Thursday, 15 November 2018

TS Eliot (5) - Poems 1920 - The French Poems and the Gautier Poems

These poems (all of those in Poems 1920 except Gerontion) reveal a tension. Eliot avowed that he had not been able to find any inspiration in Victorian English poetry, turning largely to France for that supply. It turned up in the form of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Corbière  and Mallarmé – the Poètes Maudits crew. Their poetry was urban, urbane, often atheistic, sexy, irreverent, sarcastic and acid in its outlook. ‘Spleen’ was a theme. It also, often, qualified as “Symbolist” given its propensity to create worlds, cityscapes especially, that acted as symbols of often morbid inner psychological states. Like a transfusion of monkey glands Eliot injected all of this into the English tradition and revivified it. The tension originated from the fact that the man who did this remained, in spite of his evident predilection for poets who had largely been raised in a Catholic tradition,  in the American Unitarian and puritan tradition in which he’d been raised.

Prufrock and Other Observations had been largely influenced by Laforgue’s vers libre mode, one which strayed over into Gerontion, the first poem included in the second collection. However, the remaining poems split into two types. There are four poems written in French and a series of poems written in beautifully measured and disciplined quatrains usually with one rhyme per quatrain. These had developed from an interest that Eliot and Pound had in the Art for Art’s Sake, French ‘Parnassian’ poet, Théophile Gautier, and especially in his collection Emaux et Camées which was largely written in highly finished and resistant quatrains, usually with two rhymes per quatrain.

The French Poems

Largely, in the four French poems, one senses Eliot’s delight in writing in a foreign language. There is a delicious relish in rhyming, punning and wordplay in a tongue that is not his own. In that sense these poems are entertainments, especially Le Directeur, Mélange Adultère and Lune de Miel where the influence of Laforgue and Corbière are obvious. Themes appearing in the English poems in the collection stray into Dans le Restaurant, which also features a French version of a section that will later appear in The Waste Land.

The Gautier Quatrain Poems

In terms of language and prosody Eliot continues to enjoy himself in the form he has chosen. What we would see as increasingly Modernist painterly tableaux and effects begin to feature with out of order time sequences, unexpected juxtapositions and hints of cubism and vorticism in the visual scenes evoked.

What is also apparent, in terms of the poems’ content, is a fracture between two worlds that stand over and against each other, as, in a sense, their content is Eliot’s inability to resolve or unify these two worlds. On the one hand he demonstrates a fastidious disgust of an almost pathological kind for the animal, fleshly side of human nature as it features in the real world – his first world.

A saggy bending of the knees
And elbows with their palms turned out,

           Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar

Gesture of Orang Utan
Rises from the sheets in steam.

This withered root of knots of hair
Slitted below and gashed with eyes,
This oval O cropped out with teeth:
The sickle motion from the thighs

Jacknifes upwards at the knees
Then straighten out from heel to hip
Pushing the framework of the bed
And clawing at the pillow slip.

Sweeney addressed full length to shave
Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,

                                             Sweeney Erect

The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in the arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing room.

               Whispers of Immortality

Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the water in his bath.

            Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service

Apeneck Sweeney spread his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.

        Sweeney among the Nightingales

At its most extreme this mode of engagement has Eliot practically pulling on his latex gloves in order to treat of the act of sex. The woman in Sweeney Erect is described as The epileptic on the bed. She is depersonalised and turned into a clinical case or specimen in an act of distancing that has already described her as

This withered root of knots of hair
Slitted below and gashed with eyes,
This oval O cropped out with teeth:

She is an external appearance with no sense of an interiority or a sense that the act of sex that has just been so graphically described contains any personal meaning for her or Sweeney. Indeed Apeneck Sweeney is, more often than not, evoked as an animal devoid of the superior human qualities that differentiate humans from animals.

One can extend such comments to the relation of Eliot’s male protagonists with women in general and the place of women. It might be suggested in saner times that the female of the species completes that species (for the male) in terms of biology by being the other half of the dynamic of life, and of relationship by offering the possibility of love. To see women as revolting, a threat or a distraction and to be alienated from them as Eliot’s protagonists seem to be in either their fearing of them or their using of them seems a further extension of a psychological pathology.

