T. S. Eliot: The Early Poems

Prufrock and Other Observations (1917)

Poems (1920)

I A Personal Aside

I first encountered Eliot as a freshman in college near my 18th birthday while browsing the college bookstore. Books of poetry by name authors then either attracted or repelled me (for obvious reasons of developmental narcissism), as I had written poetry seriously for several years, a common outlet in adolescence, as opposed to writing “serious poetry.”

On the cheap wire bookrack I sighted a slim gray paperback, not forbiddingly intimidating, entitled The Waste Land and Other Poems. I had heard of Eliot but never read him.

In the American educational system I had received the usual sprinklings of Poets Americana: Frost, Longfellow, Poe, Dickinson, Ferlinghetti—whatever took my fancy in the required readers, or, in later grades, whatever took my English teachers’ fancy, so that by a rather random exposure to such diverse elements I had prematurely concluded that form was more the signature of an author than a shared craft.

Then, that day, I stumbled on Eliot.

Standing at the bookrack I read The Waste Land entire. Afterwards I bought the book in a daze. I don’t remember much else: it was a true epiphany, my first adult introduction into how powerful, how wonderful poetry could be (excepting perhaps my vague memory of Poe’s “The Raven” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).

I make no apologies for my love of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, or my affection for the man, and the man is not so hard to glimpse through his verse as some may think. In fact, Lyndall Gordon’s third volume about Eliot, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (Vintage, Random House, 1998), uses his poetry as the main source material for her biography of a man who forbade an official biography. I had long thought this approach obvious. Who speaks about the mask of the persona more than the man who hides behind it?

What so attracted me to Eliot? In a word, magic: the power of incantation, suprarational leaps, phrasing “that rings in the mind like a silver coin” (Conrad Aiken), not to mention the arresting, imagistic gems embedded throughout his work like “garlic and sapphires in the mud.” Take this passage from TWL (5), for example:

“A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in the air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.” (378-385)

Reading such passages for the first time, one might say I had a spiritual experience without any rational understanding thereof: I felt as if I knew what had been transmitted but had no words to describe the substance of the journey. Thus I intuited the poem through feeling tones generated by images (fortified by his marvelous, musical diction), a method Eliot later crystallized in “the objective correlative,” though the term in no way explains the various effects in his work. As Eliot said and so well demonstrated, “A poem can be apprehended before it is understood.”

Subsequently, in my freshman composition class, I sought to understand the poem, producing a paper of 64 pages in the process. I read Jessie Weston’s Ritual and Romance and other works referenced in his “Notes on ‘TWL’” (notes which were tardily and somewhat ironically appended to the poem after the outcry of confusion which its publication aroused). Later, Eliot himself was to refer to the poem as “my grouse against the world,” adding yet another layer of irony and mystery to its genesis. But TWL belongs to what I consider his middle period, and it is not my ambition to discuss it at length in this first essay. I merely wish to emphasize that reading it was my baptism into the world of literature, globally and historically, from Herodotus to Sir James Frazer. TWL was the rabbit hole down which I fell into the whirlpool (like Phlebas the Phoenician in TWL IV), of the historical cross-currents beneath the foundations of modern literature.

All this happened thirty years ago, yet to this day, in re-reading Eliot, I find him the most magical of poets in English (if also, at times, one of the most inscrutable). And long acquaintance has made me familiar with, if not always certain about, the substance of his work.

As a note on education, I recall the method that my German GastVater (my “host- father” while an exchange student to Germany) used on a new piano student: No scales. No elementary books of chords. No theory. Instead, the first thing the student learned was a rather complicated piece by Mozart, which he was able to play flawlessly in a matter of weeks. (I am told this resembles the famous Suzuki method for the violin.) Naturally the student’s quick progress astounded me, but in view of my similar baptism into literature by reading TWL, might this suggest that all of the arts should be taught by immersion at the highest level? Perhaps those of us who are teachers underestimate the ability of our students to plunge into deepest waters first. (Not so in my medical training; on the first day of school we were instructed to buy dissecting kits and that afternoon I was already working on a cadaver.)

II Prufrock and Other Observations (1917)

I consider Eliot’s first published volume of poems his best next to The Four Quartets. How long he labored on this collection is open to speculation. He began “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” while at Harvard, where he received a master’s degree in 1910. Yet the bulk of the poems, even “Prufrock,” are set in his adopted city of London. Like many artists’ first efforts the book surpasses his second (a phenomenon quite common to writers and composers).

Eliot was nearly 30 when Prufrock and Other Observations saw print, having been for some time at the center of the modern revolution in English literature under the aegis of the irrepressible Ezra Pound, who (with Eliot) founded the school of Imagism, based on the influence of French Symbolists like Baudelaire and especially Jules LaForgue. Other influences abound in Eliot’s debut, from Dante to Donne to Pope—the latter evidenced in Eliot’s mastery of the English couplet.

