Why T.S. Eliot Has Remained an Enigma

Vijay Seshadri on the Historical Forces that Shaped Him

In 1917, T.S. Eliot published, in a print run of five hundred that didn’t sell out until five years later, his first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations. As with a lot of first books by young poets, the publication of Prufrock had a little of a made-in-the-hood, let’s-put-on-a-show quality to it. The book wasn’t actually a book but a pamphlet, and the publishing house wasn’t actually a publishing house but a London periodical, The Egoist. The Egoist is recognized now as a short-lived and astounding incubator of literary modernism. Then it was one of the tribal organs of a small, youthful or recently youthful, “advanced” coterie of intellectuals and artists who were sure they were doing something new but (except for James Joyce) probably didn’t know exactly what it was they were doing and couldn’t have imagined how significant they would become.

A contributing spirit of the periodical was Eliot’s coconspirator and pal Ezra Pound, in his goofy and benevolent village-explainer period rather than his ugly and malevolent world-explainer period or his shattered and tragic self-explainer one. He prevailed on the magazine to lend its imprint to Prufrock, and, also, subsidized the publication with money he got from his wife. The literature Pound loved he loved so much it might have seemed to him that he was its author. He’d announced, a little mystifyingly, that Eliot had modernized himself on his own (Pound was a big modernizer) and had appointed himself Eliot’s manager. Eliot, with his customary passivity—which was also cagey; Pound nicknamed him Possum—seemed fine with letting Ezra think he was Ezra’s invention.

One of the first reviewers of Prufrock—again, as is often the case with first books—was a friend of the poet’s, Conrad Aiken (who became a major poet himself). The Eliot biographer Peter Ackroyd says that Aiken knew what Eliot was up to better than Pound did. Aiken had known Eliot since college, but sustained friendship doesn’t seem to have compromised his appraisals. He says in his review that the author of Prufrock is a “bafflingly peculiar man.” This bafflingly peculiar person was launching his literary career in a time that was going to make him radically more peculiar—though not more baffling (which word implies a problem still looking for its solution, and a perplexity that might, eventually, be resolved) but, instead, enigmatic (which word implies something active and energetic, and a mystery that we can’t pluck the heart out of ).

The Eliot who could be called baffling was Eliot circa 1914, the writer of the Prufrock poems, which were written before the war and peopled by Bostonians. He was like a character in a Henry James story, with a foot in America, a foot in Europe, and a hypertrophied brain living somewhere unmappable. He was, almost comically, a revised, new-century version of James’s Gilded Age poor, sensitive gentleman—hardworking, but an intellectual drifter; hiding out in graduate school; trying to keep his parents off his back while depending on their subsidies; prissy and jejune. By 1917, though, he’d stepped from Jamesian fictional paradigms to other, more harrowing ones (though James can be pretty harrowing). He was saying about himself, “I have been living in one of Dostoevsky’s novels.”

What happened? One answer is that Eliot had relinquished the camouflage of those vanities that he insinuated into the character of Prufrock—the satiric armor disguising a youthful insecurity, the self-satisfied conceit that the world was comatose when it wasn’t absurd, the faux French Symbolist weariness. He was now plunged in karma (a word he would have accepted; and an idea that doesn’t represent reward or payback but defines the circulating force and interactions of a moral and spiritual ecosystem). He wasn’t disembodied anymore, dispersed, arrested, paralyzed, superannuated—“a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas”— and had outgrown his equivocating, temporizing, he’s finding-himself period (which, to be fair, produced great poetry).

He’d made a leap of faith and was dealing with its karmic consequences. He was, in fact, discovering consequentiality itself, and arriving at those first operative adult realizations about the nature of time and change that, twenty years later, would find their place in the beautiful, encircling, Heraclitian meditations of the Four Quartets. Eliot’s early interest in Indian texts, though benign and as much philological as speculative, was what we would now call Orientalist, and was unreconstructed by our standards. (Later, in his partiality for hymns to imperialism like Kipling’s “Recessional”—where the “lesser breeds without the Law” make their appearance—the Orientalism took on a pernicious tinge.) But his study of Vedanta had at least the advantage of giving him a developed understanding of illusion and an appreciation for the complex and subtle laws of action and reaction, change and permanence. (Around this time, he was actually thinking of becoming a Buddhist.)