Also present in this first world is a strain of hopeless banality and mundanity which complements the disgusting carnality evoked elsewhere. We see it in the ladies of the corridor with their sal volatile in Sweeney Erect, the A.B.C. teashops and Pipit’s knitting in A Cooking Egg, the cracked and browned wilderness of Piero della Francesca’s ‘Baptism’ in Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service and the grasping rentier jews and their earthly control of a shorn Venice in Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar and also in Gerontion.

In opposition to this world of carnality and banality is positioned a second world. This is inhabited by Ariadne on Naxos, Nausicaa and Polyphemus in Sweeney Erect,

Display me Aeolus above
Reviewing the insurgent gales
Which tangle Ariadne’s hair
And swell with haste the perjured sails.

by what Christian mercantile Venice once was in the time of Canaletto with the comparison of Burbank to Mark Anthony in Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar,

Slowly: the God Hercules
Had left him, that had loved him well.

by the Ruskinian high-mindedness of the aspirations portrayed in A Cooking Egg,

I shall not want Honour in Heaven
For I shall meet Sir Philip Sidney
And have talk with Coriolanus
And other heroes of that kidney.

by the ‘metaphysics’ of the Metaphysical poets in Whispers of Immortality,  

But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm.

by the exalted, other-worldly religious ceremony described in Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service

Under the penitential gates
Sustained by staring Seraphim
Where the souls of the devout
Burn invisible……………

and by the momentous, mythic death of Agammemnon in Sweeney among the Nightingales.

And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud

The word Nightingales points up Eliot’s unresolved opposition beautifully in its two meanings. On the one hand the birds are mythic creatures evoking the nobility and grief of Greek myths such as that of Procne and Philomel while, on the other, they evoke the sordid banality and carnality of prostitutes. What is interesting is that, while Eliot feels fastidious disgust for one world, he finds it equally impossible to refrain from mocking the opposite pole and its inability to console him. This is the world of his elevated liberal and religious education which he might have expected to offer such consolation. That it doesn’t but only serves to point up the ghastliness of the real world is a kind of tragedy for him. Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service introduces the carnal unpleasantness of Sweeney wallowing naked in his bath on a Sunday morning while everyone is in church but the poem’s epigraph is Look, look, here come two religious caterpillars and the heightened ecclesiastical language used to describe the service mocks it for its intellectualised ethereality and sexlessness:

Along the garden-wall the bees
With hairy bellies pass between
The staminate and pistillate,
Blest office of the epicene.

It is noteworthy that the form chosen for these poems lends itself well to their content. Gautier’s quatrains have a highly polished, exotic and rarified formality that belongs, perhaps, to the promising mythic and religious worlds suggested. Eliot derives a great deal in terms of bathetic comedy from the ironic distance between this form and the banal and crudely carnal which he treats within it. This ironic distance contributes greatly to the success of the poems.

It could be said, finally, that Eliot is, at the outset with Prufrock and Other Observations and, increasingly so in Poems 1920, a curious phenomenon. The humour and comedy in his poems derive from a heart-breaking dichotomy which represents an acute personal, spiritual and psychological crisis. He is unable to countenance the revolting carnality of real people and he finds no consolation in religious ceremony or myth which serve simply to highlight a painful reality by showing the distance between reality and something he thinks is finer. This provides bathos but no resolution. The question to be asked, at this stage, is whether what we are witnessing is a noble soul pursuing a spiritual odyssey that charts a trajectory in the Western Christian tradition or, more simply, the banal struggles of a psychologically maladjusted  puritan coming to terms with the parameters of the human condition. He is unable to locate everyday physicality in ancient myth or religion or to begin to see that those myths may have originated in the loves springing from that same, normal human physicality. Perhaps he should have considered what the cause of the Trojan War was. This question may be resolved in the works that followed Poems 1920.