Prufrock contains four major poems and eight minor ones. The major poems besides “Prufrock” include “Portrait of a Lady,” “Preludes,” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” all derivative of or similar to Eliot’s masterful title piece, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

“Prufrock” is quite simply one of the greatest poems in the history of English, as well as the first truly modern poem. Its appearance cannot be predicted by any antecedents in English literature. Although Eliot was a student of literary history in a number of languages, especially French (in which he published four poems in his second collection), the voice, technique and substance of “Prufrock” are undeniably an entirely original synthesis of all that had gone before in English poetry, while claiming vast new territories for the future of the art. The cardinal difference between “Prufrock” and previous poetry is the fact that “Prufrock,” though a drama, occurs almost entirely inside the head of the narrator. What external human interaction th e poem contains is actually comprised of only six lines:

“And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep...tired...or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” (75–80)

The remainder of the poem consists of an internal dialogue into which the reader is invited from the beginning:

“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table.” (1–3)

Unlike Browning’s monologues, which consist of real conversations; Shakespeare’s soliloquies, which are public deliberations necessitated by dramatic form; Wordsworth’s psychologically projective meditations on nature, or the reified grief of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam, A. H. H.,” Prufrock’s world exists primarily between his ears. The reader is teleported, without introduction or apology, into the neurotic consciousness of a man belaboring what to do or say to a lady he is about to meet over tea. (See Robert Sward’s piece at http://www.robertsward.com/rsward_tseliot.html for one the best interpretations of the poem’s narrative I’ve read.)

But it is not my intention to explicate the poem’s substance, rather to highlight its originality and profound departure from prior English verse. Again, “Prufrock” is thoroughly modern because its point of view is from inside a man’s head, a lyric of timidity, cowardice, ratiocination, and, ultimately, defeat and rationalization. Yet, except in the speaker’s mind, where the assignation circumscribed by his deliberations has been magnified into a life-cha nging crisis, the event is but a minor encounter by any social measure—though not by modern psychological measure.

Briefly, Prufrock’s private musings communicate the consciousness of an anti-hero who dreads human contact and, especially, sexual intimacy, a man virtually castrated by his own inhibitions. Thus “Prufrock” prefigures Joyce, Kafka, Dylan Thomas, Gunther Grass, Celan, Roethke, Plath, Milan Kundera, Samuel Beckett and even Bob Dylan. In short, all 20th century writers specializing in the personal, psychological, even unconscious point of view are clearly indebted to Eliot’s groundbreaking effort.

One can even speak of a world literature before and after “Prufrock,” as “Prufrock” both reflects and predicts the two dominant philosophies that shaped the 20th century western civilization: Psychoanalysis and Existentialism. “Prufrock” is the bridge between the modern sensibility of narcissistic alienation, now taken for granted, and the focus of the previous ages, where deliberation purposed action and private concerns were given a more public treatment. This constitutes a difference in kind, not degree. As Harold Bloom opined, great literature must both subsume the tradition and depart from it. Although his opinion of Eliot is surprisingly dismissive, few artists in history have fulfilled Bloom’s criterion so completely. Through “Prufrock” Eliot foresaw the diminished vision of man that came to dominate European intellectualism after WWI, earlier typified by Joseph Conrad in the character of Mr. Kurtz, to whom Eliot pays homage in his epigram for “The Hollow Men” (1925). Remember, however, that in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mr. Kurtz’s degeneration is described from without by the narrator, not from inside the mad missionary’s head.

Though TWL, published five years after Prufrock and Other Observations, received historical credit for this breakthrough to the Modern, there is nothing in the technique or approach of TWL that is not already present in Prufrock. “Portrait of a Lady,” for example, is a poem in which the point of view changes rapidly, while the reader is assisted by only a few quotation marks around the lady’s spoken parts. As in TWL, “Portrait of a Lady” mixes voices without warning or explication, as the speaker’s private thoughts are subtly sandwiched between spoken lines:

“The October night comes down; returning as before
Except for a slight sensation of being ill at ease

I mount the stairs and turn the handle of the door
And feel as if I had mounted on my hands and knees.
‘And so you are going abroad; and when do you return?
But that’s a useless question.
You hardly know when you are coming back.’
My smile falls heavily among the bric-a-brac.

