Originally published in the October
1989 issue of Boston Review
The power of T. S. Eliot
As a schoolboy in a Catholic boarding school in Derry, I was daunted
by T. S. Eliot and all that he stood for. Nevertheless, when an aunt
of mine offered to buy a couple of books for me, I requested his Collected
Poems. Name and date1955were duly inscribed, so I was
fifteen or sixteen years of age when the dark blue, linen-bound volume
came into my possession: the British edition of Collected Poems 1909-1935,
the one that ended with "Burnt Norton" and had by then been
reprinted fifteen times. It arrived in a food-parcel from home, and
it had an air of contraband about it, because the only reading matter
we were permitted, I am shocked to recollect, was what the sparsely
stocked college library held, or what our course syllabi required. So
there I was in 1955 with my forbidden book in hand, with a literary
reach that exceeded my grasp, alone with the words on the page.
For a long time that book represented to me my distance from the
mystery of Eliots poetry and unfittednessas reader or writerfor
the vocation it represented. Over the years I could experience in its
presence the onset of a lump in the throat and a tightening of the diaphragm,
symptoms which until then had only affected me in math class. Later,
during my first year at Queens University, when I read in E. M.
Forsters Howards End an account of the character
called Leonard Bast as somebody doomed forever to be familiar with the
outsides of books, my identification was not with the privileged narrative
voice but with Bast himself, pathetic scrambler on the edge of literacy.
Do I exaggerate? Maybe. Maybe not. The fact that I would not then
have been able to put the matter in exactly these terms does not mean
that the inarticulate ache towards knowing, towards adequacy, towards
fitting oneself out as a reader of modern poetry, did not exist. It
did exist and ached all the more for being unrequired, because one did
not need to know any literary thing in particular in the 1950s to know
that Eliot was the way, the truth, and the light, and that until one
had found him one had not entered the kingdom of poetry.
Even Eliots name was a buzzword for obscurity, and the word
obscurity was in turn suggestive of modern poetry, a term
in those days as compelling as the terms simony and paralysis
were for the young boy in Joyces story "The Sisters."
For the moment, however, the whole burden of this mystery was confined
in four pages of the school poetry anthology, a bilious green compendium
entitled The Pageant of English Verse. About one quarter of the
poems in this book were set each year as part of the official syllabus
for the Northern Ireland Senior Certificate of Education, and in our
year the syllabus included "The Hollow Men" and "Journey
of the Magi." It was the first of these that made the truly off
impression. It was impossible not to be affected by it, yet it is still
impossible to say exactly what the effect was:
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And the voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star
What happened as I read was the equivalent of what happens in an otherwise
warm and well-wrapped body once a cold wind gets at the ankles. A shiver
that fleetingly registered itself as more pertinent and more acutely
pleasurable than the prevailing warmth. A cheese-wire exactness that
revealed to you the cheesy nature of your own standards and expectations.
But, of course, we were not encouraged to talk like that in English
class, and anyhow, like the girl in The Importance of Being Earnest
who was pleased to say she had never seen a spade, I had not then ever
seen a cheese wire.
All this persuades me that what is to be learned from Eliot is
the double-edged nature of poetry reality: first encountered as a strange
fact of culture, poetry is internalized over the years until it becomes,
as they say, second nature. Poetry that was originally beyond you, generating
the need to understand and overcome its strangeness, becomes in the
end a familiar path within you, along with your imagination opens pleasurably
backwards towards an origin and a seclusion. Your last state is therefore
a thousand times better than your first, for the experience of poetry
is one that truly deepens and fortifies itself with reenactment.
I now know, for example, that I love the lines quoted above because
of the pitch of their music, their nerve-end tremulousness, their treble
back-echo in the helix of the ear. Even so, I cannot with my voice make
the physical sound that would be the equivalent of what I hear on my
inner ear; and the ability to acknowledge that very knowledge, the confidence
to affirm that there is a reality to poetry that is unspeakable and
for that very reason all the more piercing, that ability and that confidence
are largely based upon a reading of Eliot.
"The Hollow Men" was read as part of the curriculum.
