Writhing and Crawling and Leaping and Darting and Flattening and Stretching

Helen Vendler

  • Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-17 by T.S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks
    Faber, 428 pp, £30.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 571 17895 2

When Emerson wrote to Whitman that there must have been ‘a long foreground’ preceding the composition of Leaves of Grass, he expressed the curiosity every reader feels when coming upon a fully accomplished poem. ‘How did this art develop?’ – this question accounts for the fascination exerted on us by juvenilia and by manuscript drafts such as the 1971 facsimile of the manuscript of The Waste Land, edited by Valerie Eliot. Though some of Eliot’s verses not included in the 1963 Collected Poems were published in 1967 under the title Poems of Early Youth, it has long been known that a notebook containing other early poems, written between 1910 and 1917, languished in the Berg Collection of the New York Library, and that in the notebook there had once been some ‘obscene’ comic verses (these, excised from the notebook and given by Eliot to Ezra Pound, were later discovered among the Pound papers). Valerie Eliot has now allowed the entire notebook to be published, superbly edited by Christopher Ricks, whose T.S. Eliot and Prejudice is still the most acute and fine-grained investigation of the vexed question of the place of prejudice in Eliot’s writing.

It is impossible to over-praise Ricks’s work in this edition. His annotations draw on both published and manuscript sources for Eliot’s writing, including many that would be unknown except for Ricks’s commandingly wide reading in and around Eliot’s literary and philosophical contexts. In the notes for the single 16-line poem ‘Silence’, for instance, Ricks refers, with entire relevance, to the following authors and titles: Pascal’s Pensées; an unpublished paper on ethics by Eliot in the Houghton Library; Tennyson’s In Memoriam; Lyndall Gordon’s Eliot’s Early Years; John Mayer’s T.S. Eliot’s Silent Voices; Laforgue’s Hamlet, Mélanges posthumes, Le Concile féerique, and ‘Esthét-iquc’; Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature; Maeterlinck’s essay ‘Silence’; Boswell’s Johnson; the OED; Paradise Lost; ‘Saint Barnabas: A Missionary Hymn’, a poem by Eliot’s mother, in the Hayward Bequest; Bergson’s L’Evolution créatrice and Introduction à la Métaphysique; Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound; Donne’s Biathanatos and ‘Satire III’; the ‘Hail Mary’; Psalm 143; Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy; Eliot’s Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism; Swinburne’s ‘A Leave-Taking’; Pater’s The Renaissance. Perhaps any editor might have noticed some of these affinities; but who except Ricks would remember that Swinburne’s poem ‘A Leave-Taking’ had rhymed ‘and steep’ with ‘and deep’, as Eliot’s poem does? Who would remember, reading Eliot’s closing line, ‘There is nothing else beside,’ that Laforgue had ended a speech in Le Concile féerique with ‘Vrai, il n’y a pas autre chose’? Reading even slight poems in the cloud of Ricksian annotation, one feels closer to Eliot’s youthful mind than ever before.

And this is why I have mentioned the annotations before coming to the lyrics themselves: the ordinary reader (and there are many of us interested in Eliot who are not Eliot scholars) cannot really come to understand the orientations and intentions of these poems without Ricks’s widely informative notes. Eliot’s extraordinary capacity for literary saturation – a capacity that both stimulated and deadened him – can be compared only to Milton’s; and though the younger Eliot allowed his allusions to become overt in the Notes to The Waste Land, elsewhere he was content to let them remain covert. The Eliot industry has lifted many of Eliot’s sources to recognition; but for my part, I wish Ricks would annotate the Complete Poems, so that we could know them as well as we now know the unpublished verse. After all, as Eliot says in one of the poems collected here,

... I am put together with a pot and scissors
Out of old clippings
No one took the trouble to make an article.

In case after case, Ricks’s learning makes an article out of an invisibly allusive and often disjointed poem; and, in addition to his excellent Introduction which takes up the question of allusion and annotation, he has printed, in an Appendix, selections from Eliot’s prose in which the nature of poetic indebtedness – always a central subject for Eliot – is discussed.