‘Perhaps you can write to me.’
My self-possession flares up for a second;
This is as I had reckoned. (POL III, 1-12)

Here Eliot expects the reader to distinguish between the speech and thoughts of his personae without traditional explanatory transitions. His debut poems entirely dispense with the niceties of Victorian continuity as if spliced together from film scenes that escaped the cutting floor. Eliot’s new methods demand more of the reader than had previously been thought possible. Not only must the reader dispense with Aristotle’s three unities (which Shakespeare most famously shattered), he must also supply what unity can be ascribed a poem. Remark these sudden shifts in “Prufrock” now taken for granted:

“Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.

“In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…” (11-17)

In these seven lines are three major shifts, from an appeal to the reader, to a vision of a distant room, to the observation of London fog close at hand. The technique is virtually cinematic (in an era when film was primitive). Later in the century, as in Charles Olson’s “projective verse,” this freedom was taken to greater heights (or depths) of inscrutability. But it was Eliot who first stole permission for such disconnections.

Among other revolutionary ideas in literature (as noted in my freshman experience of TWL), we find that in “Prufrock” Eliot employs the “objective correlative” before he invented the term. Consistent with his early allegiance to Imagism, Eliot inserts images for emotional resonance, not continuity of narrative, as in this famous passage in the poem’s middle, introduced and concluded by only a row of asterisks:

* * *

“Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” (70-74)

* * *

It is interesting that Prufrock can envision his pairing, not with another human, but in a synecdoche for a crustacean who is not only protected by armor but by anonymity amid the depths and silence of the ocean. Observe the concluding lines of “Preludes” for the same effect of sudden psychic disconnection with which Eliot afflicts the reader:

“I am moved by fancies that are curled

Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

“Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.”

Or take this passage from “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”:

“The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things;
A twisted branch upon the beach

Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
A broken spring in a factory yard,
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap.”

What can one say about such impositions upon the reader except that they seem granted by a sharing of the unconscious? Though to my knowledge Eliot never cites Freud as a major influence, I can’t help but believe Eliot had long since read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams before penning these lines. (On the other hand, Eliot may have deemed such influences so obvious as to be unworthy of mention. His comments on his own work are usually the most obfuscatory of all.)

Thus far my introduction to Eliot’s contribution to the Modern. Now to remark upon Prufrock and Other Observations in a few, brief particulars.

Clearly “Prufrock” ranks as the best poem in this volume, “Preludes” second, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” third, and “Portrait of a Lady” fourth, at least by the standard of Eliot’s own innovations.

“Preludes” achieves the kind of disconnections and re-connections that “Prufrock” first demonstrated. “Rhapsody” employs some more traditional effects of lyric poetry in the form of a colloquy with a sputtering street-lamp. “Portrait of a Lady,” in its social subtleties and nuances of emotion, recalls Jane Austen: it is also the most externalized drama of the four major poems in Eliot’s first volume, and may be preferred by some over “Preludes” and “Rhapsody” for that reason— the very reason I think it the least innovative. However, if “Portrait of a Lady” stood by itself; indeed, if any of these poems had appeared by 1917 and “Prufrock” were never written, Eliot’s reputation would still be secure.

As for the minor poems in the volume, they are fragments or sketches at best, and I leave them to the reader to review. But for the sake of noting Eliot’s humor, which often goes unremarked, I can’t resist quoting this hilarious couplet from “Mr. Apollinax”:

“In the palace of Mrs. Phlaccus, at Professor Channing-Cheetah’s
He [Mr. Apollinax] laughed like an irresponsible foetus.”

Poems (1920)

It is instructive to note that in the centenary edition of Eliot’s Selected Poems (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1988), all the minor poems from Prufrock and Other Observations are excluded, while only four French poems from his second collection, Poems, are likewise excluded. As Selected Poems was last copyrighted by Eliot in 1964, the year before his death, it is safe to assume Selected Poems represented his choices, not an editor’s. Of course, poets are not always their own best editors. Yet one would think, more than 40 years after their appearance, that Eliot’s choices for inclusion in his Selected were made with sufficient deliberation, even if “A Cooking Egg” is not exactly first-rate. Naturally, he excluded Four Quartets from Selected, a late gift from his muse that rightly stands alone.

Eliot’s Selected thus includes only four poems from Prufrock but eight from Poems. Yet except for “Gerontion,” the first, best, and longest poem of the second volume, none compare with the landmark compositions of his first collection. After “Gerontion,” Eliot takes a metaphysical, formal turn in Poems, as the seven remaining poems (excepting those in French) are written in tight quatrains, with compressed diction and that unequal yoking of disparate metaphors by which Samuel Johnson first condemned the Metaphysical Poets, whom Eliot rehabilitated. The freedom of “Prufrock,” that outpouring of genius which typifies all great poetry, seems to have dried up after “Gerontion.”

