ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 10

 - T.S. Eliot


The early poetry of T.S. Eliot is examined. Differences between Pound and Eliot, in particular the former’s interest in translation versus the latter’s in quotation, are suggested. Eliot’s relationship to tradition is considered in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The early poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is read, with emphasis on the poem’s resistance to traditional forms and its complicated depiction of its speaker’s fragmentary consciousness.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 10 - T.S. Eliot

Chapter 1. The Use of Quotations in Poetry [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Let’s see. T. S. Eliot. In talking about Pound and The Cantos last week, I was talking about translation a lot. In the case of Eliot I’ll be talking about quotation, a related but different practice, and one that we’ll see again in Marianne Moore. In Pound’s case there is a wish in poetry for immediacy, for some kind of seemingly natural language. Pound doesn’t want, and doesn’t use, quotation marks, just as he doesn’t use footnotes. If you look at Pound in any of the editions of his work, from The Cantos backward, you will find that the poems are presented without notes, without any kind of apparatus, without any kind of help. That’s because, I think, Pound wants to, in some sense, give you a – he doesn’t want to get in your way in any sense. He wants you to have a kind of immediate experience of the writing that he’s presenting, even when it comes in the form of quotation. But as I suggested, for Pound, a sort of central practice is translation, which he also describes as transmitting the impulse. And I spoke last time as if the impulse meant the motive or the emotion in a piece of writing. I think that Pound also had a kind of scientific or technical sense of that process of transmitting the impulse, and that what he wants to do is carry; he wants writing to carry energy. He wants it to carry a kind of pulse, and he wants to give you a kind of direct access to this.

The contrast with Eliot is striking, I think. Instead of translation, you find in Eliot more often quotation; quotation which implies a certain relation to the literary past, just as Pound’s practices of translation imply a relation to tradition. Think about the difference between these forms, translation and quotation. It’s a way to understand the differences between Eliot and Pound, and through them to think about at least two of modern poetry’s possible relations to the literature of the past. Remember, too, that modern poetry – and that’s a word or a phrase that Eliot and Pound both used – that modern poetry is a specifically historical category. It’s a historical way of naming what it is. You could contrast this with Romantic poetry, say, or Imagism, which are names or labels that identify something more like an aesthetic project or a tendency. Here, to call modern poetry “modern” is to choose as its defining quality its position in history, its place in literary history. And it does place modern poetry in history ambiguously. Is modern poetry – is its modernness an index of the way it extends the past, or is it rather “modern” because it breaks with the past? Does “modern” mean some kind of renewal and continuity, or does it mean rupture?

Translation and quotation suggest, as I say, different relations to the past. Pound aims to “make it new” itself, I suggested, a translated phrase from the ancient Chinese. Pound, in doing this, aims to carry culture forward, to hand it over to us as a kind of living and immediate thing. The past is renewable in translation, it is communicable. That’s part of the premise of translation. For Pound, the past is something that can be re-embodied continually and needs to be re-embodied continually, over and over again in new forms. In this sense, translation envisions a past that is metamorphic and mobile and durable. It’s something that is always essentially itself. It’s something that is capable of being carried forward. And you think about Pound’s voyagers, his seafarers – Odysseus or the “Seafarer” poet – as being agents or representatives of acts of translation. They embody the action of carrying something across, journeying.

In quotation, however, the past is something to be preserved, which is different; preserved or maybe mocked, in the sense of – mocked in the sense of copied or parodied. Quotation seems to imply two possible relations to the past, when you think about it: deference to the past, deference to what has been said; or some kind of violation of it. When you quote someone, especially maybe your parents or a teacher, what are you doing? Probably you mean either to honor them or to mock them, right? To, in a sense, defer to their authority or to take it away, to empty it out. Both of these are possible: empty it out by parroting it, treating it as if it were merely iterable and formulaic and therefore without substance. Eliot’s quotations teeter ambiguously between these two options and sometimes you may feel he’s doing the one thing and sometimes you may feel he’s doing the other; that he’s somehow deferring to the past and honoring it, or he’s doing something quite subversive, something parodic. And in Pound I don’t think there’s any of that ambiguity, ever. It’s a very striking contrast. If you listen to Pound online, you hear a voice that is fierce and melodramatic and in earnest. You listen to Eliot, you hear another voice entirely; one dry, diffident, hard to place tonally. This is all worked into the poetry and our encounters with it on the page.