"Ash Wednesday," however, was originally read as part of my
self-improving venture with Collected Poems, and the unlikely,
oneiric conditions prevailing in that particular poem bewildered me
entirely. Those leopards and bones and all that violet and violet scared
me off, made me feel small and embarrassed. I wanted to call on the
Mother of Readers to have mercy on me, to come quick, make sense of
it, give me the pacifier of a paraphrasable meaning and a recognizable,
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
My panic in the face of these lovely lines was not just schoolboy
panic. It descended again in my late twenties when I had to lecture
on "Ash Wednesday" as part of a course for undergraduates
at Queens University, Belfast. I had no access to the only reliable
source for such teaching, namely, the experience of having felt the
poem come home, memorably and irrefutably, so the lecture was one of
the most unnerving forty-five minutes of my life. I scrambled around
beforehand, snatching at F. O. Matthiessens The Achievement
of T. S. Eliot, and George Williamsons A Readers
Guide to T. S. Eliot, and D. E. S. Maxwells The Art of
T. S. Eliot. But whatever they had to say in their commentaries
had nothing to fall upon, or to combine with, on the ground of my readers
mind. "Ash Wednesday" never quite became a gestalt. Nowadays,
I talk about it more freely because I am not as shy of the subject as
I then was: purgation, conversion, the embrace of an air thoroughly
thin and dry, joy in a vision as arbitrary and disjunct from the usual
as the vision of the leopards and lady in a white gownall this
offers itself far more comprehensively and persuasively to someone in
his late forties than to someone in his late twenties.
The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying . . .
Those qualities that created resistance in the first place now
seem to meet the valuable things about this work. The sense that the
poem stood like a geometry in an absence was what caused my original
bewilderment. I sensed myself like a gross intrusion, all corporeality
and blunder in the realm of grace and translucence, and this unnerved
me. Nowadays, however, what gratifies me most is this very feeling of
being privy to an atmosphere so chastely invented, so boldly and unpredictably
written. Things like bones and leopardswhich pop into the scene
without preparation or explanation and which therefore discombobulated
me at firstthese things I now accept not as the poets mystifying
whim but as his gift and visitation. They are not what I at first mistakenly
thought them: constituent parts of some erudite code available to initiates.
Nor are they intended to be counters for a cannily secluded meaning.
Rather, they arose airily in the poets composing mind and reproduced
themselves deliciously, with a playfulness and self-surprising completedness.
Of course, it is true that a reading of the Earthly Paradise cantos
of Dantes Purgatorio prepares one for the rarefied air
of Eliots scene, just as some familiarity with Dante will take
from the unexpectedness of the leopards that start up in the very first
line of Section II of "Ash Wednesday." Yet it is wrong to
see these things simply as references to Dante. They are not hostages
taken from the Divine Comedy and held by Eliots art in
the ascetic compound of his poem. They actually sprang up in the pure
mind of the twentieth-century poet and their in-placeness does not derive
from their having a meaning transplanted from the iconography of the
medieval one. It is true, of course, that Eliots pure mind was
greatly formed by the contemplation of Dante, and Eliots dream
processes fed upon the phantasmagoria of the Divine Comedy constantly,
so the matter of Dantes poem was present to him, and Dante had
thereby become second nature to him. Dante, in fact, belonged
in the rag-and-bone shop of Eliots middle-aging heart, and it
was from that sad organ, as we are more and more realizing, that all
his lyric ladders started.
Needless to say, thoughts like these were far in the future for
that student in St. Columbs College, clutching his anthology and
worrying about the exams. It was a few years later, at Queens
University, that a more deliberate engagement with Eliots work
began. There I packed myself with commentaries and in particular advanced
upon The Waste Land with what help I could muster in the library,
I even read chunks of Jesse L. Westons From Ritual to Romance.
I began to hear the music and to attune myself, but chiefly I obeyed
the directives of the commentaries and got prepared to show myself informed.
Yet perhaps the most lasting influence from this time was Eliots
prose, all assembled and digested by John Hayward in a little purple-colored
Penguin book, the particular tint of purple being appropriately reminiscent
of a confessors stole. There I read and re-read "Tradition
and the Individual Talent," essays on "The Metaphysical Poets,"
on Milton, on Tennysons In Memoriam. On the music of poetry.
On why Hamlet doesnt make it as a play, as an objective
correlative. But more important of all, perhaps, was a definition of
the faculty that he called "the auditory imagination." This
was "the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below
the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word;
sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to an origin
and bringing something back . . . fusing the most ancient and civilized
Eliots revelation of his susceptibility to poetry lines,
the physicality of his ear as well as the fastidiousness of its discriminations,
his example of a poets intelligence exercising itself in the activity
of listening, all of this seemed to excuse my own temperamental incapacity
for paraphrase and my disinclination to engage a poems argument
and conceptual progress. Instead, it confirmed a natural inclination
to make myself an echo chamber for the poems sounds. I was encouraged
to seek for the contour of a meaning within the pattern of a rhythm.
In the "Death by Water" section of The Waste Land,
for example, I began to construe from its undulant cadences and dissolvings
and reinings-in a mimetic principle which matched or perhaps even overwhelmed
any possible meaning that might be derived from the story of Phlebass
At this stage of readiness to listen, I was also lucky enough to
hear Eliots poetry read aloud by the actor Robert Speaight. I
had made an introductory foray into Four Quartets but was finding
it difficult to retain any impression unified and whole in my mind.