For those interested in biography, Eliot’s “nervous breakdown” occurred in November of 1921, after which he wrote the initial draft of TWL during a three-month stay at a Swiss sanitarium. As publication lags behind biography, perhaps the arid intellectualism of his formal efforts in Poems reflects the increasing tenuousness of his aesthetic and emotional resources, compounded by over-work, a failing marriage, and a sensitive nature likely prone to depression. In fact, I am nearly certain his voluntary confinement in 1921 was for what we now term “clinical depression,” whose definition as a distinct illness had yet to be classified. And however trying his experiential antecedents (including his public cuckolding by Lord Bertrand Russell with Eliot’s first wife, Vivien), we now know that once generated, depression assumes a life of its own, apart from preceding triggers. I only note these events as a possible explanation for the formal sterility that, after “Gerontion,” overcomes his genius in Poems—a genius restored in TWL.

So let us speak of “Gerontion,” a poem obviously contiguous with his Prufrock period. The only major difference of “Gerontion” from its predecessors is not style or technique, simply the age of the voice. Whereas the protagonist of the Prufrock poems is middle-aged, the speaker in “Gerontion” has attained old age: “an old man, a dull head among windy spaces” (G 15,16).

The delusion of premature old age is common in clinical depression, and the exhaustion of spirit to which this poem bears witness may presage Eliot’s loss of creativity (and subsequent breakdown), as stated in the poem’s concluding lines: “Tenants of the house / Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.”

The title, “Gerontion,” takes the Greek root for aging (from which we get “geriatrics”) and makes it a noun for an ongoing condition, or the condition of aging, though many take the title as simply the name of the speaker. “Gerontion” naturally recalls the myth of Tithonus, but its epigram (from Shakespeare: Thou has nor youth nor age / But as it were an after dinner sleep / Dreaming of both.) implies a state of age beyond time, similar to the timeless persona of Tiresias in TWL. Time and history are favorite themes of Eliot, perhaps most eloquently introduced by “Gerontion.” As to time, note these lines:

“I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,

Bitten by flies, fought.” (3-6)

In reference to wars ancient and modern, here Gerontion conflates experience beyond one lifetime. To the old man history is as real, perhaps more real, than present life—and time is relative. Like Prufrock, Gerontion lives inside his head, transcending time through imagination and memory.

And as to history:

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,

Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusion
That the giving famishes the craving.” (33-39)

This passage may constitute a prefigurement of themes better developed in Four Quartets, as Eliot’s chief dilemma in the early poems is his struggle with sterility vs. fertility—fear of contamination by the physical, the sexual—and fear of affirming reality as real, the blighted harvest of a Bostonian blueblood intellectual transplanted to an even more bloodless English society.

The “knowledge” referred to in the passage above, for example, refers to a loss of passion:

“Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.” (30-33)

So passionless has the speaker become that he no longer even entertains the ghosts of memory. And these lines (whose substance is emphasized by the assonance of open vowel sounds, as if the old man were moaning to himself) follow on the heels of a tawdry dismemberment of “Christ the tiger”—symbol of rejuvenation—by the unfeeling caricatures of Mr. Silvero, Madame de Tornquist and Fraulein von Kulp, convenient caricatures whose names imply a decadent European upper class. Eliot often employs one-dimensional personae, or caricatures, like poetic furniture, perhaps to emphasize the impersonal nature of persons, as in TWL I: “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / Had a bad cold, nevertheless…” (43–44))

In short, the persona of “Gerontion” seems the end game of sadder, older Prufrock, one who has not only seen “the moment of [his] greatness flicker” and retreated from human involvement, but who may have attained a deeper acceptance of his earlier choices—however existentially depressing:

“I would meet you upon this honestly.

I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use them for your closer contact?”

Unlike Prufrock, who ultimately refuses personal contact out of cowardice or delicacy, Gerontion has a far better excuse: inevitable decay of the physical senses, which Eliot so eloquently re-stated in 4Q, “Little Gidding” (II): “the cold friction of expiring sense.”

“Gerontion” also prefigures Eliot’s late change to the more didactic verse of 4Q, as it contains more straight “telling,” more unadulterated philosophy than other early poems. Perhaps it is best to end my brief discussion of “Gerontion” by quoting the conclusion of the stanza concerning history:

Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.”

Think also: these lines were written by a man barely 30. As we shall see in Eliot’s late period, he was old before he was young. In contradistinction to Yeats, whose work progressed from flesh (“the house of excrement”) to Byzantium, Eliot made the reverse jo urney: from a fearful asceticism to the embracement of incarnation:

“Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,

Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.”
(4Q, “East Coker” (I): 5–13)

This change in Eliot’s outlook does not reach maturity until some 25 years after “Gerontion” (in 4Q), but I couldn’t resist sharing a glimpse of Eliot’s future resolution, however premature it is to speak of it here. So let us get on with the last poems of his early period, those somewhat inscrutable and desiccated efforts before TWL rejuvenates his pen.

