Eliot and the Shudder

Frank Kermode

Tennyson was not a poet for whom T.S. Eliot professed much love, though he was judicious as well as cool in his appraisals: ‘He has three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety and complete competence.’ (He means ‘they must be like Dante.’) And ‘he had the finest ear of any English poet since Milton’ – an opinion that loses warmth when one recalls what Eliot said elsewhere about Milton. (Having a fine ear is not enough.) When Eliot attends to Tennysonian detail, for instance in Maud, he finds much to dislike, and pronounces ‘the ravings of the lover on the edge of insanity’ and the ‘bellicose bellowings’ to be ‘false’: they fail ‘to make one’s flesh creep with sincerity’. But In Memoriam is a different matter; there alone does Eliot find that Tennyson achieves ‘full expression’. He issues, quite insistently, his customary warning: the poem must be ‘comprehended as a whole’. Nevertheless it seems permissible to remember this part on its own:

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

‘This,’ Eliot says, ‘is great poetry, economical of words, a universal emotion related to a particular place; and it gives me the shudder that I fail to get from anything in Maud.’ ‘Shudder’ is a bit surprising coming from the stately Eliot, though the experience to which he refers may in some forms be common enough. He certainly experienced it, or something that puts him or us in mind of it. If the word is used as equivalent to ‘frisson’ (and lexicographers defining frisson seem unable to avoid ‘shudder’), we can propose a debt to the French, likely in these years when English poets were influenced, as Eliot was, by Baudelaire and others. Indeed Eliot, rejecting the 1890s reading of Baudelaire, had made himself the major exponent of that author as a fierce moralist as well as the poet of ‘l’immonde cité’, and Baudelaire’s book has its share of horrors, shudders and shadows. Huysmans, a disciple of Baudelaire, was admired by Eliot, and it might be said that his A Rebours would have to be shortlisted in any shuddering competition, especially as frémir lends support to frissonner. As an admirer of Huysmans, Oscar Wilde had recourse to the ‘shudder’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray. A high proportion of these instances occur in commonplace expressions such as ‘I shudder at the thought’ or ‘a shudder passed through’ whoever it was, examples which tend only to show that whatever its original force the shudder was susceptible to vulgarisation; but the word remained capable of describing the horror, or even the beauty, of a body’s response to violent stimulus. Eliot admired shock and surprise, looked for these qualities in his own verse, and judged others, as he does Tennyson, by their success in providing them.

Pater speaks of Coleridge’s ‘taste for the supernatural’ as a ‘longing for le frisson, a shudder, to which the “romantic” school in Germany, and its derivations in England and France, directly ministered’. Some mildly louche shuddering occurs in Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’:

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side –
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

What happens next we aren’t told, but that shudder, along with other details, suggests that Christabel may be about to suffer a disagreeable, if romantic, experience. A degenerate version of such encounters found its place in American ‘terror magazines’, descendants also of Poe, and, according to Wikipedia, known in the trade as ‘shudder pulps’.

Auden could find it possible, on a chilly night in Brussels, to defy the cold with a libidinal shudder: ‘And fifty francs will earn a stranger right/To take the shuddering city in his arms.’ Just recently I heard somebody reading Dracula on the radio; it seems that a taste for some form of shudder continues to thrive. What seems to be a specialised usage of it is prominent in the aesthetics of Adorno.

More interesting in this context are the observations of Darwin on the physiology of the shudder, recorded in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), which has a chapter headed ‘Surprise– Astonishment–Fear–Horror’. Among the reactions to a suitable stimulus are elevation of the eyebrows, protrusion of the lips, erection of the hair and contraction of the platysma muscle. The contraction of this muscle, which extends from the collarbone up each side of the neck, can drastically alter the appearance: the jaw drops, the pupils dilate and so on. The first sensation of fear, or the imagination of something dreadful, commonly excites a shudder, and a simultaneous contraction of the platysma. The OED defines the word, but without citing Darwin. The behaviour of the muscle registers a response to fear, horror, pain or the fear of it, or pain in others, or anger, or sometimes disgust.

