ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 11

 - T.S. Eliot (cont.)


Professor Hammer’s discussion of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” continues with particular attention paid to the poem’s psychological, social, and generic elements. Eliot’s place in literary criticism and his modernist poetics are considered in the essay “The Metaphysical Poets.” The essay’s critique of Romanticism serves as a bridge to Eliot’s masterwork, The Waste Land, the first lines of which are presented and analyzed.  

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 11 - T.S. Eliot (cont.)

Chapter 1. The Psychological Dimensions of T. S. Eliot’s Relationship to Literary Tradition [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: On Monday I left off talking about this – what shall we call it – exciting and dramatic ambivalence that one finds in the early Eliot that expresses itself in his relationship to literary tradition; where on the one hand, he presents himself as a truly subversive and aggressive entrant into literary tradition, someone who’s really going to shake it up and transform it; and on the other hand, as someone who is a traditionalist, who is going to speak with deference and seek – the word he uses is “conformity” – with the past. Somehow, both these things are going on at the same time and in relationship to each other. And “Prufrock” itself is a poem, I think, preoccupied with this kind of ambivalence that I’m describing. On the one hand, it is a poem that introduces us to a speaker who lacks will and who seems timorous and timid and who hesitates before action. On the other hand, he is a speaker who says to us, “There will be time to murder and create,” as if creating and murdering were, in fact, in some relation and might go on at the same time. And in fact, if one does have some sense of creativity as involving a kind of aggression, or even murderousness, one might hesitate before it, right?

These psychological dimensions that I’m describing have, well, Freudian and Oedipal dimensions that I think are readily apparent. How is it possible for Eliot to claim the authority of past literature without, at the same time, either destroying it or utterly submitting himself to it? This problem expresses, I think, Eliot’s double relation to the past and is expressed, as I was suggesting last time, in the ambiguous use of quotation that seems to hover between some kind of deferential honoring of the literature of the past and something much more provocative and often parodic.

And you can think of the many different texts that “Prufrock” alludes to and borrows, only some of which are traced in your footnotes. In fact, there’s a great many more than you find in your footnotes. There are quotations from Marvell, from the Bible, from Dante, from Twelfth Night. Well, there’s that opening quotation from Dante, from the Gospels, too. Prufrock’s world-weariness, you know, “For I have known them all already, known them all,” as understood in the poetic context, this seems to, well, express his sense of belatedness and of the – everything having in some sense been done already. In, again, Freudian or Oedipal terms, terms that Harold Bloom would develop as a reader of Eliot in his own criticism very influentially, you can put the problem this way: how can Eliot come to write in the father’s place without killing him or being overwhelmed by him? In his confrontation with the past, neither he, Eliot, nor the past must be destroyed, or the game’s over. Eliot thereby swerves, you could say, alternatively from each of these unacceptable alternatives. And that kind of back-and-forth-ness you feel in Prufrock’s divagations and wanderings. You see it throughout Eliot’s early career in his funny mixture of avant-gardism and traditionalism because he’s both those things.

Chapter 2. T. S. Eliot and the ‘Invention of Tradition’ [00:05:32]

I’ve been describing this in psychological terms. We could also think about it in social terms, and I think it’s important to do so. This Oedipal drama that I’m describing is also a social drama in important ways. Here is a question: how does a young American – because that’s what he was – go and win a place in English literary culture, insert himself in a tradition that includes Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, and Wordsworth; insert himself not only as a member of that tradition but as a central explainer of it and tastemaker, which is in fact what Eliot would become?

Last time I pointed out that Eliot’s expatriation, his going from the U.S. to London, was a rejection not only of America and American-ness, but in particular a rejection of his father, who died while he was abroad; and there was a certain amount of question about whether Eliot would return in time to see his father before he died. In a very short time in London, Eliot becomes more English than the English. It’s a strange and marvelous, fascinating development. He learns or creates a certain style of English-ness that he then goes on to teach to the English themselves. This is what Williams – William Carlos Williams – and, in fact, other American writers despised about Eliot, that he was the – not just the Anglophile that he was, but the true English authority that he became. He made himself, without any previous standing, any connections really in London or in English culture – he made himself a central cultural authority, which became in a very short time almost synonymous with tradition itself. This is an amazing and remarkable achievement and an important cultural event.

