Lecture on T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land
[The following paragraphs are the text of a lecture delivered, in part, to the Liberal Studies 402 class at Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University) on January 16, 1997, by Ian Johnston. This text is in the public domain, released June 1999]
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
This week we are paying close attention to two very short works of poetry, probably the two most famous and influential works of verse in the past one hundred years, not only very fine in themselves but also of major significance in the history of poetic styles, since these are the best examples of the early work of the writer who, more than anyone else, transformed the way poetry in English was written in modern times. It is almost impossible to overestimate T. S. Eliot’s effect on our understanding of how we read and write poetry.
Today I would like to address two issues. First, I would like to say something about the context of Eliot’s work, because these two poems are deliberately experimental, and they launch something very new, of importance to the understanding not only of poetry but also of our modernist culture (I’ll have more to say about that term modernist later on). This contextual review will be necessarily brief and inadequate, but it should help us to understand why these two poem are so different and to read them more fluently. The second purpose of this lecture will be to read together a few sections of The Waste Land so that we can explore how we come to grips with this new style.
I take it that many of you in this room find the poetic style in these poems odd and difficult easily to grasp, especially in comparison to poetry we have read earlier. This verse doesn’t seem to make sense readily-just as a lot of modern art seems, at first glance, often incomprehensible. How are we supposed to get any sense of unity or continuity when we have no geographical or argumentative or metaphorical thread to guide our reading, especially when the form of the verse seems to change in bewildering ways for apparently no reason? What I want to do here is to encourage you to discover that this style is not nearly so difficult as it may appear, once we have grasped the point that reading this style requires us to drop some of the conventional expectations we bring to poetry and to let this style do its work in a new way.
To achieve this introduction to a new way of reading poetry, I first have to present some contextual background into the launching of the experimental movement which has come to define so much of modern poetry.
The Imagist Movement
The modern movement in poetry, the transformation of the tradition into something startlingly new, antedates Eliot somewhat. A common and convenient date is 1910, when a small group of practicing poets met in London under the name of their new “movement”-Imagism.
The moving spirit of this group was a young and very brash American, Ezra Pound, a student of European literature and a college teacher who had come to Europe in 1908 after being fired from his job as a college teacher in Indiana for having a girl in his room overnight. Pound, whose energy and flamboyance were notorious (or legendary) immediately set upon a very aggressive campaign demanding reforms in the writing of poetry, and he gathered together a few fellow spirits.
Literary movements, like political, religious, and artistic movements, generally arise as a reaction against the immediate tradition. So if we want to understand the nature of Imagism’s demands, we need to consider for a moment what they disliked about the poetry considered at the time acceptable. I am going to use a very misleading term for this tradition, but I want to link our study of Imagism to the poetry we have already studied in this program. So I’m going to use the label “Wordsworthian Decadence” to characterize the kind of poetry from the immediate tradition which the Imagists despised. With this label I do not mean to impugn Wordsworth, who had died about sixty years earlier (although the Imagists held no particularly high opinion of his style); I refer instead to the tradition inspired largely by his lyric emphasis on the meditative reflections of a solitary speaker often drawing on the imagery of nature.
For the Imagists the Wordsworthian style had become decadent-mushy, rhythmically inert, predictable in its imagery, and emotionally dishonest-it had turned poetry from something vital into something merely decorative. However passionate and innovative Wordsworth’s own best poetry had been, by the end of the century the tradition of meditative lyric had lost its vitality, degenerating into subjective posturing often wrapped in the cloudiness of nostalgia or dreams and presented in a flaccid language. Even the best of them, Yeats, Pound characterized as “already a sort of great dim figure with its associations set in the past” (Letter to Harriet Monroe, 30 March 1913).
To illustrate this point, let me consider for a moment the following example from a particularly popular poet then and for many years later (Pound does not use this example and it is not part of his immediate tradition, but it will serve to illustrate some of the characteristics of what his movement objected to under the rubric of what I am calling Wordsworthian decadence):
My heart faints in me for the distant sea.