Evidently the biologist could see that the shudder, though often a trivial matter, was a highly emotional affair, deeply involved with acts of imagination as well as with more commonplace reactions to cold or fear. It is easy, then, to imagine an act of reading as accompanied by shuddering, and that seems to be the context of Eliot’s remarks on those lines from In Memoriam. He seems to have used the word ‘shudder’ rarely but almost always in relation to experiences one would rather not have, and which are roughly antithetical to moments of ecstasy. ‘In the middle of a rowdy 17th-century playhouse pit,’ he says, ‘the thought of Shakespeare, the feeling and the shuddering personal experience of Shakespeare moved solitary and unsoiled.’ How does he know about Shakespeare’s ‘shuddering personal experience’? He is sure that by vocation the poet knows, is susceptible to the ‘hit’, will accept what Ronald Schuchard calls in Eliot’s Dark Angel the ‘close connection in Eliot’s poetry between the rare moments of ecstasy and the recurring moments of horror’. Eliot identifies the presence of the latter in Charles Williams’s novel All Hallows’ Eve, in which he claims there is no ‘exploitation of the supernatural for the sake of the immediate shudder’. There are shudder-inducing images of horror in Eliot’s play The Family Reunion, figures of nightmare and desire, but sometimes everything moves on a deeper level, where, as in All Hallows’ Eve, the shudder is not ‘immediate’ but is rather a means of access to different stimuli, or perhaps to ecstasy, or the memory of ecstasies.

Clearly the word ‘shudder’ belongs to a set that includes ‘fear’ and ‘horror’ and is associated with a powerful physical response. In a recent essay on Francis Bacon in the New York Review of Books, John Richardson recalls that Bacon aimed his images of his friend George Dyer ‘at the nervous system’, and adds that a ‘woman admirer’ told him they did indeed induce ‘a visceral shudder’. That the shudder should be described as a violent physical response with a strong sexual element will remind us of Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’:

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead …

In an earlier poem, ‘On Woman’, Yeats had associated the harshness of the desire between Solomon and Sheba with the explosive shudder of iron moved from fire and plunged into water. That is an impressive figure:

Harshness of their desire
That made them stretch and yawn,
Pleasure that comes with sleep,
Shudder that made them one …

But ‘Leda and the Swan’ is the great modern shudder poem. Here the shudder is an erotic response to apocalypse, to a rape that is also some sort of annunciation. Orgasm is accompanied, or represented, by cosmic destruction, the broken wall and burning roof and tower of Troy, ‘and Agamemnon dead’. We are to feel this catastrophe by reference to our own bodies, our visceral shudder; for the huge historical event, the disastrous overture, is to be understood only there. A word that hitherto did not immediately advertise a strong sexual sense now, by virtue of Yeats’s immense ambition, acquires such a sense. It may tap some deep reserve of feeling, related to infantile terrors as well as infantile guilt.

What, then, of Eliot’s shudder? His verse offers many instances of terror, dismay and of the uncanny. In the early poems there is ‘torture and delight’ in ‘The Love Song of St Sebastian’, and Narcissus’ ‘horror of his own smoothness’ in ‘The Death of St Narcissus’. There is murderous fantasy in The Family Reunion. The figure of Sweeney, who appears in several poems, belongs to nightmare and the women of Canterbury in Murder in the Cathedral are well acquainted with horror:

What is the sickly smell, the vapour? The dark green light from a cloud on a withered tree? The earth is heaving to parturition of issue of hell. What is the sticky dew that forms on the back of my hand?

So Eliot was sensitive to certain manifestations of the uncanny, and to terrors that might well cause shuddering. We have now to ask a more difficult question: why did those lines of In Memoriam affect Eliot so exceptionally, move him to use ‘shudder’ as a laudatory critical term? Of course we may say that Victor Hugo had already done this when he told Baudelaire that in writing Les Fleurs du mal he was creating ‘un frisson nouveau’. And many of us remember the days when ‘the metaphysical shudder’ was a stock term in discussions of Donne and his contemporaries. But in the In Memoriam passage the shudder is not a metaphysical shudder. In what is as far as I know his only essay on Tennyson, Eliot certainly intends praise. His first sign of enthusiasm is for a line or a fragment of a line from ‘Mariana’, which, he thinks, offers something ‘wholly new’: ‘The blue fly sung in the pane.’ So far the youthful Tennyson has excelled as a metrist and indeed is credited with most of the attributes of greatness without quite deserving to be called ‘great’. Yet, Eliot says, this line or fragment ‘is enough to tell us that something important has happened’. Now the line has many clear merits, it conveys a recognisably melancholy, apprehensive mood of waiting; and it may conceivably be true to say, as Eliot does, that its effect depends finally on reading ‘sung’ for ‘sang’. The line belongs to a good poem, rightly praised as a whole; but there was still something distinctive about it: it got itself chosen. The only explanation offered is that ‘something important has happened.’