To begin, mouth aloud the titles of these seven poems: “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”; “Sweeney Erect”; “A Cooking Egg”; “The Hippopotamus”; “Whispers of Immortality”; “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service,” and “Sweeney Among the Nightingales.” Obviously, something has changed. These are formal (if mockingly formal) poems, all written in tight tetrameter quatrains. Of the seven, “The Hippopotamus” and “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” are the most admired and anthologized, but I think the comic nature of all seven poems underestimated. Eliot did have a sense of humor (indeed, later in life, developed a reputation as a practical joker), though at this stage of his development his humor was, perhaps, dry and sardonic as burnt toast. Myself, I find “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” plain funny in its combination of self-mockery and mockery of Presbyterian Puritanism, especially with its concluding reference to Sweeney, who embodies the opposite of the abstruse deliberations to which “Mr. Eliot” is prone:

“Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the water in his bath.
The masters of the subtle schools

Are controversial, polymath.” (29 et seq.)

A word about the Jew and Sweeney in early Eliot, especially his second volume: I doubt Eliot was either anti-Semitic or anti-Irish for that matter. In Poems, Eliot uses “the Jew” or “Sweeney,” the classic Irish clown, as men of fleshly appetite whom his disconnected intellect at once envies and despises. Take this passage from “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”:

“But this or such was Bleistein’s way:

A saggy bending of the knees
And elbows, with the palms turned out
Chicago Semite Viennese.” (13–16)

Then compare it with the first stanza of “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”:

”Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.”

Jews were the most recognizable ethnic minority in Europe when these lines were written, just as the Irish were the traditionally despised minority of the British Isles. In these recurring caricatures of Sweeney and the Jew, Eliot attempts to create a type of the sensual man, the ape-man, the man of appetite and self-indulgence. If it seems the sardonic, intellectualizing speaker of these poems looks down his nose at such, it is equally true that his impression makes for a comic distortion arising from his lack of comprehension of the flesh—a self-indicting blindness. Sometimes Eliot sounds simply like the nerd in high school who never gets laid, that member of the Chess Club with a slide rule on his belt. Hear, for example, how the emotionally constipated speaker of “Sweeney Erect” describes a sexual liaison:

“Sweeney addressed full length to shave

Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,

Knows the female temperament
And wipes the suds around his face. (21–24)

* * *

“Tests the razor on his leg
Waiting until the shriek subsides.
The epileptic on the bed
Curves backward, clutching at her sides.” (29-32)

Could this fat, pink, naked man, or the orgasm of his partner (characterized as an epileptic seizure), be any more degrading to man’s animal nature? How about the “lusterless, protrusive eye” that “stares from the protozoic slime” associated with Bleistein in “BWAB: BWAC”? Surely the speaker’s distortion of man’s physical nature in the Jew and Sweeney is as laughable as his comic creations. I think the tortured asceticism of these poems employs convenient stereotypes merely as foils for the central dilemma of spirit vs. flesh. In retrospect, unfortunately, for one foil he chose the Jew—formerly an accepted comic figure in English (however unenlightened this appears to us now), later to become the most tragic figure of the 20th century.

Two more comments on Eliot’s Poems:

First, although “The Hippopotamus” pre-dates Eliot’s Christian period by at least seven years, it is astonishingly prescient, containing an early vision of his eventual resolution of spirit vs. flesh. Perhaps Eliot thought it only a metaphysical exercise after the manner of Donne at the time; yet this is the same poet who later wrote, “In my beginning is my end.” Sometimes poets write pieces at an earlier age whose import is only clear to them years later. This is just such a poem, in which Eliot, uncharacteristically for this period, sides with the messy implications of the flesh. Speaking of the “ideal” vs. the “real” church (the latter typified by the Hippopotamus), he writes:

“I saw the ’potamus take wing
Ascending from its damp savannas,

And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

* * *

“He shall be washed as white as snow
By all the martyr’d virgins kissed
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.” (25–28, 33–36)

This poem sticks out like a sore thumb in Eliot’s second collection, as if Sweeney and the Jew were welcomed into heaven and Eliot’s speakers cast out.

One word about the four French poems in Poems: The intellectual wordplay of Eliot’s French is frankly beyond me, but as Eliot discarded these poems from his Selected, and I parse the basic substance of their urbane, voyeuristic, sterile sensuality, a theme consistent with the English poems of the same volume, I leave further comment to those more qualified. I should mention, however, that “Dans Le Restaurant” is noteworthy for its last stanza, as it was later translated into English for TWL (IV), “Death by Water.”

