaction more intense than elsewhere. The New England mind at its best seems to be sensitive, fastidious, cultivated, dignified; but realist, witty rather than humorous, sentimental rather than imaginative, conventional, rather priggish. Its values are social rather than human. And rather more than the masses in America, it is tenaciously Protestant. It is, in fact, the well-bred maiden aunt of the United States.
The transition, therefore, for a young American of perception is, almost inevitably, from a more blatant and energetic vulgarity than exists elsewhere to a more desiccated and self-conscious correctness than exists elsewhere. An American de Charlus is still as impossible as an American [p.5] St. Francis. The masses can take themselves humorously but will not stand personality except in the matter of energy, the classes cannot take themselves humorously and will only stand personality when its energy has been subdued to mere nervous intensity.
To apologise for these generalisations about a country which I have never visited would be to apologise to a mere physical fact. Americans who have never been even to modern Italy have generalised to me about ancient Rome. I know modern America by its visiting citizens and writers, its self-expression in literature for the last century and more, and its all-engulfing cinema. I have seen numbers of American plays and I have read Mr. Lennox Robinson's masterly comedy of American circumstance, Ever The Twain. Were I to visit America, I should, for a long time at any rate, be incapable of doing more than comparing the skyline of New York from the harbour with that of Venice from the Lagoon and verifying my present predispositions and prejudices—I am only human. Americans tell me that there are so many races in America, so many Americas, that one cannot generalise about America at all. But what they say is more or less true of all countries, and though racial origins always count for something, I do not think it is wrong to assume a tendency towards unity of culture in America. (Ethnologists tend more and more to classify human beings by cultures rather than races.) And I think one may generalise about that.
To begin with them, we may place Mr. Eliot against this cultural New English background. He had the genius of it as Henry James had the genius of it. Before deserting it—I
mean as subject-matter—he advanced its expression, so far as the question of form was concerned, from prose realism to poetic
realism, from observation of the influence of its
social values on its human relationships to observation of its subjective self-questionings. He was a born poet, but it
provided him with nothing worth being seriously poetic
about. One should perhaps say that he was the expression of its spiritual bankruptcy. He wrote satirically about it. Yet
he was still of it. One is always 'of' whatever one takes
the trouble to be satirical about.
Miss Nancy Ellicot
Here we have Mr. Eliot frankly preoccupied with New England social conventions and their infraction by a typically emancipated young woman of the blood—the blood of the
Puritans who emancipated themselves from the Church of England two and a half centuries before. The poet, being
a poet, and finding nothing in Miss Ellicot or her aunts to be poetic about, is fastidiously and ironically aloof from both of them, and wipes out the aunts' library,
their spiritual world, with an ironical perversion, a belittlement, of a line of poetry that was intended by its original
author to evoke a sense of awe in the reader. The poem would be no more than a piece of youthful (and therefore forgivable)
priggishness were it not for the lines—
Strode across the hills and broke them,
Rode across the hills and broke them—
The barren New England hills—
Riding to hounds
Over the cow-pasture.
Miss Nancy Ellicot smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern.
Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law.
Strode across the hills and broke them,
which have something of the precise rhythm and the literary austerity that were to mark Mr. Eliot's later work. There is also the use of the pure vowel sounds that shows not only the born musician but the poet who feels
deeply. (This is not the place to discuss the point—I give it to the professors for elaboration-but the innumerable consonantal
words and impure vowel sounds that, say, Shelley uses, show not only that he was dynamic rather than static, but also that his emotional adventures were very superficial.
Swinburne is another case of the same kind. Shakespeare and Keats are examples to the contrary. They use far more pure vowels than Shelley and Swinburne. The contrast might also be made between Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny. Emotion, from the child's delighted 'oo' to the stricken man's 'Ah' is always expressed by vowels, though when Mr. Yeats makes a line of seven, and H. D. a line of four 'Oh''s we may suspect some poetic misuse of fact.)
Rode across the hills and broke them—
To return to Mr. Eliot's poem, we may also note that it has power and self-possession. There is no self-betrayal, [p.8] except perhaps in the spondees that he was to utilise to such admirable literary and emotional effect in his later work. Over and over again one finds a tearful passage with feminine endings to each line, and then closing with a return to monosyllabic self-possession, to words like 'hills' and 'law' and 'star' and 'stone' and 'men.'
The battle of free verse has been fought and won since Bullen rediscovered Campion in the late 'eighties, so it is scarcely
necessary to point out the mastery with which, even
when he does not rhyme, Mr. Eliot uses metre. Musicians in the sixteenth century as well as to-day changed from common time to three-four or five-four or any
other measure as expression demanded, and made no apology for it. In the same way, Shakespeare—especially in, his later plays—changes from the rhythm of blank verse (without ceasing to be rhythmic) as expression demands:
Pray do not mock me,
The sense controls the metre, not, as in so much rhymed poetry, the metre the sense. It seems to me that only Dante and Racine struck the ideal balance between rhyme and reason. And for all he was an Italian, with an Italian's delight in artistic mechanics,
even Dante, when it came to the dreadful mechanism of the sonnet, had to put in almost
as many unnecessary tags and 'ands 'and' buts' as anybody else. But then the sonnets were written in his youth.
I am a very foolish fond old man
Four score and upward, not an hour more nor less,
And, to speak plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man,
Yet I am doubtful; for I am plainly ignorant
What place this is. . . .
However, I am mostly concerned with Mr. Eliot's attitude—as I think he would have me be—and I do not propose to dwell at any length on his technique which is usually self-evidently
adequate to his matter. Corning back, therefore, to his early poems, Mr. Apollinax, for instance, we see again the travelled, disdainful New Englander. When Mr. Apollinax goes to a United States tea-party he reminds the poet
... of Fragilion, that shy figure among the birch-trees,
* * *
And of Priapus in the shrubbery
Gaping at the lady in the swing
It is, of course, perfectly true that the young man in Lancret's picture is Priapic, but it is significant that when the poem was written twenty years ago, when art for art's sake was still the dominating aesthetic even in Paris (where Goncourtism is not even yet dead), it should be a youthful New England poet who emphasised its Regency morals, dismissing the lovely background as mere 'shrubbery.'
Mr. Eliot's original Protestantism is also very evident in The Hippopotamus.
The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.
Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.
[p.10] The hippo's feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.
The 'potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over-sea.
At mating time the hippo's voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.
The hippopotamus's day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way
The Church can sleep and feed at once.
I saw the 'potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud Hosannas.
Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.
He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr'd virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.
The poet is as ironical about the worship of nature, as represented by the hippopotamus, as he is about the Church. He protests against both. And believing in nothing he achieves nothing that can be considered as poetry. This puerile and tittering scepticism could not but be poetically sterile. Neither Voltaire nor Anatole France could write poetry, and if Mr. Eliot had remained in that state of spiritual sterility he would be of no more significance poetically than hundreds of clever undergraduates who turn their jeers into verse every day in the academic year.
But if Mr. Eliot had only New England Protestant morality to substitute for religion in those days, he also had New England good taste. At a church service there is an Umbrian picture to look at and aesthetise over:
A painter of the Umbrian school
And before that he had noticed that the younger members of the congregation
Designed upon a gesso ground
The nimbus of the Baptized God.
The wilderness is cracked and browned
But through the water pale and thin
Still shine the unoffending feet
And there above the painter set
The Father and the Paraclete.
But the aesthete is also a realist:
Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the water in his bath.
The masters of the subtle schools
Are controversial, polymath.
. . . are red and pustular
He noticed the natural phenomena about him too:
Clutching piaculative pence.
Along the garden-wall the bees
Behind the realism, of course, there is the implication that the congregation had assembled for some other purpose than
the study of physical realities. But it is the physical realities that are insisted upon, and the purpose is merely used to
emphasise their absurdity. The young versifier does not grasp the possible spiritual significance of the service. Or, if he
does, he keeps it to himself.
With hairy bellies pass between
The staminate and pistillate,
Blest office of the epicene.
In Whispers of Immortality he is as realist as the author of La DébÂcle:
Webster was much possessed by death
Death here is merely the death of the body. It is without even the illusion of the dignity and nobility that the departure
of life's uglier things ordinarily leaves to death. And it is not contrasted with nobility of life but with the 'friendly
bust' of a courtesan:
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breathless creatures under grouted
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.
Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.
Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
The young Mr. Eliot of these days was a melodramatic writer, a writer of tragedy on the physical plane. (Melodrama being to tragedy what farce
is to comedy.) He links up more with the affected genius of Les Fleurs du Mal, of Une Charogne, who certainly tightened his lusts and luxuries thinking of dead limbs, than with Webster who, after all, did something more
than throw rotting corpses in the faces of his public. And with the melodrama went a kind of professorial comedy, a kind of
learned gibing at serious things. The Hippopotamus is a case in point. Later Mr. Eliot was to drop comedy (which is the expression of man's relation to his fellow-man, as tragedy is the expression of man's relation
to destiny, to the Mystery behind his own character). But in most of these early poems the spirit of satirical comedy is uppermost.
