Even so great a figure in the intellectual world of the mid 20th century as Sir Maurice Bowra was persuaded that T S Eliot’s later works represented a falling off of his poetic gifts; and that Eliot’s early works – I guess Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady, and The Waste Land being primes cases in point, showed the best of Eliot as a poet.
And this judgment has held good for so many critics of Eliot; even for some of the most eminent; along with views from many less stellar minds.
Since his death Eliot as a poet of repute has for near half a century gone into eclipse; one might at one time a few years back buy a hardback of his complete play and poems for buttons online only in recent years. He is beginning to re-emerge as a worthy to be considered for a permanent place in the English canon of literaure. Eliot’s eclipse is not so surprising; since his gifts were so great that in his lifetime he had been held solely and wholly as The Definitive Poet of 20th century English writing.
Yes we had seen Yeats and Owen, and also a few more uncommon names, and Yeats and Owen would perhaps have been talked about and studied more here in Britain were Eliot to have stayed in his native USA; Yeats especially being a poet of true greatness; but Eliot took the limelight because of his so gripping and incisive work in verse which stirred so many of the deepest nerves of his readers, and struck major keynotes for the times and so for them also.
I recall reading I think it was Auden or Waugh saying that Eliot’s (early) poetry was difficult but that it had an effect like the words of an Old Testament prophet upon its readers. And Eliot himself at one time wrote that he believed that poetry should be felt by its readers before it being understood by them; and this was just how his poems affected and still affect so many readers on their first coming to him.
It is not surprising the Biblical comparison; although coming from a quarter like Waugh or Auden it might be thought surprising. Eliot made use of what one might call ‘archetypes’ as symbols; figures expressed using ideas like water and thirst, thunder and rain, ancient myth, anthropological and proto-scientific items like Tarot and Astrology, death and rebirth, and so on. He had a way of building his poems by cumulative use of the power of such images; a poetry which is so dense and so filled with allusions and citations; cross references and bearing an intese concentration of meanings.
For a reader to unfold enough of the meaning for that reader to be able to begin to articulate ‘what a poem by Eliot is about’ requires repeated and and continued work and rereading; not all at once; but like a good soak in a warm bath regularly over a course of weeks gets one squeaky clean.
But to the contention now that Eliot’s early major poems are better as poetry, a higher accomplishment by him, than is his later work; in particular better than his late series of peoms known as Four Quartets. There is a very marked change of style in the late poems Four Quartets; a change which can be seen to be beginning with those major poems which appeared after The Waste Land, was published; poems like Gerontion and Ash Wednesday; poems in which a friend of mine at college once said that Eliot was ‘divesting himself of aesthetic poetic expression’.
And this belief that Eliot as it were could have continued in his earliest modes of style and compositon which had brought him fame as a poet, and that he chose instead to quell or to quash his talents – this appears to be a common belief amongst many people who discuss him and his works. Thus the case against him is not that of the romanticised and mistaken case put against Mendelsohn or Schumann; that their later works are ‘inferior’ to their earlier works because of a ‘droping off of creative ability’ in those miusicians later in their lives, and thus, the argument continues, they could not but write ‘inferior’ music as their late works. The case with Eliot is often said to be a kind of renunciation of his great gifts; in a similar way perhaps to an aged Tolstoy’s attempt to give away his vast fortunes and estates for the benefit of poorer people. To me myself this proposition of divestment in Eliot implies in a way that in some way the gifts and techniques used in the earlier poetry of Eliot’s and which were so successful, were somehow ‘below the belt’ or else ‘illegitimate’ as poetry?
There is a general point here I want to pick up on later in this essay about ‘tricks and techniques’ in art as a whole; say for instance the uses of rhetoricks and tropes etc in writing; and of trompe l’oile and other ‘illusory’ items in the pictoirial arts, and so on; it is a point I want to make about mature art and mature artists and their seeming ability – when the artist is a great one- to break through into a formal and stylistic simplicity of a superior order in their late years. But we shall come to this later.