Ricks has given his edition the Carrollian name – ‘Inventions of the March Hare’ – that Eliot himself had scrawled, and then crossed out, on the cover of his manuscript notebook. Eliot’s self-satirising title is comparable to his first, Dickensian, title for The Waste Land – ‘He do the police in different voices.’ Such mocking inscriptions exemplify the way in which he invoked his satiric self against his ‘serious’ self; a corrosive self-irony was the principal cause of those ‘decisions and revisions that a minute can reverse’, the perpetual vacillation between the two sides of a question that constituted his fundamental philosophic scepticism.

The more than forty poems assembled here are, for the most part, deeply pained ones. The chief aesthetic difficulty they encounter, tonally and conceptually, is caused by their irony, as (in a Laforgucan move), the young poet perceives the sentimentality which begins to lurk as soon as one takes oneself as a tragic object. The poem ‘Opera’, for instance, speaks first (via Tristan und Isolde) of ‘love torturing itself / To emotion for all there is in it’; but then turns on its own premise:

We have the tragic? Oh no!
Life departs with a feeble smile
Into the indifferent.
These emotional experiences
Do not hold good at all,
And I feel like the ghost of youth
At the undertaker’s ball.

But to trivialise oneself into a Laforguean marionette is as sentimental a gesture as to aggrandise oneself into a tragic figure. Each is what I.A. Richards would have called a stock response, and Eliot’s triumph, in a poem such as ‘Prufrock’, was to keep the tragic and the trivial both in view, without allowing either a final dominance. When Eliot imagined his early poetic – ‘as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen’ – he anticipated the constant motion of a modern positron scan, by which the fluctuating changes in brain-activity can be seen on a monitor. The youthful Eliot, then, conceived of a poem as neither an argument nor a description, but as a seismological trace of nervous emotion, at once physiological and cognitive.

It is all very well to want to throw the nerves in patterns on a screen, but how, in technical terms, can it be done? How can words do a flicker, a pulsation, a disturbance? Eliot’s first strategy was to make verbs, or nouns created from verbs, do all the work, enhancing them by numerical adjectives that multiply the described effects. In ‘Prufrock’ there is ‘time for a hundred indecisions / And for a hundred visions and revisions / Between the taking of a toast and tea’. And the quantity is multiplied yet further in ‘Silence’, where we find ‘a thousand incidents / Vexed and debated’. The verbals themselves in all these instances are ‘flickering’ ones that imply a succession of different mental positions. Thoughts are ‘scattered’, the waves of life ‘shrink and divide’, scenes are ‘shifting’, waltzes ‘turn, return, / Float and fall’, there is a ‘maze / Of means and ways’, ‘the neuropathic winds renew’ themselves, couples in ‘the last contortions of the dance ... / Withdraw, advance’. There are many such attempts by the young poet to render the elusive back-and-forth motions taking place in his receiving-apparatus.

Long before he adopts any philosophical system, then, Eliot is the recorder of an extraordinary flinching before the multitude of sensations and perceptions that he feels obliged to note down. Since most of these contradictory responses provoke unpleasantly vertiginous states, the poems also express a desire (mixed with dread) for a fixed position, invariably represented as an excruciating one. In the early poem trivialisingly (and blasphemously) entitled ‘The Little Passion / From “An Agony in the Garret” ’, the nervous shuttling is from light to dark to light, and the terminal position is that of crucifixion:

Upon those stifling August nights
 I know he used to walk the streets
Now following the lines of lights
 Or diving into dark retreats

Or following the lines of lights
And knowing well to what they lead:
To one inevitable cross
Whereon our souls are pinned, and bleed.