They are all social comment. The world is too much with the poet in them. A world in which he did not believe but which obsessed
him! He thought, being young, that he knew all about it, and he despised it. At times he despised even the most beautiful
things in it, was bored by them as a professor is bored by things he has to study. He writes of Sant' Apollinare in Classe in French as a
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
Vieille usine désaffectée de Dieu. . . .
thereby betraying himself as an American who feels he has to 'do' Europe so as 'to get the right cultural background' (the reason given by a certain American lady for sending her child to Italy), but who when alone with his pen or his skyscraping friends rather jeers at it all.
There are nervous talents of Mr. Eliot's generation, elsewhere, however, who write in this intellectually affected way. Monsieur Jean Cocteau, who is sometimes an artist of inspired clairvoyance, sometimes merely a young man in a hurry to be in front of the movement, in comparing the Paul Morand who writes travel books with the Paul Morand who later transforms the material in the travel books into works of fiction, suggested that in the Divina Commedia Dante only wrote a travel book, dismissing him in a parenthesis as Dante, reporter; and that often charming writer Monsieur Jean Giraudoux recently wrote a play called Amphitryon, 38, on a subject that must have meant to the ancient world something of what the story of the Incarnation means to the Christian world—the love of Zeus for Alcmena. He might have treated the legend comically—did not the clowns make fun of the Gods in the farces that followed Greek tragedies?—but he merely treated it with the amused condescension of the free-thinking professor who knows better, and one pined for either the rollicking vaudeville sense of the authors of La Belle HélÈne or the grave sense of tragedy with which Mr. Yeats or Monsieur Claudel would have treated the theme. One wished that serious young geniuses were not so very superior, at any rate in presence of the Gods, that they would see what they could do with themes they believed in, instead of gibing unworthily at others whose significance to humanity they are too self-centred and too knowing to be able to understand. When the authors of La Belle HélÈne make fun of gods and heroes, or when Picasso draws a parody of Salome dancing [p.15] before Herod, one feels that this is what the scene would have looked like had the characters been tramps or travelling theatricals or some people as far beneath human law as Gods and heroes and Biblical characters are above it. With Monsieur Giraudoux one felt one was in a genteel suburb or in the Common Room of a university—which is much the same thing.
This professorial element in Mr. Eliot's early poems was probably encouraged by his association with Mr. Ezra Pound, who is not so much a poet manqué as a professor manqué. I once heard of a hopeful tradition that Mr. Pound had challenged a man to a duel, but afterwards I learned that it was not a man but only a professor he had challenged. Which was really as it should be. Is it not the professor in all of us that is amused by Mr. Pound's clever parody of Summer is icumen in? The clever belittlement of lovely things is a form of activity that the professorial mind delights in. (There are professors disguised as artists who excel at it too. In Dublin we are cursed by the presence in our National Gallery of a heavily unhumorous parody of Raphael's School of Athens by that born old professor, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who could paint you a portrait of yourself or anybody else in the style of Raphael, or Rembrandt, or the School of Bologna exactly as a professor can write you a sonnet or villanelle or madrigal about anything under the sun; and the one is just as devoid of a single illuminating line as the other. Documentation, eclecticism, and authority are a professor's [p.16] business, knowledge of life, personality and humility are a poet's.)
It is one of the pleasant, if negative, things about Mr. Eliot's latest work that these professorial 'astuces' are entirely absent from it. And even in his earlier poems there were traces of a capacity for self-criticism, for humility, that penitential Catholic virtue, founded not on misanthropy but on hope, that is so utterly alien to the puritanical mind. Catholics, who have the habit of accusing themselves of their own sins in confession, are less inclined to be satirical about the other fellow than non-Catholics are. That is why the literature of indignation flourishes more in Protestant than in Catholic societies. It is why Mr. James Joyce is, philosophically, a more just writer than say Mr. Wyndham Lewis. It is principally why the libertin, MoliÈre, for all his charm and his greater potentialities, remains less great as a poet than Racine. It is why Mr. Eliot's verse has purified itself of merely social elements as he has moved towards Catholicism, even the bastard, schismatic and provincial if genteel kind of Catholicism that, for the time being, at any rate, he has, somewhat New Englishly, stopped at. (To be an Anglo-Catholic, to try to compromise between John Bullishness, or Uncle Sammishness, and Catholicism is almost to try to reconcile Mammon and God. Something of the kind has been tried, even in Rome itself, by Pope Boniface VIII for instance, and that holy terror, Pope Julius II, and it has always failed. When Elizabeth Tudor proclaimed that the Bishop of Rome had no jurisdiction in her realm, she really only launched her country on an epoch of Mammon worship [p.17] —there is no compromise between absolute acceptance and absolute rejection of the Church Militant. The disastrous results of her secession are only too tragically visible to even the simplest ex-serviceman to-day, for he has been deserted by Mammon and he has little spiritual comfort to find outside of his own heart—where, having been, like all Protestants, brought up on the Old Testament rather than the New, he has not been taught to look for it. Was it not because of the tragic breakdown of modern England's ideals that George Winterbourne, in Mr. Richard Aldington's very significant novel, Death of a Hero, committed suicide? The touching figure of Mr. Windrell in Mr. Osbert Sitwell's little story Happy Endings is a lesser expression of the same spiritual disaster.)
Obviously there has to be some indignation or, human nature being the imperfect thing it is, corruption would destroy even more than it is able to destroy as things are at present. But I think that literary work that is dominated by the spirit of satire or indignation in its appeal is lacking in universality. What little of nobility is in us, and obviously there is some in everybody, demands something more sympathetic than indignation and satire when we are face to face with fear, or love, or any of the major emotions. Did a soldier ever read Bernard Shaw with pleasure before an attack? Alain Gerbault threw away all Wilde's works except The Ballad of Reading Gaol before he set out on his heroic and solitary voyage across the oceans in the Fire Crest. I think that with one or two exceptions one would, in similar circumstances, be tempted to throw away the [p.18] early poems of Mr. Eliot because they are superior and disdainful of things that, however unworthily, are significant and appealing in human nature. The exceptions are principally The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Rhapsody on a Windy Night. (The celebrated Portrait of a Lady seems to me to be merely the faintly comic history of a cautious young man's clever parrying of the discreet advances of the usual predatory, pseudo-cultivated lady. And when, at the end, the poets asks whether if she died he 'would have the right to smile,' one feels that since he is only concerned to know, commercially, whether she would 'not have the advantage after all,' it really is of no importance to anybody except himself whether he smiles or not.)
But I must insist that I think Mr. Eliot is scarcely to be blamed personally for this attitude of the early poems. He deserted New England for old England at a time when old England was still to all intents and purposes Edwardian, when passionless, fastidious would-be aristocratic, Nonconformist Liberalism, the nearest thing to New Englandism that exists in Europe, was triumphant; when the emasculate brilliance of John Singer Sargent passed for great painting and the emasculate brilliance of Mr. Bernard Shaw for great drama; when Mr. Yeats, the only great poet writing in English, was working on material that was un-English and un-American, and therefore somewhat aside from the main stream of influences that Mr. Eliot was likely to accept. It is little wonder therefore that he should have been infected with something of the glibness of his generation, that he [p.19] should opine solemnly and condescendingly that Synge's survival as a 'European' writer was doubtful; and like one of those spiritual sons of Mr. Charles Ricketts, whose would-be bright chatter makes post-war literary society in England so intolerable, that Mr. Yeats's fairies and leprechauns are 'charming creatures in their native bogs.' I cannot remember that any of Mr. Yeats's fairies—they mostly belong to his boyish work of forty years or so ago—comes from a bog. (Not that there is any reason why they shouldn't. There are stretches of bogland—in Ireland at least, I do not know the boglands of Great Britain or France—that seem to me to be as lovely in their own unpretending way as any operatic Italian or grandiose Spanish landscape I ever set eyes on. Mr. Jack Yeats, who, in his attitude to his art, is the Cézanne of our time, and not the less so for the fact that his radiant genius is utterly different from that of Cézanne—has more than once achieved the perfect expression of their loveliness in painting.) As for Mr. W. B. Yeats's fairies being charming, they could only be considered so if it were charming to lead people to destruction, as in The Land of Heart's Desire. On the whole, I am afraid that when he wrote that phrase, Mr. Eliot was merely making a concession to the fact that, some years ago, after Ireland had given British jingoism a tolerably resounding coup de poing sur le visage, Ireland went out of fashion in London intellectual circles. (Which was fortunate for Irish writers, some of whom were already getting seriously corrupted by the flattery of half-educated reviewers arid gushing hostesses in London.) It is amusing to note, too, that as the worst [p.20] political and military jingoes that were let loose on Ireland ten years ago by the British system were outlanders in England, Welshmen and Anglo-Americans and Canadians and Scotsmen—in Ireland we believe, whether rightly or wrongly only history will tell, that our truest friend in England then was the most exalted of living Englishmen—so the most vociferous representatives of the thoroughgoing anti-Celtic fashion that set in afterwards were outlanders like Mr. St. John Ervine or semi-outlanders like Mr. Wyndham Lewis. (I believe that Mr. Lewis, if not a trueborn Orangeman like Mr. Ervine, is partly of north of Ireland, 'planter,' origin—as is also, I think, Mr. Eliot.) These journalistic 'thinkers' do well, however, to be anti-Celtic. It is fashionable and therefore, one way or another, it pays. And they do not matter ultimately. But for poets it is another question. To those who are not provincial minded, the architecture and other arts of the Celtic countries are, within their limits, of as lasting interest as any others, and all the Calvinistic sneers that Belfast and Bayswater and Boston ever have produced or ever will produce will not alter the fact that the Celtic countries have provided poetry with some of its greatest spiritual themes and with practically all its most unselfish lovers. The Grail legend took shape in a Breton monastery, Isolde and Deirdre and Naoise were Irish, Tristan and Abélard were Breton, and Romeo and Juliet belonged to the country that was Cis-Alpine Gaul as did also he who wrote of Dido and Æneas (though he did commit the crime of popularising in literature the fake order that [p.21] is called 'classicism,); and as did again that impeccable artist and lover who, when she whom he loved was stricken with plague, 'praticandovi al solito, se le appicò la peste de maniera, the in breve tempo nella etÀ sua de XXXIII anni, se ne passò a l'altra vita'; and whose native village is to this day peopled with faces of exactly the same type as those I see passing my window as I write, a thousand miles north-west of Castelfranco. (For all of which I shall be called a chauvinist. But what matter! 'to be great is to be misunderstood.')