He’d recently got married—impetuously and, it turned out, disastrously—to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, an English girl who was what used to be called “nervous” (he could have been described that way, too), whom he’d met through an American friend. He had responsibilities. He was a breadwinner, a published poet, and a working reviewer and essayist who supplemented his meager writerly income with a day job in a bank. He was hanging out with Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf and other formidable people whose sophistication had a savage quality to it, which it was his obligation to survive. (Russell, under the guise of friendship and solicitude for the young, struggling couple, wound up seducing Vivienne.) His feet and head were finally in the same place, in London, which was in England, which was in Europe, and he was experiencing the tensions and pressures of literary commerce; the anomie of office work in a vast capitalist enterprise (Lloyd’s of London); and the anguish of a marriage quickly becoming a source of arduous, painful, confusing dramas and entanglements. (Looking back after Vivienne’s death, in 1947, he was to say, “To her the marriage brought no happiness . . . To me it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”)

A more significant answer, though, more significant than his domestic agonies to the question of Eliot’s state of mind, more significant than the dolor of office life and the struggle to build a career, was, of course, the war, the First World War, the war to end all wars. As far as great art can be explained, it is the war that explains the riveting, destabilizing drama, bitterly accurate irony, prophetic judgment, ominous atmosphere, and nervously alive and enveloping crepuscularity, at once melancholy, desperate, baleful, unnerving, and vulnerable, of “The Waste Land.”

Like Flaubert’s God, Eliot is everywhere present in his work but nowhere apparent.

It has mostly gone without saying in the critical tradition that Eliot can’t be understood or appreciated without understanding the effect the war had on him. It has mostly gone without saying because the war has been understood as a given and has been said to explain everyone at or around Eliot’s age who came into contact with it. But the specificity and emotional intensity of what Eliot achieved in “The Waste Land”— arguably the most influential poem of the English language—is imperfectly served if the poem is seen as another artifact of the Lost Generation. The effect of the war on Eliot is an inexhaustible subject. No other work of art in the West of the stature of “The Waste Land” is so immediately and intimately wedded to a major historical cataclysm while being, moreover, radical (in the original meaning of the word) enough, at once close enough and distant enough, imaginative enough, ingenious enough, unreminiscent and unprecedented enough to take the measure of human catastrophe of that order. Pound might have been thinking of “The Waste Land” when he said that poetry was news that stays news.

Industrialized warfare had been around for a hundred years or more, but the Western world, and the world of Eliot’s London generation, was now introduced with a vengeance to its fullest development in its most mechanized and inhuman form. Eliot was a non-combatant. (He tried, and failed, because of a series of bureaucratic impediments, to enlist after America entered the war in April of 1917.) But though he didn’t see action, he was in his way as much a war poet as Wilfred Owen or Robert Graves (something that couldn’t be said about Pound). The war didn’t just, as he might have put it in a laconic moment, modify his sensibilities. The war invaded him and imprinted itself onto his deeper psychic layers. “The Waste Land” is overpowering in its sense of the isolation of the spirit trapped in violent materiality. That sense isn’t derived from a Vedantic predilection for seeing life as a painful illusion or a Gnostic antipathy to the body (though these are functional elements in the poem) but is a local and particular response, however circuitous the development, long the gestation, and indirect the realization, to the experience of witnessing, only a few steps removed, systematized carnage.

The reports Eliot was getting in 1917 were gruesome. Here is an example, a battlefield description from a letter written by a soldier in the trenches, which letter was enclosed in a cover letter written on June 17, 1917, and sent to the British magazine The Nation, which published it on June 23:

. . . a leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackening corpses of hundreds of young men. The appalling stench of rotting carrion mingled with the sickening smell of exploded lyddite and ammonal.