It may be noteworthy that John Ruskin, who is evoked in both Burbank with as Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar and in A Cooking Egg shared an experience with Eliot. Both had disastrous wedding nights, in Ruskin’s case, due to his horror at the uncovered female form of Effie. Both were high-minded men who found it difficult to resolve the coexistence in human forms of the cerebral and the fleshly. Indeed, Eliot made reference to this problem in addressing the character and nature of the Metaphysical Poets.


Wednesday, 14 November 2018

TS Eliot (4) Anti-Semitism

It seems unlikely that Eliot did not share an anti-semitism prevalent in American society during his upbringing. It expressed itself by hostility ans suspicion directed towards the large numbers of German Jews who were known to live in Chicago. In this sense Eliot was a child of his times and will be deplored for this in our own age. These inherent attitudes towards Jews surface most notably in Gerontion  and Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar. What is interesting is that, whatever one's views on anti-semitism are (and to make sure that I am safe from condemnation - for is that not always the first priority? - I will state that I think it is a bad thing) one has to concede that, as a metaphor for impotence and loss of control of one's destiny there are few finer than those of a once imperious Christian and mercantile Venice being in hock to the Jewish financiers (that Venice once confined under curfew to the tiny island of the first Ghetto) or of a failed westerner now renting a cheap room from a Jewish landlord in a shabby rooming house. It makes for very good poetry.

Friday, 9 November 2018

TS Eliot (3) - Gerontion

Leaving ‘Prufrock and Other Observations’ I thought I’d be leaving the largely Laforgue-inspired Vers Libre style much used there. This expectation was reinforced by reading that the influence on the second collection was more likely to be that of Théophile Gautier’s Emaux at Camées which Pound and Eliot had been reading. Gautier, a ‘Parnassian,’ favoured spare, disciplined quatrains so it was a surprise to encounter Gerontion at the beginning of the collection, a substantial and often marvellous poem that, nevertheless, seemed to stick to the Vers Libre style. 

Gerontion means ‘little old man’ and it could easily be said that the old man in question, who lives in a rooming house

I/ Stiffen in a rented house.

 (just as Philip Larkin’s Mr. Bleaney does) owned by a Jewish landlord, is a much older version of J. Alfred Prufrock. After a life of indecision this is where he has washed up geographically and, of course, morally. This is Eliot’s version of Symbolism. The economic relationship between the old man and the Jewish landlord seems significant as Eliot obviously considers being in such a relationship a demotion and, perhaps a humiliation.  The old man’s destiny is, formally, not in his own hands. He is at the mercy of others.

The hope of salvation comes in the form of a Spring-born Blakean Tyger and is frittered away, leaving only reflections on a multitude of lost chances. Now memories just give pain. He waits for the fate that has befallen other random members of society, the image of

White feathers in the snow  (which) the Gulf claims

making comment on this fate given the resonances of white feathers at the time of the First World War. 'The Gulf' is both a terrestrial geographical reference and the gaping maw of Hell. Once again we are in the presence of an ‘objective correlative’ for utter spiritual desolation.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

TS Eliot (2) - The ‘Other Observations’ of 1917

The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.’

The last twist of the knife.

Grafted suddenly onto the English scene, Eliot seems, in these poems, like a fully-fledged French Symbolist who has strayed across the Channel and into another language to take that language by surprise.  Suddenly we have our own poète maudit, our own Laforgue, Corbière, Verlaine, Rimbaud or Baudelaire. Of course he came from further afield and might have seemed more fastidious than that disreputable crew.  Like a true symbolist he brilliantly sets out for us a concrete cityscape that suggests his state of mind or soul using rusting, broken springs, prostitutes in doorways, a lunatic moon, dirty rooming houses, vagabond women, crowds, captive, dancing bears and broken musical instruments.  

Retracing our steps from these images to the creator we find he has placed us in the company of a protagonist who suffers from inertia, the dissociation of an hysteric, moral paralysis, self-disgust and impotence.  For this man consciousness is hell and to be awake is to experience moral anguish to the extent that one would be forgiven for thinking such anguish is his natural element; a default state synonymous with life. Events just cause him more pain by underlining his fecklessness. Returning to our poètes we are reminded of  Baudelaire’s ‘irrémédiable’ and ‘irréparable.’ There is a sense of past transgression with eternal consequence felt by a character of whom it can be said ‘De profundis clamavi.’

