What Was T.S. Eliot?
The centennial of T.S. Eliot’s birth, 1988, was a year of reassessments of his role in modern poetry. Some of these were elicited by the sheer solemnity of the calendric occasion, others by the appearance of two volumes, Lyndall Gordon’s Eliot’s New Life1 (a sequel to her 1977 biography, Eliot’s Early Years), and The Letters of T.S. Eliot: Volume I, 1898-1922,2 edited by his widow, Valerie Eliot. Both Miss Gordon and Mrs. Eliot, the former from a scholarly perspective and the latter from a conjugal one, are staunch Eliot loyalists, but whatever their intentions, the general effect of placing more of his private life in the public domain is to confirm many of one’s darker suspicions about him.
Eliot lived a cramped, painfully impaired emotional existence, afraid of or disbelieving in intimacy, ridden with guilt, harboring secret, murderous rages, contemptuous of large categories of human beings and of democratic government itself, a clandestine pariah—for all the propriety of his banker’s demeanor—in the modern world that he represented with such arresting power in his earlier poems. His conversion to a particularly austere kind of high Anglicanism in 1927 was a strategy of desperation that made it possible for him to go on without collapse, but it scarcely redeemed him from his private hell, only gave him the stiff resolve of orthodoxy to bear up under the torment, and the consequences for his poetry were in most respects far from happy. One gathers that in his marriage to Valerie Fletcher, when he was sixty-eight and she thirty, he was at last vouchsafed a real measure of relief from all this horror. His last eight years seem to have been touched with a twilight serenity, though he was plagued with physical infirmities and well beyond his career as a productive poet.
The interesting question, in any case, raised by these biographical revelations is the connection between private anguish and poetic felicity: how did a person so cut off at a level of deep feeling from the world around him succeed in becoming its exemplary poetic voice?
I say, with circumspection, “exemplary” rather than “greatest” or “most original,” for it was Eliot’s genius, working within a narrow range and with what was, after all, an exiguous trickle of poems, to impose himself as the definitively modern poet in English. When I was an undergraduate at Columbia College in the 1950’s, more than three decades after Eliot had published his strongest poems, no other 20th-century poet exerted the magnetism that he did on young people of literary bent. Many of us no doubt vaguely sensed that Yeats and Wallace Stevens were more original poets (and I would now hasten to add Frost as well), and had a more vital and supple relation to the living language, but it was Eliot who seemed the quintessentially modern poet. In part, this was a result of the excitements of difficulty—reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for the first time at the age of eighteen, sorting out the aggressive puzzlements of the unexpected images, the rapid movement from one fragmentary scene to another, the unexplained “you” and “I” thrust at the reader out of a void at the beginning of the poem. More substantively, the sardonic edginess and the brooding spiritual gloom of Eliot’s poetry spoke movingly to a late adolescent’s sense of squirming discomfort with himself and anxiety about the world, and were seized on as the authoritative statement about living in the modern world.
This explains in part why bits and pieces of his poetry were so memorable in the literal sense. I can still recall sitting in classes in Hamilton Hall, repeating to myself, convinced I had discovered an ultimate expression of my own condition: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” All such articulations of alienation culminated in “The Waste Land,” and in my immediate undergraduate circle we actually made an impromptu ritual out of it, for a brief period reading the whole poem out loud every year on an evening in the first week of April (“April is the crudest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land . . .”)—a celebration through performance not readily conceivable for any other modern poet.
I do not mean to suggest that “Prufrock,” “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” “Gerontion,” and “The Waste Land” are poems that exclusively issue from and appeal to adolescent angst. Though it is no doubt true, as Donald Davie has drily put it in a review of the Letters and Eliot’s New Life, “that the author of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was in many ways, and in particular sexually, less than adult,” he succeeded in creating between 1909 and 1922 an iconoclastic poetic idiom that was not merely shocking but psychologically resonant for a new historical era. It is more than a little surprising that this should have been accomplished by someone of his background—raised in St. Louis, in an earnestly Unitarian family of old New England pedigree, educated with conventional propriety at the Milton Academy and Harvard in the first decade of the century, arriving in England in 1914 with precious little experience beyond a wealth of books read in several languages, including Sanskrit.