And the very solemnity with which Mr. Eliot weighed matters of such trivial importance as Synge's future standing in Europe had its endearing side. His criticism, no matter how
wrong one might think it, always gave the impression of a man who cared for the noblest literature with more passion than
the constipated environment he lived in would allow him to avow. And there is scarcely a single one of his poems, even those
early ones, that has not something memorable, some line or passage that shows the element of blessedness in the poet, that
betrays a tragic self-doubt, and a richer subjective life than the casual reader of Cousin Nancy or The Hippopotamus or Mr. Apollinax could imagine. At the end of a series of grimy images one comes to
I am moved by fancies that are curled
If one rejects the snobbish 'damp souls of housemaids' one does not reject
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
The brown waves of fog toss up to me
If one thinks that
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs.
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
is over-precious, one notes the unmannered observation and the power of evoking far-off loveliness in banal surroundings
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
The readers of The Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
I heard the beat of centaurs' hoofs over the hard turf.
One remembers the childishly touching
Where is the penny world I bought?
And the childishly pleasant
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held to him.
One remembers 'the unoffending feet' in the Umbrian picture, and, more than any of these happy poetries unhappily buried
in preciosity, one remembers the superb transition in Sweeney Among the Nightingales:
The host with some one indistinct
though unfortunately he makes an addition to it—the necessities of rhyme again!—that merely suggests a return to the atmosphere
of the Bohemian party:
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,
And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings fall
As if they mattered!
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.
Again, the opening stanza of La Figlia Che Piange has a visual loveliness that only lacks the serene contemplative beauty of Chinese poetry:
Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—
Afterwards, unfortunately, the poet begins to attitudinise again, and we feel almost resentful of his emphasising the fact
we had scarcely noticed, that the lady was a character in a commonplace lovers' quarrel, and of his insisting on how, with
the delicate sadism of over-aesthetic adolescence, he
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.
. . . would have had her stand and grieve,
would have found
Some way incomparably light and deft,
all of which, and more especially that last frivolous piece of la-di-da, is of no consequence beside the classic quality
of the first few lines. They suggest that Mr. Eliot was justified in dismissing Lancret since he was capable of becoming a verbal Watteau himself, of painting an 'Indifférent.'
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
* * *
Even in the Portrait of a Lady there are suggestions of humility, in the faint doubt of himself that the young man betrays when he is alone, in the troubled
state that drives him to attach importance to such trivial occurrences as the going on the stage of a Polish countess. One
almost thinks that he ponders over the misfortunes in love that drove the poor lady to anything so unfitting to her station.
Social humility, this. But there is self-knowledge and self-laceration in
. . . how can I make a cowardly amends
And again in
For what she has said to me?
I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
Though here, while understanding the emotion, one thinks that that sort of sick feeling, of nervousness, is really a weakness,
a phase of romantic youth that has to be got over by everybody. It is Baudelarian to assume that one may not
laugh or smile. 'L'homme ne rit qu'en tremblant,' Baudelaire quotes in defence of the really rather theatrical tragique of his fellow-dandy, Delacroix. And I have heard Mr. Yeats say, 'Laughter, God's enemy!' But no doubt he meant merely the God of the Romantics, whom he still weakly hankers after.
The God of Ecclesiastes allows a time for laughter as well as a time for weeping. Laughter is just as necessary to spiritual health. St. Francis laughed and not ironically. He got rid of human respect, and was not afraid of making a fool of himself. Or rather he knew
that the Bernard Shaws and the post-Edwardians who are always 'on the mat' are bigger fools, are really more naïfs than those who let themselves
look ridiculous sometimes.
Suddenly, his expression in a glass.
This naïveté would be touching and amusing in a comic character in a play. But it is dubious for, of all writers, a poet,
to let it creep into his own most serious work. For there is perversity, disingenuousness in it. Tristan CorbiÈre (who with Baudelaire and Laforgue counts amongst the influences that Mr. Eliot is usually supposed to have allowed to act on him) writes a poem like Vésuves et Cie:
Pompéia-station—Vésuve, est-ce encore toi?
and one feels that (though with his afflictions and misfortunes it was understandable) Corbiére was really writing like Henry Vaughan, like a man who wanted to be a child, was producing work that is only suitable for bright young mothers who gush, artificially,
about baby. A famous Spanish poet vaunted that poem to me in Madrid, and though I let it go, I felt like telling him that the Spaniards were well off in having no 'war generation,' in having
nothing more serious than Neapolitan lampshades and child's penny worlds to preoccupy their men of letters. Besides, if I
may be personal, I may say that I have never come upon the original of any scene or picture or sculpture or piece of architecture
that, in reproduction, had seemed likely to interest me without finding it immeasurably more satisfying than I had dared hope.
And if some people and countries and proceedings have petered out to disillusion for me as they do for everybody, at least
I got some spiritual
or emotional enrichment from them on the way to disillusion. It is not always only jam yesterday and jam to-morrow, it is,
if we had the grace to admit it, sometimes jam to-day. The dishonesties of politicians and the predatory instincts of women
are not a botheration the whole time (they are not always even true). It is only the over-romantic poet who sets us moaning
all the time. One need not be a vulgarian to find something to write gratefully about. Dante did, and Shakespeare and Ronsard and Keats. Mr. Eliot scarcely ever does.
Toi qui fis mon bonheur, tout petit, en Bretagne
—Du bon temps où la foi transportait la montagne—
Sur un bel abat-jour, chez une tante À moi:
Tu te détachais noir, sur un fond transparent,
Et la lampe grillait les feux de ton cratÈre.
C'était le confesseur, dit-on, de ma grand'mÈre
Qui t'avait rapporté de Rome tout flambant. . . .
[p.26] Plus grand, je te revis À l'Opéra-Comique.
—Rôle, jadis créé par toi: Le Dernier Jour
De Pompeí. Ton feu s'en allait en musique,
On te soufflait ton rôle, et . . . tu ne fis qu'un four.
—Nous nous sommes revus: devant-de-cheminée
A Marseille, en congé, sans musique, et sans feu;
Bleu sur un fond rose, avec ta Méditerranée
Te renvoyant pendu, rose sur un champ bleu.
—Souvent tu vins À moi la premiÈre, ô Montagne!
Je te tends ta visite, exprÈs, À la campagne
Le vrai Vésuve est toi, puisque'on m'a fait cent francs!
* * *
Mais les autres petits étaient plus ressemblants.
It would be wrong, however, to accuse him of living wilfully in sadness. He is not like Cocteau, who after writing Thomas l'Imposteur, the prettiest trifle that the Great War produced, turns out drawings that are merely indifferent echoes of the authentic macabre that that very great artist Pablo Picasso is sometimes driven by his genius to produce. The same Picasso can paint a portrait of his wife that is almost as radiant as Dante's vision of Beatrice in Paradise. In the same way Mr. Joyce who, in Ulysses, showed himself as a master of macabre can be gay on 'a happy-go-gusty ides of April morning,' and with an Anna Livia Plurabelle who is like a nymph on a sunlit mountain, and in a thousand other lovelinesses. If we have got to live through a woeful world, at least we ought to be grateful for the odd shelters from the woefulness that we come upon, and be willing to hang up our crutches for the time being. Mr. Eliot's gaiety so far has been rather perverse, a scoring off of life. But I think we may put-it down to the over-long youthfulness that is imposed on educated Americans by New England gentility. [p.28] In his later work there is no gaiety at all. That is, at any rate, better than having the perverse kind of gaiety.