The roar of London is the roar of ire
The lion utters in his old desire
For Libya out of dim captivity.
The long bright silver of Cheapside I see,
Her gilded weathercocks on roof and spire
Exulting eastward in the western fire;
All things recall one heart-sick memory:--
Ever the rustle of the advancing foam,
The surges’ desolate thunder, and the cry
As of some lone babe in the whispering sky;
Ever I peer into the restless gloom
To where a ship clad dim and loftily
Looms steadfast in the wonder of her home.
Walter de la Mare
What’s wrong with this? It seems a relatively pleasant poem, the evocation of a mood we can respond to presented in a style we are immediately familiar with. Well, for a start, the Imagists would insist, the poem is emotional fakery, in the sense that there is nothing sharp, focused, passionate about it. Everything about it is fuzzy and predictable: the imprecise imagery (relying upon a conventional vocabulary designed to evoke an “atmosphere” of significance but with no clarity--”faints,” “dim,” “heart-sick,” “desolate,” “lone,” “whispering,” and so on), the iambic regularity, the predicable rhymes--in short, the overwhelming conventionality. For them, this style is the poetic equivalent of what we call Muzak.
A poem like this is not necessarily easy to write, and it is often (for reasons I’ll mention in a moment) quite popular. But it offers no revelation, no surprise, no sense of the sharp particularity of experience. And its effect depends upon our closing down parts of our critical apparatus and surrendering to the conventional associations. For example, consider the lines “The roar of London is the roar of ire/ The lion utters in his old desire/ For Libya out of dim captivity.” What does this mean? It has iambic regularity and a clear rhyme, so we know we’re dealing with poetry. But how is my understanding of the emotions being exploring at all illuminated by the comparison of London to the lion? Apart from that, look at the language. Is this English? Does anyone actually talk in phrases like “roar of ire”?
To clarify the point let me give you a more contemporary example. Popular song writing is full of examples of this sort of writing. Many popular artists tap this vein and become rich selling the public this form of shallow emotionalism delivered in a conventional package: Barry Manilow, Englebert Humperdink, Tom Jones, a great deal of Country Music. When we express dissatisfaction with some of these “poets” I think what we most object to is their emotional flaccidity and artistic conventionality. They are gesturing towards an emotion presented in a non-disturbing way, so that we can wallow for a moment without engaging our full imaginations with any serious awareness in anything and certainly without encountering anything surprising or challenging. It’s a style that reaches its natural culmination in the Coutt’s Hallmark Greeting Card.
There’s a name for this sort of style. We call it sentimentality, and it is, in the words of Wallace Stevens, “a failure of feeling.” The failure stems from the inability or the refusal to put the emotions one is exploring into a sharp focus in a vital language so that they can register as particular experiences grappled with honestly. Sentiment is, and always has been, very popular--there’s more immediate cash to be won from sentiment than from its alternatives (as Walt Disney knows so well). That I would suggest stems from the fact that we all like to bathe in warm treacle now and then, without having to come to terms with anything very challenging. To hear, say, Tammy Wynette singing about Divorce gives me the sense of an emotionally important time without requiring me to reshape my perceptions or understanding of what it really means. All the potential complexities of the experience are soothed away by the predictable words, rhymes, rhythms, and so on.
One might note here, in passing, that it’s quite common for a revolutionary artistic movement to arise as a reaction against the decadent sentimentality of the immediate tradition. If the new movement succeeds, it will often revolutionize the style of the art form, only in turn to become a new convention which, in the hands of lesser artists, becomes the new sentimentality. It’s worth remembering that Wordsworth sees himself as rejecting the conventional sentimentality of outworn eighteenth century traditions and as introducing new poetic reforms to revitalize English poetry. The Imagists saw themselves with something of the same mission: the Romantic tradition initiated by Wordsworth had lost its energy, its power to move, and had become conventional sentiment (just as Bob Dylan saw himself as bringing to an end an outworn tradition of song writing when he announced “Tin Pan Alley is dead. I killed it”).