There was, to begin with, the irreducible, uncanny fact of precociousness. Eliot was only twenty-two, barely beyond his B.A. at Harvard, when he wrote “Prufrock,” one of the remarkable modern poems in English. Ezra Pound, just three years his elder, who had embarked on a self-conscious program of fashioning a new literature, observed in a letter after meeting Eliot for the first time in London in 1914 that his young compatriot had “actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.”
Before speculating about what was involved in this process of self-instruction, or whether training is the right word for it, I would note that for Eliot, as for many others, promotionalism proved to be the welcome handmaiden of talent. His correspondence during the period when he was consolidating his career reveals above all the singlemindedness with which he pursued careeristic ends. (There is not a great deal of revelation of any other sort. Eliot, as even Lyndall Gordon admits, was not a distinguished letter-writer: he very rarely bares himself to his correspondents, and he offers scarcely anything of the sort of general reflections on literature and life that make the letters of writers like Keats and Flaubert so compelling.) Pound, of course, latched onto Eliot as a potential big winner for the new cause of modernism, and was chiefly interested in him, as he confessed in a letter, not as a person but as a producer of poetry. Eliot’s feelings toward Pound were reciprocal. He remarked primly of his self-appointed mentor in a 1915 letter to his father, “He is not the sort of person whom I wish to be intimate with my affairs. He has shown a keen interest in my career; and has been and will be useful; but my acquaintance with him is primarily professional.”
The bulk of the letters that constitute the first volume of Eliot’s correspondence are precisely to people who might be “useful,” and he exhibits the most impressive energy and adroitness in making contacts, enlisting supporters or contributors to the periodicals with which he was associated, arranging for publication of his books, exerting literary diplomacy even on writers for whom he elsewhere expresses disapproval or disdain. His decision to take up permanent residence in London was surely overdetermined—by his need to put several thousand miles between himself and his parents, by his desire to redefine himself as a European, by his precipitous and catastrophic marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood—but the letters suggest still another urgent motive: his sense that London, in these years during and after the Great War, was the place where the action was for modern literature; that it presented, unlike Boston or New York, a coherent yet malleable literary scene which could be taken over by a formidably bright and enterprising outsider like himself.
Between 1914 and the mid-20’s, as an editor, reviewer, essayist, and poet, he managed to do just that, with an astonishing degree of success. The key to all these activities was the assertion of authority. Eliot’s ringing pronouncements on literature—which contained, he later confessed to E.M. Forster, an element of bluff—at once established him as arbiter of his age and promulgated among the literary intelligentsia the aesthetic principles that prepared an audience for his own poetry.
Nevertheless, the dedicated self-promotion would have been to no avail without the formidable talent, and we return to the question of how this young Harvard graduate at the end of the gaslight era succeeded so thoroughly “on his own,” as Pound said, in making that talent an arrestingly modern one. The explanation Eliot himself hints at in his early letters is his discovery as an undergraduate of the poetry of Jules Laforgue, but that is, I think, only part of the story. Later, in a 1933 lecture at Johns Hopkins University, he would wonder whether it would have been possible for him to write poetry at all without the examples of Baudelaire, Corbière, Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud.
Laforgue, it should be said, is probably the least of this 19th-century French constellation of proto-modernists, and the least modernizing of them in his formal poetics. Dead of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-seven the year before Eliot was born, he began his brief poetic career with blandly conventional rhyming verse, and ended it with rather more interesting experiments in free verse that are, however, tame in comparison with Rimbaud’s technique of violent and disorienting associations or Mallarmé’s hyper-elliptic poetics of enigmatic intimation. (In the 30’s, Mallarmé would loom large for Eliot, but not during this formative period.) What Eliot most obviously picked up from Laforgue was a certain colloquial wryness and a predisposition to cull metaphors from the most prosaic realms (characteristics not much in evidence in 19th-century English verse), together with a variety of images and phrases directly borrowed from Laforgue’s poems.
The act of borrowing is itself an integral aspect of Eliot’s formal modernism. Most poetry, going all the way back to classical and biblical antiquity, is intrinsically and densely allusive, but Eliot pushed allusiveness to an extreme, turning it into a technique of collage. Louis Menand, in a perceptive essay on Eliot in the Raritan Review, characterizes him as “almost a stylistic kleptomaniac,” and, indeed, the more closely one scrutinizes virtually any Eliot poem, the more it proves to be a cutting and pasting and ingenious reconfiguration of snippets from other poems. This is not to say that Eliot lacked his own voice as a poet (though I was once tempted to put it that way) but rather that he found the means to compose his own voice out of the inflections and inventions of others. “The Waste Land” thrusts this procedure to the fore but by no means initiates it.