Very early on, Eliot knew that he had to choose between, on the one hand, perpetual sceptical indecisiveness and, on the other, the self-mutilation of a single position, the ‘inevitable cross’. In the event, he preferred a theological cross to the fixed social position that Prufrock (using the same verb – ‘pinned’ – as ‘The Little Passion’) had feared:

And when I am formulated sprawling on a pin
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin?

The piece of greatest interest among these early poems is one called ‘Prufrock’s Pervigilium’. (The ‘Pervigilium Veneris’ is quoted in The Waste Land: Quando fiam uti chelidon, ‘O when shall I be like the swallow [and have a mate]?’) ‘Prufrock’s Pervigilium’ is a far more naked poem than ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, and there is a frisson in reading it, as though a veil had been removed from the surface of Prufrock as we have known him:

... I have gone at night through narrow streets,
Where evil houses leaning all together
Pointed a ribald finger at me in the darkness
Whispering all together, chuckled at me in the darkness.

And when the midnight turned and writhed in fever
I tossed the blankets back, to watch the darkness
Crawling among the papers on the table
It leapt to the floor and made a sudden hiss
And darted stealthily across the wall
Flattened itself upon the ceiling overhead
Stretched out its tentacles, prepared to leap ...

I fumbled to the window to experience the world
And to hear my Madness singing, sitting on the kerbstone ...

One sees, here, the paranoia stimulated by the creeping menace of a constantly flickering world. The verbs are all present, pointing and whispering and chuckling and turning and writhing and crawling and leaping and darting and flattening and stretching; and – in the midst of all this – Madness sits and sings. There are two gripping aspects to this writing: one is Eliot’s intimidating candour, and the other is his dissatisfaction with the exhibitionistic (and therefore aesthetically distracting) nakedness of that candour. How, Eliot pondered, could one be candid and transparent at once, delineating one’s states of mind yet not turning the reader into one’s tame voyeur? In ‘Prufrock’ he invented a single persona to bear the displaced burden, and he lowered the level of melodrama, not only toning down ‘the darkness’ of ‘Prufrock’s Pervigilium’ into the less sinister and more domesticated fog of ‘Prufrock’, but also expelling from the poem the figure of Madness singing on the kerbstone.

It is a chaste art that Eliot was after, but as he began to write, his intractable early sexual fantasies were obstructions to that discipline. The temptation to self-censorship must, for Charlotte Eliot’s son, have been a constant one. And yet he resisted it admirably, and wrote such daring (if unpublished) poems as ‘The Love Song of St Sebastian’, in which the speaker and the beloved appear equally masochistic:

I would come in a shirt of hair ...
I would flog myself until I bled ...
Until my blood should ring the lamp
And glisten in the light;
I should arise your neophyte ...
To follow where you [led],
To follow where your feet are white
In the darkness toward your bed
And where your gown is white
And against your gown your braided hair.
Then you would take me in
Because I was hideous in your sight ...

Ultimately the speaker’s masochism turns to sadism, after the manner of Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’:

I think at last you would understand.
There would be nothing more to say.
You would love me because I should have strangled you

And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I had mangled you.

Sending this (as part of a sequence) to Conrad Aiken, Eliot wrote: ‘Do you think that the Love Song of St Sebastian part is morbid, or forced? ... Does it all seem very laboured and conscious?’ Eliot has already moved into his self-correcting mode: of course the poem was morbid and forced, and he immediately suspected that it was. But he had to write through this phase, not to suppress it. His sadomasochistic fantasies were eventually transferred into plays (with the murder of Becket and the crucifixion of Celia ‘very near an ant-hill’).

Another aspect of Eliot – his dry epigrammatic voice – appears in Ricks’s edition in the continually interesting drafts of the poem ultimately called ‘Whispers of Immortality’. Ricks, apologising that ‘a collation of the eight versions would be cumbrous,’ offers (besides the published version of 1963) five drafts. In ‘Whispers of Immortality’ Grishkin, whose ‘friendly bust / Gives promise of pneumatic bliss’, is for saken in favour of an ascetic (and moribund) metaphysics. Eliot, sending the first draft of the poem to Pound, ventured, characteristically, that it should perhaps ‘be remodelled, if at all, entirely in the third person’, adding that ‘the first two lines of the fifth verse won’t do, they are conscious, and exhibit a feeble reversion to the Laforgue manner.’ These lines, with the six following to the end of the poem, originally read:

And some abstracter entities
Have not disused a certain charm.
But I must crawl between dry ribs
To keep my metaphysics warm.