The Imagist Program
What did Pound and his fellow imagists have to offer by way of a reform program? In its main artistic credo, Imagism proselytized a few firm recommendations, as follows:
The first important artistic tenet of Imagism was that the poet must get rid of the omnipresent voice of the poet, the Wordsworthian “I.” Whatever poetry was about it must eschew the wallowing in subjective emotionalism, the peeling away of the layers of skin surrounding the poet’s psyche. This simply created a sentimental personal emotionalism of the sort exemplified above.
The second tenet, from which the movement derives its name, is that whatever the poet has to communicate, he or she must do so in terms of objective images: clear, objective, precise, concentrated, and fresh symbols which capture, in the way they are presented the emotional qualities under exploration. “The image is itself the speech,” proclaimed Pound. Poets should not be telling us how they feel-they should be presenting us with impersonal images which capture the feeling, so that we, as readers, can react to the image without the meddlesome interference of the poetical personality (the “I”). Poems, in other words, should not be interpreting the experience for us; they should provide the objective means by which we can ourselves, as readers, discover what matters.
Poems thus did not need rational frameworks or conventional logic or meditating poet-narrators to coordinate the meaning. Pound argued that the rationality of speech, both in science and in art, did not come from rational logic but from the combination or juxtaposition of two clear, objective images:
. . . the serious artist is scientific. . . . That is to say, a good biologist will make a reasonable number of observations of any given phenomenon before he draws a conclusion. . . . The result of each observation must be precise and no single observation must in itself be taken as determining a general law. . . . [T]he serious artist is scientific in that he presents the image of his desire, or his hate, of his indifference as precisely as the image of his own desire, hate or indifference. The more precise his record the more lasting and unassailable his work of art. (Pound, Literary Essays 46)
Imagist poets were very fond of using scientific analogies for what they were doing: Eliot’s “platinum catalyst, “non- Euclidean geometry,” Fenollos’a “transference of power,” Williams’s “field of force, and Pound’s “sort of inspired mathematics.” The habit is, I think, a means above all of emphasizing the importance of the particular and the concrete in contrast to the discursive, so that their poetry could elicit the reader’s intuitive response to something specific, unmediated by the personality of the poet.
The most famous statement of this principle came in later years from Eliot himself, who in his essay on Hamlet introduced a key critical terms in modern discussions of art and poetry, the objective correlative:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. (“Hamlet and His Problems”)
What Eliot means here is that the job of the artist is to find a fictional equivalent to the emotion he wishes to explore, something adequate to the complexity of the feeling which is at issue--the images must be adequate to the emotions, the source of our understanding of them, so that our response arises inevitably out of them, and not from being told directly by the poet what is at stake (Eliot’s argument here is that the problems of Hamlet stem, in large part, from Shakespeare’s failure to create an appropriate objective correlative for his own work--the emotional quality of the work, he claims, is in excess of the facts presented in it).
[This, incidentally, is an principle well worth considering in your own creative writing and critical interpretation: How successfully has the represented fiction (story, character, symbol, and so on) captured the emotionally complexities of the issue at hand? To what extent is the image only a gesture towards something serious? To what extent does the image only illustrate, rather than illuminate, experience]
Thus, a poem should not concern itself with a traditional connective (like a firm narrative line or a developing argumentative framework or an interpreting narrator) which interfere with the reader’s most important experience, the direct contact with the impersonal image:
[Poetry] is not a counter language, but a visual concrete one. It is compromise for a language of intuition which would hand over sensation bodily. It always endeavours to arrest you, and to make you continuously see a physical thing, to prevent you gliding through an abstract process. It chooses fresh epithets and fresh metaphors not so much because they are new, and we are tired of the old, but because the old cease to convey a physical thing and become abstract counters. . . . Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence of an intuitive language.