The watershed for Eliot; for his life as a human person and for his poetic art had been undoubtedly his adoption by Christ when Eliot became a member of The Church. Like St Paul, Eliot’s change of heart and mind; his rebirth into Christ came rather more slowly than is commonly understood. Both Eliot and St Paul are recorded as having had sudden enlightenments; flashes of revelation; yet of both these men a person examining the facts is able to see that it might easily be said in truth that before they obtained their new faith they had formerly ‘protested far too much’ against that same faith.
Paul is recorded in The Book of Acts as having been present at the stoning to death of the first Martyr St Stephen outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem by the Jewish authorities; Paul having held the cloaks of those who were busy stoning Stephen. Paul is noted as having been prior to his new birth in Christ a great and a feared enemy of that same faith and of those who professed it. Paul was vigorously, almost pathologicaly antagonistic and angrily agrressive towards Jesus Christ and his Church.
Eliot too is antagonstic but with a deep, deep, cynicism and dismayed disbelief in life having purpose and in people being anything more than concerned with trivia like gossip or backbiting or else with pretensions, manipulations, and impostures. This attitiude of his characterises his early works which are downbeat, set in secular settings, and generally ascerbic and pessimistic about life sometimes to a point of morbidity. Only the liveliness of the scathing poetry; its marvellous trenchancy made via imagery and thematic and finely-tuned observations; its deep perspicacity and liveliness of composition make it astoundingly great.
In The Waste Land, a long and important poem published in the mid 1920s can be seen some of the early hints of Eliot looking towards a spiruitual answer to his dismay and disillusion with people and with society. The Waste Land represents a beginning towards personal salvation for Eliot; and it is after The Waste Land that his poems begin to lose that trenchant cynical bite which is the hallmark of the early successes; and to take on a more reflective, less fierce, outlook; and hence his use of language becomes more philosophical and mediative and of a level and less caustic/agitated emotional current.
One is able to see in the chronologocal order of his poems a fairly gradual shift from an empty extisent cynicism to a poet more at peace with himself and with others in the world; a shift which coincides exacly with his homing slowly towards God and to belief.
Rather occasionally here and there his early poems are not without some subdued references to religious considerations; likewise his later poems here and there occasionally can still show the sharp ascerbic edge of his early work. But the transition from one style and outlook to the other is fairly complete; and I think deliberate and necessary in Eliot’s development as a man and as a poet.
His new style is one which he found was able to carry and contain his new and regenerate outlook; in which he was able to write and convey perhaps some consideratiobns on that question’s answer which is left hanging in his earliest popularly succesful work ‘The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock’ where he refrains with words which;
‘lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.’
The ‘overwhelming question..” might be said to be the ultimate conundrum about overall purpose, meaning, driection in human life
Now for a few ilustrations for my readers of his early style, as set against his later style of writing poems. Here first is shown next how cutting and disillusioned Eliot could show himself to be early on:
“I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?”
Here is real venom. There is a dismissive ‘I have known the eyes already, known them all,’ presumptuous and absolute; a statement of angry disgust rather than of fact perhaps. The author of the line pretends to know others’ thoughts and outlooks in great imntimate and sordid detail.
The following few lines cited next are a marvel of exposition unpacking that type of scenario wherein a person presumes to have knowledge of another person, and also has, they believe, ‘got your number’ so that they use this supposed close knowledge of ‘where you’re coming from’ against the subjected person so as to manipulate them. The image of the insect mounted on a pin alive and wriggling and to become a specimen in a glass case perhaps; an image which is used to convey the social entrapment by a wiseacre that such an outlook and endeavour means for the person ‘mounted on the pin’, as it were. In the image here, there is deep disdain for the ‘lepidoperist’ actor of the part. The sense of claustrophobic unfreedom is heavily in the air; and the resentment and depressed dismay it produces in its victim is also very apparent here:
‘The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin’
The ‘formulated phrase’ even is prefabricated just as is the attitude on ‘knowing exactly where a person is coming from’; full of presuppositions and presumptions. The ‘formulate phrase’ is perhaps an easy, maybe lazy, or convenient way of getting a handle on someone; and needs no real thought other than does say an obvious multiple-choice answer to a set question.