Of these early poems it is in the famous Prufrock that Mr. Eliot comes nearest to shaking off the New England mask of strict social propriety and getting at the truth about himself.
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
The poet who could write that was obviously the makings of a true, psychological, dramatic poet. And, in addition, he had
the power of 'seeing in images' that he has himself postulated as one of the necessary qualifications for writing poetry.
We may dismiss
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince: no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
. . . the cups, the marmalade, the tea
. . . the eternal Footman . . .
as mere drawing-room comedy, and
. . . how should I begin
as a mere literary echo of the 'Fauve' movement in painting. But there is genuine and personal visual observation in
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
Shall I say,
I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
and visual fantasy in
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt sleeves, leaning out of windows?...
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
This passage is perhaps too cleverly done. It ran away a little with the poet. Read to a child, it would cause delight.
And he would not have to be told what the rest of the poem was about. But there is no denying the technical virtuosity of
it. The poet not only saw in images, but he saw to it that his images became active, dynamic, took on a life of their own.
The passage has mystery and the stealth of mysterious things that cause fear. It is not social fear but fear of life, fear
of destiny, an emotion that becomes almost agonised in
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the windowpanes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
The whole poem is an expression of self-doubt and fear in the presence of love. The poet is given to impotent questionings
of a Hamletish, Tchehovian kind, and suffers
accordingly. It is futility, futility, insisted upon, the pain
ful consequences of action imagined and the painful consequences of inaction felt:
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Only of course Mr. Eliot was, relatively, very young when he wrote it. It is a poem of adolescence, and it is a complete and perfect poem of the kind.
The adolescence in it is more unbelieving than that in the poetry of Jules Laforgue, perhaps the most perfect of all poets of adolescence, and one who influenced Mr. Eliot very profoundly in those days. Prufrock says
Would it have been worth while . . .
I have heard the mermaids singing each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Prufrock's creator was an unhoping American puritan, not an eagle but a nightingale singing with its breast to the thorn. Laforgue, on the contrary, only ceased, when he was dying, to dream of the day that the imagined bien-aimée would appear out of nowhere. The burden of his poetry is nearly always
Oh! qu'une, d'Elle-même, un beau soir, sût venir
There is also the difference that Prufrock is self-centred. He always comes back to himself. Whereas in Laforgue's poetry it is nearly always the girl who is imagined, and the poet who sees himself as comforted by her presence:
Ne voyant que boire À Mes LÈvres! ou mourir. . .
Je m'enlÈve rien que d'y penser! Quel baptême
De gloire intrinsÈque, attirer un 'Je vous aime'
Je pleure dans des coins; je n'ai plus goût À rien
Or again, in the finest of all his poems, he is lamenting that she should be unhappy:
Oh! j'ai tant pleuré, dimanche, en mon paroissien!
[p.31] Tu me demandes pourquoi Toi? et non un autre....
Je ne sais; mais c'est bien Toi, et point un autre!
J'en suis sûre comme du vide de mon coeur
Et ... comme de votre air mortellement moqueur....
—Ainsi, elle viendrait, évadée, demi morte
Se rouler sur le paillasson qu'est À ma porte!
Ainsi, elle viendrait À Moi! les yeux bien fous
Et elle me suivrait avec cet air partout!
Noire bise, averse glapissante
* * *
Et fleuve noir, et maisons closes
Et quartiers sinistres comme des Morgues
Et l'Attardé qui À la remorque traîne
Toute la misÈre du coeur et des choses
Et la souillure des innocentes qui traînent
Et crient À l'averse. 'Oh! arrose, arrose
'Mon coeur si brûlant, ma chair si intéressante!'
Oh, elle, mon coeur et ma chair, que fait-elle? . . .
Oh! si elle est dehors par ce vilain temps,
De quelles histoires trop humaines rentre-t-elle?
Et si elle est dedans
A ne pas pouvoir dormir par ce grand vent,
Pense-t-elle au Bonheur
Au bonheur a tout prix
Disant: tout plutôt que mon coeur reste ainsi incompris?
But Mr. Eliot's hardness was to carry him further than Laforgue. Laforgue himself was the poetic equivalent of the
that moved Mr. Eliot's fancy, for he died at twenty-six of consumption, and his last verses though despairing, are as nostalgic as all the others.
Mr. Eliot may have developed his
power of evoking autumnal weather under his influence as he developed his fogs under the influence of Baudelaire and Dickens. He could even take a line directly out of Laforgue and translate it. The
Infinitely suffering thing
Simple and faithless as a smile. . . .
in La Figlia Che Piange is presumably taken from Laforgue's
Simple et sans foi comme un bonjour
in Pétition. But Mr. Eliot could never, even in adolescence, have prayed to God with Laforgue,
. . . laissez-nous en paix, morts aux mondes meilleurs,
Laforgue wrote again:
Paître, dans notre coin, et forniquer, et rire! . . .
—Ah, la chasteté n'est en fleur qu'en souvenir!
That was his gospel, and he innocently believed that one might appeal to Nature and find the earthly paradise through Nature:
—Mais ceux qui l'ont cueillie en renaissent martyrs!
Martyrs mutuels! de frÈre À soeur sans PÈre!
Comment ne voit-on pas que c'est lÀ notre Terre?
Et qu'il n'y a que Ça! que le reste est impôts
Dont nous n'avons pas même À chercher l'À-propos!
Il faut répéter ces choses! Il faut qu'on tette
Ces choses! . . . .
O Nature, donne-moi la force et le courage
When he introduces love into his poetry, Mr. Eliot sticks to his own tradition. He remains puritan (not merely fastidious for Laforgue was fastidious). He used to be Nihilist. He tended, like all puritans, to confuse the ideas of love and sex. In a poem that
appeared in The Criterion some years ago, but which he has not republished, he dismissed life disdainfully as being merely
De me croire en Âge
O Nature, relÈve-moi le front!
Puisque, tôt ou tard, nous mourrons. . . .
. . . birth, copulation and death.
Laforgue may have been of help to him in technical matters. It was inevitable that Laforgue should be left behind with his youth.
For Laforgue believed pitifully in natural life, and Mr. Eliot has never believed in it. And not having had any definite conception of any other kind of life, having nothing to draw inspiration
from, it was inevitable that much of the material on which he practised his trade should have been trivial and insignificant.
And that he should have been on the one hand disdainful and on the other plaintive.
The gentlemanly whimpering was to cease as the disdainful wit was to cease. There were, I think, two reasons. One was that Mr. Eliot was overtaken by a subject that was worthy of his literary powers, the other that he became to a certain extent a man of action, that is to say he became the editor of a review with a definite literary policy. The subject that overtook him was nothing less than death and resurrection. What he made of it is The Waste Land, a poem which, in its own more nervous way, has influenced us all almost as much as Mr. Joyce's Ulysses. In a sense it is more nearly complete than Ulysses. Mr. Joyce left himself with something more to say, and we know now that Ulysses was but the first part of a vast undertaking that is not yet finished. Mr. Joyce's hero rejects the drifting world in which he finds himself, but we are not told in so many words what world he proposes to build for himself in its place. We know that he is a moralist and a metaphysician as well as an artist, but his ultimate moral and metaphysical values are expressed by reflex rather than positive action, are understood rather than labelled. The Waste Land ends with the Sanscrit word Shantih to which, Mr. Eliot tells us, 'The Peace that passeth understanding' is the nearest equivalent. Both writers are, however, preoccupied with the death and resurrection of the spirit. Both are romantic by inheritance, and their work brings them to an intellectual rejection of [p.35] romanticism as applied to life, of the mere play of human instinct, and consequently, to an acceptance of the idea of, at any rate, a personal order. The order implied at the end of The Waste Land and in Mr. Eliot's work since is more obviously metaphysical and dogmatic than the order we may infer from the tolerant ending of Ulysses and the gaiety of Mr. Joyce's Work in Progress. Mr. Joyce has more faith and more joy in existence than Mr. Eliot has. It is the difference between Catholic and puritanical Protestant training again. The two men have, perhaps, moved a little towards each other, but the original distinction remains significant. With Mr. Joyce faith is no longer knowledge, but charity becomes more spontaneous. With Mr. Eliot charity has become less spontaneous and faith becomes practically knowledge (as distinct from belief). Mr. Joyce hopes for the best and plays accordingly, Mr. Eliot fears the worst and works accordingly. Which attitude is the more blessed we must wait for the Judgment to know. All that is certain is that in his later work Mr. Joyce is happy, while Mr. Eliot is, so far, only resigned—though those of us who care for his genius and have followed his work with close interest may now, I think, venture to hope that he is past the main dangers on his road, and that he will, sooner or later, give literary expression to the joy that, since he is a poet, he must have experienced on finding some of the spiritual riches he had been questing for. It is unthinkable that he should retain anything of Satanic melancholy now that he is, if not at Rome, at least at All Saints, Margaret Street.
