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A Contemporary Classicist

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

Poems, 1909-1925. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. Selected Essays, 1917-1932. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.50. John Drydcn: The Poet, the Dramatist, the Critic. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Terence and Elsa Holliday. $1.50.

The importance of T. S. Eliot lies in his having given an impetus and a direction to contemporary poetry. Nineteenth-century poetry (a good deal of which is still being written) expressed a type of awareness that to many persons seems now to have gone stale. Its language is too loose; precision of epithet becomes lost in a muddle of random associations. What Eliot undertook was a redefinition and reestablishment of classical standards. “Classicism” is a much battered word, but as expounded by Eliot in his essays and as exemplified in his poems its meaning is sufficiently clear.

Eliot’s classicism consists first in his emphasis on the objectivity of the poetic enterprise. This requires of the poet an effort toward depersonalization, a sustained attempt to keep his work dissociated from the accidents of his personality. He is to use the incidents of his own mental life—and in the case of a dramatic or narrative poet the imagined incidents in the mental lives of his characters—simply as materials; by combining thoughts, images, and emotions in freshly conceived ways he comes to express “feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.” The feelings are created in much the same way, to use Eliot’s analogy, as sulphuric acid is created from oxygen and sulphur dioxide in the presence of a shred of platinum. Platinum, the catalytic agent, must be present to effect the combination, but it does not enter into the combination. The poet must be similarly a “catalyst,” who occasions a fresh combination of materials without injecting himself into it.

Next, poetry must be precise. Because poetry is evidently not capable of the same kind of precision as prose, many fall into the error (as even Stendhal did) of taking a poem to be a loose and decorative way of saying what could be said in prose more directly. For Eliot, however, poetry is a medium capable of special kinds of exactness peculiar to itself. Reflect, for example, on the problem encountered by Shakespeare, of expressing the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in sleep. What I. A. Richards has called an “excogitated analytic statement, such as psychology might attempt” would not be at all pertinent. It could not possibly have the kind of exactitude required, for psychological analysis employs scientific—therefore highly abstract—notions, whereas what concerns the poet in a situation is its concreteness. “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” It is not, of course, Shakespeare’s own emotion that is evoked. That, as already stated, is unknown and irrelevant. Lady Macbeth’s state of mind is different from Shakespeare’s because the images by which it is constituted (. . . damned spot . . . why, then ‘tis time . . . Hell is murky! . . . etc.) are different from the images constituting Shakespeare’s. The images composing the mind of any flesh-and-blood person are numberless and for the most part vague: in this condition they can be given no precise equivalent in language. The state of mind of Lady Macbeth is communicable just because the images of which it is composed are determinable and definite.

Eliot, like the Elizabethans to whom he owes so much, is a dramatic poet, but in a more abstract sense. His characters are farther removed from actual characters than those of Shakespeare. Not that they are representations of queer individuals; they are hardly representations of individuals at all. They are expressions of dramatic and dramatically related points of view, or moods, or “feelings.” Take, for example, “Gerontion.” It is in form a dramatic monologue, and since it begins with the observation, “Here I am, an old man in a dry month,” a reader might assume that Eliot is offering a description of what might be actually going on in an old man’s mind. Such an interpretation makes nonsense of the poem. It is inconceivable that any actual “dull head among windy spaces” should harbor such a wealth of articulate imagery and of profoundly philosophical thoughts. What “Gerontion” portrays is not an old man’s mind so much as a mood—a mood proper to one who has sunk into age feeling frustrated and hemmed in and filled with dried up memories and impotent imaginings. The poem is no realistic description of what an old man might feel, but a dramatization of such feelings through a startling selection and contrast of images symbolizing them.

Unlike “Gerontion,” “The Waste Land” is not confined to a single mood. It is a marvellously complex blending of moods. It might truthfully be called a symphony of moods, and of the ideas and images associated with them. The contrasting moods serve, it is true, to bring out the principal idea of the poem, which the title roughly symbolizes, but the idea is the poem, not any mere synopsis of it, and can therefore be adequately grasped only by mastering and responding to all of the poem’s details and their interrelations. The quality and truth of “The Waste Land” must be sought not in any philosophical, synoptic statement of what the poem means, but in the unique way in which the materials are combined. The combinations take place in several dimensions. There is the constant juxtaposition of moods and situations from the pages of history and literature with analogous but shoddier things of today. Again, there is a savage blending of the tragic and the farcical, as in the closing lines of Part I. Most important of all, and what gives the poem its structure, is the symphonic arrangement of themes.