The thing is that the tradition that Eliot expounded was something to a large degree he invented. Eliot is not, as he is often seen, I think, the defender of a social order that was passing away. And sometimes Yeats represents himself that way. Rather, Eliot is the representative of a new class, a new class opposing itself to the traditional social authority of money and of blood, aristocracy, that makes its claim for social authority on the basis of knowledge, technical knowledge and expertise above all: a kind of professional class into which you, too, are being educated largely through the modern university. Eliot’s tradition, that I’m saying he invented or created, described, defined – he made it out of the education he had received at Harvard. And he also, importantly, made it outside of the classroom, in part in the school of Ezra Pound who, you might remember from last week, specifically also when he expatriates, leaves behind the vulgo, the people, and sees himself as entering into some kind of timeless tradition that he identifies – Pound does – with the “spirits of irony and destiny.” That’s his phrase to describe the great writers of the past.

Eliot also enters this kind of semi-imaginary community of tradition. Eliot’s sense of tradition is established in part through his quotations and allusions in his poetry, in part and importantly, and I’ll talk more about it today, through his criticism. This kind of tradition with which Eliot allies himself, you could say bankrolls everything he does, legitimizes and authorizes, gives sanction and precedent to what was Eliot’s strange new poetry. Frost, you remember, as he says, “goes to market” so he could stand on his own two feet. Well, Eliot went to tradition to establish his autonomy. And tradition allows him to, well, to stand apart both from the genteel audiences that Pound resisted, that Frost in certain ways courted, and also allows Eliot to stand apart from the avant-garde, which he has a kind of ambiguous relationship to; allows him to stand apart, you could say, from the audiences of both a magazine like The Atlantic or Harper’s on the one hand, and on the other hand a magazine like the Little Review or Blast even, where he did appear, or Broom – some of those magazines I showed you in the first week. Eliot’s own magazine, which becomes an important vehicle for his work and his ideas and his authority and his presence in literary culture – and you can go back and look at its cover in the images for the first week. His magazine was The Criterion, a magazine that had a kind of semi-official look and represents the fantasy of, I think, a kind of institutional and universal authority.

Well, how do you go about inventing tradition? In order to do so, Eliot had to demonstrate that the received existing tradition was a false one. “The Metaphysical Poets” is the great and peculiar, in many ways, essay, in which Eliot undertakes this work in a very influential form. And I’d like to look at it with you for a few minutes. It starts on page 950 at the back of your book and goes to page 953. This was a book review. This was one of the great book reviews in the history of English criticism. Eliot was reviewing an anthology of the metaphysical poets.

Chapter 3. T. S. Eliot Poem: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” [00:26:35]

That is, poets of wit, in particular of the – largely of the seventeenth century, including poets like Donne, whose reputation Eliot did a great deal to establish in this century. In the process of reviewing this anthology, Eliot comes up with a whole alternative theory or alternative history of English literature and certain key poetic propositions and statements. Let me just emphasize a few of them for you. You’ll see how the account of literary history and Eliot’s own ideas of poetics are all kind of mixed up. And so you have to consider them together.

On page 951, he has just quoted Donne, and then he’s quoted Tennyson. And the idea is that Donne is good, Tennyson is bad. Now, he will continue and say:

The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Dunn or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet [that’s a good kind of poet] and the reflective poet [bad]. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. [Evidently, he felt his thought as immediately, as sensually, as the odor of a rose.] When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. [Maybe quite a bit like Prufrock’s, you would think.] The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet, however, these experiences are constantly forming new wholes.

Well, you can see there a little recipe for an Auden poem, excuse me – well, maybe for an Auden poem too – for an Eliot poem. It’s a poem about falling in love, reading Spinoza and listening to the typewriter while somebody cooks something.

We may express the differences by the following theory [And note that “we”: you know, Eliot has this “we” that you just have to bow before when he uses it, or join him, I guess]: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility, which could devour [and that’s an interesting word] any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante…. In the seventeenth century [however] a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered [And this – what does he mean? He means thought and feeling have somehow come apart]; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden.

