The Anglo-American poet T S Eliot moved from being in his youth a deeply disillusioned idealist observing the world as a cynic and as a pessimist; and him feeling that life was hollow and superficial and ghastly without ultimate value. Yet he moved within a space of 30 years from this point of despair to being a devout committed, almost a mystic, Anglo-Catholic Christian firm in the faith.
In 1915 he was writing thus:
I grow old … I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
By 1943 he was able to write:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light
Now to most readers of these two extracts from Eliot’s poems the vastness of their difference in outlook will not be discernible without readers having help to see the details of that difference. Eliot was never the most accessible of poets. I want in this article to look at these two extracts and to ‘unpack’ them; as statements of visions and as rhetorical pieces of poetry; the one aspect of their being visions being able to be discerned by the unpacking of the other aspect, their poetry. And this is not to be a mere literary exercise; no formal academic discourse and examination; instead it is to link-up with life and to attempt to brave and ransack the depths of life, so as to bring back some hope for life’s essence and its meaning. This is a bold statement of mine and an audacious undertaking; yet it is Eliot whom we shall see has done near all of the necessary spadework for this endeavour; this excursion. Like Christian it was Eliot who set out with a load on his back on The Pilgrim’s journey to stop on his way at many an The Interpreter’s House such as mine is to be. As he wrote in his own words,
‘And 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?’
And I guess he is correct; it is my own presumption which leads me to believe I am able to undertake this task to some profit to others, just as others have also presumed the same, and henceforth shall be doing so also. Now to our task: some context first. 1915 was the year when the poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ first appeared; and it was also one year into what came to be known as The Great War, thus the poem resonates with and proclaims that post-Darwin; post-Nietzsche; post-Marx intellectual milieu which had devastated life spiritually by their apparent demolitions of teleological and eschatological meaning and purpose; so that it was as if this Great War were the final empirical proof, the signature on the condition of man, which their ideas and philosophies seemed so powerfully to proclaim. Not only had their spiritual world crumbled around the minds in that age; the material world was in the throes of tearing itself to pieces; and human lives were being lost, tossed away, in war’s prosecution, as if grains of sand or as discarded shells of lowly sea creatures. Eliot himself captures the deep, deep dismay and demoralisation of such a time and its aftermaths;
‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas’
Thus a pair of claws which has not sentience, no consciousness, no conscience or aspiration; seeks for nothing but material basics; a life yet but one safe in its stunted and severely delimited potentials and capabilities; as if one were wishing away all those faculties which had for millennia caused men and women to believe themselves created ‘a little lower than the angels’. It is difficult for many, maybe most of us in the West alive today, having never known basic want for food, for shelter, nor known such outright slaughter of our sons or daughters happening and us helpless but to watch it happen; nor have we known such difficult intellectual times bearing hard down upon the idealist person of faith; so that we today cannot easily get into a frame of mind which is carrying those depths of despair which such a time engendered. Eliot, I contend, began adult life as a demolished idealist; seeing all around him dissolution and destruction; the encroachment of the modern come like a gorged Leviathan having devoured the elegant and comfortable culture and cultivation of an Ancient Regime in one great bite at Mons and Paschendale and at Ypres, on Flanders Fields.
The shock was too great to be ignored – sometimes for too many too great to be borne.
The poem ‘Prufrock’ from which the lines above ‘I grow old… etc’ are cited carries within it much self-mockery, as if the poet himself might be identified with or identical to the narrator of the poem. In those days to be old – and one was old and considered oneself old at 40 in that era – was to walk on the beach in white flannels and maybe with an ice cream cornet. These flannels would be turned-up at the ankle hems – almost like a badge stating – here am I – staid, old, subdued; a bit ridiculous in the eyes of the young. I myself have written elsewhere how my own childhood was spent in a time and environment which honoured and adhered to the last vestiges of a late Victorianism; a time when men at the seaside – we took our vacation as a day at the seaside them – would walk along the beach, striding sedately, slowly and measured, very regularly, almost as if premeditatedly; and as if there should be nothing showing which might be latched onto by an observer as being out of order with them.