Beyond images to be lifted and a tone to be emulated, what I think ignites Eliot’s imagination in Laforgue’s work is that it is the poetry of a very young and for the most part a very unhappy man. The French poems speak again and again of an abandonment (the word itself is important for Laforgue) that is erotic, social, and cosmic: the alienated speaker (“I am the pariah of the human family”) repeatedly exhibits his grotesque misery, sometimes in the manner of a pathetic clown. There is, as in “Prufrock,” a preoccupation with Hamlet and especially with the figure of Ophelia and the idea of sour or unfulfilled sexuality, and a good deal of contempt is expressed for the human body and the act of love. An early Laforgue poem, “Pour le livre d’amour,” begins with these lines, “I could die tomorrow and I would not have loved./ My lips have never touched woman’s lips,” and ends on this repellent note: “The raspings of the obscene coupling of beasts!/ So much muck for three minutes’ ecstasy [Tantes de fanges pour un accès de trois minutes!].” The emphasis is decidedly characteristic of Eliot, early and late, and he may well have been remembering these lines of Laforgue’s when he wrote grimly in “Marina” of “those who suffer the ecstasy of animals, meaning/ Death.” These themes of alienation and wounded withdrawal from experience did not decisively lead Laforgue to a distinctively modernist poetics, but I suspect that is precisely what happened with Eliot, as I shall try to explain.
The published correspondence and, more prominently, the two volumes of Lyndall Gordon’s biography make painfully clear how the rejection of the body and a visceral horror of women constituted a fundamental pattern in Eliot’s life. As we now know from a letter to Pound written not long before his marriage, Eliot was a virgin when he became the husband of Vivien Haigh-Wood just short of his twenty-eighth birthday. She must have appealed to him as the perfect embodiment of feminine differentness—mercurial, impetuous, “artistic,” charmingly pretty in a vulnerably petite way. It is not clear how much Eliot knew or guessed of her background of physical and emotional illness, which as early as adolescence had led doctors, according to the dim medical lights of that time, to dose her with opium. If he had the slightest intimation of this background, one may reasonably infer that Eliot was unconsciously choosing his own destiny of disaster, binding his fate with a woman who would become his exquisite tormentor, whether present or absent, till her death in an insane asylum in 1947.
Their marrige was apparently consummated but not much to the satisfaction of either. Only a month after the wedding, she told Bertrand Russell (with whom not long after she would have an affair) that she had married Eliot to “stimulate” him but had been disappointed in this hope; Eliot, who was present, sat listlessly by and raised no objection. According to Russell’s testimony, the marriage had begun with a “pseudo-honeymoon” that brought the bride to the brink of suicide. Almost immediately, though one hesitates to say consequentially, Vivien plunged into a bottomless pit of physical and mental disorders, including attacks of acute neuralgia, migraines, colitis, pleurisy, a liver complaint, repeated bouts of flu, not to speak of her drug addiction, her suicidal impulses, her episodes of paranoid schizophrenia. “Vivien is not at all well” becomes a refrain of Eliot’s letters. Her health problems frequently compelled her to live apart from her husband, in country retreats or occasionally at resorts, and even when they were together, such conjugality, physical or emotional, as they shared must have been very limited indeed.
Eliot’s reaction to her illness was to insist sternly on his unquestioned obligations toward Vivien as breadwinner and legal mainstay—something reflected in many of the letters—while icily withdrawing from her emotionally in a reflex of self-protection. This in turn had the effect of provoking in her heightening spirals of rage against him, which often issued in terrible humiliating outbursts, sometimes in the presence of friends. When Eliot took a vow of chastity in 1928 the year after his conversion, he could not have been renouncing very much beyond a long-failed hope. Whatever intimacy with a woman he experienced was reserved for that happy union of his infirm old age.