The man who wrote the above words, T. E. Hulme, was the closest thing the early Imagists had to a philosophical spirit, and he was, interestingly enough spurred on in his speculations about imagery by the experience of living and working on the Canadian prairies. There he experienced clearly and repeatedly the way in which a very mundane object, like, say, a grain silo, could stand out as a clear single image at a distance and define an emotional complex in a very objective manner.
Thirdly, Imagist practice demanded a break with the old conventions of writing verse, especially with a standard rhythm and rhyme. They declared inappropriate the traditional war horse of English poetry, the iambic pentameter-the medium for virtually all the major poets since Chaucer (Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, and so on). Modern verse should emancipate itself from the notion that the language had to fit some preconceived pattern--the pattern should emerge from what was demanded by the language at that particular moment.
Hence, Imagism promoted what came to be called “free verse,” liberating the poet from traditional conventions of set rhythms and rhyme and insisting that the formal properties of the poem were to take shape flexibly in the ways best suited to the achievement of the appropriate form of language. Hence, centuries of formalist restrictions were done away with, and a new characteristic of modern poetry emerged--the constantly shifting rhythmic patterns, changing with the particular sections of the work. The Waste Land is one of the finest examples of this, moving from blank verse, to song, to prose, to music hall speech, in short, to whatever the requirements of the particular lines. Gone is the traditional regularity which for so long had defined poetry (and which, for many, still does).
Imagists insisted that free verse does not mean that anything goes. No verse is free for the poet who really wants to do a good job Pound claimed. And he grew frustrated at the ways in which, under the banner of Imagism, all sorts of ineffectual experiments justified themselves. What Pound wanted was a new form of poetic discipline.
One can sum up many of these points in one injunction. Modern poetry must address the modern world with modern language and images appropriate to the modern experience, unfettered by the conventions which had grown up over the centuries. This demand was all part of a much wider movement (which Hughes discusses in The Shock of the New) to bring all cultural effort into an age far removed from the pastoral conventions of so much art and poetry. If poetry was to matter-and Pound insisted that poetry must matter--then it must reform itself so that it could communicate intelligently and clearly top a modern urban readership in a modern idiom.
What Pound was seeking he found in an odd place, in Japanese haiku-the very short presentation of images juxtaposed without comment:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
As cool as the pale wet leaves
She lay beside me in the dawn.
The poems make no argumentative statements, tell no story, make no links to the feelings of the poet. They simply, clearly, and directly present images-and it is up to us to intuit for ourselves what they might “mean” or “say.”
Pound himself explained the attraction of this form borrowed from the Japanese tradition:
. . . it seemed to offer dry, hard concrete imagery and, without losing any of the essential force of symbolist poetry, avoided direct lyricism. It was the basic unit of the imagiste poem, juxtaposing two images, often in contrast, and containing them within a brief epigrammatic form, omitting all moral and intellectual comment and allowing images to form a “visual chord” in the mind--a third image that unites them--so that a “thing outward and objective transforms itself or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”
A favorite sample of the new imagist style (from 1915), a poem highly admired by the Imagists themselves is the following (by Hilda Dolittle or HD, one of the “founders” of the movement):
Whirl up, sea--
Whirl our pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.
Now, these examples illustrate, I think, clearly enough what the Imagists meant by the importance of the imagery, the absence of any dominating Wordsworthian narrative or descriptive “I,” and the linguistic variety. Notice, too, especially in comparison with the other poem quoted already, how clean the language is. We have here none of that rhetorical appeal to emotionally resonant but vague adjectives or images.
But these two examples also illustrate a very important problem with this new style--the fact that it seems curiously empty of content. This point is worth dwelling upon. How can a style which takes away the traditional organizing principles of a poem-either the feelings of the narrator or a geographic setting or a coordinating argument or even certain formal elements-and which stresses that the image alone is the crux of the matter, how can such a poem do any more than what these examples appear to do, depict an image or two and then cease? Perhaps they provide intuition, but where is the thought which enables us stay in touch with some coordinating theme or developing meaning? This characteristic was a common point of criticism of the new style (“They’ve got the bridle and the bit all right/ But where’s the bloody horse?”).