In those days – the roads here were less congested then – drivers would park–up in a lay-by, step out of the car and light up a cigarette; then stroll into the main carriageway of a major road and stand smoking as if admiring the view and taking the air. The ritual was as if saying, making a public statement, that everything is hunky-dory with me, I am in charge of things – in my life – and around me. Everything about what is now early–middle –age was then in those times an attempt to stand as established – as if it were a walled-city established or a great landmark. People seemed to ossify very quickly in those days; seemed to grow easily and naturally into an unthinking and oblivious-to-the-future comfort-zone of complacency.
It was when the world suddenly opened up – not merely for myself as a pubescent teenager but for Western populations in general; and stuff like the Vietnam War came daily to our TV screens; and when goods and money became plentiful and one’s ‘expressing-oneself’ became the vogue to be an inalienable right of everyone; did the edifice of late-Victorianism just evaporate – almost overnight. The fractures in high intellectual life which had occurred at the time of the First World War had finally begun to bear (acrid?) fruit for even the lowest classes of working families in Britain.
Suddenly it was ok, it was indeed de rigueur to be satirical, to be alternative, to be outrageous, to be an enfant terrible; Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes suddenly began to be the be-all-and-end-all of many ordinary people’s lives; who once it was tasted like Oliver they wanted More! The driver standing statuesque on the main highway smoking his stogies for recreation likewise disappeared – and old people began to get younger.
Back to Eliot. Likewise the questioning in ‘Prufrock’ whether he, the narrator ‘dare to eat a peach’ and his questioning whether to ‘part my hair behind’ are asked perhaps half-rhetorically and tongue-in-cheek; mocking himself. A peach is a sexual kind of fruit (‘walking on the beaches, looking at the peaches’ The Stranglers); a young person’s fruit then; something which might look out of place perhaps in ‘a person of a certain age’ who has a ‘reputation for respectability’ to keep up? Parting one’s hair behind is perhaps considered to be a concession to age; and maybe questioned because such a parting of hair advertises about that defeat which one has accepted once one becomes, or allows oneself to be recognised as having become ‘old’ in Eliot’s sense here? Nonetheless the point has been made by me sufficiently I think. ‘Old’ here for Eliot is a state of mind, a surrender not just to conventions and accepted manners in wider society, but a surrender of oneself, one’s self-esteem and one’s place as being what we would now call ‘a player’ in one’s local world. And one’s local world was all that mattered for many, most, in those times.
But the two lines of verse which follow all this half-comic, half- dejected mockery of self carries utterly a different and striking tone in its enormous tragic ring of pain:
‘I have heard the mermaids singing each to each
I do not think that they will sing to me’
Here is, I believe, Eliot the supreme idealist, able to envisage ‘mermaids singing’. Mermaids are mythical creatures; do not exist except in stories and in one’s imagination. They are symbols then of something envisaged by the narrator which does not and cannot exist, other than as a fantasy, a wish, and yet a wish strong enough as a yearning to wrestle within as a deep unquenchable desire; and this is what we are having expressed by Eliot to us here; his painful reaching for what presently he considers an impossibility. He has heard mermaids singing – he has envisaged the beautiful and the true and the wonderful and the marvellous – the mermaids – and envisaged them singing to one another – like as if in a painting by Watteau – a sealed world – a world from which reality is excluded – because reality is not beautiful or marvellous or wonderful; because the world is ‘stale flat and unprofitable’ and ‘a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’ (see ‘Hamlet’).
Eliot was a big fan of Robert Browning, the intellectual’s poet of the Victorian Age; and Browning wrote approvingly that ‘a man’s reach should exceed his grasp’ and he justified this being a good thing to be the case because it left men and women unsatisfied and so still willing to strive for excellence and improvement. But here Eliot is perhaps saying that a man’s reach is so far outstripped by what is necessary to be grasped that the only proper response to such a state of affairs is utter dejection.