Eliot on the Couch

It is not fair or critically responsible, perhaps, to commit psychobiography on an artist. I have always insisted that a man’s art be judged separately from the man. Yet in Eliot’s case, as I said at the outset: for all the critical obfuscation heaped upon his work (which he ironically encouraged), there is perhaps more of the man in his poetry than his contemporaries. E liot’s poems are confessional by triangulation through the use of personae, allusion, and imagism: but the core remains, as in TWL (II), where he quotes his first wife’s insomniac perturbations verbatim.

Saying this begs a larger question: Why do people write poetry, especially now, when it must surely be the least popular medium in the world? I have long maintained that poetry is rarely written by the well-adjusted, more often by those who experienced emotional alienation, or abandonment, from a pre-verbal age. There are exceptions, of course—poets who appear well-adjusted, such as Heaney, Wilbur, Levine, and Zymborska, to name but a few—but I strongly suspect that in their youth, these, too, experienced some difficulty in emotional bonding, thus making poetry, for them, a way of speaking privately that which they could not communicate to others.

My view is that most of Eliot’s poems, at least until 4Q, are very much autobiographical. Someone said, “All art is essentially autobiographical.” I think this doubly true of writing, since as a medium it is no more than a string of symbols, thus more removed from its subject than any other. Admittedly, Eliot is not the easiest poet to understand, especially given the general decline in literacy in Western culture. In fact, being forced to read Eliot today might be considered intellectual hazing for liberal arts students in an American university.

In asserting that Eliot’s poems are often strikingly autobiographical, I must caution the reader that in so doing, I violate Eliot’s own tenets about poetry. In his criticism he conceived of the different voices in his poems as but personae: that a poem is neither an address to the reader nor a finished narrative to be digested, rather a stage erected between the author’s mind and the reader’s mind which takes on a life of its own. “Only those who know what personality is know what it means to want to escape from it,” quoth T. S. Wryly commenting on a question about one of his poems, Eliot also said: “If it’s there, I meant it,” which on the surface renders the author’s intent inscrutable, even as the quip mocks Eliot as much as the questioner. Yet the tables are easily turned. As I said before, who needs a persona more than he who feels psychologically naked? Who needs a mask more than he who feels unmasked? And what author could pen “Prufrock” or “Portrait of a Lady” who did not exquisitely feel the least nuance of expressed or suppressed emotion, the least hint of social disapprobation? Eliot the man, in the late adolescence of his 20s, did not feel safe at all. He was not a pair of ragged claws, not even a soft-shelled crab, more a spiritual invertebrate seeking cover.

In his poems, Eliot triangulated himself through personae, or voices, while in his criticism he rej ected personality as a basis for poetry. Freud would certainly have labeled such distinctions “intellectual defenses” or rationalizations, since the substance of Eliot’s early poems most concerns fear of sexual intimacy, physical contact, fear of “flesh, fur and faeces”—and their avoidance as a means of psychological survival. This is Eliot’s central theme prior to TWL, the poem which first brought him international fame, yet even TWL is essentially a fertility myth in which impotence is not relieved until section V: There the compound protagonist finally encounters water, the symbol of restored fertility, saying: “I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me.” (TWL (V), 424-25) Yet Eliot did not find this solace until in hospital after his breakdown; recall that his last works prior to TWL were the seven arid poems from Poems that we briefly surveyed above.

If we put Eliot on the couch for the years prior to TWL, which he wrote at 33, would the man be much different from his “Prufrock” persona? Descended from Boston Brahmins, raised a scion of one of St. Louis’ most prominent families (his grandfather founded Washington University), he lived a sheltered life while exposed to the best of culture. As the youngest of seven children, the “baby” of the family, he was doted upon by his mother and favorite aunt, raised virtually as an only child, and was something of a literary prodigy, partly evidenced by poems written in preparatory school. No doubt great things were expected of him. By no means did he have the rough and tumble childhood of that other literary colossus from Missouri, Samuel Clemens, who nevertheless had the advantage of not being encumbered by similar expectations.

Eliot was also burdened with the heritage of his puritanical, intellectual, Unitarian forebears, many of them ministers, which no doubt had a formative effect on his mind before he left for preparatory school in the East, there matriculating to Harvard, where he contributed to The Harvard Advocate. Prufrock contains three minor poems about his relatives and Boston environs: “The Boston Evening Transcript,” “Aunt Helen,” and “Cousin Nancy.” It is clear that Eliot more identified with his eastern roots than his St. Louis beginnings, and it is easy to speculate that Eliot became more Bostonian than Bostonians, as he was later to become more English than the English. He was never considered a nonconformist, though friendly with other, more flamboyant poets, including H. D. and Ezra Pound. If anything, Eliot was proper, and I doubt there could be a better description of his personality during his 20s and early 30s than any number of lines from “Prufrock,” as in: “Politic, cautious, and meticulous,” or, “My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to my chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.”