Eliot insisted strongly that poems must be treated as wholes, making this point unambiguously in his approach to In Memoriam, just as he did in his 1929 essay on Dante: ‘Dante’s poem is a whole … you must in the end come to understand every part in order to understand any part.’ Or: ‘We cannot extract the full significance of any part without knowing the whole.’ It is a doctrine he could have learned from Baudelaire, who applied it to the whole of Les Fleurs du mal: ‘Je répète qu’un livre doit être jugé dans son ensemble.’ But ‘The blue fly sung in the pane’ is a line valued for its own qualities, or a line of such fineness that the alteration of a single syllable could make it better or worse, with nothing expressly said concerning the whole excellent poem except that we should not favour some passages over others, or profess to choose a ‘fair sample’. Yet the stanzas Eliot chooses, the lines that induce the shudder, are obviously singled out, and their selection justified by their contribution to an experience of religious despair (which applies to the whole poem) and by their technical dexterity, which must be studied in its particular instances, and may be rewarded by the reader’s frisson of discovery.

It is in his brilliant responses to such particular instances, rather than in his apprehensions of philosophical or theological wholeness, that I find Eliot at his most impressive as a critic. In the passage I quoted from In Memoriam we may be impressed by the ‘guilty thing’, borrowed from Wordsworth – but Wordsworth’s ‘High instincts, before which our mortal Nature/Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised’ are not now to be redeemed, are no longer ‘truths that wake,/To perish never.’ Tennyson’s truncated allusion is worthy of Eliot himself, and so is the double sense of ‘but far away’, where we begin by identifying a reference to the absence of Tennyson’s friend Arthur Hallam, in whose memory the poem is written. But at once the phrase ‘but far away’ is shifted into another sentence, and what is becoming audible is ‘the noise of life’. Finally, we face the unhappiness of that noise, the cold rain and the bleak street; and, in the distortions of the final tetrameter the wrenched placing of ‘bald’ and ‘blank’, the terminal shudder.

Eliot had a sort of physiology of poetry. In his lecture ‘The Three Voices of Poetry’ he agreed with Gottfried Benn when he spoke of an imagined meeting between a ‘creative germ’ and language. The poet ‘cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words’. The nascent poem is a burden, relief follows its birth: the poet ‘may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, of absolution, and of something very near annihilation’. Here is a remarkable mixture of satisfactions, physical, spiritual, close to mortal, and we need to remind ourselves that the metaphor is obstetric, shadowing a dangerous childbirth, a cause of shuddering. Eliot believed, with Housman, that there was a connection between illness and creativity, as once there was held to be in melancholia, the therapeutic melancholy cultivated by Renaissance artists.

This sequence of symptoms is recapitulated or mimicked by Eliot in another account of creative reading. A letter to Stephen Spender on this topic has, since its publication in 1966, become famous: ‘Even just the bewildering minute counts; you have to give yourself up, and then recover yourself, and the third moment is having something to say, before you have wholly forgotten both surrender and recovery. Of course the self recovered is never the same as the self before it was given.’

A word or two about this ‘bewildering minute’ will lead us to ask whether what the reader gives himself up to is necessarily his own. Eliot came upon the expression during his remarkably profitable early studies in Jacobean drama. Here are some lines from Tourneur’s (or Middleton’s) The Revenger’s Tragedy, now familiar because of Eliot’s interest, but at the time he pointed out their distinction, known only to readers who had a special interest in this sometimes ‘decadent’ writing; it was, as he put it, ‘a passage which is unfamiliar enough to be regarded with fresh attention’:

Does the silkworm expend her yellow labours
For thee? For thee does she undo herself?
Are lordships sold to maintain ladyships
For the poor benefit of a bewildering minute?

The speaker is addressing a skull; and of the words he speaks the word that struck Eliot was ‘bewildering’. It so happens that there is no textual justification for ‘bewildering’ – the original is ‘bewitching’. But Eliot found ‘bewildering’ ‘much the richer word’ and proceeded to steal it. If, as I think, the only textual support for ‘bewildering’ was supplied by John Payne Collier, the Victorian scholar and forger, we can even say that Eliot chose a reading he knew to be fraudulent just because he liked it better. (You need authority to do that, and Eliot had some to spare: compare the acceptance into English dictionaries of the word ‘juvescence’, a mistake he never corrected; the language had to move over to admit the upstart.)