Once ‘formulated’ in this way the victim is thus like an insect caught alive to be put in a showcase and is thus ‘sprawling on a pin’. This is a dreadful image of pain and of capture, it hints of death, and of a curious dispassionate interest in clincially inquisitiive captor’s mind? Almost morbid; but saved from morbidity by the tremendous liveliness and invention of the poetry itself.
The victim imagines himself pinned, wriggling, on a wall and asks himself that ‘overwhelming question’ again: ‘Then how should I begin?’ Rarely has so much been said and arises as inferrable from five such simple plain words.
It is on a par with Macbeth’s famous ‘T’was a rough night’
The fact of the captors having entrapped their victim; and by ‘formulate phrase’ ‘pinned’ him to a wall; means that the victim feels impotent and that he feels he can do nothing which might alter the captors’ attitudes towards him; at least not without upseting a whole social system of late-Romantic decadent salon manners and their ettquette. Later the victim says to himself an unspoken wished-for challenge he dare not make: ‘Do I dare – disturb the universe?’ – the ‘universe’ being his and his captors’ whole social mileau and environment. The vicrtim also comments in another place in the poem in similar vein with:
“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,”
The ‘eternal Footman’ represents the victim’s certain and absolute ostracism from the society life of the early 20th century salons; which for his class of person is a ‘social death’ and a route perhaps to destitution? So it meant much to him Thus he has to compromise and to accept the ‘formuated phrase’ by which his ‘social captors’ have entrapped him.
So this poem commonly known as ‘Prufrock’, is about subdual and constraint, about manipulation and of having to slot into a society’s mores and etiquettes so as to be able to survive; and of the great compromises and losses of breath of mind to be sacrificed in order for one to have to do so. Such great and awful losses are symbolised marvellously in some of the final and most beautiful lines in the poem; lines which represent disapointment of freedom of thought and fancy; liberty of joy and expression so excellently well:
“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.”
What might be a better expression of consciousness of stifled potential? Here in the beautiful mermaids image we see the germ in Eliot which was to grow irrepressibly in him towards and finally into his espousalof religious belief. As Eliot says in one of his later Four Quartets ‘ Our beginning never know our ends’ but he also writes ‘in my beginning is my end’. The two statements are both true and the explanantion whyso they are both true is perhaps best expressed by citing Oscar Wilde who has said wryly: “Youth is wasted on the young”.
As a sharp reader might have noted already Eliot’s character Prufrock and other of his poetic protagonsists are very self-conscious as a social beings; and not beyond, in fact thrive on ,mocking themselves and undermining their own life yearnings as if these were no more than a ‘pretentious’ aand precocious wild and silly ambition of theirs. This self mocking awareness works so well to add drama and tension to the dramiatic, usualy social, situations Eliot’s poems present to us. It adds yet another layer of ‘wriggling on a pin’ to them, because Eliot’s self conscious persona rest rather much in self-doubt and self-effacement, as if Eliot were using them to say, maybe to himself, ‘don’t be such a primadonna’. Or else Eliot having them quite terrified that were they actually,
“To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,”
There might be no answers forthcoming and thus they would have lost socially everything and gained instead absolutely nothing positive in return for such bravery/foolhardiness. A double bind dilemma.
Enough on the early poetry which I hope you can see by now is of the very highest quality; a hard act to follow, especially by its very creator; Eliot.
Let’s look at the later poetry a bit now. That poetry which so many eminent critics will tell you is a falling off; a retreat; a disappointment even; and which I will tell you and aim to show that it is not only the logical positive outcome of the earlier works, but surpasses them as poetry and as art of lasting value. As one commentator I read once wrote ‘ The glory of Eliot’.