Though Eliot was “well-bred,” by every indication of his early work he was inwardly distracted, having a strong sense of depersonalization, a stranger to himself, especially to his own body. When he went up to Oxford to continue his Ph.D. researches in philosophy, it is not surprising that he chose to study F. H. Bradley, the English Idealist, since the split between the ideal and the empirical was so pronounced in his own psyche.

Eliot’s early poems reek of disgust for his mortal coil. In them Sweeney and the Jew become caricatures of potency while the female characters are largely one-dimensional, either unapproachable, as in “Prufrock,” or too easy, like the slattern that stands in the doorway in “Rhapsody” or the woman apostrophized in “Preludes” (III):

“You tossed a blanket from the bed,

You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted; (24–28)
“Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.” (35–38)

These lines can’t help but recall Eliot’s famous description of a bloodless seduction from TWL (III):

“When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.” (253–256)

In “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” the speaker, within his tight corset of form, can’t hide his revulsion at a tabletop seduction—after which a waiter brings in fertility symbols on a plate!:

“The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees

Slips and pulls the table cloth

Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganized upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;

The silent man in mocha brown
Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes;

The waiter brings in oranges
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes.” (11–20)

Eliot, in this poem, may have identified with “The silent man in mocha brown,” a voyeur who appears connected with “the man with heavy eyes” who “declines the gambit,” then “reappears outside the window, leaning in,” almost as if Eliot were looking at the world’s feast from two pairs of eyes while unable, in Prufrock-like alienation, to participate.

In Eliot’s early poems he repeatedly creates a sensual playground for the speaker’s disgust at mortality. When one thinks of the new libertinism among European intellectuals (and American expatriates) spawned by the despair of WWI, one can imagine how uncomfortable it made Eliot—the bespectacled, hypersensitive son of a prominent American family expected to conform to the highest morals. Not even the protection of more rigid British social boundaries could save him from his eventual collapse. In my empathy for Eliot’s emotional isolation under such circumstances I am tempted to quote Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz: “The horror, the horror…”

Small wonder Eliot’s attraction to his first wife seemed a partial antidote for his inner isolation. Vivien was spontaneous, passionate, unpredictable—the flesh, the fig, an embodiment of all the things Eliot lacked or feared. Theirs is an old story: a compulsive, perfectionistic, inhibited male falls for a lively, sensual, impulsive female, a marriage co nceived in heaven; more often bound for hell.

In putting Eliot “on the couch” as regards the overriding concerns of his early work, I do not mean to assert he was ever physically impotent in his 20s, although it is not inconceivable, only that he felt entirely separated from man’s biological aspect, suffering what C. S. Lewis (in another context) termed “delicacy,” or an abnormal fear of physical contact or intimacy, a dissociation from one’s animal side (quite the opposite of his contemporary, D. H. Lawrence!). In “Gerontion” we saw how Eliot seemed more comfortable in the body of an old man than in his own, and imagining the decay of physical senses may have eased Eliot’s sense of bodily separation. (It is amusing to note that Mark Twain, who did not suffer Eliot’s delicacy, said, “Life would be so much easier if one could be born at 80 and proceed gradually to 18.”).

Eliot’s depiction of physical intimacy in his early work constitutes “splitting” in psychiatric terms, where intimacy is either conceived as a mortal risk or a threat to the speaker’s ego integrity, else demonized as a tawdry, disillusioning, dehumanizing encounter between fluid-oozing bodies. There is no middle ground in Eliot’s early poems except for his inspired descriptions of the external, inanimate world, where London’s yellow fog is far sexier than any woman, where his relationship with a sputtering street lamp is more intimate than with any lady.

One emotion in these poems that seems to be missing is Eliot’s rage against such alienation. It is rarely addressed save sardonically, perhaps coming closest to the surface in the imagistic first stanza of “Rhapsody”:
“Every streetlight that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.” (8–12)

(Although the geranium is dead, at least he shakes it!) More telling of Eliot’s dilemma is a later passage in the same poem:

“I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.” (41–45)

Here Eliot disguises his feelings with the plural abstract “eyes in the street” (imagine how this poem would sound if he wrote, “I tried to peer through lighted shutters”). His voice is that of the psychologically divided man, the first true, written expression of the modern man. But the most shocking image to me is that of the crab. Eliot can’t even touch the crab. Although both of them are armored, he by psychological defenses, the crab by natural, the best he can do is make contact with a stick. He can’t get his hands wet, just as Prufrock would never swim after the mermaids which, like Prufrock (and the young Eliot), are but half-human, still, able to embrace their animal half. It’s as if Eliot is a spaceman awaiting decontamination, a germaphobe who won’t shake hands unless gloved.