In The Waste Land the disdain finds its rightful place.
Like the scorn in Ulysses, it appears in a scene of lovemaking where there is no love. (In his play Exiles, Mr. Joyce calls this 'the death of the spirit.') The lady of the situation in The Waste Land is a London typist just home from work when
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
The scene moves from there to a royal barge on the Thames three hundred years ago where a similar scene is enacted between Elizabeth Tudor (like the typist, a daughter of the Thames) and the lover whom she loved so little that she had him executed. Then comes a Cockney adaptation of Dante's famous 'Siena me fe', disfecemi Maremma':
A small house agent's clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew
Undid me. . . .
and the passage ends appropriately with a reaction to St. Augustine and Buddha, those 'two representatives of eastern and
western asceticism,' as Mr. Eliot calls them,
To Carthage then I came
much as Stephen Daedalus' dramatic departure from the brothel in Ulysses is marked by the Voice of All the Blessed singing,
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
The courtesan has certainly gone down in the world of poetry. One can imagine how outraged Victor Hugo and Rossetti would
be if they knew that forty years after they died there would be writers of genius who found the Lord God a greater source
of inspiration than Marion de Lorme or Jenny.
In his notes to The Waste Land, Mr. Eliot suggests that Miss Jessie Weston's book From Ritual to Romance and Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough, especially the two volumes dealing with Attis, Adonis and Osiris, 'will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than I can do.' Both these works are concerned with mythological legends that arose in primitive times amongst primitive peoples out of the fact that the sun's power seems to weaken in winter and the earth is left bare in consequence, and that its power seems to return in summer and the earth grows fruitful again. The connection with the ideas of death and resurrection is obvious. The death and resurrection of the sun god was celebrated, in Egypt especially, with great ritual [p.38] in which sexual symbolism played a very important part. (It is worth noting incidentally that except for the sexual symbolism the Easter rites in some parts of Orthodox Christendom seem to be a definite survival of the ancient rites.) Miss Weston's theory is that the pagan legends became Christianised, and that it is from them that such legends as that of the Holy Grail derive. In the pagan ritual the phallus was the symbol of material productivity brought by the return of the sun god. In the Christian legends the Grail may be taken as the symbol of spiritual rebirth since it was the cup out of which He Who renewed the spiritual life of mankind was supposed to have drunk at His Last Supper. Wagner was much preoccupied with the symbolism of these legends. Thus in Tristan we have a late but still non-Christian variant of the theme (with a good deal of modern and rather banal romanticism added on to it). At one time Wagner thought of introducing Parsifal, the knight of the Holy Grail, into the last act and we may, if we want to, see Isolde as the earth, the old, and therefore unvirile, Mark as the sun of winter, and Tristan as the sun of summer. (But the opera is of course tragic, merely human, so there is no resurrection. Parsifal is not introduced. It is winter and death that triumph at the end.)
In Parsifal, one of the most beautiful Christian variants of the theme, the symbolism is much less far to seek. Amfortas is the winter of sin, and Parsifal himself the summer of redemption in Christ. Kundry is nature, and Klingsor the mere natural man who, before she turns to Parsifal, dominates her.[p.39]
We are not yet rid of Art for Art's sake as an aesthetic and literary philosophy, and the point may be raised once again that it is not the theme but the poet's treatment of it that gives a work its value. This is true with a slight but important qualification. A poor writer will not produce worthy work, no matter how rich his theme. But a good writer when at last he finds a theme that is of deep significance for him will produce better work than when he applies his talent to themes that are of only slight importance to him. A man or woman sitting to Raphael for a portrait could inspire him to work that is almost worthy of Picasso or Tintoretto, but the idea of a Madonna Enthroned, with Saints, merely moved him—if that be the word—to insipidity; the idea of the Resurrection or a king's dream of heavenly glory will, on the other hand, draw his best work from a Greco. When Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew he was dealing with a subject from the 'Fabliaux' that probably suggested itself to him merely because his brazen wife abused him for strewing the kitchen with his writing materials when she wanted to cook the dinner. And the result was a regret table piece of vulgarity. In Hamlet, on the other hand, he found a theme which obviously provided him with a means of expressing his own self-distrust, his suspiciousness, and his doubts of the world, and of seeing where they would lead him if he gave into them. Had he lived at a different epoch in the world's history he might have found a subject that would have suited him even better than Hamlet. I feel convinced that if Leonardo da Vinci, who was neither Florentine mystic nor Attic, but a modern philosophic naturalist, [p.40] were living to-day, his painted works would have none of the rather repelling suggestion of what Pater called secrecy, but which seems to me to be intellectual dishonesty that, actually, they have. Uncongenial material may be forced upon an artist. There are literally dozens of writers of extraordinary verbal talent in America to-day who cannot find their own subjects because of the attitude that is imposed upon them by a state of civilisation that is on the one hand blatantly objective and on the other too primly emasculate. The emasculation shows in Mr. Eliot's early work, but he had the instinct to get away from the atmosphere of it and to find an environment that would help him to seize on his subject when it came along. (He came to Europe after leaving Harvard.) Mr. Pound on the other hand is one of the poets who should never have been allowed to leave America permanently. His talent as a professorial humorist would probably have flourished most remarkably there, he would have been worshipped for his stupefying knowledge of the romance history of the world; and his hostile criticisms of America, coming from within the camp, would not have been resented, as they are, coming from an expatriate.
To return then to The Waste Land. The poem opens about Easter time:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Mr. Eliot has something of the fear of natural life that every sensitive man of experience has. It fits in with his Chris
tianity, but it is personal too. As he has much to say in his later work for spiritual summer, so he has here something to
say for nature's winter, since one is less at the mercy of one's dangerous natural delight in nature in winter than one is
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
Rain and water are very important in the imagery of the poem, and I take them to be symbolical of spiritual fertilisation
(as thunder symbolises the Fear of God). The passage goes on:
With a shower of rain:
we stopped in the colonnade,
I once lent Mr. Eliot's poems to a Munich lady to read. The next time I saw her she wanted to know why I thought them so important. Trying to stick to the palace of
art and not to get involved in a line for line interpretation of the re
ligious significance of The Waste Land, I first began to explain my idea that before it appeared London poetry was becoming rather a waste land, and that Mr. Eliot seemed to me to be perhaps the Parsifal who was going to set the frozen fountains playing again. She insisted that she did not understand how his work could make
any difference, so I pointed out that to begin with, he spared one the pantheistic sentimentalities about buttercups and daisies
that poets since Wordsworth cannot be prevented from producing. 'I see,' she said, mocking me. 'He gives you the Starnbergersee and the Hofgarten instead—if you only saw them on a Sunday!' I had never seen them, and for the time being I was silenced. But returning to
the poem afterwards I noted that the passage about Munich and the Starnbergersee and the Hofgarten and Marie and Marie's small talk, is followed by a question as to what branches grow out of such 'stony rubbish,' and the reply—so different
from the passage in Ezekiel to which the notes refer us, and so despairing of modern iconoclasm and agnosticism:
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read much of the night, and go south in the winter.
Son of man
For my own purposes I take the broken images to be the weakened churches of to-day, the dead tree to be dead faith, and the
cricket to represent the inadequacy of mere natural companionship (or perhaps sermonless, message-less natural science).
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief
And the dry stone no sound of water.
The red rock I take to be an image of some spiritual resting-place (thou art Peter and upon this rock, etc.), the shadow behind us and meeting us is the life we live, and the last line threatens us with what
we should feel if that life were shown to us on, say, our last evening.
There is shadow under the red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The next passage rather strikes home to an Irishman indulging in these arbitrary interpretations at the safe distance from
Mr. Eliot of the extreme west of his own country. It is the young sailor's song from the first Act of Tristan:
Frisch weht der Wind
Mr. Eliot might well ask me 'Wo weilest du?' I have not asked him to help me to interpret the poem because it would inevitably bore him, and also because I think that
though a good poem may suggest slightly varying interpretations to different readers, human nature is not so very diversified,
and all interpretations tend to be at any rate more or less right.
