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T.S. Eliot in the Postmodern Age

ISSUE:  Autumn 1989

It frequently happens that an artist who has had enormous prestige during his lifetime suffers a temporary decline in his reputation after his death. T.S. Eliot is the perfect example. The challenge that his early poetry, and especially The Waste Land, raised for the young poets of the 1920’s is simply a matter of literary history. Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, Hart Crane and Archibald MacLeish (to name American poets of the period) immediately responded to the challenge in various ways. Eliot had the further advantage of being a persuasive and influential critic who set up the context for his own poetry, but in the end it is poets, not academics, who create the canon of their predecessors. For at least thirty years Eliot had a charmed life among many other poets, even those who could never accept his theology and politics. It was a truly international fame which affected the life of poetry in such different places as India, Greece, and Latin America: the kind of fame that a poet such as Hardy or Frost never had outside his own language. I refer to Joseph Brodsky’s elegy, “Verses on the Death of T.S. Eliot,” written in exile in the Soviet Far North on Jan. 12, 1965, as an example of the way in which Eliot could affect young poets in the remotest places.

But at the same time one could tell that the drift of opinion was turning in the Anglo-American world. One of Eliot’s closest friends, Herbert Read, wrote in 1965, soon after Eliot’s death, that “The Hollow Men” is “the last example of what I would call his pure poetry. “Ash Wednesday,” which followed in 1930, is already a moralistic poem, especially in the last two sections. All the poetry that follows, including the Four Quartets, is, in spite of flashes of the old fire, moralistic poetry.” This is approximately the opinion that Julian Symons has recently developed at some length in Makers of the New. The Revolution in Literature, 1912— 1939. He argues that Eliot, one of the creators of modernism in England, “found his true poetic subject, the salvation of his soul,” during the late 1920’s, and henceforth he simply broke with modernism as he had practiced it in the company of Pound, Joyce, and Wyndham Lewis. Otherwise, it has been apparent for many years that younger poets—some of them not very young—have followed Stevens, Williams, or even Pound rather than Eliot. Helen Vendler’s Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry is a fairly good index to American taste at the present time, and Eliot seems to have little part in it.

We must move outside Anglo-American academic circles to see what a powerful influence Eliot can still be, especially in England. I think first of Harold Pinter, who is a man of the theater in a way that Eliot never was; that is, he was an actor before he was a dramatist, and of course he has been a director as well. To be sure, Pinter started out as a poet in 1950, and the selection of his poems published in 1968 shows considerable literary energy. Martin Esslin and others have shown how the imagery in his early verse sometimes anticipates certain motifs in his plays. But the poetry lacks a firm rhythmic structure; this is what Eliot eventually provided for him. In 1955, before Pinter wrote his first drama, he was still an actor, and one of the plays he appeared in was Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, which had had its original production just two years earlier. I don’t know which part he took in the play, but I suspect that it was B. Kaghan, a rather brash young man who is an opposite number to Colby Simkins, the confidential clerk who eventually finds a spiritual vocation. Acting in this play must have given Pinter a very precise sense of Eliot’s stychomythia, as in this passage:

KAGHAN: That’s one thing I like about Lucasta:
    She doesn’t despise me.
LUCASTA:             Nobody could despise you.
    And what’s more important, you don’t despise me.
KAGHAN: Nobody could despise you, Lucasta;

By the time he wrote The Confidential Clerk, Eliot may have diluted his theater poetry somewhat, but the main line of his drama had clearly evolved from Sweeney Agonistes to The Family Reunion to the postwar comedies. The rhythmic structure was consistent. Having reached the limits of blank verse with The Waste Land, from which he discarded the long opening passage, he turned to a different system of rhythmic organization, using some of this discarded material, and the result was Sweeney Agonistes, which was begun in 1923:

DUSTY: How about Pereira?
DORIS:      What about Pereira?
    I don’t care.
DUSTY:      You don’t care!
    Who pays the rent?
DORIS:      Yes he pays the rent
DUSTY: Well some men don’t and some men do
    Some men don’t and you know who

In a musical setting for Sweeney Agonistes which was performed and recorded shortly after Eliot’s death, the composer, John Dankworth, uses a snare drum to underline and intensify the syncopated four-stress line, and I believe that the poet had always intended something like this in performance. At any rate, Pinter went back to Sweeney for his own rhythmic structure when he wrote his first plays, The Room, The Birthday Party, and The Dumb Waiter, in 1957. Pinter of course writes in prose, but a prose organized very much like poetry, as in this passage from his first play, The Room:

MRS. SANDS: No, she isn’t. That was Mr. Kidd.
MR. SANDS: Was it? I thought it was Hudd.
MRS. SANDS: No, it was Kidd. Wasn’t it, Mrs. Hudd?
ROSE: That’s right. The landlord.
MRS. SANDS: No, not the landlord. The other man.
ROSE: Well, that’s his name. He’s the landlord.
ROSE: Mr. Kidd.

Pinter’s theater poetry doubtless owes something to another dramatist, Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot was first presented in England in 1955, but the nightmare intensity of Sweeney lies back of all his work. That is why Peter Hall, in a recent essay called “Directing Pinter,” says that “One of the greatest influences on Pinter, obviously, is the early Eliot—particularly in the repeated phrase, the catching up of a phrase and repeating it over three sentences, keeping it up in the air like a ball.” And Sir Peter goes on to explain how important it is to pay attention to Pinter’s text in trying to give shape to his plays on the stage. We can say, then, that, although Eliot’s plays are not performed much at present, Pinter has made a brilliant transmutation of their rhythmic pattern for his own purposes. In a sense that is what Eliot had hoped for when he tried to revive poetic drama: that he would start something which others would carry on.

It is when we turn to contemporary painting, an art in which Eliot took little interest, that we can see how directly he can affect men working in another medium. Some critics would say—indeed have said—that the two most important painters in England today are Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. This grandson of Sigmund Freud and the more remote descendant of the original Francis Bacon are close friends who have painted each other. They have brought a powerful sense of the human figure back into painting at a time when painting has been mostly abstract, and the recent exhibitions of their work in London and Washington have caused an extraordinary response. The are not for everyone; in their different ways they can be horrific. But certain images which they have projected into their canvasses will probably remain among the few that will outlast the late 20th Century. I am thinking, for instance, of Bacon’s versions of Velásquez’s Pope Innocent X.

Bacon has evidently been a somewhat loquacious man all along; at any rate, he has never minded talking about his life and work, and the series of interviews that he made with the critic David Sylvester composes a fascinating book, a very important book according to Stephen Spender and Graham Greene. Bacon has always been a somewhat literary painter; in his conversations with Sylvester he mentions Shakespeare and Yeats. But it is Eliot who has been most important to him:

I always feel I’ve been influenced by Eliot. The Waste Land especially and the poems before it have always affected me very much. And I often read the Four Quartets, and I think perhaps they are even greater poetry than The Waste Land, though they don’t move me in the same way. But I’ve hardly ever done things inspired by particular lines and poems. I admire them and they excite me and they goad me to try and work much more.

There are two major examples of Bacon’s work which are directly related to Eliot’s poetry. Triptych Inspired By T.S. Eliot’s poemSweeney Agonistes,” which now hangs in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, dates from 1967. It is a very large oil on canvas in three panels; each measures 78 by 58 inches. The one at the left depicts two women, nude, lying down and possibly dead. There are signs of violence or at least carelessness in the room. In the middle panel a murder has probably taken place, although there is no body; blood-stained clothes and ransacked luggage strongly suggest that impression. In the right panel two men, also nude, embrace in a manner reminiscent of a pair of wrestlers that Bacon has been painting for many years, based on a famous series of photographs taken more than a century ago by the American Edward Muybridge. The context is violent, and at one side of this panel there is the reflection of a man telephoning, I suppose, the police. There is much here to disturb the spectator’s imagination. At the climax of Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes Doris, one of the two prostitutes, cuts the cards and draws the coffin, provoking this outburst from Sweeney:

I knew a man once did a girl in
Any man might do a girl in
Any man has to, needs to, wants to
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in.

In the recording of 1965 which I mentioned, the actor Nicol Williamson recites these lines in a crescendo that approaches a kind of hysteria.