Mud like porridge, trenches like shallow and sloping cracks in the porridge—porridge that stinks in the sun. Swarms of flies and bluebottles clustering on the pits of offal. Wounded men lying in the shell holes among the decaying corpses: helpless under the scorching sun and bitter nights, under repeated shelling. Men with bowels dropping out, lungs shot away, with blind, smashed faces, or limbs blown into space. Men screaming and gibbering. Wounded men hanging in agony on the barbed wire, until a friendly spout of liquid fire shrivels them up like a fly in a candle. But these are only words, and probably convey a fraction of their meaning to the hearers.

They shudder, and it is forgotten.

The writer of the cover letter to The Nation was Eliot himself. The letter that he enclosed was written by his brother-in-law, Maurice Haigh-Wood, who had been on the front since before he was nineteen. (Maurice Haigh-Wood survived the war.) Along with the terror and agony, the pity and rage that a description like this invokes, Eliot must have had reactions consistent with the peculiar person he was. A characteristic of his essays is a strong, though mostly unexamined, metaphoric physicalism in the language he uses to think about art and culture, along with hints of an underlying sense that literature produces effects that are best analyzed if we approach them with analogies drawn from science. In his most famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he compares the poetic imagination to a filament of platinum that catalyzes a chemical reaction. This way of thinking might well have been derived from a psychosomatic susceptibility.

As deeply attuned to moods and impressions as he was, as attuned to verbal acts and as open and vulnerable to the images made by words, as high-strung as he was, Eliot probably responded to language that affected him in ways that seemed physical; and had feelings that would have poisoned him in just the way he says, in his essay on the play, that Hamlet’s life and capacity to act were poisoned because of feelings he couldn’t articulate or objectify. Eliot must have felt accounts like the passage in the letter previously quoted as illnesses. Strange as it may seem, given how tormented the poem is, how bitter its ironies are, the cure to those illnesses, the release by articulation and objectification, was the shape-shifting, gravitationally dense, translucent, hypnotic, strangely radiating musical orb that is “The Waste Land.”

T.S. Eliot had as much cultural authority during his lifetime as any writer of any era in the history of the English language. That authority tends to occlude for us the crisis-ridden poet in whom “The Waste Land” was growing. It’s hard to discern that Eliot among all the other Eliots who have lived in the literary and public mind for the most of the past hundred years. Eliot the setter of standards. Eliot the lawgiver. Eliot the elitist, lover of rank and hierarchy. Eliot the Defender of the Faith. Eliot the establishmentarian—“classicist in literature, royalist in politics, anglo-catholic in religion.” The sporadically, depressingly, dishearteningly anti-Semitic Eliot. The Christian Eliot. The Christian-identity Eliot. Eliot the incomparable literary analyst, who created a whole climate of opinion. Eliot the supercilious literary analyst who made preposterous (but perfectly timed) invidious judgments in passing (“About Donne there hangs the shadow of the impure motive”; “Hazlitt, who had perhaps the most uninteresting mind of all our distinguished critics”). Eliot the editor. Eliot the gatekeeper. Eliot the playwright. Eliot the prizewinner. Eliot the snob. Eliot the intellectual show-off. Eliot, who was turned into a statue by the time he was fifty, and then was put on a plinth and buried up to his neck, like a Beckett character buried in sand, by a storm of critical attention. Eliot the celebrity, friend of Groucho Marx.

But even if we could see that young poet (young as far as poetry is concerned), we still probably would only see the enigma more plainly, and not uncover much of anything useful about him—useful in the sense of satisfying a curiosity about the paths by which intense experience is turned into art, in the way, for example, that Keats’s letters are useful. This is because Eliot doesn’t share. His own letters—at least the ones that have been made public so far—are, with rare exceptions, like the one excerpted earlier (in which he is quoting someone else), uninformative, and are consistent with the person who was the orchestrator of his own absence. (Not for nothing did the critic Hugh Kenner call his Eliot book The Invisible Poet.) To no other great writer of his era have we as readers a personal relationship, an emotional identification, that is so tenuous. Eliot isn’t “relatable.” He doesn’t invite companionship. He’s the most guarded of the modernist writers, the most vigilant about patrolling the no-man’s-land between the self and what it creates.

