Eliot’s End

Graham Hough

  • Thomas Stearns Eliot, Poet by A.D. Moddy
    Cambridge, 365 pp, £12.50, March 1979, ISBN 0 521 22065 3
  • Theory and Personality: the Significance of T.S. Eliot’s Criticism by Brian Lee
    Athlone, 148 pp, £9.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 485 11185 3

For the last 45 years – ever since Matthiessen’s book in 1935 – the steady flow of critical lucubration on T.S. Eliot has gone on unabated. Not particularly contentious – at any rate since the early days, not particularly progressive – it does not seem to be getting anywhere, it has settled down into a decorously repetitive exercise, rather like chewing the cud. The eagle who by the age of 40 no longer wished to stretch his wings soon established himself as a classic to be accepted rather than to be called in question. There were several reasons for this. The most powerful impact of his work both in poetry and criticism was all early. Those who had been affronted and dismayed by the land-mines scattered around The Waste Land and The Sacred Wood soon found themselves writing ‘Ah, how true’ in the margins of the work of the middle period – so that its real power and originality were often obscured. And there was a long final stretch in which Eliot’s creative powers quietly free-wheeled to a standstill. The early absorption of his work into the academic curriculum created a body of received opinion, and another considerable public has been assured by those who like the piety more than the poetry. The stratagems of the imagist method have long ago been absorbed into ordinary reading habits; the quotations and allusions have all been identified and accepted without remark. So it is a little difficult to see what is left for criticism to do.

There are, of course, reasons for its continuance. The exegesis began while the canon was still uncompleted. It has now become possible to see it as a whole. The drafts of The Waste Land appeared, and various uncollected fragments. Without an official life, an adequate trickle of biographical information has come to hand. And all this is making a difference to the way we read the poetry. But not much difference, as long as we do what Eliot told us to do – concentrate attention on the poetry in itself and avert our gaze from the man who produced it. However, it is usually a profitable exercise to consider a writer from a point of view that his own principles expressly forbid.

Mr Moody’s book is the first full-length study since all the ancillary materials have come to light, and to that extent it has a new tone. He is rightly concerned with the completed work, but without making too much fuss about it he can see The Waste Land and the Quartets genetically and can observe the background out of which they arose, as earlier writers could not. He makes discreet and judicious use of the biographical material available, so that without allowing it to intrude and without trespassing too far into Eliot’s celebrated reserve he can relate the poetry to a continuous personal development. All this is clear gain, and a great deal of intelligent foraging among scattered sources has gone to make it possible.

The general argument is that ‘Prufrock’, ‘Gerontion’ and The Waste Land, whatever the variety of imagery, circumstance and historical reference that clusters around them, are all poems about the failure of love – specifically, the failure of sexual love, a complex of emotions that ultimately concentrates itself in the desperate unhappiness and breakdown of Eliot’s first marriage. The consequent desolation and sense of guilt takes on the colouring of a general cultural collapse – but a study of the internal imagery of the poems, with the minimum of external biographical reference, is enough to identify the ‘personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life’ (Eliot’s words) which lay at their source. ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘Ash Wednesday’ are attempts to transmute this failure and distress into something universal. The hollow men, the inhabitants of death’s dream kingdom, are not a doomed generation or a special class of poètes maudits – they are simply unredeemed humanity; their lovelessness is merely the human condition unirradiated by grace. The lost love (la figlia che piange, hyacinth girl) of the earlier poems, who never showed any very powerful symptoms of subsistence in the actual world, is transformed in ‘Ash Wednesday’ into a purely visionary figure – a surrogate of Our Lady, an echo of Beatrice, the personal and human feeling all specialised into a channel for divine grace. Mr Moody notes, as few have done, that the first edition of ‘Ash Wednesday’ was dedicated ‘To My Wife’.

There followed a period of commissioned and ‘applied’ poetry, The Rock and Murder in the Cathedral, written for church performance. But of The Rock only the choruses were considered worth keeping, and Murder in the Cathedral, in spite of numerous more or less institutional productions, is a failure in dramatic power. They served as an apprenticeship for Eliot’s long-cherished ambition after dramatic writing, but the really central and fruitful work that sprang out of this activity was the meditative poem ‘Burnt Norton’ – the beginning of a new phase, it is true, but also quite clearly a continuation and development of The Waste Land and ‘Ash Wednesday’. It persists, in a more generalised way but still not doctrinally, with the themes of the earlier work – the vacancy and alienation of life in the world, the way out through contemplation and renouncement. And in The Family Reunion, Eliot’s next dramatic work and his one dramatic success, there is a return of the furies, not to say the old obsessions – the guilt and horror of a failed love.

What is chiefly new in ‘Burnt Norton’ and the succeeding Quartets of the war years is the public dimension. Eliot described the Four Quartets as patriotic poems, and much of the thinking of The Idea of a Christian Society finds its way into the poetry. There is a strong sense of England, both its present and its historical past; its present actuality appears mainly as a monotonous pageant of futility and deception, and the corresponding vision of what ought to be comes only in glimpses of individual illumination and leads outside the life of this world altogether. In spite of lapses into sententiousness and boredom, the power of the Quartets lies in the depth and sincerity of much of the reflection, and the beauty of the lyrical epiphanies which light up the generally low-toned scene.

This is the end of Eliot as a poet. The postwar plays pay a formal tribute to verse, but hardly more than perfunctory. The view of life in The Cocktail Party and The Confidential Clerk remains obstinately bound to the dreariest conception of the here-and-now, while the attempts at lyric flight fall flat. The steady depreciation of the natural life continues, as in Reilly’s dejected version of the normal human lot:

They do not repine;
Are contented with the morning that separates
And with the evening that brings together
For casual talk beside the fire
Two people who know they do not understand each other;
Breeding children whom they do not understand
And who will never understand them.