This is a very particular state of soul which we are presented with tout court without explanation. One wonders how Eliot (if we are allowed the license to assume it has something to do with him rather than purely the artist that he is) came by it.

Noteworthy also is that, beyond the suite of 'Portrait of a Lady,' 'Preludes' and 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night,' there are eight shorter poems. The most interesting is 'Mr Apollinax' which was inspired by a reception at the home of a Massachusetts Philosophy Professor at which Bertrand Russell was received. This poem seems like the first taste of the style that would later appear in 'The Waste Land.' The poem feels like a poem written in the Jazz Age and the age of Picasso. The dream-like unconscious intrudes unannounced on the conscious, heads roll under chairs, centaurs appear at a garden party and drowning souls are evoked. Caricatures with absurd and exotic names like Mrs Phlaccus and Professor Channing-Cheetah alongside Russell's stand-in, Mr Apollinax himself, make their first appearance.

'Pierrots' by Jules Laforgue - Verse Translation


Oedematous asparagus,
His sprouting face is zinc cream-smeared;
Atop a neck stiff-starched, and thus
His ruff, beneath a phiz sans beard.

His eyes sunk in the opium
Acceptance yields embracingly.
Just like a rare geranium
His zany’s mouth does sorcery.

A mouth which spans from yawning slot
(So icily convulsed a while),
To transcendental, hard to plot,
Of Monna Lisa’s hollow smile.

They poise their floury dunce’s cones
Above their silken, black head-bands,
They crease crow’s feet, their funny bones
Scrunch noses into clover-fans.

In bezel settings on their rings,
Egyptian scarabs, as like as not,
In buttonholes, of all choice things,
A dandelion from vacant lot.

Content to live on fresh, blue sky
And just as much on beans and peas,
Satsumas, eggs and the supply
Of whiter rice than their chemise.

Adherents of the ashen cult,
They turn their backs on God and creeds,
“Laetare Sundays!” they exult,
Lisp “Every one the best exceeds!”

C'est, sur un cou qui, raide, émerge
D'une fraise empesée idem,
Une face imberbe au cold-cream,
Un air d'hydrocéphale asperge.

Les yeux sont noyés de l'opium
De l'indulgence universelle,
La bouche clownesque ensorcèle
Comme un singulier géranium.

Bouche qui va du trou sans bonde
Glacialement désopilé,
Au transcendantal en-allé
Du souris vain de la Joconde.

Campant leur cône enfariné
Sur le noir serre-tête en soie,
Ils font rire leur patte d'oie
Et froncent en trèfle leur nez.

Ils ont comme chaton de bague
Le scarabée égyptien,
À leur boutonnière fait bien
Le pissenlit des terrains vagues.

Ils vont, se sustentant d'azur !
Et parfois aussi de légumes,
De riz plus blanc que leur costume,
De mandarines et d'œufs durs.

Ils sont de la secte du Blême,
Ils n'ont rien à voir avec Dieu,
Et sifflent: « tout est pour le mieux
« Dans la meilleur' des mi-carême ! »

L’Imitation de Notre-Dame de la Lune (1886)

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Footnotes to TS Eliot (1) Women in Prufrock

The profile of women in Eliot's first published poem is significant. On the one hand they are the protagonists in the vacuous ritual of a, perhaps, deadening and meaningless social cycle as embodied in the mantra:

In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michelangelo.

On the other hand they are a distraction from what appears to be Prufrock's higher calling - his attempt to force the moment to its crisis. In addition to this the distraction they offer is one in which they may actively participate.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

TS Eliot (1) The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


When one engages with an artist with the intention of making a judgement on him or her the first thing one has to do is to discern what that artist is or is claimed to be by him or herself or by others. If one fails to do this one risks failing to do justice to the artist. In this sense it’s a question of getting the artist in the right perspective. Having achieved this one can then make judgements as to whether this thing (what the artist is claimed to be) is sufficient, acceptable or satisfying and, therefore, as to whether he or she is estimable. 