[It] was the fault of imagism never to let its devotees draw clear conclusions about life and to force the poet to state too much and to deduce rather too little-to lead its disciples too often into a barren aestheticism which was, and is, empty of content. . . . Poetry merely descriptive of nature as such, however vivid, no longer seems to me enough; there has to be added to it the human judgement, the human evaluation. (J. G. Fletcher)
The poetry of Pound himself seems to exemplify this problem. Pound’s style displays a remarkable command of language, imagery, rhythm, and other formal skills. But too often he appears to have little to say, and his longer poems often come across as merely a collection of images, which do not add up to what he was after, some form of intuitive revelation. Hence he emerges, in some respects, as a consummate poet’s poet--someone who (like Spenser, perhaps) opened up to his contemporaries all sorts of important new possibilities with poetic style, without being able in the process to produce a work which might triumphantly justify the movement. He himself was well aware of this problem with his own work.
In fact, it seems clear that Imagism would have been little more than a footnote to the early history of modern culture, but for another American, one who developed his modern poetry style largely on his own, apart from the developing Imagist movement, but whose style, especially with the help of Ezra Pound, created its finest achievements. T. S. Eliot’s early poetry provided exactly what Pound saw as the essential ingredients of the modern style. Eliot resolved (for reasons I will mention later) the problems of Imagism I mentioned above and in his early poetry, particularly in The Waste Land, established a transformation of modern poetry that very much redefined how poets write. Eliot’s poem, Pound proclaimed, was “the justification of our ‘movement,’ of our modern experiment.”
T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound
The association between T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound began around 1912 in England. The two men, whose personalities and family backgrounds were very different, had much in common. They were both from the West or mid-West--Eliot from St. Louis and Pound from Idaho, and both, as young men (Pound was 27 and Eliot 25 at the time their association began) had come to Europe as means of getting more in touch with what they felt unavailable in America. And both ended up staying in Europe for the rest of their lives (with some interruptions).
Pound immediately recognized in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the quality of the new style, and it was largely through Pound’s efforts that the poem appeared in print. Their association remained close, and Pound played a huge effort in the production of The Waste Land, acting as an editor and reducing the poem into something significantly shorter than the work Eliot wrote:
It was in 1922 that I placed before him in Paris the manuscript of a sprawling chaotic poem called The Waste Land which left his hands, reduced to about half its size, in the form in which it appears in print. I should like to think hat the manuscript, with the suppressed passages, had disappeared irrevocably; yet, on the other hand, I should wish the blue pencilling to be preserved as irrefutable evidence of Pound’s critical genius. (T. S. Eliot)
The manuscript with Pound’s emendations has survived and was printed after Eliot’s death. It is, in my view, the most fascinating example of a critical intelligence working closely on an inspired poetic work, and it should be required reading for all those interested in modern poetry and editing. And it remains, as Eliot hoped it would, an extraordinary testament to Pound’s critical genius.
Parenthetically, it is worth noting that Pound was throughout his life an tireless supporter of other poets, helping them with manuscripts, badgering publishers to use their work, seeking out patrons for needy artists, always ready to talk to those interested enough to seek him out. I personally know of this from an academic acquaintance, a graduate student, who visited “Uncle Ezra” in Italy in the mid-1960’s after Pound’s release from incarceration in the mental home by the US government and who received as cordial a welcome as he could wish. Three of the great masterpieces of early modernist English literature--Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s Waste Land, and Yeats’s The Tower--featured in one way or another the assistance of Ezra Pound. He recognized early on the talent of Robert Frost and many other young poets. There is no doubt that his efforts on behalf of other artists were tireless, unselfish, and often, especially in the case of The Waste Land, decisive.