Der Heimat zu,
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
The Tristan passage, then, I read as a statement of the recurring motif of earthly love. (It may also refer to the fresh wind of Irish
poetry that was blowing when Mr. Eliot ap
peared above the horizon. It is Mr. Eliot's practice, as it is Mr. Joyce's, to make his phrases evocative of remoter and of more intimate things at the same time.) Marie then goes on:
'You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
But earthly love, even with hyacinths and the romantic associations of Wagner's verse and a tenor voice, will not do. Like the young man in D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love, the poet feels his 'otherness.' Stendhal thought that artists and heroes were always unlucky in love. I think it would be truer to say that, not only for artists
and heroes, but for all men who have a vocation of any kind, love is a matter of secondary importance, that their 'bad luck'
in love is due to the fact that they do not care enough about it to put it first. So, while the hyacinth girl is speaking,
the poet thinks to himself:
They called me the hyacinth girl.'
. . . when we came back, late from the Hyacinth garden,
The sea (out of which love first arose) is dull and empty.
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.
Od' and leer das Meer.
The central figure in the poem is Tiresias, that Tiresias who according to the Greek legend had been both man and woman, and whose betrayal of the truth about feminine love to Zeus brought the vengeance of Hera on him in the shape of blindness, and whom Zeus, to make up for this, endowed [p.45] with second sight. (It will be remembered that it is he who finally discovers the truth to King Oedipus in Sophocles' play.) Tiresias, Mr. Eliot tells us, in the notes:
. . . although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character' is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples,In The Tempest. so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem. The whole passage from Ovid is of great anthropological interest:
... Cum Iunone iocos et 'maior vestra profecto est
Quam quae contingit maribus,' dixisse, 'voluptas.'
Illa negat; placuit quae sit sententia docti
Quaerere Tiresiae: venus huic erat utraque nota.
Nam duo magnorum viridi coeuntia silva
Corpora serpentum baculi violaverat ictu
Deque viro factus, mirabile, femina septem
Egerat autumnos; octavo rursus eosdem
Vidit et 'est vestrae si tanta potentia plagae,'
Dixit, 'ut auctoris sortem in contraria mutet,
Nunc quoque vos feriam!' percussis anguibus isdem
Forma prior rediit genetivaque venit imago.
Arbiter his igitur sumptus de lite iocosa
Dicta Iovis firmat; gravius Saturnia iusto
Nec pro materia fertur doluisse suique
Iudicis aeterna damnavit lumina nocte,
At pater omnipotens (neque enim licet inrita cuiquam
Facta dei fecisse deo) pro lumine adempto
Scire futura dedit poenamque levavit honore.
In the poem, then, we pass from the empty sea to a seance with a clairvoyante:
Here, said she,
The one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, merges as we know into the Phoenician Sailor. Here is the passage from Part III:
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look !)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
And his end is the fourth part of the poem:
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants
C.i.f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a week-end at the Metropole.
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
He is, presumably, the Tiresias aspect in us, the womanish surrendering emotional side of us which, in so far as we do not drown or bury it, drowns or buries
us. As the Marschalin, in Hofmannstahl's Rosenkavalier, says: 'The sages tell us that we should be lightminded and heartless if we would be happy in love. Otherwise life punishes
us, and God takes no pity on our misery.' We pay, even in this world, if we do not turn ourselves into unemotional double-barrelled,
two-fisted he-men. We are submerged or buried by society, by the city, as Burns was, as Byron was, as Wilde was. Hence the passage that follows the seance in Part I:
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
[p.47] He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
The 'You' is any of us, the implication being that there is none of us who has not a corpse buried in his garden, a skeleton
in his cupboard, a something on his back, a 'Man with Three Staves' (Neptune, the disquieting, with his trident), a shadowed, wintry, sinful man, a submerged life that, for all we maybe 'fréres,' we
are hypocritical about. And though we dream of it tenderly, weakly, though its eyes seem pearls, and though the Dog that is
'friend to men' may dig it up any moment, we are hypocritical about it, presumably because the Hanged Man—the Crucified Man—is
not in our cards, in our lives. We are hypocritical out of human respect. If the Hanged Man were in our lives we should not
be 'so careful these days,' so 'equitonal,' so conventional.
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 eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying. 'Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable—mon frÈre.'
The second part of the poem, called A Game of Chess, consists mainly of two contrasted conversations, both of which at the same time suggest the soul-destroying sordidness of
that game which is everyday life when it is concentrated on mere human beings and unilluminated by any vision. In the first
one, the lady (whose surroundings are described
in a scornful variation of the Shakespearian description of Cleopatra in the barge), starts the conversation:
'My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
And his mind answers:
Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.'
I think we are in rats' alley
The one-sided conversation continues:
Where the dead men lost their bones.
'What is that noise?'
Only the drowning passage from The Tempest is in his head, and it turns itself ironically into jazz:
The wind under the door.
'What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?'
Nothing again nothing.
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
'Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
And then she again, very femininely, naturally, bored and explosive:
It's so elegant
'What shall I do now? What shall I do?
(The knock on the door, it is worth remarking, has also been utilised with fine melodramatic effect in a Fragment of an Agon which Mr. Eliot published some years ago, in The
Criterion. It is scarcely necessary to suggest that it means death.)
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?
What shall we ever do?'
The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.
The second conversation, which apparently takes place in a public house at closing time, is full of the salt of Cockney speech,
and it is at once as sordid and, unlike the first conversation, as rich in human nature as, say, a picture by Degas of French people of the same class as the Cockney speakers. The subject-matter is similar to the previous one, triviality
and selfishness in human relationships, but in this case expressed more broadly and with the knock on the door balanced by
the barman's repeated warning that it is closing time:
When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said—* * *
I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself,
Hurry up please it's time
Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He'll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can't bear to look at you.
And no more can't I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He's been in the army four years, he wants a good time.
And if you don't give it him, there's others will, I said.
Oh, is there, she said. Something o' that.
Then I'll know who to thank, she said, and gave me a straight look
. Hurry up please it's time
It would seem that, unlike the impotent nihilist in the first conversation, the unthinking, fructifying nature-god Albert is in for a somewhat disorderly summer on his return from the winter of war.
Part III, called The Fire Sermon, I have quoted from already, but there are two other passages in it that seem to me to be important, the one for its dramatic quality, the second, which is a transition passage between the typist and her carbuncular young man and Elizabeth and Essex, though dramatically effective too, more important for its purely literary beauty.
The first follows the contemplation of an up-river scene in winter which recalls young men and young women who had lived fiery
moments of their lives there. Now,
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
But this vanity of vanities philosophy meditated near the gashouse has its fiery undertones too, for
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother's wreck
And on the king my father's death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat's foot only, year to year.
. . . at my back from time to time I hear
And then, this washing of the feet passage, (from an Aus
tralian comic song), brings back the Parsifal redemption motif and the line from Verlaine's sonnet:
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Et ô ces voix d'enfants, chantant dons la coupole!
For during the washing of the feet scene in Parsifal, boys, who are supposed to be in the dome of the church of the Grail, sing a verse which (in the execrable English translation
that is all I have to hand) runs:
The faith here lives.
The second important passage recalls a real church interior, not a stage one, and evokes a lovelier London than any of the London passages in a poem which synthesises so much of the London of to-day:
The Saviour gives
The Dove, His dearest Token.
Take at His board
The Wine outpoured
And Bread of Life here broken.
'This music crept by me upon the waters'
We are far from the young American sneering at Sant'Apollinare in Classe now! The New Englander is finding his spiritual home. The poem then moves on to the passage about Elizabeth and Essex, which recalls the song of the
Rhine maidens in Götterdämmerung (where they meet Siegfried, the hero who rescued Brünhilde from the fire), and so to the 'brand snatched from the burning' passage to which I referred earlier.
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of white and gold.
Part IV, Death by Water, I have already given in full.
Part V, What the Thunder Said, I need not go into in such detail. It suggests the collapse, for the poet, of the whole physical universe. The rock, which
gave at least shadow at first, is not enough, for there is no water. There is nothing now in a world that is disintegrating:
What is that sound high in the air
There is only the One Who though dead and unrecognised accompanied the disciples on their journey to Emmaus. Mr. Eliot gives an interesting note here:
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are these hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
The ... lines were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton's); it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.
Then on the roof of an empty chapel a cock crows, there is a flash of lightning and rain, and finally the Thunder which preaches,
Da, Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (give, sympathise, control). And the poet asks:
. . . what have we given?
The door (of life) in Part II is recalled:
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms.
. . . I have heard the key
The idea of our being, each one of us, in a prison, isolated from the rest, Mr. Eliot substantiates with a dull passage from F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality. I think it was St. Augustine who expressed it most perfectly, tit any rate most succinctly : 'The soul of another is dark.' The darkness, incidentally,
is only the defect of a quality. For it is our isolation from each other that is our personal contact with, our personal understanding
of, God. And I don't mean in the vulgar sense of Lyte's
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, ethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
I mean that the isolation is itself the breath of the Kingdom of God that is in each one of us. Following the reference to
Coriolanus (the symbol of human pride) comes the 'otherness' again, for when
. . . The boat responded
Then, disintegration again:
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
and the poet on his poetry:
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
the Thunder's warning
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
and, finally, the peace that passeth understanding:
Shantih shantih shantih.