Lyndall Gordon’s new volume provides detailed documentation for a further involvement that has been generally known for many years: while Eliot was bound by iron links of livid guilt to his legal wife, he kept another woman on a long Platonic string for two decades. Emily Hale, three years Eliot’s junior, was a friend of one of his Cambridge cousins, Eleanor Hinckley. He met her when he was still a graduate student of philosophy at Harvard in 1913, and there was some sort of flirtation, or perhaps even a mutual infatuation, between them. Soon after, he left for England, while she began a career as a drama instructor at various secondary schools and colleges.
In 1927, for reasons that may remain unknown until 2019, when the thousand letters Eliot wrote her are made available for inspection, Emily Hale initiated a correspondence with the poet whom she had not seen in thirteen years. In 1930 she came to England for an extended visit and spent a good deal of time with Eliot, idyllic time for both of them. In 1932-33, while he was Norton Professor at Harvard, he traveled to California to see her at Scripps College where she was teaching. (He did not initiate his legal separation from Vivien until his return to England, but she did not accompany him to America, among other reasons because she was afraid of sea voyages.) Emily Hale again visited him in England in 1933-34, and they continued a cycle of annual reunions in spring or summer until the outbreak of World War II.
Lyndall Gordon, a dutiful researcher who tends to accept uncritically the exemplary Christian design that Eliot sought to impose on his life from 1927 onward, expounds at length the myth of the two women that he lived out: the demonic woman of dark desires, consuming succuba, a soul glaring with hellfire, who held him in durance vile; and the radiant figure of kindness and devotion, Beatrice to his Dante, inspiring him from afar with a vision of grace. It is easy enough to identify the poetic versions, of these two feminine types in his verse from “The Waste Land” to Four Quartets. The human reality behind the mythic polarization is quite another matter, however.
Even Lyndall Gordon admits that Emily Hale was “only a convenient focus for Eliot’s evolving idea of love,” and the nastiness of turning this flesh-and-blood woman into a convenience became evident after Vivien Eliot’s death. Emily Hale, of course, expected Eliot, for whom she had been loyally waiting all those years, to marry her. Instead, confronted with the idea of actually living with her as a wife instead of dreaming about her as a Beatrice, he rebuffed her and brusquely withdrew from the whole ethereally passionate relationship, leaving her for the remaining twenty-one years of her celibate life nothing but her memories and his letters. “Love is most nearly itself/” Eliot wrote in “East Coker,” at the midpoint of his protracted involvement with Emily Hale, “When here and now cease to matter.” These lines, for all their aspiration to transcendent spirituality, are among the saddest he ever wrote.
Eliot’s relations with women have a certain morbid interest in their own right, but they seem to me more important as the chief symptom of an encompassing inability, dictated by something like panic, to come to grips emotionally with people. I would thus bracket his misogyny with his anti-Semitism. In neither case was the hostility implacable or consistently ideological. His letters, for example, show him to have been a good enough friend to a woman like Virginia Woolf and as genuinely affectionate as he was capable of being to a Jew like Sydney Schiff, man of letters and patron of the arts. There are, to be sure, little tics of prejudice in the correspondence, like his comment to Eleanor Hinckley about “the clever Jew undergraduate mind at Harvard; wide but disorderly reading, intense but confused thinking, and utter absence of background and balance and proportion.” This is mild enough in comparison with the ugly images in some of the poems of “the jew” squatting on a window sill or gnawing away at the piles like a rat, not to speak of all the murderous figures in the early poetry of sexually rapacious, fang-and-nail females, whether they are named Rabinovitch or something else.3
What ultimately troubled Eliot was not just women or Jews or Southern Europeans or Gypsies or working-class people but others in any conceivable form. His own sense of identity, his confidence in his ability to cope with the world, were so fragile that he repeatedly felt a potential of dark menace in the Other, and in a good many of his poems he projected his private terrors—“The horror! the horror!” was the Conradian tag he first wanted to use as epigraph for “The Waste Land”—onto representatives of the other sex, or faith, or class, or ethnic group.
This incapacity to open himself to others or to imagine them sympathetically, coordinated with a chronic uneasiness with life “here and now,” links Eliot’s sensibility with one prominent line of modernism. It is precisely the line that Lionel Trilling had in view when he detected in the modernists, beginning in fact with Conrad, an adversarial stance toward the dominant culture, a desperate hunger for spiritual salvation, and a profound suspicion of the idea of pleasure. It is precisely this cluster of attitudes that appealed to us excessively serious young men of Columbia College in the 50’s, when we deemed Eliot chief among modern poets.