We know those other writers, arguably, in the ways we know the people in our lives. The reticent, “classical” ones, like Cavafy, and the ones who inhabit masks or fables, like Pessoa or Kafka (all three of whom have more than a little in common with Eliot when it comes to their rhetorical choices), we know as well as we know the ones who, like Proust or Lawrence, were prone to be autobiographical. Even saying we don’t know him like we know the others seems not true or false but, instead, the product of a conceptual mistake, a category error, and an error that he could have predicted. The famous sentences from “Tradition and the Individual Talent” read: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

Like Flaubert’s God, Eliot is everywhere present in his work but nowhere apparent. He transformed the rectitude characteristic of the Puritan culture from which he came into a principle by which to govern the artifacts of his imagination, and he applied that principle with impressive consistency. Eliot the person functions as the vanishing point of the long perspective lines of his poetry. Even when he puts himself, rather than a dramatic persona, in his poems, that self is, when it isn’t just the grammatical subject, either the existential self of the penitential lyrics or the transcendental subjectivity of the late meditations. The accidental location of that subject in geography and history is the fluorescent dye that allows us to detect the motion of time and reveals the contours of a spiritual topography.

Instead of personality, Eliot draped a transparent veil over his material, one that has optic properties that shrink, elongate, or magnify the enclosed dramatic and symbolic action, and impart a hyperreal clarity (though not a simplicity—Eliot is a “difficult” poet, whose difficulty is fundamental) to that action. Instead of emotion, we are given what he famously called its objective correlative—“a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” The force of “The Waste Land” is inseparable from the impersonality of this correlative. Its impersonality is crucial to its aura of perpetual freshness—and the impression it gives that it is permanent—which it has never lost. In fact, in its postapocalyptic, dystopic atmosphere, its gender-bending, its bitter consciousness of sexual violence perpetrated on women, “The Waste Land” is not only news that has stayed news but also current events.

“The Waste Land” also proposes new ideas about poetry that are as thrilling as ever. The opening passage, introduced by the indelible first line, is like the Louis Armstrong trumpet cadenza that opens the Hot Five’s “West End Blues,” announcing, with the same ringing articulation, the birth of an art form. The disenchanted vision both opposes and reinforces, and is reinforced by, the energy of the transitions, their unexpectedness, and the joy (a strange but appropriate word to use in the context of a work so dark) their juxtapositions excite. When “The Waste Land” was published, its techniques of collage and multivocality and its cross-cultural, globalized field of reference were as striking as its transitions.

Over time, because Eliot taught us a new way of assimilating knowledge into poems, those elements have become familiar. The transitions, though, are as radical as ever and, paradoxically, as inevitable because they both create and are created by the fragmentation of the poem’s surface. One of the achievements of “The Waste Land”—and of modernism from Cézanne on—is to make form equal to content as a bearer of significance. The violence inside the poem, the violence experienced by the civilization for which “The Waste Land” is a lamentation, is made vivid to us as much by the abrupt leaps the poem makes from fragment to fragment as by the representation of the effects of that violence on the poem’s personas.

Eliot disassembled the poem of his time. He disassembled not just the normative Edwardian-Victorian poem of his time but, also, the “advanced” poem of his time. Texts like “The Comedian as the Letter C” and “Le Cimetière marin,” both of which were published almost concurrently and were considered radical in their day, seem, looking back, late Romantic, like the music of Elgar or Richard Strauss, when compared with “The Waste Land.” Rather than Stevens or Valéry, the figures of his era with whom Eliot has, at least in the years before his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, the most in common are probably (as unlikely as it sounds) Duchamp and Brecht.

A conceptual, deconstructionist irony governs everything from the actions and transactions of “The Waste Land” to the tongue-in-cheek endnotes—which pull the rug out from under the reader, which “alienate” the reader from the experience he or she or they have just had. The conceptual elements, combined with the impersonality and the philosophical skepticism characteristic of Eliot even in his period of faith and Christian apologetics (he was as well trained in philosophy as any poet in the history of the West), create a separation not only between the poem and the poet and the poem and the reader but, also, between the poem and itself.