And this utter yearning for ‘mermaids’ and this utter dejection at knowing never to attain them as objects of such yearnings, together these are all the tension and all the drama and poetry of ‘Prufrock’.Worse yet; of the mermaids he writes: ‘I do not think that they will sing to me’. There’s an amount of self-pity here I think; but yet this self-pity is dramatically valid as it being a part of the makeup of the people of that emergent modern age; a retreat into self; a self-concern which is unhealthy and which at the same time is a displacement of feeling into a cheap comfort. ‘Prufrock’ throughout is ‘lowly’ in a sense of being ‘a small man’ ‘an attendant Lord’ and not ‘Prince Hamlet’ – a precursor of Willy Loman or of Vladimir and Estragon?
Nonetheless the self-pity is not overburdening and so allows the overpowering sense of utter dejection and defeat to impact on a reader that ‘the mermaids’ will not sing; that is, the narrator’s dreams and ideals will never be realised. Prufrock is a young man and for a young idealist to face such a prospect of life is tragic and an invitation for him to enter Bunyan’s Slough of Despond. I have not overlooked that Eliot writes’ I do not think that they will sing to me’ and does not write ‘They will not sing to me’. The thinking is crucial. Firstly the mind is the area of action for Prufrock; for us as readers and for the protagonist as a suffering thwarted idealist. Thus to think the mermaids will not sing to one in this case is for the mermaids not to sing to one. The thinking is the doing in this arena. Secondly the thinking is a conviction (like a jail sentence) in his mind that his life, despite all his oppressed and repressed idealism, ultimately is worthless; that all society life is show and surface and human lives are shallow and are being lived deliberately so in order to skirt over the depths where the answers to it lie and they are terrible answers. This horrible place to be in then is I am contending pretty much Eliot’s message and position in 1915.
Summed up I think in a line from his poem ‘The Waste Land’ written during the 1920s;
‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’
Now to look at the second of the citations which head up this article; this one taken from his final great series of poems ‘Four Quartets’. He is now an Anglo-Catholic in 1943 when these lines were first published, yet there is little happy-clappy or ‘born-again’ about them; little of outright joy and liberation at a prospect of Salvation or at a possible solution to his thwarted idealism of his youth. All is low-key, reserved even, and contemplative rather than proclamation. The Biblical parallel is perhaps rather the ending of the Book of Job than the euphoria of The Great Commission in the gospel. Coleridge’s ‘a sadder and a wiser man’; sadder because more settled and resigned, accepting, but not accepting of that mantle assumed by those who ‘wear white flannel trousers and walk along the beach’. Not that mantle once dreaded as ‘the nightmare life-in-death’ of ‘Prufrock’; but no; instead an attainment, a settlement, one not a compromise of or for his idealism; in fact a place to be and to belong which fulfils all the aspirations of that hope once thwarted and denied to him. Simply put – a follower of Christ.
I have heard literary people who are not Christian say and maintain that Eliot in his later poetry – by which they generally mean ‘Ash Wednesday’ and after and in particular ‘Four Quartets’ – he deliberately or else in the course of nature divested himself of poetic ability or skill or technique or excellence; whatever; and this judgement by them allows them the field in their eyes where they are able to proclaim that his earlier poems are superior and perhaps far superior to these later items. I believe it is significant that most of such commentators are not Christians; and I believe I am not being prejudiced myself in what I am about to say about such judgements.
Firstly, there is a certain Romanticism attached to the espousal by readers of the present age of Eliot’s earlier poems; as these being for them the crème de la crème of his oeuvre. That age of intellectual despair in which and under pressure from which they were written has passed pretty much. In its stead is a post-modern 21st century Ancient Regime type superficiality in social relations and in all classes of society and is one of our own makings. The line ‘I do not think that they will sing to me’ is more an historical line than it is a heartfelt line for most of us right now. May it become a heartfelt line for us again and soon.