‘Bewildering’ appears in Eliot’s essay on Tourneur, again some years later in After Strange Gods, and, most illuminatingly, in that letter to Spender, where ‘the bewildering minute’ is the one during which the reader submits to the thrill – frisson, shudder – of the passage, and after which the critic must emerge from the spell and consider his or her experience. And this, I am convinced, is how, as a rule, he worked. We could provide other reasons for Eliot’s long fascination with ‘bewildering’, but an aura of specifically sexual depravity would have to be part of it because the sexual is what is here under protest and correction. Eliot liked his great persons to suffer for their faults: Brunetto and Francesca in the Inferno; the erring wife in A Woman Killed with Kindness; Baudelaire.

It will appear that Eliot was able to stretch a whole theory of poetic composition and criticism over a stolen word, a word of shuddering power. Such kidnappings are clearly related to shudders, else why steal them? Near the end of ‘Gerontion’ we read of ‘De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs Cammel, whirled/Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear/In fractured atoms’. This bear is another 17th-century import, found, as Eliot pointed out in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, in George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois: ‘fly where men feel/The burning axletree, and those that suffer/Beneath the chariot of the snowy Bear’. Note that Chapman’s bear is ‘snowy’, Eliot’s ‘shuddering’. The constellation Ursa is said to ‘spin around the pole’; its circuit will be cold and snowy. Chapman is invoking extremes of hot and cold; and Seneca, in the passage from Hercules Furens which is at the root of these allusions, has his hero asking ‘ubi sum? sub ortu solis, an sub cardine/ glacialis ursae?’ For glacialis Chapman offers ‘snowy’; Eliot wants his usual deviation from the original, and arrives, doubtless via the idea of Ursa as cold, at the ‘shuddering’ bear.

We may be certain, when we observe Eliot either quoting or misquoting the same passage repeatedly, that he has been hit or struck by the originals, as in the first phase of his formula: surrender, then contemplate, then do something about it. And these characteristic adaptations (‘mature poets steal’) show up in other and more remarkable ways. Here, for instance, is another favourite passage, this time from Middleton’s The Changeling. At the end of the play, when all is lost, Beatrice-Joanna addresses her father:

I am that of your blood was taken from you
For your better health; look no more upon’t,
But cast it to the ground regardlessly,
Let the common sewer take it from distinction.

Knowing what we now know, we can see how Eliot might have reacted (almost shudderingly) to this remarkable speech. He quotes it admiringly in his essay on Middleton and refers to its context elsewhere, in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ and in ‘Philip Massinger’. He would admire the directness of the language used to affirm Beatrice-Joanna’s guilt, and the last line, with its yoking together of ‘sewer’ and ‘distinction’, the nasty particularity of the one confronted by the grand abstraction of the other, could probably score high in a shudder contest. It has a quality Eliot always praised: ‘that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations’, allowing a fusion in a single phrase of ‘two or more diverse impressions’, as for example in Shakespeare’s ‘strong toil of grace’.

In Middleton’s play the passage, and the sense of the passage, are not quite as Eliot reports them; he has made the speech over for his own purposes. The first line, correctly rendered, is ‘I am that of your blood’, not ‘I that am of your blood’ (as Eliot has it). In preferring the incorrect version Eliot assumes accordingly that the lines are about family honour when the true reading makes it plain that Beatrice-Joanna has a different figure in mind: the shedding of her blood is compared to an act of bloodletting, phlebotomy, the medical opening of a vein, and not a blood sacrifice to satisfy family honour. The sewer carries away enough bad blood to assist in a cure. The mistake diminishes the passage and reduces the force of ‘distinction’ by associating it narrowly with ‘blood’ in the sense of honour; whereas, with the reading ‘I am that of your blood’, ‘distinction’ has a metaphysical force. This also manifests itself in ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ with the idea of ‘two distincts, division none’. Or: throw away the blood, allow it to mix indiscriminately with the contents of the sewer, the ‘common sewer’, that drains the filth of a whole city. I admit that the ‘wrong’ reading is hovering nearby.

Sometimes the initial shudder is strong enough to shake the shudderer’s grip on the language to which he or she is reacting. Eliot misquotes Middleton again from the same scene of The Changeling: De Flores’s ‘I loved this woman in spite of her heart’ reads ‘in spite of my heart’. There are other less spectacular mistakes; they are of the sort made by other fierce readers, especially when they have positions to defend.