It is impossible in the space of a review to do more than indicate most briefly some of the principal themes of “The Waste Land” as they are announced in the first part, “The Burial of the Dead.” First there is the ache of memory and desire, symbolized by lilacs and later by hyacinths, and expressed in run-over lines that have an aching, interminable quality. Then the rhythm makes a sharp break and a second theme enters: the futile cosmopolitanism of contemporary life. This is followed, beginning line 19, with the theme of prophecy, announced in solemn cadences and further solem-nified by quotations from “Ezekiel” and “Ecclesiastes.” Next come two snatches of song from “Tristan and Isolde,” both of them echoing the ennui of the first seven lines: the one combining it with Isolde’s suppressed, guilty passion for the man who had slain her betrothed, the other (“Od’ und leer das Meer”) with Tristan’s loneliness as he lies dying, to the intolerably monotonous accompaniment of a shepherd’s reed, in Kareol. Line 43 introduces the prophecy theme again, this time collapsing into farce. Madame Sosostris is a degraded modern incarnation of the ancient Tiresias, who, although he does not enter explicitly until Part III, is the central figure—with his experience of male and female, past and future—of the poem. Madame Sosostris is also an occasion for the introduction of several later themes, the symbols of which are found in the cards she displays from the Tarot pack. Next there is a nightmarish vision of London, and of crowds, like the dead in Dante’s “Inferno,” moving over London Bridge. The first part of the poem comes to an end with a short restatement of the ennui theme—this-time by a reference to a passage from Baudelaire in which ennui is called the ugliest, vilest, most unclean thing “among all the jackals, panthers, lice, monkeys, scorpions, vultures, and snakes, among all the yelping, howling, growling, creeping monsters in the menagerie of our vices.”

The foregoing exposition is far from doing justice to the profusion and subtlety of material composing “The Waste Land.” I have been obliged, for brevity of treatment, to pass over one of the most important themes of all, the degeneration of romantic love into the ennui of sex. Nor would an exposition of “The Waste Land” be complete without reference to the abundant use made of anthropological material, particularly of the early Grail Legend and of primitive vegetation ceremonies. But I have succeeded, possibly, in indicating the kind of structure and the kind of progression to be looked for in “The Waste Land.” When this is understood a principal barrier to a just appreciation of the poem is removed.

There remains, for most readers, another barrier—the number and difficulty of literary allusions. Eliot, because of the extent to which he relies on these, has been accused of willful obscurantism, of pedantry, and of using literature as an escape from life. But as for the first two charges, Eliot’s borrowings are determined by an explicit theory of what a poet’s relation to his predecessors should be. A poet, he declares, must write “not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” And as for the charge that he makes: literature a substitute for life, can we really suppose literature and life to be so distinct? How many of our emotions and attitudes are borrowed from literature—mostly bad literature—or nowadays, more often from the cinema! Eliot has chosen his literary affiliations deliberately, and they enable him to be more successfully articulate than is possible by using the currency of everyday speech.

I have been referring mostly to the technical side of “The Waste Land,” not because the technique is the whole poem, but because an understanding of it is essential to an understanding of the poem. Once the technical difficulties have been surmounted, “The Waste Land” stands revealed as a profoundly searching diagnosis of our contemporary spiritual sickness. It is primarily a diagnosis and not a solution, although there are suggestions toward a solution in the undercurrent of references to religion and in the words spoken by the thunder. What is our malady? We suffer, first, from a spiritual impotence caused by an inability to surrender to something more valuable and more timeless than ourselves. The thunder commands, Datta (“give”) ! We suffer, next, from too much knowledge (“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”). Excess of knowledge (“These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree”) is what prevents genuine sympathy:

We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison

The thunder commands, Dayadhvam (“sympathize”)! Thirdly, we are weak-willed—like Shakespeare’s Antony, whom “full surfeits and the dryness of his bones” caused to fill “his vacancy with his voluptuousness.” The thunder commands, Damyata (“control”)!

The thunder’s commands are hard, but few will doubt their wisdom. They offer a way of escape from the deadening ennui of our emptiness, and by presenting them with power “The Waste Land,” beside being high poetry, stands also as an impressive sermon for our time.


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