As long as Pipit is alive
One can be mischievous and brave;
But where there is no more misbehaviour
I would like my bones flung into her grave.

No Pipit,’ Pound wrote with characteristic succinctness, deciding that the co-existence of Grishkin and the governess presented a superfluity of female types. The ending was revised:

And when the Female Soul departs
The Sons of Men turn up their eyes.
The Sons of God embrace the grave –
The Sons of God are very wise.

Pound was dissatisfied with this Blakean version as well. Eliot’s next attempt scrapes up Donne and Webster from the beginning of the poem and uses them to end it:

But Donne and Webster passed beyond
The text-book rudiments of lust,
And crawled at last between dry ribs,
Having their Ethics of the Dust.

Only two drafts later did Eliot achieve his ending, one which admits, but indirectly, his own complicity (‘our lot’) in the final choice of a repelled asceticism:

The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in his arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.

And even the Abstract Entities
Circumambulate her charm:
But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm.

This sequence of revisions gives precise evidence of Eliot’s commitment to truth-telling; he could not, he knew, revert to pre-sexual governess-life ruled by ‘behaviour’ and ‘misbehaviour’; he was not a ‘Son of God’; he was not Donne or Webster either; and he could not lay the flattering unction to his soul that choosing philosophy meant rejecting sex, since ‘even the Abstract Entities’ have a certain inclination to the appetite represented by Grishkin. Embracing the dry ribs of a skeleton, trading lust for dust, Eliot pointedly refutes Marvell’s

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

‘Our lot does,’ the merciless Eliot replies.

Such a poem is written in a style very far from the style representing vacillation, indecision, reversals, nerves. ‘Whispers of Immortality’ – coming from Eliot’s Gautier side – is sinewy, bold and decisive. When it reverts to the old insinuating verbs – ‘thought clings round dead limbs’ – it does so for a moment only, passing briskly on to more forceful verbs, ‘to seize and clutch and penetrate’. Its metrical effects (the lively tetrameter quatrains) are, like Grishkin’s Russian eye, ‘underlined for emphasis’, taking their position as far as possible from the quivering incipits of Prufrock’s Laforguean lines. One could say that Gautier gave Eliot a model for his sharp intelligence, Laforgue a model for his exacerbated sensibility.

The moral (and aesthetic) danger of the Gautier aspect was that Eliot’s contempt – for others as well as himself – would paralyse sympathy. Eliot was a natural satirist, and a natural hierarchiser: he knew that he had ‘such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands’, and that his imagination compelled him to render that vision from his larger viewpoint. But he also knew – it is evident even in these earliest poems – that a demotic vocabulary would have to enter his work if it were to engage all levels of life:

What, you want action?
Some attraction? ...
Someone sings
A lady of almost any age
But chiefly breast and rings
Throw your arms around me – Aint you glad you found me.’

The contemptuous third-person sketch – ‘chiefly breast and rings’ – is what Eliot will avoid in The Waste Land’s ‘A Game of Chess’, where both the nervous upper-class wife and the women in the pub are characterised only by their own voices, and a larger human sympathy prevails.