Again, you might contrast the heroic figures that you meet in Pound, whether they’re Odysseus or a troubadour poet or one of the political leaders that Pound fastens on. These are men of will and willpower and action. These are the people that attract Pound’s admiration and imagination. Whom do you meet in Eliot? J. Alfred Prufrock, this figure of extraordinary indecisiveness and indeterminate will, someone who’s diffident. Well, Prufrock is surely a version of Eliot and we encounter in Eliot generally some of the problems that Prufrock raises for us through his meandering mode of speech and difficult-to-place tone.

Chapter 2. An Introduction to T. S. Eliot [00:10:32]

Let’s look at some pictures of Eliot, maybe my favorite one, especially since we’re going to be thinking about and talking about Eliot’s age and how he projects himself. This is Tom at eight. He was born in St. Louis, the only major British poet born in St. Louis, in 1888. He went to Harvard. This was not a surprise and, in a sense, it was a family mission. He spent his summers, importantly, in Massachusetts and on the coast of Massachusetts, the North Shore of Boston. And these places return and recur in his poetry.

As a graduate student at Harvard in 1910 he expatriated to Europe. This is Eliot in 1910, 1911. He had studied philosophy at Harvard and he went on to study philosophy at Cambridge with Bertrand Russell. He wrote his Master’s thesis on F.H. Bradley. That’s an association I’ll say more about when we get to The Waste Land. In 1915 he met and married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a charismatic and volatile Englishwoman. This romance produced for Eliot a kind of dramatic conflict with his family over his wish to marry her, his wish to take up residence in England; and behind all this, and with all this, his sense of vocation, his desire to become, to establish himself as a poet and man of letters rather than the more-easily-to-be-approved-of career of a professor and scholar that he had seemed to have been made for.

Pound was Eliot’s older friend and mentor, very quickly upon their meeting in Europe; and Pound, always putting his fingers in everything, wrote quite an extraordinary letter to Eliot’s father. And I’ve got that on your handout, on the top page, a little quotation from it. It says a lot about Pound; it says something about Eliot, too. This is a letter in which Pound felt the need to, probably with some encouragement but probably also some embarrassment, from Eliot, felt the need to defend Eliot’s expatriation to the family patriarch. And Pound says:

As to his [Eliot’s] coming to London, well anything else is a waste of time and energy. No one in London cares a hang what is written in America. After getting an American audience a man has to begin all over again if he plans for an international hearing. [And who wouldn’t plan for an international hearing?] He even begins at a disadvantage. London likes discovering her own gods. Again, in a literary career, mediocrity is worse than useless. Either a man goes in to go the whole hog or he had better take to selling soap and gents furnishings. [Is this the right way to write Mr. Eliot? I don’t know. He must have felt so.] The situation has been very well summed up in the sentence, “Henry James stayed in Paris and read Turgenev and Flaubert. Mr. Howles returned to America and read Henry James.” [And then he says in another important sentence:] A literary man’s income depends very much on how rigidly he insists on doing exactly what he himself wants to do.

Interesting. The idea is that by establishing some kind of independence from tastes in a literary market, Eliot will in fact come to establish his position in that literary market, and his ability, in fact, to create taste. And so in fact he did.

At this early point in Eliot’s career there is a kind of important conflict between conformity and revolt: conformity to his parents’ wishes, social expectations; or revolt from them, which is also, I think, another way to describe the tension between two different senses or aspects of quotation. Pound wants Eliot’s father to see that his son’s revolt is okay, because, in fact, he’s also going to conform. He’s going to conform to a certain ideal of tradition, to professional standards. He’s not just going to have a wild time, he’s going to work hard and do what a literary man should do. Eliot, you’ll see, takes up these themes in different terms but related ways in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which I’ll talk about later. Like Pound, Eliot, we’ll see, wants to ally himself with tradition, wants to ally himself with tradition over against vers libre, Amy Lowell and “Amygism,” and at the same time his relation to tradition, even from very early on, was potentially subversive, and his poetry was very new and disturbing.