In this short and altogether personal interpretation of the poem—if it be wrong, only I am at fault—I have not dwelt on its literary quality. For that matter I do not think I need to. Mr. Eliot himself refers to 'the difficulties of the poem,' and there must be many who find it difficult. But if they are interested in it without being quite able to 'make it out,' I assume that it is because they are attracted by its self-evident literary merits, and that comment on these is, [p.56] therefore, almost needless. Perhaps one should refer to the associative method of writing, I mean the apparently arbitrary association of, say, a typist of present-day London with Queen Elizabeth. The point is that the characters being less important than the truths they exemplify, they may be used, not independently so much as interdependently. They are bound to each other by the Thames and by what they do. Similarly, the characters in Part II are merely the high and the low of it. The method is not really very new. In France it is at least as old as Arthur Rimbaud. Mr. Pound got it in France, and it is possible that it is amongst the things for which Mr. Eliot acknowledges his indebtedness to Mr. Pound in the introduction he wrote to his selected poems. Mr. Joyce uses it also. It forms an inherent element in the 'interior monologue,' for which he acknowledges his indebtedness to the French novelist, M. Edouard Dujardin. But it is not, in reality, very important. It is only a question of leaving out such words 'as' and 'like' in passages where 'one thing leads to another,' and adopting a more exclamatory (and therefore more dramatically effective) form. For what it sets out to be, it seems to me, therefore, that The Waste Land is practically beyond mere literary criticism, and to criticise the religious and moral attitude expressed in it would be to criticise the strictest Christianity. If it be asked why a poet should express his meaning so apparently cryptically there is only one answer, that a poet writes as he must. There are many mansions in the world of poetry as there are in Heaven, and Mr. Eliot's mansion is the one from which, to use his own words, the poet 'sees in [p.57] images.' Most of the time they are first hand, but now and again he remembers images from other poets and (with full acknowledgments) borrows and, if necessary, transforms them, gives them a personal turn, thus bringing them into harmony with his own first-hand images. These images, when associated, may need to be interpreted for those who like to see essentials linked up by explanatory reasoning. But for the poet himself, those reasonings, if incorporated in the poem, would make it less effective, would encumber its purely poetic action. Wordsworth explained everything. Is it not why we lose patience with him? We wish he would cut the cackle and come to the 'osses. We only want the flash, the poetry; the rest is prosaic, unnecessary. In The Waste Land Mr. Eliot cuts out practically all the cackle and gives us only the 'osses. And that is one reason why it is a better poem than, say, Ruth, which has so much cackle that, for all its excellent morality, one has ceased to think of it as anything but a highly diverting exercise in reading aloud in company (though not as good for such purposes as, say, Hardy's Lalage). There is only one image that I, personally, dislike in The Waste Land, and that is the Bradford millionaire. He seems to me to be a survivor of the early overfastidious, wincing, New England Thomas Stearns Eliot. In fact, he is a Bradford pa. And therefore out of place in this Old, almost Jacobean, if not Elizabethan, English (and above all, London) shorthand masterpiece.
I have deliberately deferred discussing Mr. Eliot's poem Gerontion, for though it is remarkable it is now mainly sig
nificant as a less elaborate poetic expression of the troubles
between the flesh and the spirit that received more mature treatment, and were resolved in The Waste Land. The 'otherness' is there already and exquisitely expressed:
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
But there is no resolution, no belief:
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion. . . .
The disintegration of the world (which included 'the decay of Eastern Europe' referred to in the notes to The Waste Land) is paralleled by what seems to be a reference to the war:
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
I was neither at the hot gates
And the end is not peace. It is mere statement of the fact that the troubling ideas persist:
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
Tenants of the house,
The poem is interesting not only for its sincerity and its beauty as literary expression and as a prelude to The Waste Land, but also as showing how deeply despair had penetrated the poet's spirit, and as proving how essential it was for him, if
he was to become the young Parsifal of modern
English poetry, to find a better complement to despair than the cynical if stylish gibing at worthy and unworthy subjects
alike that marked his earlier work.
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
Since The Waste Land (1922) Mr. Eliot has been mainly consolidating his spiritual gains. Poetically he has not advanced further. But I think it is certain that
he is now ready to make a July 1918-ish drive that will end in a lasting victory. There have been slight retreats. In The Hollow Men there is a relapse to a superficially suggestive but fundamentally unsuggestive, John Brown's Body kind of technique. Following a refrain of
For Thine is the Kingdomalternating with
Life is very long
For Thine is
For Thine is the
This is the way the world ends
I think it is unsatisfactory in itself and a retrogression. The world of The Waste Land ended in thunder, lightning, and rain. But The Hollow Men includes much that is beautiful, and one stanza which is made up of a series of images of unforgettable loveliness, that,
almost like the famous stanza
in the Ode to a Grecian Urn, suggests such a mood as is evoked by a Claude Lorraine landscape:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the winds singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
But Mr. Eliot's output since The Waste Land has been mostly in prose. His early book of criticism, The Sacred Wood, was followed in 1929 by another, For Lancelot Andrews, and in 1930 by a short essay on Dante. And he has, of course, continued his work as editor of The Criterion, which is the best informed modern review in England. All reviews, in all countries, tend to be dull, and The Criterion does not escape dullness, but Mr. Eliot's own, usually short, editorials and the reviews of books are nearly always readable as well as knowledgeable. And though D. H. Lawrence was, intellectually, poles apart from Mr. Eliot—I am not sure that Lawrence was not poles apart from all intellect—one could find a short story by him in The Criterion when most of the reputable reviews in England were afraid to have anything to do with him. The particular kind of dullness that assails The Criterion on occasion is of a professorial and rather snobbish kind.
It is not Mr. Eliot's fault if millions of men were killed in the war. It is none the less true that those millions must inevitably have included a considerable number of potentially interesting writers as well as those who already were well known when they were killed; and that there is still very little literature that is not second-rate being produced in the countries which were bankrupted of men by the war (though there are already signs that it is from them and not [p.62] from the neutral countries that we may expect most in the immediate future). Mr. Eliot has, however, turned his magazine into a kind of exchange for ideas between the second-raters of all Europe. I remember one truly ridiculous and impudent article by a German professor in The Criterion. It began, in apparently unconscious romantic fashion, apropos of the pleasantness of the nocturnal atmosphere that surrounded the writer. And then it transpired that what it all amounted to was that romanticism was over, and therefore that Der Tag had arrived for professors. In the future professors would keep the artist in his place. As if most of the professors had not tried their best to keep the romantics in their place, and failed, and made their living out of writing and talking about them ever since. Great fleas have little fleas . . .
In the following number of The Criterion there were very enthusiastic references to that imbecile article in a book review. I was not surprised to hear afterwards
that the writer was also a professor—from Cambridge, I think. Another professor, an Irish-American youth writing from Harvard, was given the hospitality of The Criterion pages to explain to Mr. James Joyce how he really ought to write if he wished for the approval of New England. There are professors who know their business, who stick to knowledge of the past, who know that the actual business of writing
is not theirs but writers', and whose views on the writing of their own age are therefore modestly tentative. There are at
any rate a few such, in France especially, (there is one in Great Britain), and on questions of knowledge it is a pleasure
to learn from them. There are even professors who might be poets if professorism did not stifle the poetic faculty in them.
Professor Dowden has a flashing passage to swallows:
. . . somewhere 'mid your Eastern suns
* * *
Under a white Greek architrave
At morn, or, when the shaft of fire
Lies large upon the Indian wave
But the professor who tries to butt unduly into the art or literature of his own day should be put back into his place, should be made to stick to corpses. The professors, Cézanne used to say, 'ce sont des salauds, des chÂtrés, desj . . . f . . .—ils n'Ónt rien dans le ventre!' And Mr. Yeats has the well-known poem:
Old heads forgetful of their sins,
Even in their own line, the professors are often beaten by outsiders. Mr. Stephen MacKenna (I mean not the popular novelist but the most distinguished translator of
Plotinus since Marsilio Ficino) never took the trouble to pass an examination in his life. The encouragement of subtle schoolmen by Mr. Eliot is a rather bad survival of his Americanism. It is not, or it seems to me not to be, worthy of Thomas Stearns Eliot the poet. Neither is the desire to know what the European second-raters are doing. There are times when one is almost inclined
to think that The Criterion might just as well become the London organ of that ineffable Committee of Intellectual Co-operation that the Protestant Papacy at Geneva has founded in Paris. On that side it may be of some use to professors of modern languages. But what a waste of time for a poet of genius to preoccupy
himself with such things! It is no wonder that Mr. Eliot's output should be small.