And then he goes on to complain about Milton and Dryden and then follow the Romantic inheritance of Milton and Dryden in the next paragraph. He says:

The sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century, and continued. [Wouldn’t you like, in your own essays, to be able to give this kind of rapid-fire summary of literary history?] The poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought and felt by fits, unbalanced; they reflected. In one or two passages of Shelley’s Triumph of Life, in the second Hyperion [of Keats] there are traces of a struggle toward unification of sensibility. But Keats and Shelley died, and Tennyson and Browning ruminated.

It’s amazing literary criticism. Well, here is quite an extraordinary account of English literary history. Eliot is proposing this. It’s quite a strange and interesting claim, which for a long time, I might add, really was persuasive and became a kind of orthodoxy among readers of English poetry. And that is: that the metaphysical poets, for centuries viewed as an anomaly in the history of English poetry because of their extreme intellectuality, their poetry of wit, that this anomaly in English literary tradition actually represents central values in literature that were lost through what Eliot views as an eccentric and aberrant tradition, which is, in fact, that which descends from Milton and runs through the Romantics and Victorians.

Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century influentially complained of the metaphysical poets that they “yoked the most heterogeneous ideas together by violence” – this is Johnson’s phrase. In other words, they were forced and willful and they put things together in a kind of violent and artificial way. Eliot is flipping that around. And he says, only the metaphysical poets united thought and feeling. And it’s these other poets that have been deficient and marginal to the main mission of English poetry, and that they are symptomatic of some derangement in the mind of England that he calls a “dissociation of sensibility,” which somehow set in in the seventeenth century or so.

All of this, this whole sort of account of how English history, English literary history, developed – all of this in this essay suddenly, without any preparation, turns into a defense of modern poetry, or you might say a defense of Eliot’s poetry. He says, without, as I say, really any preparation on the bottom of page 952:

It is not a permanent necessity that poets should be interested in philosophy [as I was, or as I am], or in any other subject. We [and there’s that “we” again] can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization [he continues] comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility [such as mine], must produce various and complex results. The poet [and now he’s telling us what poets must do] must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

And then he will go on to quote French poetry, modern French poetry, to demonstrate, as he feels it, the continuity between modern verse and the metaphysicals.

Well, here, Eliot is saying, first of all, that the character of modern poetry – and again, for which we must read, his poetry – is simply a reflection of the forces playing upon it, the variety and complexity of our civilization. In that formulation, the poet seems almost passive, doesn’t he? Passive and like a kind of receptor that is naturally and necessarily producing the kind of strange poetry that Eliot writes. Then, before that idea has really sunk in, Eliot gives us another view of what the poet is doing. The poet is not in fact passive, but rather, he is forcing, he is dislocating language into his meaning. And it’s such an odd phrase, to “dislocate language” into your meaning. It suggests that the poet is not merely producing language, but moving it from one place to another.

The question that we might ask, though, standing back, of the metaphysicals is a question that we could ask of Eliot’s poetry. That is, does this poetry that Eliot’s talking about put things together or take them apart? Does it represent some kind of synthesis, or rather, some kind of violent derangement? Is it a mirror of a various and complex civilization? Is it in that sense mimetic, realist? Or is it rather expressionistic, willful, a kind of subjective and highly personal expression in which the poet is purposefully, actively dislocating and deforming language? Is it in this sense a poetry that is a kind of necessary and inevitable expression of the age? Or is it perverse and eccentric: an arbitrary assertion of authorial will? These are questions that Eliot’s own work, as I say, raises and that are part of the history of his reception. Eliot, in his account of the metaphysicals and then in his defense of his own kind of poetry, seems, I think, to equivocate to a degree between these alternatives. Equivocation is, again, the key rhetoric of “Prufrock” and of Eliot’s early poetry, of Prufrock’s temporizing and his delays and his going back and forth.

Let me say just a couple more things about “Prufrock” in the light of what I’ve just been quoting for you from “The Metaphysical Poets.” “Prufrock” has a kind of ambiguous relation to the past, and specifically to the past of English Romanticism. The poem is simultaneously a deconstruction and critique of the Romantic ideals and values of originality, of expressiveness, and it is also a highly original and expressive reworking of those ideals. It’s a kind of anti-Romantic poem that is an extension of Romanticism. Unlike the conventional love song, this one comes from the head rather than the heart or, you could say, really from that opening quotation from Dante on, it comes from, comes out of many other texts.