Now, there are all sorts of interesting things in the Beinecke, including – here he is again, the author of “Prufrock” – including T. S. Eliot’s waistcoat; H.D.’s death mask I showed you last time; here’s Eliot’s waistcoat. I like this as an object, as part of the literary archive we have. Also, it’s interesting isn’t it? It’s a piece of Eliot’s costume. Costume was very important for T. S. Eliot. I think it’s also potentially a kind of emblem of quotation in his work. Is Eliot taking on the past and the aura of propriety in order to parody it or empower himself? These are questions we might ask even about the waistcoat. Is it some kind of disguise, is it a costume through which he conforms to social forms and expectations, or is it again something he puts on? All of these questions are at, for me, the center of Eliot’s interest and power, and also, I think, some of the lasting power that he exerts in schools and for students. I will confess that my high school yearbook carries a quotation from T. S. Eliot, in fact, from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which I won’t identify for you. And as I think about that, why I cared about Eliot when I was seventeen or so – not that I don’t now, too – when I think about that, it seems to me that his special combination of ambition and aggression expressed, as it is very often by young people through parody or satire or diffidence, was powerful for me, too, as a young person.

All of this is on display in Eliot’s great poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which is what I’ll concentrate on today. “Prufrock” is a poem composed initially at Harvard and something Eliot carried along with him in the years after; a poem created out of pages and pages of drafts, which Eliot kept adding to and going back over and re-combining and re-composing, somewhat like his repetitive and wayward speaker. You can find early versions of the poem in a book of Eliot’s early and otherwise uncollected work that Christopher Ricks edited a few years ago called Inventions of the March Hare. It’s a very interesting book, and you can see Eliot exploring different ways to write this poem, which hung around for a long time. It was eventually published in 1915 in Poetry magazine. And in this way, just like “Mowing,” just like Yeats’s “The Fisherman,” which also appeared there then; also, a poem we’ll get to in a couple of weeks, Marianne Moore’s “A Grave”; and some of the Imagist poems we discussed last week – all these appeared, thanks to Pound, in Poetry magazine.

The poem became the title of Eliot’s first volume. Interestingly – this is the cover of the book – it leaves off the full title which was Prufrock and Other Observations, which is an interesting title. First of all, is “Prufrock” an observation? Eliot was treating this character as if he were an observation. You can think about what that might imply. And then think about that word “observations.” It suggests something seen, of course, as well as some kind of speculation. It’s also a way of defining and presenting Eliot’s poems. He doesn’t say Prufrock and Other Poems, he says Prufrock and Other Observations. And Observations is, in fact, a word that Marianne Moore would use to title her first book of poems a few years later. On that cover we see Eliot’s name and Prufrock’s, in some kind of alteration – alternation, rather – “Prufrock” being a little bit bigger than “T. S. Eliot,” but raising for us graphically the simple question: what is the relationship between these two? Yes, the one man created the other thing, “Prufrock.” Are they the same thing? How different are they?

Here’s the interior of the book. You can see – although, well, you can’t see, but if you get a better look at this online you will see that this book, which is in the Beinecke, has a signature on it, “W. Stevens, NY, October 17, 1917.” So, this was Stevens’s copy, which he, as a young man wandering around the streets of New York, picked up and kept. It was, like Frost’s early work, published in London in 1917, now in Bloomsbury, by the Egoist Press. And there’s the table of contents, the first and long poem included in the volume being “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Chapter 3. T. S. Eliot Poem: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” [00:25:00]

Well, what do we expect from a poem that calls itself that, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? First of all, what do we expect from this genre, the love song, a love song? What is a love song? What is a love song like? Presumably, it would be a romantic poem, even a poem about romance. What we get is perhaps something more like a parody of a romantic poem and something much stranger. This is going to be familiar to very many of you:

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
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.

Meter? It’s a topic we’ve raised before. It isn’t iambic pentameter. It’s notably, importantly, not iambic pentameter. Instead, you are introduced to another kind of rhythm of speech, which you can work at to scan, but without even going into any detail about it, I think, we can describe that rhythm as languid, as open to variation, as including hesitancy and sometimes abruptness. It is a way of speaking that is interrupted, often; is alternately voluble and nervous. The poem’s initial discontinuities of rhythm and pattern and image introduce us to really a new kind of structure in poetry that would include a kind of, almost a principle that any time you establish a pattern you must quickly break it. “Let us go then, you and I, / when the evening is spread out against the sky”; it sounds like this character’s going to speak in couplets. “Like a patient etherised upon a table”; where did that come from? We could supply another third line that would be very different, I think. Immediately, we are invited to surrealistically conjure a prone patient, someone sick and being attended to and “etherised,” unconscious, and objectified upon a table. If we felt as though we were going to be in a romantic, crepuscular atmosphere, we are suddenly confronted with an image quite disturbing and ugly. And note that it doesn’t rhyme. I suppose you could connect “table” to “hotels” and “shelves” below, but it’s not a strong connection and there has been no preparation for it before.