There was, let me note, a vigorous alternative to the modernism of alienation, a trend in literature and the other arts that Alfred Appel, Jr. has aptly designated “celebratory modernism.” This trend is perhaps most evident in painting, in Mattisse, Dufy, Chagall, the Italian Futurists, but it, is also vividly manifest in literature in writers like Apollinaire, Joyce, Nabokov, Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and E.E. Cummings. The celebratory modernists responded to the rapidly accelerating technological civilization and the anti-traditionalism of the 20th century with a sense of high excitement, reaching for bold new formal means to capture the new urban landscapes and the new perceptions of human nature and culture.
Celebratory modernism shares with its alienated counterpart a powerful impulse to shatter the placid symmetries and jejune conventions of the dominant modes of 19th-century art, but with the aim of creating a fresh beauty rather than of expressing the pain of rupture or moral dislocation. There was enough deep affinity between the two trends of modernism that Eliot could be a passionate admirer at once of Joyce and of Stravinsky, although the harnessing of myth that moved him in both Ulysses and Le Sacre du printemps was meant in those works to affirm the resurgence of immemorial life-energies, whereas myth in his own poetry was a means for defining the woefully fallen condition of modern man.
In any case, modernism whether of the celebratory or of the adversarial variety may have once seemed, quite simply, the new art of the 20th century, but it has become increasingly clear in historical retrospect that it was really a phenomenon of the teens and 20’s, with scattered luminosities of afterglow for another decade or more. Few careers illustrate this temporally delimited character of modernism more strikingly than Eliot’s.
As the links between the two divergent lines of modernists may suggest, modernism was not just a set of attitudes toward life but an orientation toward the medium of expression. In this crucial regard, Eliot’s emotional impairment may have actually been the motor force of his formal innovation. His inability to hold together the clashing elements of his inner life issues in a poetics of staccato discontinuities, conflicting voices, broken images serendipitously found in experience or in the work of other poets in which, for a moment, he can invest genuine feeling or intimate the presence of a submerged self. There was, Ronald Bush proposes in what is probably the best single book on Eliot,4 a “painful and fundamental split in his psyche between thought and feeling,” and as he discovered the poetic vehicle he needed in his early poems, “he turns from trying to reconcile the two to dramatizing their struggle.”
Like many other aspects of Eliot’s early poetry, this dramatization of inner struggle is most brilliantly realized in “The Waste Land.” The panorama of paralyzing dread, as has been generally recognized since Valerie Eliot’s annotated facsimile edition of the original manuscript in 1974, is a reflex of the poet’s own crisis, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, but the reverberating correspondences between personal anxiety and the anxiety of the age, often remarked, are indeed remarkable, making this a great modern poem. Still, the balance of forces within the poet that enabled him,, with Pound’s editorial guidance, to create “The Waste Land” was precarious, for the psychic conflict was barely tolerable. Three years after “The Waste Land,” in 1925, Eliot wrote “The Hollow Men”; it was still in his modernist manner, but its liturgical elements hint that he was beginning to move in a new direction. By the end of the 20’s, after his conversion, when he was working on “Ash Wednesday,” he had clearly put aside the dramatic, ironic, and imagistic procedures of his earlier poetry for a new Christian poetics founded on incantation, exhortation, and ritual enunciation.
All these elements are still evident, though cast in a more complex lyric form, in Four Quartets (1935-42), a work that Ronald Bush interestingly defines, along with the contemporaneous Finnegans Wake and Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, as already “post-modern.” The Quartets contain passages of the most exquisite poetry, but in my view they are profoundly compromised as poems by their predilection for homiletical rhetoric, spurious biblicizing, pious apostrophe, and portentous abstraction. Bush, who rates the Quartets somewhat higher than I do, nevertheless notes that their author has lost the ability he had in “The Waste Land” to “render the nerve endings of sensibility, the illusion that he has penetrated the masks of the self and arrived at the source of the buried life.”