I think that there’s a kind of suggestion or implication in the poem that what people claim is original and primary is always in some sense already scripted. That consciousness, the way our minds work, is linguistic: that we think and feel through language, with language, and through a kind of collage network of verbal associations made out of texts and phrases from not only literary tradition, of course, but the whole spectrum of everyday life. Original speech, heroic action, the will, unmediated desire: these ideals are all rejected in “Prufrock”; parodied; subjected to irony, discontinuity. They’re seen as Romantic illusions, clichés.

The poem is not merely a parody of them; or, maybe through parody it does something else. It is, of course, in its own way, quite as daring and disturbing a poem, disturbing to the universe of poetry at least, as any modern poem. And I think you can see it as, in effect, a new kind of love song, one in which the withdrawing of desire from an object – our consciousness of our own desires – subjects them to reflection but at the same time sustains them and re-voices them through reflection. You could say that what the poem does is to intellectualize longing. And, behind that, it makes of the modern skeptic and intellectual a new kind of Romantic hero. What does Prufrock want, ultimately? What does he mean when he says, “No, that’s not what I meant at all?” Well, it’s hard to say exactly. But the poem does conclude, and as it does it gives us a kind of answer, I think. Why don’t we look at the end of it? That’s on page 466.

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

You see, here, Prufrock has moved into these rhyming tercets. He says quite simply and definitively:

I do not think that they will sing to me. I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

And as he describes this, there is kind of heightening of conventional lyric language with that alliteration and with those images:

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

It’s hard to interpret, I think, the end of this poem precisely. I think that Prufrock has really no clarified, no specified desire, except maybe to hear the mermaids. “I do not think that they will sing to me”: “I want them to,” he seems to be saying. In a sense, I think, you could say he wants Romantic singing. He wants to hear it. Perhaps he wants to be able to join in it himself, which is a wish for lyric inspiration, isn’t it? He doesn’t want to make love to these mermaids. He wants to hear them. He wants to linger with them, to have access to their element, and to that extent to be among them and even like them. It is a wish for, specifically, freedom from human voices, which I take to be the endless, overheard inner voices in which the quoted, repetitive speech that makes up his consciousness consists. In this sense, it’s a wish for a renewal of Romantic enchantment, which he knows is impossible, and which he also knows, I think, is a wish as old as Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” And this is a poem, ultimately, very much in that Keatsian tradition.

Chapter 4. T. S. Eliot Poem: “The Waste Land” [00:33:42]

The Waste Land: let’s begin at the end. Let’s begin at the end, on page 486. The Waste Land is a poem that comes in five parts. The fifth section, I think, it’s the longest, is called “What the Thunder Said.” It reaches a kind of climax when the poem renders the voice of the thunder. In the landscape of The Waste Land, we are waiting for water. We’re waiting for everything that water would represent. And thunder promises that water, and it also, importantly, represents a kind of speech: a speech that comes out of nature, something that the thunder says, has all kinds of mythological resonance. You might even view it as the voice of myth itself, here able to be given a voice and a hearing in the poem. What the thunder says, is “Da.” Da: a primary syllable. There is a note explaining this, coming to us from your editor and from Eliot. It is the first phoneme that becomes part of the instruction, the series of instructions “Datta,” “Dayadhvam,” “Damyata,” translated as “Give,” “Sympathize,” “Control.” When the thunder speaks, this is what it has to say. It gives us these instructions. On page 486, I’ll just focus on one of these imperatives:

Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart [and there’s this interesting switch of
tense] would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands

Well, “Dayadhvam” is translated here as “sympathize.” The poem is, in many ways, concerned with sympathy as a central value, a central action in human life, and the lines that they introduce describe the condition that sympathy would redress or enter into in some kind of healing way. “I have heard the key / turn in the door once and turn once only.” Well, Eliot, when he produced this poem – not the first version of this poem in The Criterion, his own magazine where it first was published, but rather when it appeared in the United States – added footnotes, or rather endnotes, to the poem. And the endnotes we have here are worth contemplating. In a sense, Eliot’s notes are a kind of extension of the poem, part of the poem. These lines bear the note “four”:

“And below I heard them nailing shut the door / of the horrible tower.” [The speaker of those lines that Eliot is alluding to, half-quoting, is Dante’s Count Ugolino in the thirty-third canto of The Inferno.] The traitor Ugolino tells Dante that his enemies imprisoned him and his children in a tower to die of starvation.