The bigness of the structure, the opacity of the thought, the complexity
of the organization of these poems held you at bay; yet while they daunted
you, they promised a kind of wisdomand it was at this tentative
stage that I heard the whole thing read aloud. That experience taught
me, in the words, of the poem, "to sit still." To sit, in
fact, all through an afternoon in Belfast, in an upstairs flat, with
a couple of graduate students in biochemistry, people with a less professional
anxiety about understanding the poetry than I had, since in their unprofessional
but rewarding way they still assumed that mystification was par for
the course in modern poetry.
What I heard made sense. In the opening lines of "Burnt
Norton," for example, the footfall of the word "time"
echoes and repeats in a way that is hypnotic when read aloud, yet can
be perplexing when sight-read for its meaning only. Similarly, the interweaving
and repetition of the words "present," "past," and
"future" goes round and round, like a linked dance through
the ear. Things going forward meet each other coming back. Even the
word "echo" meets itself on the rebound. The effect is one
of a turning and a stillness. Neither from nor towards. At the still
point of the turning world:
Time present and time pass
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush?
By its orchestration of theme and phrase, paraphrase and reprise, its
premonitions of the end recoiling into the beginning, this passage is
typical of the poetic procedure of Four Quartets as a whole.
This procedure is available through a silent reading, of course, since
(to quote again from Eliots own definition of "auditory imagination")
it operates below the level of sense; but it operates much more potently
when the poem is spoken aloud. Gradually, therefore, I began in the
early sixties to permit myself to take pleasure in the basement life
of Eliots ear.
These were also years when I was trying to make a start as a poet,
and searching for the charge that sets writing energy flowing in a hitherto
unwriting system. Yet much as I was learning from Eliot about the right
way to listen, he could not be the starter-offer of poetry for me. He
was more a kind of literary superego than a generator of the poetic
libido, and in order for the libidinous lyric voice to get on with its
initiations, it had to escape from his overseeing presence. So I turned
towards more familiar, more engageable writers like Patrick Kavanagh,
R. S. Thomas, Ted Hughes, John Montague, Norman MacCaig. All of a sudden
I was making up for not having read contemporary Irish, Scottish, and
English poetry; and that way, I got excited and got started.
Then I came upon C. K. Steads book, The New Poetic,
with its revelation of Eliot as a poet who trusted the "dark embryo"
of unconscious energy. Stead revealed Eliot as a much more intuitive
kind of writer than the commentaries had allowed one to believe, It
is not that this lessened ones awareness of the strictness of
his mind or the scrupulousness of his withholdings. Eliot was still
a rara avis, one whose note was uniquely beyond the common scale,
a thin pure signal that might not wash genially across the earthy reaches
of ones nature but had the capacity to probe in the universe of
spirit as far as Pluto. Yet one could grant this inimitable status to
his poems and still recognize the process that produced them as the
usual, uncertain, hopeful, needy, half self-surrendering, half self-priming
process that all the rest of us also experienced.
What one learns ultimately from Eliot is that the activity of poetry
is solitary and, if one is to rejoice in it, one has to construct something
upon which to rejoice. One learns that at the desk every poet faces
the same kind of task, that there is no secret that can be imparted,
only resources of ones own that are to be mustered, or not, as
the case may be. Many of the things Eliot says about poetic composition
are fortifying because they are so authoritatively unconsoling.
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot
To emulatebut there is no competition
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
If Eliot did not help me to write, he did help me to learn what
it means to read. The experience of his poetry is an unusually pure
once. You begin and end with the words alonewhich is admittedly
always the case, but often in the work of other poets the readers can
find respites and alibis. With Frost and Yeats or Hardy there is a corroborative
relation between a landscape and a sensibility. The words on the page
can function in a way that is supplementary to their primary artistic
function: they can have a window effect and open the blinds of language
on to subjects and places before or behind the words. I would suggest,
however, that this kind of mutual help does not existand is not
intended to existbetween the words of Eliots poetry and
the world that gave rise to them. When I visited Burnt Norton, for example,
I did indeed find a rose garden and a dry concrete pool; but I found
this very documentary congruence between poem and place oddly disappointing.
I realized that I did not really want a landscape to materialize as
I had long since internalized a soundscape. And I had a vivid lesson
in how truly Eliot is a child of the French symbolists.
Perhaps the final thing to be learned is this: in the realm of
poetry, as in the realm of consciousness, there is no end to the possible
learnings that can take place. Nothing is final, the most gratifying
discovery is fleeting, the path of positive achievement leads directly
to the via negativa. Eliot forfeited his expressionist intensity
when he renounced the lyric for philosophic song. It may even be truer
to say that the lyric renounced Eliot. But in accepting the consequences
of renunciation with such self-knowledge and in proceeding with such
strictness of intent, he proved a truth that we want to believe not
perhaps about all poetry, but about those who are the necessary ones.
He showed how poetic vocation entails the disciplining of a habit of
expression until it becomes fundamental to the whole conduct of a life.