To return to Eliot when modernism was in flower, I would add to the idea of a conflict between thought and feeling a clash, perhaps still more fundamental, between reticence and confessionalism. The poet in his twenties and thirties shies away from expressing his experience because it is too painful, too humiliating, but at the same time he is driven to expose in poetry all his anguish and shame, and, indeed, has scarcely any other subject for his poems. The resolution between these two opposing impulsions—again, the balance is precarious—is a poetics of intricate indirection, baffling disjunctions, layered allusions. Fragments of scenes flash by with stroboscopic speed, momentarily revealing as they half-conceal the poet’s self behind the poem. The method is almost programmatically described in “Prelude”: “You dozed, and watched the night revealing/The thousand sordid images/Of which your soul was constituted;/They flickered against the ceiling.”
It may be easier to see how this reticent confessionalism engenders a modernist poetics by observing a poem in which the process is not very successful. The ironically titled “Ode” was written three years after Eliot’s marriage to Vivien and was included in an elegantly produced 1920 collection of his verse, Ara Vus Prec. It is one of only two poems in that volume (the other is in French) which he chose—wisely—not to reprint in later editions of his collected poetry, and so it may be unfamiliar today to readers who are not specialists.
Subterrene laughter synchronous
With silence from the sacred wood
And bubbling of the uninspired
The accents of the now retired
Profession of calamus.
When the bridegroom smoothed his hair
There was blood upon the bed.
Morning was already late.
Children singing in the orchard
(Io Hymen, Hymenaee)
By arrangement with Perseus
The fooled resentment of the dragon
Sailing before the wind at dawn.
Golden apocalypse. Indignant
At the cheap extinction of his taking-off.
Now lies he there
Tip to tip washed beneath Charles’ Wagon.
The characteristic procedures of “The Waste Land” are clearly in operation here, though not to any great imaginative effect: the ironic referring of contemporary figures to classical mythology, the mock-epic diction, the flaunted Latinisms, the unexplained citation of other poets, the highly fragmentary invocation of a plot difficult to decipher, and even the specific mention of the sacred wood and the children singing (in “The Waste Land,” the line is quoted directly in French out of Verlaine: “Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!”). I would note that in regard to poetic genre, “Ode” and many other early Eliot poems have an 18th-century precedent of which he was probably quite aware: Jonathan Swift’s “urban pastorals,” like “A Description of the Morning” and “A Description of a City Shower,” in which the triviality and the sordidness of a contemporary scene are focused through classical allusion and mock-epic style. There is nothing private, however, in these poems of Swift’s, and if he displays an acute satirical sharpness, there is also a kind of sportive reveling in the sheer business of poetic representation of the world out there. In Eliot’s case, the ultimate privateness of the experience is the key to his poetics and, for this poem, to its failure.
Whether or not “Ode” was meant to be a representation of the poet’s own “pseudo-honeymoon,” it is safe to say that the gnawing recollection of that personal disaster informs the poem. In fact, if one extracts the lead-in words of each segment from the elaborate ellipses that constitute the poem, the pathetic nakedness of complaint becomes evident: tired, misunderstood, tortured, tortuous, indignant. Literary allusion here comes perilously close to psychological defense, an attempt at once to veil and elevate humiliating physical experience. (The obfuscation is actually compounded by an epigraph from Coriolanus I have omitted that introduces the poem in bafflement because it is too fragmentary to identify, because it is slightly misquoted, and because its pertinence is obscure.) The Latin exclamation to Hymen—followed by a two-word line that is virtually Latin-English—is probably taken not from the beginning of Catullus’s famous epithalamium but, as Harold Bloom has recently suggested, from Walt Whitman, who presumably is in turn citing Catullus. A previous clue for the presence of Whitman is the enigmatic “calamus” at the end of the eighth line, the Calamus Poems being a section of Leaves of Grass charged with erotic feeling. The word itself is Greek for a reed used as a pen.