Eliot’s self-doubt, self-deprecation, self-abasement even; which causes so much of the pain of suffering in so much of his earliest poems, is retained in his later work and is there transformed and showing as a modesty, a humility, in the face of his Creator; Job-like almost, Eliot’s basic attitude seems to me in his Four Quartets to be ‘
- “Teach us what we shall say unto him (God); for we cannot order our speech by reason of darkness.
Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out: he is excellent in power, and in judgement, and in plenty of justice: he will not afflict.
Men do therefore fear him: he respecteth not any that are wise of heart.”
- The simplicity of the words of the Bible, which marvellously thus become capable of bearing sublime and mysterious truths, some truths by their splendour being difficult to fathom; these traits likewise become the tools of Eliot’s trade in Four Quartets. The complications of personal human drama set in social settings of the early poems are substituted instead by poetic themes which few poets have had success in handling; themes philosophical and ruminative, and being approached in such a way as to create and to carry through a teleological drama in their reading.
- The sharp and knowing cycnical ‘angles’ of a Prufrock or other early persona are all gone in Four Quartets; there is in the air an air of peac, which the early poems are not capable of sustaining in any way; it seems safe to say here then that religious belief brought Eliot considerable paeace of mind. And perhaps this is the aspect of the later work which critics stand upon in their belief that Eliot’s poetry has of late lost its glow and quality.
- They are mistaken. Indeed as one of the characters says in Shakepeare’s The Tempest, another relatively serene and late work, ‘He doth mistake the true totally’.
- Another citation from The Temepest I believe helps illustrate very clearly a truer objection of these critics to Eliot’s late poems;
- “You cram these words into mine ears anaginst the stomach of my sense’
- The critics who see a falling off in the late poems I would say are not yet ready for these late poems; these critics remain at a stage at which ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’ best represent their world views; and they are not able to or have not yet grasped the full and marvellous magic of Christian revelation into their inmost beings; a magic which is at the heart of and makes up the ineffable soul of these late poems of Eliot’s.
- ‘Good wine needs no bush’
- ‘New wine needs to be put in new wineskins’
- “When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
- Indeed there is in places a sort of serenity about Eliot and his words and poetry in Four Quartets. The setting, in so far as there is one setting, are small and sleepy more-English-than-English villages, places of age and tradition and where supposedly nothing untoward but only charming things happen. This deliberate backwater serenity is the place Eliot discovers to his readers where even there in the sleepy, and maybe for the busy hectic citydweller, the dreary Heart of England, astounding things, miracles, coeternal creativity and the great cosmic dance go on also and regardless, hidden maybe, but perceptible although perhaps not absolutely disctinctly so. In this way Four Quartets are essays; essays being attempts by Eliot to reveal to the modern post-Enlightment-blinded minds of humankind glimpses of the great and preternatural metaphyscial underpinnings of all existence. As John’s gospel says, I think Eliot agrees that:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
- Like St John Eliot begins his first of his Quartets, titled Burnt Norton, with broad and sweeping majesty of statement:
- “Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
- This verse may appear difficult. It is. It requires some thought and some careful rereading. It will reward adequately. I believe it is Eliot’s attempt at beginning to expand his readers’ consciousnesses; to lay the ground for the meditative thought which is to follow. Is it poetry? Is it great poetry?
- As I wrote earlier – yes it is – and the poetry and its greatness is in the specualtion; in the daring of it and in its sweep of compass; in the gentle but lucid way Eliot shepherds his reader into his introductory themes of time and eternity here. It is a meditation on the natur eof Time; on a possibility of other interpretations of time and being and existence; rather like a religious meditation by a mystic or a monk, an atempt to raise possible eventualities not ordinarily considered or achieved consciously by people in the mainstream of life and society.
- The poetic beauty then lies rather more inthe grandeur and sweep and beauty of the ideas, in the introduction of these simply, rather than in the choices of a sweetmeat vocabulary or of fireworks from the Lexicon. The meaning of the relatively simple words – placed so as to render themselves as a complex order of ideas – carries so much burden that one is slightly overwhelmed by the paradox of sublimity in simplicity.