Ezra Pound was said to have a golden ear. Eliot’s ear was better.

The innovations of “The Waste Land,” though they were Eliot’s, came out of the collective European mind in the aftermath of the war. That they happened doesn’t seem mysterious now. What is mysterious is the way the radical new ideas about movement and development, the conceptual superstructures, and the scholarly apparatus engender a deeper unity and integration and enhance and intensify the poem’s revelatory power. Many people have imitated Eliot, but no one has been able to reassemble along new lines and reintegrate so completely what was so energetically disassembled. Part of this has to do with Pound’s brilliant editing of the poem (which Eliot never failed to acknowledge), but only a part. There is something inherent in the work that makes it whole. That something derives from its mood and music.

Eliot was a master of mood, and mood gives the poem a binding energy and reconciles its fragments into an emotional whole. Eliot had a profound sense of musical structure, which everywhere sustains the development and modifies the jaggedness and abruptness of the drama. “The Waste Land” is filled with passages and effects in which the musical satisfaction is as rich and complete as the literary satisfaction. One is the wonderful broken chord at the end of the first stanza that occasions the shifting of grammatical moods from the declarative to the interrogative that begins the second stanza, and that creates a shock of delight. Another astonishing example is the sostenuto (“Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves / Waited for rain . . .”) that initiates the tremendous fable of the thunder that closes the poem. The withdrawal of tension and the narrative soft-pedaling there, before the poem engages its final crescendo, is as exquisite a fusion as there is in poetry of dynamics and rhythm with meaning, myth, and image.

Ezra Pound was said to have a golden ear. Eliot’s ear was better. His diction occupies a sweet spot between the demotic and the aristocratic, and, because of the tension between them, remains convincing, without a trace of the archaic or the futuristic, as close to or as far away from the diction of the twenty-first century as it is from the diction of the twentieth or the nineteenth. The rhythms of the poems, early and late, are local and global. A diffident meter runs evenly just under the surface of the lines and phrases—a beautifully quiet but unwavering metrical presence. An overall sound design disciplines and enlivens each syllable of the poems. The French Symbolists, who were Eliot’s first poetic influence, wanted poetry not just to be musical but to arrive at the abstract condition of music. Eliot’s poetry arrives at that condition and arrives there without sacrificing for the sake of abstraction, for the sake of a purely musical motive and a meaning that is internal to the text, what he saw as also essential to poems—stories, characters, dramas, human voices, concrete meaning, psychological states, pictures of the world.

“The Waste Land” poses a question to which only God could be the answer.

Eliot is an American poet. People have said it before: only an American could have come up with his idea of Europe when he came up with it. The other American poet, the other great American poet, who has an ear comparable to his is not Pound but Walt Whitman. Whitman’s sonic education was ahistorical and biblical, while Eliot’s derived directly from the study of English prosody and its classical antecedents. Whitman was writing operas and symphonies with large forces. Eliot was writing chamber music, implicitly in the beginning and explicitly at the end, in the “Four Quartets.” But like Eliot, Whitman had a mastery of wide sonic intervals; a terrific ability to modulate between large- and small-scale aural effects; and a wonderful purity, a delicacy, and a delicate control, of tone, a natural diction that never grows stale. And in both Eliot and Whitman the individual notes and the chords resonate in a vast echo chamber where sound itself has a spiritual meaning.

This introduction to Eliot’s poems is being written in the bicentennial year of Whitman’s birth. It’s tempting in this context to triangulate Eliot the poet by means of Whitman. It’s also apt and useful. It’s also addictive. Once the comparison is made it can’t be shaken off. It says a lot about the poets, about poetry, and about America. The contrasts are so sharp that by them alone the comparison is justified. Whitman’s rhetoric is frank and personal. Eliot’s is the opposite. Whitman repeats himself. Eliot never does. To say that Eliot had even a passing enthusiasm for democracy would be to stretch credulity. Whitman was self-educated. Eliot had the best institutional education available in the America of his time. Whitman is the poet of happiness as decisively as Eliot is the poet of unhappiness. They exist at the opposite poles of spiritual life. God hangs out with Whitman. God is Whitman’s homey. Whitman presupposes God. Even in his most intense spiritual writing, Eliot infrequently and gingerly mentions God.