All of this makes part of Ezra Pound’s life particularly sad. And I’d like to take a moment to refer to one of the great literary scandals of the century. In the 1920’s, after Pound left England, he finally settled in Rapallo in Italy. There we worked on his major work of poetry, The Cantos, off and on for the rest of his life. During the war he became preoccupied with strange economic theories, especially Social Credit, and with anti-Semitism, both of which prompted him to make some radio broadcasts on behalf of Mussolini’s Fascist government.
In 1945, he surrendered to the American Army, and was put in an iron cage out in the heat of the Italian summer sun in Pisa. As a result of that experience he wrote his finest sequence of poems, The Pisan Cantos, for which he was awarded one of the most prestigious literary awards available in America.
This placed the American government in a dilemma. Technically, Pound was a traitor and should be tried and sent off for a long prison term. On the other hand, he was a leading figure of modern American poetry (the recent prize had confirmed this) and had a huge number of supporters, many of whom he had in the past provided valuable help to (including T. S. Eliot). The government resolved its difficulties by declaring Pound unfit for trial and shipping him off to a mental home. Over the years, there were repeated calls for Pound’s release-How could America so unfairly incarcerate without trial one of its most important cultural figures of the past fifty years? Eventually, Robert Frost, who by that time was clearly America’s leading poet and who had, to his great discredit, refused to come to Pound’s assistance, joined in, and President Eisenhower permitted Pound to leave America in 1961. He returned to Rapallo, where he died in 1972.
Comments on Eliot’s Style
What was it about the early poems of T. S. Eliot which so immediately caught Pound’s attention and transformed the writing of modern English poetry? It is hard to select a single quality, other than to say that Eliot was simply a better poet than his Imagist contemporaries. He has an uncanny genius, characteristic of only the greatest writers, of writing lines which stick in one’s mind. But, in addition to that key quality, let me focus on some of the ways in which “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land exemplify the reforms of poetic language which the Imagists insisted upon, while at the same time resolving the difficulties the style imposes (which I referred to earlier). I don’t mean this to represent a complete discussion of Eliot’s style by any means, but it should give some assistance to those who find the style puzzling at first.
The Coordinating Consciousness of the Speaker(s)
The first, and one of the most important contribution Eliot made was a technical one. I mentioned above, in the discussion of sample Imagist poems, the problem of content: How can a collection of images add up to anything more than simply a list of images? What is going to unify a style which assembles a series of haiku-like fragments? Eliot resolved this problem with a technique he learned from the one Victorian poet for whom the Imagists had a high regard, Robert Browning.
The technique is deceptively simple. Eliot makes his poem dramatic utterances, spoken by an invented persona like Prufrock, so that the images, as we encounter them, are all linked, no matter how discrete they may appear, because they are expressions of a single personality. In terms of the language discussed already, the speaking personality operates as an objective correlative, something apart and different from the poet (for Prufrock is clearly not Eliot, and one habit we have to discard immediately in reading this poetry is any tendency, very strong in the Wordsworthian tradition, immediately to identify the speaking voice of the poem, the “I,” with the poet writing the piece), towards the clarification of which all the images in the poem contribute. The speaking persona, in other words, is a way of escaping the omnipresence of the poet’s personality while at the same time linking the poem to a coordinating consciousness.
Thus, a key technique in reading Eliot is to stop looking for conventional means of coordinating a long poem (a story, a developing description, an argument) and to focus instead on what each apparently discontinuous part of the poem reveals about the consciousness of the speaking voice, for the definition of the consciousness is the main purpose of the poem. We may, for example, puzzle over what could possibly be the logical connection between, say, the fog, the women who come and go talking of Michelangelo, a crustacean, coffee, Lazarus, Hamlet, and the sea girls. The connection is clear enough, however: they are all expressions of and therefore images illuminating Prufrock himself, glimpses into his emotional state.
