Poetry London, October-November 1942; reprinted in Little Reviews Anthology, edited by Denys Val Baker, 1943.
There is very little in Eliot’s later work that makes any deep impression on me. That is a confession of something lacking in myself, but it is not, as it may appear at first sight, a reason for simply shutting up and saying no more, since the change in my own reaction probably points to some external change which is worth investigating.
I know a respectable quantity of Eliot’s earlier work by heart. I did not sit down and learn it, it simply stuck in my mind as any passage of verse is liable to do when it has really rung the bell. Sometimes after only one reading it is possible to remember the whole of a poem of, say, twenty or thirty lines, the act of memory being partly an act of reconstruction. But as for these three latest poems, I suppose I have read each of them two or three times since they were published, and how much do I verbally remember? “Time and the bell have buried the day”, “At the still point of the turning world”, “The vast waters of the petrel and the porpoise”, and bits of the passage beginning “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark”. (I don’t count “In my end is my beginning”, which is a quotation.) That is about all that sticks in my head of its own accord. Now one cannot take this as proving that Burnt Norton and the rest are worse than the more memorable early poems, and one might even take it as proving the contrary, since it is arguable that that which lodges itself most easily in the mind is the obvious and even the vulgar. But it is clear that something has departed, some kind of current has been switched off, the later verse does not contain the earlier, even if it is claimed as an improvement upon it. I think one is justified in explaining this by a deterioration in Mr Eliot’s subject-matter. Before going any further, here are a couple of extracts, just near enough to one another in meaning to be comparable. The first is the concluding passage of The Dry Salvages:
And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.
Here is an extract from a much earlier poem:
Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of his eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries;
He knew the anguish of the marrow,
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.
The two passages will bear comparison since they both deal with the same subject, namely death. The first of them follows upon a longer passage in which it is explained, first of all, that scientific research is all nonsense, a childish superstition on the same level as fortune-telling, and then that the only people ever likely to reach an understanding of the universe are saints, the rest of us being reduced to “hints and guesses”. The keynote of the closing passage is “resignation”. There is a “meaning” in life and also in death; unfortunately we don’t know what it is, but the fact that it exists should be a comfort to us as we push up the crocuses, or whatever it is that grows under the yew-trees in country churchyards. But now look at the other two stanzas I have quoted. Though fathered on to somebody else, they probably express what Mr Eliot himself felt about death at that time, at least in certain moods. They are not voicing resignation. On the contrary, they are voicing the pagan attitude towards death, the belief in the next world as a shadowy place full of thin, squeaking ghosts, envious of the living, the belief that however bad life may be, death is worse. This conception of death seems to have been general in antiquity, and in a sense it is general now. “The anguish of the marrow, the ague of the skeleton”, Horace’s famous ode “Eheu fugaces“, and Bloom’s unuttered thoughts during Paddy Dignam’s funeral, are all very much of a muchness. So long as man regards himself as an individual, his attitude towards death must be one of simple resentment. And however unsatisfactory this may be, if it is intensely felt it is more likely to produce good literature than a religious faith which is not really felt at all, but merely accepted against the emotional grain. So far as they can be compared, the two passages I have quoted seem to me to bear this out. I do not think it is questionable that the second of them is superior as verse, and also more intense in feeling, in spite of a tinge of burlesque.
What are these three poems, Burnt Norton and the rest, “about”? It is not so easy to say what they are about, but what they appear on the surface to be about is certain localities in England and America with which Mr Eliot has ancestral connexions. Mixed up with this is a rather gloomy musing upon the nature and purpose of life, with the rather indefinite conclusion I have mentioned above. Life has a “meaning”, but it is not a meaning one feels inclined to grow lyrical about; there is faith, but not much hope, and certainly no enthusiasm. Now the subject-matter of Mr Eliot’s early poems was very different from this. They were not hopeful, but neither were they depressed or depressing. If one wants to deal in antitheses, one might say that the later poems express a melancholy faith and the earlier ones a glowing despair. They were based on the dilemma of modern man, who despairs of life and does not want to be dead, and on top of this they expressed the horror of an over-civilized intellectual confronted with the ugliness and spiritual emptiness of the machine age. Instead of “not too far from the yew-tree” the keynote was “weeping, weeping multitudes”, or perhaps “the broken fingernails of dirty hands”. Naturally these poems were denounced as “decadent” when they first appeared, the attacks only being called off when it was perceived that Eliot’s political and social tendencies were reactionary. There was, however, a sense in which the charge of “decadence” could be justified. Clearly these poems were an end-product, the last gasp of a cultural tradition, poems which spoke only for the cultivated third-generation rentier, for people able to feel and criticize but no longer able to act. E. M. Forster praised “Prufrock” on its first appearance because “it sang of people who were ineffectual and weak” and because it was “innocent of public spirit” (this was during the other war, when public spirit was a good deal more rampant than it is now). The qualities by which any society which is to last longer than a generation actually has to be sustained — industry, courage, patriotism, frugality, philoprogenitiveness — obviously could not find any place in Eliot’s early poems. There was only room for rentier values, the values of people too civilized to work, fight or even reproduce themselves. But that was the price that had to be paid, at any rate at that time, for writing a poem worth reading. The mood of lassitude, irony, disbelief, disgust, and not the sort of beefy enthusiasm demanded by the Squires and Herberts, was what sensitive people actually felt. It is fashionable to say that in verse only the words count and the “meaning” is irrelevant, but in fact every poem contains a prose meaning, and when the poem is any good it is a meaning which the poet urgently wishes to express. All art is to some extent propaganda. “Prufrock” is an expression of futility, but it is also a poem of wonderful vitality and power, culminating in a sort of rocket-burst in the closing stanzas:
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown,
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
There is nothing like that in the later poems, although the rentier despair on which these lines are founded has been consciously dropped.