An interesting aspect of such an enquiry is that the enquirer cannot hep but give precedence to his or her framing of what is estimable and, if this is at odds with what the artist considers to be estimable that problem, in itself, will form part of the discussion and engagement.

On Prufrock

The subject-matter of the poem that is deemed to have begun modern literature is haplessness, irresolution and failure. These qualities are so shameful that the speaker only relates them at all confidently believing, as the speaker in the epigraph from Dante believes, no one will ever hear his confession. In this sense the whole poem is framed in a joke; a joke which adds to the predicament of and at the expense of the “loser,” J. Alfred Prufrock. Such qualities are negative qualities and not the usual stuff of literature. A proper measure of the poet, though, is whether, whatever quality he attempts to evoke, he evokes it in a tangible and real sense. Eliot is certainly successful in this in that he, for example, finds forms and metaphors that evoke moral égarement in the winding city streets that represent the meandering tributaries, never leading anywhere, in the stream of his protagonist’s consciousness. Eliot also enlists nature’s collaboration too, in the symbolic form of city fog, for example, personifying, in its behaviour, Prufrock’s indecision. The reader is button-holed, as, perhaps, the “you” in “you and I” and spectates the drama of Prufrock from a ringside seat in a form that otherwise resembles that of some of Browning’s monologues.

An alternative ending to the poem might have seen the “hero,” finally bringing his long-enduring indecision to a crisis and entering the world of action as Hamlet does but this is not to be. The poem ends on drowning and a kind of death. In this sense it is unedifying, uninspiring and deals in an emotional and spiritual negative. Human readers, on the whole, do not come from a negative place as life, as embodied in living humans, tends towards the positive as a default and, perhaps, irresistible, position. Depression is the exception, not the norm and it is more natural to celebrate and rejoice in life. This means that, to dwell with Eliot’s creation, for most humans, is an uncomfortable moment. Becoming aware that one was in the company of such a creature might lead one to wish to be elsewhere as his failures seem to be a matter of his own responsibility.

As a result, while one admires the artistic address that charmed Prufrock into being, one does not enjoy his company which seems miserable. One recalls how one of Eliot’s heroes, Dante Alighieri, in his incarnation as a character in his great poem, spent enough time, in Canto 3 of the ‘Inferno,’ to appreciate the nature of the man who made the Great (and cowardly) Refusal, Pope Celestine V, before being hurried away by his spirit guide, Virgil, while still experiencing disgust. One senses that Dante is grateful for not having to spend more time in Celestine's presence. 

There is, of course, the school of poetry that sees the employment of the art of poetry itself as, in some measure, charming and perhaps, thus, redeeming evil or disgusting content through a kind of sorcellerie évocatoire. Into this category fall Baudelaire and even Philip Larkin. The very act of “making” a poem and casting the content in a poem is an act of faith, that faith being in the power of the uniquely human resort to art and beauty to redeem negativity. I’m not sure that this is what happens with Eliot. One completes the reading of Prufrock experiencing merely the bitterness and ashes of his despair. One senses and is led to speculate that Eliot’s protagonist is not merely a distanced dramatic creation but someone with a degree of proximity to the author. Of course, in saying this, one remembers at all times that it can be foolish to confuse the artist himself with his artistic creation. However, it is perhaps fair to say that Eliot's subject matter is often personal.

The poet, Geoffrey Hill, in one of his poems saw poetry as “a sad and angry consolation” In other words one of, or perhaps the principle function of art is to console for (in his case) the horrors of history or (in most cases) the fact of the human condition and, especially, its mortality. The art of Baudelaire or of Philip Larkin could, perhaps, be deemed successful in this respect, in that they provide pleasure for those still experiencing that condition. The fact that the capacity for such pleasure exists is a consolation for the human condition in itself.

On the basis of this first outing as a poet Eliot provides little consolation. If this poem sets the tone of modern literature, as George Orwell suggested that it did, that tone is relentlessly despairing and it is hard to take pleasure in despair. This leaves open what is to follow in Eliot’s oeuvre as that may put Prufrock in a new context retrospectively.