So, immediately, we are given an image and a rhyme decision, if you like, that complicates any kind of sense of pattern that we might have predicted from the first two lines. That rhythm, well, the contrast to an iambic poem is strong and should be emphasized. And I want to draw your attention to an example that would have been in the ears of Eliot’s listeners, and that is – Eliot’s listeners; Eliot’s readers – that is the end of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a poem well known in the nineteenth century:

The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. [I quote it, too, because Eliot loved this
passage and it returns in his late poetry in interesting echoes.] Come my
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, [we’re older] that which we are, we are, –
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Echoing, I think, Milton’s Satan, the blank verse suddenly becomes a kind of heroic medium of the will. Well, the contrast is important with the poetry that Eliot is presenting to us because here the question of the speaker’s will is so much at issue and his manner of speech is so different from the example that Tennyson gives us. Tennyson specifically, in this dramatic monologue, as in others of his oeurve or other important nineteenth-century examples, introduces us to a dramatic speaker who has a kind of coherent character and whose unity of character, if you like, is allied to the unity of the verse form itself. Eliot gives us something very different. He creates, in “Prufrock,” I would say, not a character. Rather, he creates something more like a consciousness. He creates a fragmentary consciousness that rises and falls, takes shape and disperses before us.

John Stuart Mill said in a memorable passage that poetry – lyric poetry is what he was thinking of – is overheard speech. Overheard speech. And you can think, if you have some sense of the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth or Coleridge as examples before you, of what Mill had in mind, the way in which in those poems we listen in on a soliquizing poet’s thoughts. Listening to “Prufrock” is much less like listening to someone speak on the street or on the stage than it is like closing your eyes and remembering, or inventing voices in your mind. Eliot is creating a kind of overheard inner speech. He’s letting us listen in on a mind that we don’t see whole, we don’t feel whole. We only get parts of it. Fluctuation: this is the medium and the rhythm that we enter when we enter the poem.

There is, as I was already suggesting, no overarching pattern for the poem’s verse form. I think this is probably true for other dimensions of organization as well. There are rather, in this poem, what I would call a kind of set of unfolding local systems of organization. There are couplets. We see couplets in that first paragraph, but then they’re not systematically pursued. Instead, what you get in the poem are a lot of loose ends, pauses; bits and pieces of language, language that is almost always full of quotations. Your editor will give you the source for some of them. What we have then in the poem as you move through it is a lot of shifting, improvised orders. This formal instability in the poem is related to, and it constructs, a special sort of speaker, one who is performing for us his thoughts, his thoughts experienced as a set of routines or riffs or acts, and they come and go without very definite aim or conclusion.

Looking at the cover of Prufrock, I asked you to think about the relationship between Prufrock and T. S. Eliot. You can think about “Prufrock,” the name itself: “J. Alfred Prufrock,” almost a kind of parody of T. S. Eliot. The name suggests a kind of upper-class English or Anglophile person. Those formal initials are pretentious in a way. I think it’s proper to think of Prufrock as in some sense a kind of comic figure, almost like a cartoon or a caricature or device. On one level he is a kind of parody of a Romantic singer. He is bourgeois; he is intellectualizing; he’s incapable of grasping and expressing what we expect from a love song, that is, strong emotion. The poem can be seen, too, as a kind of critique of Romantic egotism and of the Wordsworthian ideal of expression. This is something that Eliot theorizes polemically in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” And in fact, why don’t we look there for a few minutes to get more sense of Eliot’s ideas. On page 946, the back of your book there, he says, quoting Wordsworth in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads:

…We must believe that “emotion recollected in tranquility” is an inexact formula, for it is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor without distortion of meaning, tranquility. [That you get in an Eliot poem, at least.] It is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation. These experiences are not “recollected,” and they finally unite in an atmosphere which is “tranquil” only in that it is a passive attending upon the event.

Eliot is trying to describe poetry here as having a kind of – generating a kind of experience in and of itself that is distinct from any kind of recollected experience, and it is curiously impersonal as he imagines it. And he continues:

There is a great deal, in the writing of poetry, which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. [We know what he means.] Both errors tend to make him “personal.” [And now T. S. Eliot will say:] 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.