The cranky literary critic F R Leavis noted in his perorations that even in his heyday (1950s and 1960s) in the intellectual world there was a certain ‘getting-over-it’ happening about the loss of faith and the loss of absolute standards on which to rest one’s judgements and hopes. He meant maybe that funny plays like Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’; and aggressive and iconoclastic dramas like John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’ and Harold Pinter’s menacing humour in plays like ‘The Caretaker’ and ‘Old Times’ were ousting the old angst and despair felt by the ‘Death of God’ sufferers and so life was becoming ‘liberated’ of such old and weighty baggage. I have written elsewhere about Liberace being buried in his grand piano coffin and about funerals being staged as absurdist dramas in our present age; these are examples of manifestations of our ‘getting-over-it’.
But as for the solemnities of religion in their stead and as part of the New Mythos has come to ‘Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold’ a certain sentimentality expressed as levity and inconsequence pertaining to life and to Last Things. In the place of plain and honest tears and grief has come a facile ‘eat drink and be merry’ at the funeral because (apparently) it’s all over and our turn’s coming soon. What is that book title ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’? We have thus likewise and presently elevated popular song and popular sport and popular amusements and pastimes to rank with dry and dusty interests such as Philosophy and Theology and Classics and Opera and Ballet and so on; ousting these dry dusty items from the dry dusty places at the intellectual apex of men and women’s achievement; with a result that nothing is able to be evaluated justly and so everything contends (in our eyes with legitimacy) for pole position against everything else. The villain in Disney’s ‘The Incredibles’ says; ‘One day everyone will be super; and then no-one will be.’ That’s how it is.
Thus mawkish sentimentalities about absurdist send-offs and about radio show characters and about those actors who play them; being confounded and confused; real life and fictional drama being indistinguishable; makes life as an event a dog’s dinner of mashed grits and slops for every meal. Value as value is itself confounded and made valueless and unable to be evaluated. Truth then is a casualty and opinion becomes king; mine of course being every bit as valid as yours even though I don’t know the first thing about the topic in question, or else I have a vested business interests in my opinions. Eliot himself checked-out this mawkish sentimentality in one of its incarnations in common life just after the Second War and incorporated it into his ‘The Waste Land’. The ladies and gents at the pub say adieu to one another at closing time:
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.
It sounds a cruel mockery and Eliot was taken to task by some commentators for being so scathing of common people and their lives; but yet I am of the common people and I hereby vouch for its authenticity, and so for its truth and verisimilitude.
Mawkish sentimentality is akin to self-pity; in that it substitutes for something else in us. Self-pity substitutes for us taking responsibility for our actions and mawkish sentimentality draws a veil over things we’d rather not face up to without that veil being there. Like the fact that quite often when we hear of a death it does not move us one way or another. Like the fact that sometimes when we hear of a death we cannot handle it easily except by turning our grief or shock into a pantomime of folly. Like these men and women leaving the pub, a few drinks down them, and a little woozy in the head; so passions rise up in us which are close to weeping but we are too conscious still to accept them so we divert into slush and make-believe to do our best to be friends and hold ourselves together still. Our repressed feelings about our lives and our pressures of life gaining opportunity through drink to rise up; and these rather than our making our farewells are our causes of near weeping and of our fond farewells to friends.
I am not claiming there is no genuine feeling for others in us; only that maybe it is not recognised or else processed directly by the bearers of it so well as it could be.
Commentators thus who are not Christian or else antipathetic to religion in general, see Eliot’s early poetry as his better stuff because they approve and indulge this commonplace Romanticism and Sentimentality about life and death and about the facileness of the profundities of life which Eliot’s earlier poetry lends itself to as an interpretation. It is as if such commentators were acknowledging the pain in these profundities but at second-hand and in this way and almost superstitiously they are attempting ‘keeping these profundities in hand or at bay’. I suspect psychologists have a term for what I mean? Smile at a ghost and it won’t be half so potent?
Secondly I call as witness the great Ben Jonson, who said very comically in his Induction to ‘Bartholomew Fair’:
He that will swear, Jeronimo, or Andronicus are the best Plays, yet shall pass unexcepted at here, as a Man whose Judgment shews it is constant, and hath stood still these five and twenty or thirty years.
