Tuesday, May 22, 2007

T. Eliot, top bard*

Having made T.S. Eliot look like a covert Hamas sympathizer in a previous post, I've decided in my usual flighty way to come rushing to his defence in this one. While it's true that a few of his poems are marred by casual anti-Semitism, most of them are very fine indeed, and I'd recommend his work to anyone who hasn't already come across it. Eliot is one of the few poets whose phrases are powerful enough to come to me unbidden: "these fragments I have shored against my ruin"; "they all go into the dark"; "thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season"; "the still point of the turning world"; "all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well"; "after such knowledge, what forgiveness?" His is not a lyrical beauty, but the penetrating clarity of someone alternately tormented and comforted by metaphysical speculation:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre --
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

("Little Gidding", IV). Eliot is not entirely gloomy, though; he has a particularly English kind of subtle, lacerating humour:

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

The couched Brazilian jaguar
Compels the scampering marmoset
With subtle effluence of cat;
Grishkin has a maisonette;

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

(from "Whispers of Immortality"). (The framing of the word "maisonette" in there is priceless -- it shows Eliot's flair both for comic timing and for snobbery.) More of the same kind of thing can be found in his play-fragment "Sweeney Agonistes", with its cast of lumpen characters and their vapid, terrifying conversations:

Birth, and copulation, and death,
That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.
I've been born, and once is enough.
You don't remember, but I remember,
Once is enough.

(From "Fragment of an Agon"). The critic Northrop Frye once noted that "Sweeney Agonistes" had the remarkable effect of making the modern world "look even worse than it is":

When you're alone in the middle of the night and
you wake in a sweat and a hell of a fright
When you're alone in the middle of the night and
you wake like someone hit you in the head
You've had a cream of a nightmare dream and
you've got the hoo-ha's coming to you
Hoo hoo hoo

(*"T. Eliot, top bard" is part of a palindrome invented by Alastair Reid: "T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I'd assign it a name: 'Gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet'." Some less nauseating palindromes can be found here.)

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