Something must be said, I suppose, about Eliot’s obscene verses, which are mostly childish boy-stuff. Ricks gathers them separately, in an Appendix, as ‘Poems excised from the Notebook’, and prints them with two amusing epigraphs. The first is from Eliot’s letter to Pound saying that he has sent the obscene poems to Wyndham Lewis for publication in Blast (‘I understand that priapism, Narcissism etc are not approved of’); and the second is from Lewis’s letter to Pound: ‘I am longing to print them in Blast; but stick to my naif determination to have no “Words Ending in -Uck, -Unt and -Ugger”.’ Here is a sampling of what Lewis passed up:

King Bolo’s swarthy bodyguard
Were called the Jersey Lilies
A wild and hardy set of blacks
Undaunted by syphilis.
They wore the national uniform
Of a garland of verbenas
And a pair of great big hairy balls
And a big black knotty penis.

           * * *

Now when they were three weeks at sea
Columbo he grew rooty
He took his cock in both his hands
And swore it was a beauty.
The cabin boy appeared on deck
And scampered up the mast-o
Columbo grasped him by the balls
And buggered him in the ass-o.

It’s unlikely, in today’s climate, that such diversions will be charitably received; the more praiseworthy, consequently, Valerie Eliot’s decision to release them for publication. Let those whose sexual fantasies are without sin cast the first stone. Ricks says: ‘On balance, it was judged right to include the ribald verses ... The editor is aware that such scabrous exuberances may lend themselves to either the wrong kind or the wrong amount of attention.’ But Ricks makes the case for including them, of which the most important points are ‘that the ribald verses constitute part of the story of the poet’s transition from the Laforguean vellcities of 1917 to the Corbièresquc bluntnesses, such as Sweeney Erect, of 1920,’ and that ‘as Mrs Eliot has made clear, nothing of Eliot’s is to be suppressed or censored.’

I should add that I was surprised to find, in these earliest poems, stylistic anticipations of the Four Quartets. Several styles appear in the Quartets, of course, but what is characteristic of them is an ascetic manner, very unshowy by comparison with the The Waste Land or even ‘Marina’. Here, from ‘Burnt Norton’, is a sample of what I mean:

              Both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation.

The hallmarks of this Quartet style, in cognitive terms, are its abstractions (‘a new world’, ‘the old’, ‘the completion’ ‘the resolution’, ‘the enchainment’, ‘the weakness’) and its paradoxes (‘both a new world and the old’, ‘partial ecstasy ... partial horror’, ‘protects from heaven and damnation’). Its hallmarks, in tonal terms, are the elegiac cadence of the homiletic, and an analytic detachment that we associate with the philosophical. Among the early poems, I was taken aback to see a passage (beginning ‘O little voices of the throats of men’) with its own corresponding and comparable abstractions, paradoxes, elegiac tone and philosophical detachment:

[I] always find the same unvaried
Intolerable interminable maze.
Contradiction is the debt you would collect
And still with contradiction are you paid ...
Appearances, appearances, he said,
And nowise real; unreal, and yet true;
Untrue, yet real; – of what are you afraid? ...
... if you find no truth among the living
You will not find much truth among the dead.
No other time but now, no other place than here, he said.

It is true that the passage from Inventions of the March Hare is in (mostly) blank verse, while the passage from ‘Burnt Norton’ uses the four-beat line adapted by Eliot from Anglo-Saxon verse, yet they are remarkably similar in manner. Something of the stylistic essence of the Quartets was already embryonically present, then, very early – a lesson to those of us who have preferred to think that the Quartets mark a radical break from the verse of the younger Eliot.

There is much here for investigation. Almost every one of Eliot’s serious early endeavours deserves reflection by those who want, now and in the future, to know his work intimately. These poems are emanations of the young man who wrote in 1914 to his friend Conrad Aiken:

I have been going through one of those nervous sexual attacks which I suffer from when alone in a city ... This is the worst since Paris ... One walks about the street with one’s desires, and one’s refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches. I should be better off, I sometimes think, if I had disposed of my virginity and shyness several years ago.

‘One’s desires and one’s refinement’: those were Eliot’s poles, and the early poetry ceaselessly attempts, both coolly and desperately, to mediate between them and to accommodate them together in an art that would be both emotionally true and aesthetically detached. It is a passionately interesting development to observe.