- In late Eliot the words speak for themselves; carry their own weights, and refer to their own ‘objective corelatives’ – it is art without art and showing without display – it is an attitude of mind and a sub-didactic style of comfort and joy in metaphysical truth; an exploration on which the poet goes and he brings you along, promising nothing new de facto but only a tremendous amount which is liberational and new to his readers:
- See the following longish citation from Eliot from the Quartet named: East Coker
“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres-
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholy new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
In their almost prosaic way these lines are a conversational piece offered in confidence and between a reader and Eliot himself. There seem to be few difficulties for any average reader being able to understand what Eliot is saying in them. He is striking an attitude; not one necessarily of affectation or otherwise false; but one which expresses clearly his resignation to the role of ‘recoverer of truth’ in poetry; rather than him aiming for a more ambitious and perhaps more self-regarding proclamation of new and novel ideas – for creativity as the popular imagination envisages it. Thus these lines have a sobriety; a restraint; a quiet acceptance of limitations; and Eliot perhaps finds himself no longer like Shakespeare in:
“Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope’
But instead he is at ease, at peace even, with himself with whom he was yet formerly at war. The consolations not of philosophy but of a surrender of the will in as far as this is humanly possible to God’s. Eliot’s claim that there is no new revelation to be discovered is akin to The Preacher’s of the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes who says famously ; ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ and who adds rather glumly: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity”. Eliot is in no way likewise condemningly despondent of existence as is The Preacher now Eliot is in his regenerate self. The preacher lived under the Old Dispensation before Christ; Eliot has the sanctity sanctuary and surety of Christ; of awareness of that Divine love which surpasses all understanding and which is for each individual amongst us; as if each were an only son to The Lord. Eliot is calm, grave, solemn but not dismayed or demoralised; in an uncommon way he is contented if not happy to have found out and so to have been opened up to, by God, these conclusions he has made on ‘Life, The Universe, and Everything’ in his Four Quartets.
Even Eliot’s muted scepticism about the power and use of words inthis citation above here is moderated by a peacefulness; there is a disdain there, but not for people or for himself anymore; but for the pretensions of poetry and of poets and other wordsmiths, the politicians and the rhetoricians, who claim to be striving using creative powers which are held only by God our Maker.
That phrase Eliot uses ‘In the general mess of imprecision of feeling’ applies universally. Just as St Paul tells us regarding righteousness that ‘All have fallen short’ so Eliot here perhaps says regarding a precise use of words, of saying what we mean and meaning what we say, that: ‘All have fallen short’ in thelike fashion. The great philosopher Karl Popper was wont to say: ‘There is nothing I can say which will not be misunderstood’ Eliot might have agreed with him?
This long and conversational expository passage of Eliot’s cited above here is a fine example of that utter change, but with many residual traits newly redirected, and transformed, which Eliot made to his persona and so to his poetic style late in his life. Made to himself as a man also I believe. By no means is it a falling off; not poetically nor aesthetically, neither in ideas nor thoughtwise, of images, tropes, strophes, or of composition. It is rather a purification; an ascendancy; a step further along the way of a literary expression of lasting value.
Eliot’s early poetry represented a radical new style in English literature; one which superseded and surpassed the mass of ailing late Romantic decadents and the minor Edwardian formalistic poets. It was the fruit of a wide ranging reading and its assimilation; new wine in new bottles, but grown upon older vines from a host of quality vineyards.
Likewise Eliot’s late poems, and particularly Four Quartets, are yet another revolution of radical departure from his earlier poems. Few English poets, I can think only of Shakespeare and maybe Milton also, have managed such a development and radical shift of point of view and of artistic presence as has done Eliot; and has succeeded overwhelmingly in both old and new works.
Eliot seems to me to have expressed the life he lived in his poems, having left us in them a record of his progress as an example for us to try to follow in our own lives. Deliberately so, at least later on in his work. He is no saint in the common use of this word, but he was ultra-sensitively attuned to our world even as we yet live it out today; and so he saw into the heart of things rather better than most of us do and saw therein stood clear and simple: Jesus Christ his Master.