What I am saying is that such commentators are living in their minds in an age which has passed. Not only has the trauma of The Great War subsided and the impacts of Marx; Freud; Darwin and Nietzsche softened and to some extent been assimilated; thus the ‘Death of God;’ has been much exaggerated. God has been victim of misreporting like the Nissan of Hyderabad who reported in the ‘Times of India’ one day as ‘Dead’ and the following day as being ‘Slightly Better’. Impacts take time for us to recover from them and we have recovered; and, lo, God is – unsurprisingly – still here upholding his world and all things herein.
The commentators also miss in Eliot’s later poems that bitter incisive cynicism and cuttingness of his youthful muse; the fruits of thwarted dreams and ideals. And what else is there left but to be scathing and brusque when there is no outlet for dreams, for desires and for petitions to possess love? The cut and thrust of Eliot’s muse is not subdued in or gone from his later verse but it is transformed; and that drama which was seen in Prufrock and other earlier poems is now no longer smart and dry and severe and cutting; but is now a finely balanced, attuned and nuanced attempting to speak of deep and close things, almost ineffable things, by means of a use of extended symbols, or symbolisms, which are drawn from very small and local elements of life; which things are thus proven to carry great portentous metaphysical potencies.
And just as Christ himself wove his parables and stories around harvest, and farming, and shepherding, and carpentry and building and all the modest arts of life; Eliot seems here to attempt an emulation of the Master in this regard in his later poetry. Excepting that Christ stayed very plain and unadorned; whereas Eliot attempts deep introspections and arguments.
Eliot in the extract from ‘Four Quartets’ I cite is disciplining himself by means of his writing. One thinks of this verse as a meditation and as a mediation as if it were Eliot himself ‘thinking out loud’. It is as if he is attempting to convince himself that ‘hope would always be hope for the wrong thing ‘and that ‘love would always be love for the wrong thing’; and that ‘to wait’ without love and without hope is the right attitude to hold onto. A kind of ascetic training manual
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought
Who is the you? Himself – and us? I think so. It’s is universal advice of the mind to the heart, but a teaching which when/if the heart espouses will bring the fruit of holy fulfilment to its catechumens. We are to ‘wait without thought’ because;
..the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
And this is where Job of the Land of Uz and his sufferings come in. And also come in here Samuel Beckett and his dramas. Both Job and Beckett are advocates of waiting; and are advocates of the faith and the love being in the waiting. Beckett got angry when people mentioned God to him; and his faith and love and hope were in humanity; but dare I offend his ghost and say that this is sufficient care and devotion for a merciful God to accept in a man to have and to show. Job is left ultimately answerless intellectually to his implicit challenge to his God to justify Himself to Job.
Job instead of well-wrought answers to the great metaphysical questions he raises; gets an incitement to peace and patience and is told and accepts he has to rest contented. God is unanswerable and cannot be constrained to answer. ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Another great man and a great, great poet, was John Milton, who famously ends his sonnet on the topic of his blindness by offering us and internalising into himself the resignation and solace in the words; ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ Waiting is probably the great achievement of any life. Being able to wait without chafing or restlessness; and thus as the old divines used to say ‘bearing the hand of God’ upon oneself, however it might care to bless or chide, bring us peace or trial.
So the darkness shall be the light
Thus ends the citation I gave from Eliot’s late verse. Milton’s blindness; the ‘o dark, dark, dark’ of his ‘Samson Agonistes’ the darkness into which we fear to go upon our deaths; may these transpire to be to us as ‘the darkness shall be the light’. From quite early on Eliot found a form of words which I feel is hard to be excelled in its expression of our due comportment for life; maybe especially for when we get older and we are feeling the ‘nights closing in’. He wrote in his pivotal poem ‘Ash Wednesday’ whilst he was struggling with a transition from non-belief to belief a very memorable and most supportive phrase:
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
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