Then in The Elder Statesman all is changed. It begins in the penitential mood that had become habitual to Eliot: but this is suddenly transformed into a celebration of human love, the sensuous affection that had been expressly denied as a value throughout Eliot’s career. This surprising change of direction is the correlative in his work of the late-found happiness of his second marriage. While doing justice to this happy ending to the life of the man who suffered, Moody obviously finds it a disconcerting coda to the work of the poet who creates: this is ‘to go back on the poetry, and to give the last word to the human being whom the poet had all his life been struggling to transform and transcend. It can’t cancel or invalidate the poetry, which remains what it is. But it does establish a new frame of reference... ’ A frame of reference, however, that is only biographically valid, for The Elder Statesman remains the sketch of a generous intention, but poetically and dramatically a failure.

I think this is a fair summary of the argument, but it appears less clearly in the text, for it has to be isolated from a great deal of material of a different kind. Moody follows the fashion of so much academic criticism, by which we are never allowed to read anything for ourselves: every passage has its comment and the reader is told where to put his foot at every turn. ‘The serene harmonies of a state of final simplicity are heard in the first sentence of the closing passage; and the intervening litany is the mode of paradox and a form of chant... ’ etc (on ‘Ash Wednesday’ II). Too much of this becomes importunate and oppressive, and there is a good deal of critical overkill, particularly evident in the treatment of ‘Prufrock’ and ‘The Hollow Men’. The commentary is especially irritating when it is wrong. Even if Mr Moody believes that ‘Gerontion’ is the diminutive of gerontius and that ‘juvescence’ can be derived from iuvare, surely some proof-reader ought to have disabused him.

These superfluities are a pity, as the central argument is genuinely marshalled towards a critical conclusion. Eliot might have said, at the end of his career, ‘that his poetry was true and valid for one experience of life, and for that experience only; that he had found in the end that another experience was possible; that this was not the news to the human race that it was to him.’ He might have offered a contrite nod to those authors he had denounced for honouring the powers of nature and human nature. But he never did, and his ultimate personal happiness was not allowed a part in correcting what Mr Moody finally characterises as a neurotic vision. We might add that it is an amazing tribute to the seductive power of Eliot’s poetry that his depressive New England version of the via negativa should have been so widely accepted as the voice of Christian civilisation. But Moody’s apologia for Eliot takes a different turn. He is quite unequivocal about the accidental personal sources of Eliot’s distorted vision, but ‘what makes his neurosis significant is that it is one endemic in our culture, and so common that it can be regarded as a perfectly normal state of mind. It is probably this more than anything else that gives him his common ground with his readers.’

This is candid and outspoken: remarkably so, after the reverent devotion with which the poetry has been expounded. But it does seem that something has been left out of this account, and that what has been left out is poetry. Justice is done to the sensibility, to the patient, anxious, scrupulous mind, to the moral persistence by which private injuries were transmuted and overcome – but the auditory imagination, the delicate balanced dance of words, the flashes of brilliance and the jets of lyrical enchantment that make Eliot’s small body of poetry at its best so much more varied and compelling than his principles seem to allow: all this has disappeared into the background. The Waste Land is a poem about the failure of love, indeed, but it is also a poem about a decaying culture; a poem about the modern megalopolis, fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves; a poem about London; most of all, it is an anthology of lyric, elegiac, satiric and surrealist fragments; and its actual effect on the reader who is not guided, lectured and bullied out of his senses depends almost entirely on this last. Eliot’s poetic fortunes have been not unlike Browning’s. The Browning Society loaded every line with a burden of exposition, and apparently believed that the poetry could not make its way without it. Meanwhile Bishop Blougram, the bishop who ordered his tomb, the grammarian and Galuppi, all became familiar inhabitants of the ordinary poetry-reader’s world, and the brow-knitting profundities no longer troubled anyone. Surely the same is beginning to be true of Prufrock, Gerontion, the hyacinth girl and the Thames daughters.

His poetry would probably benefit from a period of benign critical neglect. His criticism certainly would. It has had enormous influence, mostly for the good. Eliot the critic opened windows (smashing a few panes in the process) that had been closed by ignorance or cobwebbed by neglect; and it was the new look he gave to the history of English poetry that equipped that venerable institution to take its place in the 20th century. But he was no theorist. In spite of a circumspect manner and some continuing ideological prepossessions, his criticism was occasional, not always consistent, and often dictated by the needs of his creative work at the time. To try to fit a small-mesh theoretical grid over writing conceived in larger and looser terms is sheer waste of time. Brian Lees’ Theory and Personality is subtitled ‘The Significance of T.S. Eliot’s Criticism’, but it hardly fulfils that promise. It is, in fact, a minute examination of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, with much worry about its internal contradictions and its discrepancy with other aspects of Eliot’s critcism. The general conclusion is that the first part of the essay is admirable – the part about tradition and the relation of the new work to the existing literary order. Doubts begin with the second part – the discussion of ‘impersonality’, the detachment of the poem from the author’s exerience, and the pseudo-scientific analogy of the catalyst. Here Eliot seems both doubtful of what he wants to say and at odds with what he says in other places. Mr Lee is surely right about this – at any rate most readers today would agree; right too in his wider thesis that Eliot’s criticism is a partial response to his own needs. But there is rather a lot of fuss to lead up to this not very surprising conclusion.