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men tossing in their beds
Rhymed out in love's despair
To flatter beauty's ignorant ear.
They'll cough in the ink to the world's end,
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect, have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord! What would they say Should their Catullus walk that way?
In the preface to For Lancelot Andrews, Mr. Eliot announces that his attitude in the book is Classicist in literature, Royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion. In spite of his not hoping to turn again, I like to think that Mr. Eliot was leaving himself a loophole of escape when he did not say 'I am a Royalist, a Classicist, and an Anglo-Catholic.' An 'attitude' maybe temporary, is of transient importance. An 'I am' is more compromising.
As for being a 'Classicist ' I cannot believe that poets have anything to do with such things—for which I shall be called a romantic, as if the romantic 'ism' were not the curse of the artist in the romantics. And as if the classicists were not romantics themselves. They are romantic about classicism. Poetry is neither romanticist nor classicist. It [p.65] is poetry. And, whether it be emotional or intellectual, when we fit anything in a poem under the heading 'romanticism' or 'classicism,' we simply mean that it is not poetry, that it is fake, academic. Mr. Eliot has much in common with Alfred de Musset. He also has something in common with Racine. To work out whether he is a romantic classicist or a classic romanticist would be to waste one's time on casuistry, and we may leave the job to the logic-choppers of Cambridge, Heidelberg, and Harvard.
Political 'isms' are not less casuistical than literary ones. To be royalist or republican is to be more worried about the means than the end. Kings and emperors have helped to bring their countries to glory, they have also helped to bring them to disaster. France has been more materially at ease under the Third Republic than she has been for centuries, and in the same period she has for the first time in her history been supreme in the art of painting—I mean painting on canvas, naturally, not painting on glass, in which, as well as in architecture, she was supreme seven hundred years ago. But Russia under the Soviets is apparently much worse off than it was under the Czars. And the monarchical regime works so well in England that nobody but a fanatical theorist would think of questioning it. It is not a question of 'isms' at all. It is a question of whether the head of a state, pope, king, or president, knows what good government means, and understands what exactly his own position counts for in helping to ensure good government in any given set of circumstances. Charles I was self-willed and he came to ruin, Louis XVI was yielding and he [p.66] came to ruin. Henri Quatre was an excellent head of state, Louis xv was the reverse.
On this political question Mr. Eliot has avowedly been influenced by the opinions of Monsieur Charles Maurras. Monsieur Maurras is a very disinterested publicist. He has a sincere passion for Greek ideals in their vulgarised Roman forms. He has also a passion for the ideals that are inculcated in the training of princes, ideals which were sometimes realised and sometimes not realised by the princes of the royal house of France. Unfortunately, Monsieur Maurras does not discriminate. He is for a prince at any price. In his Promenade Italienne, a reprint of some essays written in 1897 or thereabouts, republished in 1929, he has an extraordinarily romantic, school-girlish passage about royalty—though he puts it in the mouth of an interlocutor.
Tous les princes du monde prétendent À la majesté, mais c'est un air royal qui est privilÈge de peu. Je ne sais aujourd'hui en Europe que trois souverains À qui l'on donnerait du sire sur leur mine; encore l'un d'entre, eux n'est-il souverain que de droit. Et, comme je voulais des noms: Vous avez deviné l'empereur allemand. Ajoutez le Prince de Bulgarie. . . .
The third was, of course, the Duc d'Orléans. But it was not mere regal mine that enabled Louis XI to pull France together at the end of the Hundred Years' War or Catherine de Medicis to keep it together through the religious wars. In fact, it was the too regal mine of Louis XIV that laid the foundations of the French Revolution. It was not pre
tentiousness in French kings that inspired Du Bellay to write
. . . rien n'est, aprÈs Dieu, si grand qu'un roi de France!
As for the empereur allemand! The reference is to Wilhelm II, that caricature of a monarch, who for thirty years did more than a Prussian king's share—but with nothing of a Prussian
king's intelligence—to bring about a war which has left millions of unoffending men and boys rotting in the ground before
their time, and of which the principal political results were the mere transference of the challenge to English naval power
from the east of the North Sea to the west of the Atlantic, the extension of the challenge to French civilisation—and when all is said and done it is still the nearest thing to civilisation
that survives in the world—from Central to Southern Europe, and the change from numerically few Czarist massacres to numerically enormous Bolshevik massacres. One can only regret that
Maurras should have ventured out of the past and given himself away in such a tragically absurd misapplication of its ideals. He
says in the same book that 'Monseigneur le Duc d'Orléans représentait seul le passé et l'avenir de notre France au milieu de la foule de FranÇais qui vivent et meurent.' He might
as well suggest that some surviving member of the Borgia or della Rovere family alone represented the past and the future of the Papacy. France may, one day, feel that it needs a monarchy again, and, even at present, the French royalists add to the element of intelligent
opposition that is necessary in France as in all countries. But if there was a king in France to-morrow, it is probable that Maurras's fate would
be similar to that which Kerensky suffered when the revolution he desired took place in Russia. Maurras would bear it nobly, but it is none the less deplorable that the great prose-writer that the author of Anthinea might have been should have turned himself for so many years into a workaday journalist. It is a misplaced, though touching
sacrifice of a fine talent. Every day Maurras writes at least two columns of paragraphs for L'Action FranÇaise. They are nearly always digriified—Maurras is neither a Wyndham Lewis nor a Léon Daudet,I should, perhaps, say, however, that Léon Daudet seems to me to be the greatest journalistic genius the world has seen since
the 'Divine' Aretino. His Paris Vécu is the most astounding document. and never descends to mere scurrility—but at best they are no more than the application of his theories of thirty years ago
to the trivial everyday facts of French political life as they occur. It is unthinkable that Mr. Eliot should follow the same road. Classicism is not worth it. Royalism even if it were worth it, does not need it in England, would, indeed, probably resent it. It is equally unthinkable that Mr. Eliot should become a mere religious journalist when he might be a religious poet. He may become a Catholic, a universal, poet,
a royal poet, a classical poet. But he should spare us the 'isms.' They are the business of other men than poets. When the
Lord God gives an American the gift of poetry he ought to stick to it and not bother himself and us with his discovery that
the mere 'isms' of Europe are better than those of his own country. Europeans know it already, and only wish it was
not so true. They could do with something good from America, if America would give it to them. Will it give them
another Waste Land? A waste land blossoming as the rose this time? Ambition for power and money have brought ruin on Europe, and it is no more the isms and platitudes of professors and publicists than it is the slogans of Yankee plutocracy that
can give it back what it has lost.
In the first poem in Ash Wednesday, the passage occurs:
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Even if it be somewhat prosaic poetry coming from Mr. Eliot, it rather suggests that he is going to try and give up bothering about 'these matters.' And though the poem ends with a
too childish expression of a noble aspiration:
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
Those matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain.
Teach us to sit still.
and with the mere repetition of a line which is not his own but the last line of the Ave Maria:
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
it leads to a second poem, which, though short, is, within its limits, worthy to follow The Waste Land. There is still some insistence on the details of physical death, but there
are some passages that, though slight, transcend everything Mr. Eliot had written before in sheer contemplated static loveliness. It opens beautifully:
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree
Then, the poet's bones being scattered,
In the cool of the day. . . .
. . . that which had been contained
There is scarcely anything left of the drama that marred the vision of La Figlia Che Piange. Mr. Eliot was sitting still when he saw it. He had, for the time being, got past the troubles with which he had struggled on the road
to spiritual peace, to 'shantih.' He is ceasing to worry about the world:
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
And God said
Nearly all the rest of Ash Wednesday is tentative. It has not the faults of Mr. Eliot's earlier work, but it has not the merits that the passages I have quoted suggest his work will have when his mind has completely
absorbed and grown habituated to the new set of spiritual values that it has been grasping at in recent years. At present
it is Ash Wednes
day, the first day of Lent, but it is only a poetic, a technical, not a spiritual Lent. He will come to his Easter Sunday
all right. He will rejoice that things are not as they are,
he will rejoice when they cease to be merely new, when he realises fully that they are different from what they are once
they transform themselves into the reality of lived poetry. That realisation will be his next turn. But it will take time.
He has had to drop so much that he is now almost afraid of not being banal.
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang. . . .
Who walked between the violet and the violet
There is no smartness here, no devilry. On the contrary there is resignation to the poetic dullness of repeating the mere
names of rather ugly pre-Raphaelite colour arrangements. Later on he even has something 'between blue rocks' which suggests
nothing so much as a picture by the late Mr. Tuke.
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour.
But it is no matter. Mr. Eliot, if his poetic hand seems to have lost some of its cunning and his eye its poetic discernment during his period of spiritual travail, is too fundamentally a poet not to come back to the cunning and discernment of poetry. And having settled down to the finer values of the world that the nobility in him made him strive for and reach, his poetic genius will respond to them worthily.