T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) grew up in St. Louis but hailed from an eminent New England family. He emigrated to Olde England early on, and became a British subject in 1927. Indeed, he often comes across as more English than the queen. His literary reputation depends on a handful of highly original, long poems, among them The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Wasteland, Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets. The first two are imagistic pastiches; the second dense religio-philosophical meditations. Eliot also wrote plays and some pivotal works of literary criticism.

In my college years, Prufrock and The Wasteland were much in favor and we studied them enthusiastically. Their vivid imagery held us spellbound and their tone seemed to fit the anti-establishment ethos of the times. We were mistaken about that. Eliot was an arch conservative; considered a quintessential modern poet, in fact he despised modernity, embracing a nostalgia so deep it went back to the early 17th Century. After that, he thought, everything went wrong.

My early infatuation with Eliot has cooled. Nowadays, for example, I shrug off some of his imagery. Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table… A stunning simile, we were taught, an example of Eliot’s famous “objective correlative.” Friends, the image is silly. Can something as vague as an evening be said to spread out against something as vast as a sky? Are surgery patients spread out on a table to begin with? Seems to me, they just lie there. The simile is so specific that no reader can get the literal image of that etherised patient out the mind. It hijacks whatever point Eliot wanted to make. Eliot is very successful, though, at conveying the existential plight of the fussy, neurasthenic middle-aged Prufrock. Eliot wrote it at age 23! One could say, I suppose, that he was a wise old soul … or a young old fart.

To my mind, the most problematic work of Eliot’s is The Wasteland, a work so indebted to the redaction of Ezra Pound that eminent thinkers have declared it a work of co-authorship. This doesn’t sit well with me. Poetry is not collaborative art. In later years, Eliot himself washed his hands, he said, of all but 30 lines.

But I don’t wish to complain too loudly. I’ve always loved Eliot’s Preludes, The Hollow Men, and especially The Journey of the Magi. Recently, I’ve gotten into Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets, mature poems pursuing mature spiritual themes. A writer I admire very much, Karen Armstrong, organizes her recent memoir The Spiral Staircase around the imagery of Ash Wednesday.

Below I feature a bizarre little prose poem notable for its logorrhea, a misguided trope (teeth=stars/talent/squad drill), and a rather typical misogynistic tone.


As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: ‘If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden ...’ I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

Bonus: Dubious Eliotic Lines

Weird Optometry Dept.
Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!

Twee Audubon Dept.
He has 999 canaries
And round his head finches and fairies

Churchill Is Bored Today Dept.
War is not a life: it is a situation,
One which may neither be ignored nor accepted

Odd Behavior in Lights Dept.
Every street-lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum

Even Weirder Optometry Dept.
Eyes that last I saw in tears
Through division

Spectral Servants Dept.
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

Hazards of Reading Dept.
The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.

Calling Dr. Atkins Dept.
Miss Nancy Ellicott
Strode across the hills and broke them

Weirdest Optometry Dept.
A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime

O O O O That Anti-Semi-Tite Rag
The rats are underneath the piles.
The Jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs.

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