Which is an extraordinary kind of coda to this polemical passage, and revealing, of course, the way in which Eliot, even as he’s polemicizing against a romantic poetry that would be too personal, is deeply invested in the personal and personality, and conflicted about it.

I’ve been talking about ambiguity in Eliot. Well, we can speak of “ambivalence.” This essay retains, even while it is critiquing, a certain romantic story of creation. And we could say something similar about Eliot’s love song. “Prufrock” is a kind of pre-text or a device through which Eliot can speak of himself. “Prufrock” becomes a way of writing about the self when to Eliot it no longer seems plausible to write as one’s self, as Wordsworth had felt it to be. You can think of “Prufrock” as a kind of mask behind which you hear a young poet asking questions about himself and his art.

List the poem’s questions. Prufrock asks questions throughout. Do you recall them? They are: “Do I dare?” “Do I dare disturb the universe?” “So how should I presume?” And, “How should I begin?” “Shall I say?” He says that pretty often: “Shall I say this? Shall I say that?” Daring, presuming, beginning, “what shall I say?” – these are, are they not, an ambitious young poet’s questions about how to write poetry. The question is, why should beginning be something that you really have to dare? What does that imply? Why should it be frightening? Why should it give you pause? Why, if these are a young man’s questions, as I’m suggesting, does Prufrock seem as old, as old and weary, as he does? In fact, how old do you think he is? I don’t know. Ask yourselves that question; ask yourselves what evidence you would have for one answer or another. It’s hard to pinpoint his age. Prufrock is, isn’t he, a kind of old-young man, or a young-old man? He is cautious and aggressive at the same time: old and young.

These paradoxes, I think, point to Eliot’s sense of his place, his own place, in literary history, and some sense of what it meant to be “modern” for Eliot. Prufrock is burdened by the question of how to begin. Indeed, he begins exactly by deferring beginning; by failing to come to the point; by putting it off; by delaying because by implication, beginning is indeed something threatening, something that must be dared. But this only makes sense if Prufrock really does want to disturb the universe, or at least the system of culture as he found it. It only makes sense if beginning really does require disturbing things. The implication is that the universe is already complete without Prufrock, without T. S. Eliot and anything that he might do or say. You can extend this to Eliot’s idea of culture and, in particular, to his sense of the literary past.

You see the idea in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” On pages 942 to 943, he speaks of – towards the bottom of the page on 942 – tradition as a kind of ideal order of monuments. Tradition is in some sense, well, it’s monumental and it’s already complete, as he imagines it. To add to it, to enter it would be to change it, to disturb it. In fact, Eliot evolves here a quite ingenious and complicated argument for how the new could indeed be introduced to a tradition conceived in the terms I just described. Eliot says, on the bottom of the page, about any new poet:

The necessity that he shall conform [and there’s that word, “conform”; think of the waistcoat], that he shall cohere [and remain put together], is not one-sided [this was quite an extraordinary argument; he’s saying it’s not only necessary for a new poet to conform to tradition]; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. [Something which happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. This is quite a claim.] The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty [novelty comes as something that supervenes; it has force, it’s a leopard in the temple], the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted, and this is conformity between the old and the new.

Here, Eliot is struggling with an idea of tradition as something that is static and fully present in and of itself, a sense of the new as something that is revolutionary and that threatens tradition, or is threatened by it. How can he bring them into alignment? Well, through this very complicated process that he describes which gives the modern, gives the new, an extraordinary power to make us see and, in fact, to realign the relations among all the works of the past. This is, as I say, quite an extraordinary power. The implication is the new poet must in some sense wrest authority from all those who have come before through a kind of imaginative and rhetorical violence, a kind of insurrection in the temple of culture.

Prufrock’s sense of age expresses for him a feeling of belatedness, an anxiety that he’s already run out of time. His very youth, the fact that he’s only just now starting, makes him old. To presume would be to reverse this order, to dare to come before and to claim priority for his own work. As I say these sentences, I sound a whole lot like Harold Bloom as he describes the mission of any poet in his work, The Anxiety of Influence, and that is because Bloom’s work is deeply indebted precisely to Eliot and to “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” These are questions I’ll say a little bit more about next time, as we finish discussing Eliot’s “Love Song” and begin to talk about The Waste Land.

[end of transcript]

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