But the trouble is that conscious futility is something only for the young. One cannot go on “despairing of life” into a ripe old age. One cannot go on and on being “decadent”, since decadence means falling and one can only be said to be falling if one is going to reach the bottom reasonably soon. Sooner or later one is obliged to adopt a positive attitude towards life and society. It would be putting it too crudely to say that every poet in our time must either die young, enter the Catholic Church, or join the Communist Party, but in fact the escape from the consciousness of futility is along those general lines. There are other deaths besides physical death, and there are other sects and creeds besides the Catholic Church and the Communist Party, but it remains true that after a certain age one must either stop writing or dedicate oneself to some purpose not wholly aesthetic. Such a dedication necessarily means a break with the past:
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
Eliot’s escape from individualism was into the Church, the Anglican Church as it happened. One ought not to assume that the gloomy Pétainism to which he now appears to have given himself over was the unavoidable result of his conversion. The Anglo-Catholic movement does not impose any political “line” on its followers, and a reactionary or austro-Fascist tendency had always been apparent in his work, especially his prose writings. In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process; but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree. The reason is that the Christian churches still demand assent to doctrines which no one seriously believes in. The most obvious case is the immortality of the soul. The various “proofs” of personal immortality which can be advanced by Christian apologists are psychologically of no importance; what matters, psychologically, is that hardly anyone nowadays feels himself to be immortal. The next world may be in some sense “believed in” but it has not anywhere near the same actuality in people’s minds as it had a few centuries ago. Compare for instance the gloomy mumblings of these three poems with “Jerusalem my happy home”; the comparison is not altogether pointless. In the second case you have a man to whom the next world is as real as this one. It is true that his vision of it is incredibly vulgar — a choir practice in a jeweller’s shop — but he believes in what he is saying and his belief gives vitality to his words. In the other case you have a man who does not really feel his faith, but merely assents to it for complex reasons. It does not in itself give him any fresh literary impulse. At a certain stage he feels the need for a “purpose”, and he wants a “purpose” which is reactionary and not progressive; the immediately available refuge is the Church, which demands intellectual absurdities of its members, so his work becomes a continuous nibbling round those absurdities, an attempt to make them acceptable to himself. The Church has not now any living imagery, any new vocabulary to offer:
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
Perhaps what we need is prayer, observance, etc. but you do not make a line of poetry by stringing those words together. Mr Eliot speaks also of
The intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
I do not know, but I should imagine that the struggle with meanings would have loomed smaller, and the poetry would have seemed to matter more, if he could have found his way to some creed which did not start off by forcing one to believe the incredible.
There is no saying whether Mr Eliot’s development could have been much other than it has been. All writers who are any good develop throughout life, and the general direction of their development is determined. It is absurd to attack Eliot, as some left-wing critics have done, for being a “reactionary” and to imagine that he might have used his gifts in the cause of democracy and Socialism. Obviously a scepticism about democracy and a disbelief in “progress” are an integral part of him; without them he could not have written a line of his works. But it is arguable that he would have done better to go much further in the direction implied in his famous “Anglo-Catholic and Royalist” declaration. He could not have developed into a Socialist, but he might have developed into the last apologist of aristocracy.
Neither feudalism nor indeed Fascism is necessarily deadly to poets though both are to prose writers. The thing that is really deadly to both is Conservatism of the half-hearted modern kind.
It is at least imaginable that if Eliot had followed wholeheartedly the anti-democratic, anti-perfectionist strain in himself he might have struck a new vein comparable to his earlier one. But the negative Pétainism, which turns its eyes to the past, accepts defeat, writes off earthly happiness as impossible, mumbles about prayer and repentance and thinks it a spiritual advance to see life as “a pattern of living worms in the guts of the women of Canterbury” — that, surely, is the least hopeful road a poet could take.
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