John Russell, the distinguished art critic, in a book on Francis Bacon which is also based on conversations with the artist, reports something else about this play and the painting it inspired:

[Sweeney Agonistes] sets before the reader an amoral, drifting, entirely erratic milieu in which favours are bought and sold, murder is taken for granted, and people come and go in the night. It happens nowhere and everywhere. Its characters, commonplace on one level, are far beyond normal size on another . . . . The painting has as its central panel a night-piece sponsored . . .by the reminiscence of a particularly enigmatic crime of the 1920s: the window of a wagon-lit hangs open to the night-sky, while a bloodied pillow bears witness to murder.

Sweeney Agonistes was published under that title in 1932; it was first performed by the Group Theater in London in 1934, but Francis Bacon may have read it as early as 1926—27, when it was published in two issues of The Criterion. In any case, I would suggest that the sensational crime on Le Train Bleu, which Bacon would have read about in the newspapers at the time—he lived in Paris during the late 1920’s—meshed in his imagination with his experience of reading and perhaps seeing Sweeney. He was living in London at the time of the Group Theater’s production. It seems all the more remarkable that the central image engendered by the play should have taken so long to find its way into one of his canvases; but such is the power of memory.


The other painting that comes directly from Eliot is a late one called simply Painting; the date is 1978; although it is owned by a private collector in Monte Carlo, it was shown in the great Bacon retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1985. The catalogue for that exhibition contains a splendid reproduction of it. It depicts a nude male figure rearing back in order to turn the key in the door with his foot; perhaps his arms are truncated. On the floor of what might be a cell is a bloodied newspaper; reflected in a mirror is the back of an indifferent figure who could be a guard in uniform. Francis Bacon volunteered the literary source of this painting to David Sylvester:

I think that came—I don’t know why I made it turn with the foot—it very much came from that poem of Eliot’s: “I have heard the key/Turn in the door once and turn once only. . . .” You know. It comes from The Waste Land. I don’t know why I should have made it turn with the foot. But it did come from that poem.

I could add a note to this: once in South America I was acquainted with a young poet who had briefly been a political prisoner. He told me that these same lines of Eliot had a very special meaning for him. And, looking at the painting, one can easily see why. Despite Bacon’s distortion of the central figure, the situation itself is by no means exaggerated; it is only too representative of our time. Certain passages from Eliot often cut through literary conventions and fashions to readers with no training in poetry, and that is why he is one of the 20th Century poets who will outlive the period.

Bacon’s friend Lucían Freud is 13 years younger; he was born in 1922. Although his career is somewhat parallel to Bacon’s, his work is different in its method; a single painting may require many sessions, whereas Bacon attacks the canvas prestissimo, as John Russell says. And Lucian Freud has been reticent about his art, unlike Bacon. Only recently, on the occasion of his major exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum, the first to be held in the United States, has he revealed that Eliot has been a source of inspiration. In conversations with the critic Robert Hughes, which Hughes incorporated in the catalogue for the exhibition, Freud “cites Eliot’s advice to himself in “Portrait of a Lady” on how to get in the right mood for creating art”:

And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression . . .dance, dance,
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.

This is not the way in which a literary critic would read these lines. One would likely say that the speaker in the poem, not Eliot, is seeking some escape from the situation in a Boston drawing room; the verse quickens at this point. But the poem speaks to Freud in a different way, and one must respect it. As Robert Hughes says, his paintings “bypass decorum while fiercely preserving respect.”

Similarly, Freud quotes a passage from The Family Reunion that has some special significance for him:

                I felt safe enough; And now I don’t feel safe. As if the earth should open Right to the centre, as I was about to cross Pall Mall. I thought that life could bring no further surprises; But I remember now, that I am always surprised By the bull-dog in the Burlington Arcade. What if every moment were like that, if one were awake?

This is spoken by a minor character as he is trying to sort out his thoughts toward the end of the play. As Freud points out, it is only a stuffed bull dog straining at a leash, but it conveys a moment of panic, of confrontation, that is the essence of Freud’s artistic vision. It would seem that he has got more of the sense of anxiety from Eliot than he has from his celebrated grandfather. But no matter. Like Francis Bacon, he finds that Eliot has articulated the experience of his time, and his life’s work as a painter has been to convey something of this on canvas. We might conclude, then, that the power of a literary artist, while it must be realized in language, is often difficult to account for in strictly literary terms. If Eliot is temporarily out of fashion in some academic circles at the moment of his centenary, he clearly counts for something in the world where the arts are actually created and performed, and that is the important thing.


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