The shudder can be induced by the shock of metaphor – in its extreme form, the conceit, which is dangerously liable to cause giggles rather than shudders. As Dr Johnson and others always knew, the ‘metaphysical’ conceit may be little more than a joke, a flash of wit, as when, to take the first example that comes to mind, Abraham Cowley describes the killing of Abel by Cain in his epic poem Davideis: ‘I saw him fling the stone, as if he meant/At once his murder and his monument.’ This trick calls forth no shudder, it is only a trick. However, there are also conceits that possess a high degree of beauty and seriousness. The other day I came almost by accident on a conceit of the imaginative kind that has the same machinery as the funny ones but is shockingly serious. It occurs in a poem by Thom Gunn, long meditated, it seems, but published only in Boss Cupid in 2000:

One image from the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.

Whether gas pokers still exist I don’t know. What allows this cruel joke – certainly fit to be judged a metaphysical conceit – to succeed is the coincidence that the poker resembles the flute in being punctuated along its length by a row of holes, though in this instance gas, not human breath, flowed through the holes into the suicide’s mouth, in a dreadful silent music. This is horribly serious, far beyond a joke.

Somebody remarked that Eliot would find irresistible a line such as Donne’s ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’. Other moments in Donne’s work may be less likely to produce shudders than smiles, mere tributes to ingenuity, but Donne certainly had the power to transform and deepen entertaining conceits into poems of incomparable depth and complexity, poems of the order of the ‘Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’, where an opening series of witty comparisons drawn from astronomy and alchemy becomes a search for the quintessence of nothingness (‘I am re-begot/Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not’), for a nothing that thinks its way into becoming something beyond any ‘ordinary nothing’:

If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.

The mood of the period permitted the bringing together of poems bewilderingly dark or rich, like this one, or like ‘Air and Angels’, with others that seem mere vers de société, sexy jokes like, say, ‘Community’, not less witty but less dark, in search of the giggle rather than a shudder.

Eliot lost his love for Donne; it was consumed by his passion for Dante. His sympathy with that poet ensured that for most of his life he would confess discipleship. He would match Dante against Goethe and, possibly with a little more circumspection, against Shakespeare. His achievement was not only to give the English a clearer idea of what it meant to be a great poet but to demonstrate how metaphor could combine with narrative and produce passages of Italian calculated to provide all the stages of poetic apprehension he had defined. Writing about Dante’s encounter in Canto 15 of the Inferno with his old master Brunetto Latini, Eliot clearly experienced the desired frisson. Brunetto in defeat, in hell, is said to resemble one of those who race for the green flag at Verona; ‘and of them he seemed like him who wins, and not like him who loses.’ For the success of this image of pride in defeat, represented by the apparently redundant or ornamental green flag, Eliot said he had been ‘unprepared by quotation or allusion’. He discovered it for himself and for us, mentioning that it possessed ‘the quality of surprise which Poe declared to be essential to poetry’. The surprise causes a reaction like a shudder. ‘One does not need to know anything about the race for the roll of green cloth, to be hit by these lines,’ Eliot says.

I have almost successfully avoided that word ‘hit’, but here it is used by a poet who attributed high importance to that first

early moment which is unique, of shock and surprise, even of terror … a moment which can never be forgotten, but which is never repeated integrally; and yet which would become destitute of significance if it did not survive in a larger whole of experience; which survives inside a deeper and a calmer feeling. The majority of poems one outgrows and outlives, as one outgrows and outlives the majority of human passions: Dante’s is one of those which one can only just hope to grow up to at the end of life.

This is a fine tribute not only to the verse that caused the hit that causes the shudder, but to the wholeness that is required for its accommodation.

I suppose that in the nature of the case, when the poets concerned are of the highest powers, there will be moments at which some but not all will experience the frisson. Such a passage is the one about Brunetto. Those lines must be known to pretty well the entire educated public in Italy. This is important because extreme familiarity can preclude the shudder, rather as ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’, for us, shrinks to a proverb. We need a touch of mystery.

Eliot has a fine passage on some lines in the last scene of Antony and Cleopatra. He is comparing Shakespeare’s treatment of Cleopatra’s death with the lines written by Dryden at a similar point in All for Love, his play on the same subject; both writers drew on Plutarch’s Life of Antony. Cleopatra is dead. In Shakespeare’s version a Roman soldier enters, sees the dead queen and asks Cleopatra’s attendant, Charmian: ‘What work is here, Charmian? Is this well done?’ And Charmian replies: ‘It is well done, and fitting for a princess/Descended of so many royal kings./Ah, soldier!’ Then she too dies. Dryden makes his Charmion answer thus: ‘Yes, ’tis well done, and like a Queen, the last/ Of her great race. I follow her.’