What one can make out, then, is that the carnal entrammelment of the nuptial bed has broken the poet’s sense of vocation—“the now retired/Profession of calamus” (and thus the sacred wood is silent and the bubbling stream uninspired). But I have proposed that the use of allusion is psychologically defensive because the classical and mythic referents threaten to collapse into indications of sexual physiology in ways that may not have been under the poet’s conscious control. Not every pen is a penis, but in context, this retired—that is, withdrawn—reed, its accents misunderstood, has a sadly sexual look. The mephitic river, whose bubbling is coordinate with the silence from the sacred wood, carries a strong and unpleasant association with female sexuality. That suggestion is confirmed in the highly fragmentary evocation of what must be the bride as “succuba eviscerate.” Since “succuba” is a singular feminine noun (“she-demon”), “eviscerate” must be an adjective, expressing, through the veil of convolute Latinity, a fantasy of the vagina as a gaping mutilation. At the same time, because “eviscerate” is normally a verb in English and because the syntax is so gnomic, one picks up an undermeaning in which “succuba” is somehow the subject of a transitive verb “eviscerate,” the object of which would have to be the bridegroom.
All such intimations of archaic terrors are whirled together in the elliptic mythic references of the concluding verse-paragraph. There is, I think, genuine confusion in the mythic allusion that flows from the poet’s psychological confusion about the experience. The classical Perseus rescued his future bride Andromeda by slaying the sea monster which was about to kill her. Here, apparently, the groom takes the bride by some subterfuge of agreement with the dragon, and both regret it after the fact. “Golden apocalypse” may be a remembrance of the conception of Perseus when Zeus descended into Danaë in a golden shower; it is not very coherent in context, perhaps referring ironically to orgasm. Between the beginning and end of the Perseus story hovers unstated its famous middle, Perseus’s severing of Medusa’s head, and one finds confirmation in the poem of Freud’s idea that this horrific female head represents an upward displacement of the fantasy of vagina edentata (“succuba eviscerate”). The only reference to conjugal consummation undisguised by the elaborations of literary tradition beside the blood upon the bed is introduced right after the Perseus allusions, “the cheap extinction of his taking-off,” and it hardly matters whether this is an explicit indication of premature ejaculation or simply a response to the brutishness and nastiness of the act (“so much muck for three minutes’ ecstasy”).
The poem was meant to end on a mock-epic note of the sort that Eliot uses to good effect in the Sweeney poems: the naked, dejected hero lying monumentally under the stars of the pre-dawn sky. This final image is more abortive than suggestively fragmentary, and the last two words are a symptomatic expression of the root problem of style. Charles’ Wagon is Charles’ Wain (Old English waegn), the seven bright stars of the Ursa Major. I do not know whether Eliot’s etymologizing orthography reflects any actual modern Usage (one should recall that he was accustomed to write with dictionary at hand), but the effect, certainly for many readers, is to end the poem with a gratuitous mystification. Everything said requires a strategy of concealment: the act of poetry is the uncovering of a nakedness in the biblical sense, and so the poet is impelled to find a form that allows him at once to preserve and violate the taboo.
What is mainly crabbed expression in “Ode” becomes a powerful modernist vehicle in poems like “Prufrock,” “Gerontion,” “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” and, above all, in “The Waste Land.” The poet’s deepest reticences produce in his verse a radically disjunct reality in which nothing quite holds together because all the coherences of belief and feeling and social identity have been subverted, as in fact they seemed palpably to have been subverted in the years around the Great War. At the same time, the floating images reinforce one another, weave a subtle net of emotion, create a persuasive sense that they have issued forth from the same psychological depths, like the feline fog, the “eyes that fix you,” the ragged claws, the long fingers of women, the allusions to Salome and the mermaids singing, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
For all the formidable weight of programmatic thinking about literature that Eliot manifested in his criticism, he did not so much train himself to be a modernist as he was hurt by unmanageable experience into modernizing his poetry. Despite the antipathetic aspects of his character, he deserves a measure of compassion, for he was able to produce a few of the trailblazing English poems of the century only at a terrible personal cost; and after fifteen years, the cost became too great for him. If, as we reread him and learn more about him, he no longer seems in many respects the paradigmatic modernist he once did, the creative tension in which for a while he held terrific inner pressures continues to exemplify the spiritual boldness, and the transience, of modernism’s raid on the realm of the inarticulate.
1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 356 pp., $19.95.
2 Harcourt Brace, 639 pp., $29.95.
3 Years ago, I discussed Eliot's anti-Semitism in these pages as a symptom of his strained relation to the idea of a Christian culture in “Eliot, Lawrence, and the Jews,” October 1970.
4 T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style, Oxford University Press, 287 pp., $8.95 (paper).