The mystical union in Whitman is like a function of his body, as inevitable as breathing. Eliot’s poetry, on the other hand, from “The Waste Land” on, is the enactment of a journey along the via negativa, the path of penitence, abnegation, suffering, dark nights of the soul, the path that traverses the stony places, passes by empty cisterns and exhausted wells, through dead lands, cactus lands, valleys of dying stars. “The Waste Land” poses a question to which only God could be the answer. All the major poems Eliot writes after “The Waste Land” are singular events—defined by rhetorical and metrical inventions designed for those events alone—that document the stages of a search for that answer, one that is excruciating, carried on in both hope and doubt. And as rich and round as it is, as satisfying to the mind, the beatific vision, when Eliot finally arrives at it in the Four Quartets, is muted, solemn, intellectual, and diffident even in its ecstasy.

We love Whitman, and we don’t love Eliot—or, rather, we don’t seem to be able to establish that personal relationship to Eliot that would be a necessary condition of our loving him. Whitman insists on that personal relationship. Eliot forbids it. But love isn’t why we read poetry. Poetry is why we read poetry. To separate ourselves from the enchantments or disenchantments these two central makers of American poetry impose on us, and to see them just as their poetry makes it possible to recognize how much they actually have in common, Whitman’s imposition of friendship on his readers is as much a rhetorical trick as Eliot’s forbidding that same friendship. Both poets disappear into their poems, as all great poets do, whatever the fiction they use to address the reader. Eliot is thought of as a cold poet, but it can be convincingly argued that Whitman is, too. (We disdain Eliot’s politics, and think of Whitman as our representative—though Whitman was tickled pink to see America steal large chunks of Mexico and contemplated with impassive neutrality the extinction of American Indians by the onslaught of Manifest Destiny.)

And, beyond this, the similarities cascade: Both were revolutionary, and both were original—which aren’t the same thing. The techniques and possibilities of poetry were vastly expanded by both of them. They were both visionary, and they were both public figures, teachers of their visions. Both were transformed by living through a bloody and terrible war. The scale of their ambition was enormous and exactly the same, and they both, astonishingly, realized that ambition. They were both committed to a transcendental motive, one derived from their common nonconformist American religious culture. They both believed life is a spiritual experience, and poems are meant to embody that experience. They can be seen as companions. To say it again, we read poetry for poetry, and on that basis if it’s an honor for Eliot to be thought of as a good companion for Whitman it’s just as much an honor for Whitman.

They belong together in important ways, in essential ways. In their influence on others and on the culture at large, there are no other American poets quite like them. One of the singular insights Eliot has in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is the phenomenological paradox that the present changes the past. Our present, our woke present, democratic, aware of positionalities, alive to difference, requiring at least the rhetorical gestures of frankness, openness, tends to cling to Whitman and not to Eliot. Our present, though, has many elements that Eliot understood but Whitman didn’t. In fact, in his urban angst, his apocalyptic consciousness, his feeling for the real dangers of experience, his recognition that spiritual insight is not a joy, or not a joy only, but a terrible necessity, it just might be Eliot who has stopped somewhere and is waiting for us.

*

“The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot

A penny for the Old Guy

I.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

__________________________________

The Essential T.S. Eliot

From The Essential T.S. Eliot by T.S. Eliot, with an introduction by Vijay Seshadri. Used with the permission of Ecco.

Vijay Seshadri
Vijay Seshadri
Vijay Seshadri was born in India in 1954 and moved to America as a small child. He is the author of four books of poetry, as well as many essays, reviews, and memoir fragments. His work has been widely published and anthologized and recognized with a number of honors, including the Pulitzer Prize.





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