And of course, Ugolino would eat his children. Eliot continues. He gives us that little fragment from Dante, and then he says:

“Also, F.H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality, p. 346. [When he writes like that, it’s like wearing that waistcoat. It’s a kind of pose, in this case the pose of a scholar-pedant. Bradley says:] ‘My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it…. In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.’”

Eliot worked on Bradley for his thesis. “The whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.” Well, I don’t know that there is any key to The Waste Land, but if there is a key to The Waste Land, it’s this key in these lines, which lead us to Bradley and Bradley’s view of what consciousness is like. Consciousness is a condition in which we are locked into our own, I think, linguistic representations of reality without a common language to share them. How can a common world be created out of radically private experience? Well, this is, I think, the central question that The Waste Land is meditating on, responding to. It’s one of the central questions in modern poetry.

We won’t get too far in the poem today. We’ll have to conclude our discussion on Monday, but let’s look at the beginning together simply to recall how this poetry operates and make some preliminary observations. This section, the first section, is called “The Burial of the Dead” and refers to the ritual in the Anglican Church as described in the Book of Common Prayer.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

It’s extraordinary poetry. And one of the ways in which it is extraordinary is the modulations, and where do we pinpoint the turning points between the initial, vatic, general voice of the poem and then that extremely personalized first person, who will be Marie, named that way through that memory. How do we get from “April is the cruelest month” to “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter”? Somehow there is a variety, I think, a range of voices here. And how Eliot moves from the one to the other is a question for us as readers. I think it also raises, again, this central problem that the poem is concerned with. And that is, what is the relationship, how do we articulate the relationship between the general and the particular, between experience that is generalizable and that which is almost irreducibly private?

“April is the cruelest month”: those wonderful lines we all know. Well, the poem begins with allusion, which it hardly even needs to press to “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote,” the first line of The Canterbury Tales. It evokes too, probably, Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” another April elegy. The poem begins by talking about the pain of awakened desire, begins talking about the risk that comes with beginning and desiring – Prufrock’s themes. Here they are, writ large. Desire, it seems, is painful because it breaks things open that are closed and shut. It’s also, it seems, unsatisfiable. All of these are, to a degree, conventional Romantic topoi, motifs.

Where exactly does the poem modulate into personal memory? Well, maybe somewhere in that eighth line, “Summer surprised us…” It started out looking and feeling a lot like “Winter kept us warm,” but now the memory will become highly particularized through quotation, incidentally as your note will explain. The poem really moves into a kind of opaque set of personal associations: “…when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,” and so on; “…he took me out on a sled.” These associations are meaningful and resonant and representative, I think, to the extent that they have a generic quality. That is, it’s not so much that they are our memories, but they’re like memories. They’re like personal memories, and they’re like personal memories in the difficulty of translating and sharing them. Marie has a kind of exemplary privacy about her and her memories and her sense of frustrated desire and longing.

There is more that’s important about this first of The Waste Land’s speakers. Well, “Bin gar keine Russin” is translated for us down below as, “I’m not a Russian woman at all; I come from Lithuania, [therefore] a true German.” Whoever is saying that exactly, whether it’s Marie or someone else, seems to be speaking of a kind of hybrid identity, a kind of mongrel or deracinated identity. The condition of locked-in sensibility and difficult private emotion is, from the very beginning of the poem, associated with metropolitan culture, a culture where there are many languages, speakers from many places. And, well, a culture where there are, as it were, a kind of cacophony of languages untranslated, existing and competing side-by-side. This is a kind of linguistic environment that The Waste Land is made out of and is also in many ways about and is the real medium of experience in the poem.

Well, let me stop here. And we’ll go on trying to make sense of this great modern poem on Monday.

[end of transcript]

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