It would probably not be hard to get agreement that if there is a ‘hit’ here it is in the words ‘Ah, soldier!’ Eliot glances respectfully at Dryden’s version, but Dryden doesn’t have that ‘Ah, soldier!’ which Shakespeare adds to Plutarch. ‘I could not myself,’ he says, ‘put into words the difference I feel between the passage if these two words “Ah, soldier!” were omitted and with them. But I know there is a difference, and that only Shakespeare could have made it.’ Commenting on this, Christopher Ricks remarks that if he ‘had to instance one paragraph from Eliot to show that he was a great critic’, he would choose this.

It is a generous commendation, and some shudders will probably endorse it. But there is a more important point raised by the words: ‘It is well done, and fitting for a princess/Descended of so many royal kings.’ There is no need to call kings royal, they already are royal when acknowledged to be kings. But it is the splendid redundancy of ‘royal’ that enables the hit. Plutarch has ‘noble kings’, which is not good enough; and the soldier’s remark is blurred: ‘one of the soldiers [seeing Charmian] angrily said unto her “Is that well done?”’ Shakespeare’s soldier is disturbed but not said to be angry. The scene, as Shakespeare very well understood, represented a critical moment in world history and the Roman soldier is properly included in it. The soldier may be essential to the shudder. Explanations of Charmian’s words, her sigh, are likely to be complicated, will have to go deep.

We immediately have another instance of this need in Eliot’s remarks on the closing lines of the play. Octavius, viewing the queen’s body, exclaims:

O noble weakness!
If they had swallowed poison, ’twould appear
By external swelling; but she looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.

We are told by Plutarch that although Caesar was ‘marvellous sorry’ for the death of Cleopatra, ‘yet he wondered at her noble mind and courage.’ In discussing this moment, Eliot first reminds us of another favourite passage in the Inferno: a crowd in hell peers at Dante ‘as an aged tailor peers at the eye of his needle’. It is a striking line, remembered also by Yeats, also somewhat shudderingly.

But Eliot says that ‘the purpose of this type of simile is solely to make us see more definitely the scene.’ He then quotes Shakespeare’s lines, wishing to show they differ from Dante’s in not being explanatory, and in being ‘expansive’. He then expresses his admiration for the episode of Paolo and Francesca (as I remarked, he seems to have had a particular admiration for people who were both beautiful and damned, and for a theology to match), and claims that we can get as much out of that episode as from reading a whole Shakespeare play. His ground for believing this is largely, it seems, that the Commedia is all of a piece, whereas finding the pattern in Shakespeare’s carpet is difficult because of the range and variety of the plays, which, he believes, have to be seen as one great work. In fact it seems to me that these Dantean comparisons direct attention away from Shakespearean passages like Octavius’ reaction to Cleopatra’s body.

Those lines are surely as firm a proof of genius as Charmian’s words to the soldier. Plutarch speaks of Octavius’ disappointment at losing the living Cleopatra, and Shakespeare converts his words into a poetry of loss in language which combines the response of an officer seeking evidence as to the cause of death, on the one hand, with, on the other, the phrase few can avoid being hit by: ‘As she would catch another Antony/In her strong toil of grace’. A sort of seemly violence contracts the language, which, as Eliot noted, presents ‘a fusion … into a single phrase’ of ‘two or more diverse impressions’. ‘Grace’ can justly be thought of as a trap, and the sexual game with Antony is suddenly moved out of the reach of common metaphor. Eliot admits that Shakespeare’s image ‘is absolutely woven into the fabric of the thought’; and he is certainly aware of the power and complexity of the lines: ‘the whole of Cleopatra’s disastrous power over men and empires is evoked in it.’ Yet he still favours the passages from Dante because they have what he argues to be ‘a rational necessity’ that is lacking in Shakespeare’s.

Shakespeare himself doesn’t make much use of words like ‘shudder’ and ‘shuddering’. Not surprisingly Timon needs one of them, and another occurs, in Portia’s mouth, in The Merchant of Venice. Yet all of us know by the hits we have experienced or endured that there are passages that possess extraordinary power to surprise and to ‘make one’s flesh creep with sincerity’. Let me take a final example from The Winter’s Tale, a work of enormous rhetorical and linguistic range. The repentant Leontes is tormented by faint and presumably deceptive signs of life in the supposed statue of his dead wife, until he says: ‘Still methinks/There is an air comes from her. What fine chisel/Could ever yet cut breath?’ However fine the workman, statues cannot be made to breathe; but we nevertheless experience this marvellous intermediate phase when stone is magically refined to breath and the revelation of Hermione’s living presence, another even greater miracle, will follow.