The degree of such poetic rationalizations goes beyond what most psychologists encounter in therapy. The prototypical persona of Eliot’s early poems, J. Alfred Prufrock, falsely m aintains he does not need human involvement because he’s already seen it all, known it all, but he never states he has experienced it all! Rather, he takes credit for secondhand knowledge, as if observation could equal experience:

“And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?” (P 62–69)

One might say of these lines, “He missed the experience, but [thought he] had the meaning.” Still, Prufrock admits to self-doubt in these lines, especially when the “real,” in the form of perfume, interrupts his reverie. Even the image about the braceleted arms actually refers to a poem in which Donne imagines his love in the grave, with “a bracelet of bright hair about the bone.”

Nothing in poetry, I daresay in literature, approached such psychologically complex, internal contradictions prior to “Prufrock.” And despite the refusal of the flesh upon which Prufrock ultimately decides, he still seems wistful for creaturely contact in the end, though the metaphor for his neurotic reverie may be a little grandiose:

“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed in seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us and we drown.”

Here Eliot’s persona can imagine the beauty of the sensual (emphasized by the seductive, reedy vowel sounds), but only through the mediation of the mermaids—much like the stick and the crab—while also acknowledging the unavoidable fact that human voices, like the perfume, will wake him once more to the world of real bodies and real choices. Thus Prufrock is more realistic than Walter Mitty, because J. Alfred doubts his fantasies even as he indulges them.

V Parting Thoughts

In this essay I have taken liberties with Eliot which a more disciplined critic would resist, but for good reason, because I am first and foremost a fan, and true fans feel justified in analyzing their heroes because they are always the first to defend them. I’ve asked my daughters: “Is it better to be loved or understood?” Keturah, my middle daughter, formulated the most concise answer: “It is better to be understood, because you can be loved without being understood but you can’t be understood without being loved.” So much for apologies.

More importantly, if one considers the substance of Eliot’s early poems as the struggle of an overly sensitive, sexually inhibited, rather inhuman intellectual, a man who doubts the veracity of his own senses and avoids participation in the physical world, the big question is: How can such deliberations possibly make for great art? Think of the 19th century, i.e. Sir Walter Scott and his chivalrous knights, Tennyson’s Arthur, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, or even Ivan of The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan may come closest to Prufrock in sensibility, but Ivan’s love for Katerina is unquestionably passionate, and his engineering of Dmitri’s escape at book’s end is nothing short of heroic. Thus there are no protagonists in literature I know of, not even Melville’s Bartelby the Scrivener (who is ultimately only a negation—a human objection to a dehumanizing task), that come close to the obsessive, internalizing, truly modern anti-hero whom Eliot first created.

Although Freud was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for his Interpretation of Dreams (published in 1900), it was Eliot who won the prize (1948) because he represented the deeper consciousness Freud sought to describe in a form more tangible, economical, and powerful: poetry—though a poetry such as the world had never seen before.

One cannot predict Kafka from Tolstoy, Doestoyevsky, Hardy or Henry James, all great psychologists for their times, but one can predict Kafka from “Prufrock.” Herein lies Eliot’s genius and legacy, which which made William Carlos Williams lament that TWL came too early, disturbing the natural progression of literature, as in a premature birth.

For those interested in technique, I apologize for not discussing Eliot’s methods in more detail: his use of anaphora; his frequent employment of a line’s ending to begin the next (“[Lines] that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent”); his repetition of archetypal images, from lilacs and fog to drums and water; the poetic allusions which incarnate such archetypes, including Classical (Philomel and Tiresias), Renaissance (Donne and Dante), and from his own time (Sir James G. Frazer). Nor have I spent much time dissected the incredible music of his verse, the rhymes and off-rhymes, both comic and serious (“Cheetah’s / foetus”!); the euphony of his assonance and consonance; the shock of prosaic dissonance (“Madame Sosostris had a bad cold, nevertheless…”); his pacing and its surprising interruption by prefigurements (“In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo”), which render poetic associations no longer bound by time or sequence, as in human c onsciousness; And how should I presume? I think his mastery of poetic form self-evident.

* * *

For those interested, I plan three more essays on Eliot. The second will examine his early middle period, from TWL to “The Hollow Men”; the third his late middle (or early Christian) period, from “Ash Wednesday” to “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”; and the last will be devoted to Four Quartets.

--C.E. Chaffin