And there’s a second point to this technique. The discontinuity between the images defining the consciousness of the speaker serves to indicate what for Eliot is a major manifestation of modern life, the loss of the integrated personality. Eliot does this quite deliberately as part of his sense that a fractured world and an inchoate response to it defines what we have become:
The life of a soul does not consist in the contemplation of one consistent world but in the painful task of unifying (to a greater and less extent) jarring and incompatible ones.
In The Waste Land the technique, although more complex, is essentially the same. There we have a multiplicity of voices, male and female, young and old, in a variety of languages and styles, and the shifts are unannounced, so that often we do not even know who is speaking, simply that it is someone who sounds different from the voice immediately before. But the unity of the poem emerges from the fact that these all merge into a single personality, something we might call the voice of the modern consciousness. The fact that this modern consciousness cannot settle into a fixed perception of things or even into a consistent language helps to convey a good deal of the sense of the strain of modern living, an important point of the poem.
I think at first reading many students worry unnecessarily about being able clearly to distinguish the different “personalities,” sometimes to the extent that the process works to the detriment of their appreciating the key point: the ways in which all these voice are part of the all-inclusive “personality” of the poem. Eliot reminds us of this in the only one of his notes to the poem which is of direct interpretative help to the reader:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem. (Note to line 218)
We need, therefore, in reading Eliot’s style to attend to how the images serve to illuminate a distinctive personality at once modern, fractured, multilingual, urban, and emotionally uncertain. The personality is by no means unified; in fact, what emerges from both poems as a principal concern is the inability of the modern consciousness either to see unity in the world outside or to bring to a disordered world any sense of inner integrity. What unity the poems possess comes from what is revealed to us about this new conception of the modern self.
Part of this sense of the totality of the modern self adding up to a fractured variety emerges, not just from the shifting sense of the images and the speaking voice, but also from the variety in the verse style. It’s as if in the modern age, there cannot be a single authoritative way of expressing how one feels (as there was once in the past); there is not enough confidence in the forms of language itself. Just as the traditional community has become the unreal city, a vision of a modern inferno, so the traditional language of the community in the modern personality has become a multiplicity of contrasting styles.
A second important feature of Eliot’s technique, something which gives his style an urbanity and resonance lacking in much other imagist writing, is his constant use of a certain form of irony, a style known as Romantic irony or, what might be called, the irony of instant deflation.
Romantic irony consists of creating what appears to be a firm assertion or picture of something, only to reveal that what was promised in the original is, in fact, quite different. A good example is something like the following: a stage show presents a beautiful woman who sings a tender, seductive song, celebrating feminine beauty and then, at the end, abruptly the performer rips off her hair to reveal that she is, in fact, a man, and that the audience is a bunch of idiots to have fallen for the illusion.
The irony, in other words, consists of creating something of apparent value and solidity--an affirmation that matters--only to reveal that the value was illusory. This technique is absolutely fundamental to understanding Eliot’s poetry. His skill with this technique is responsible, as much as anything, for the sardonic and often pessimistic tone of the poem.
Eliot will use Romantic irony within a single line, where the growing energy of what looks like the start of a confident or at least important statement will be denied by the end of the line. The most famous example of this is the line from “Prufrock”: “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” The first six words lead us to expect, at last, some significant insight into something--the rhetorical build up in the language promises something significant; the prosaic last three words indicate an immediate deflation.
Notice some other examples of this technique:
In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions
which a minute will reverse.
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.
If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water.
Often, as in the last example above, the rising first part of the ironic structure in these poems is linked to a hypothetical (to an if or a would clause), so that rising hope, as it rises, is conditional and is quickly cancelled by any reflection on the reality. The effect is the constant sense of a consciousness which realizes intelligently enough that something is wrong and that a particular quality is necessary to transform the barrenness of life but which even before the thought is clearly formulated runs out of energy and collapses upon itself.
The ironic technique also, to some degree, governs the structure of the entire “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The poem starts on a note of energy (“Let us go. . .”), and for all the rising and falling of the ironic passages seems in places to gather a significant energy. But as soon as we reach “No, I am not Prince Hamlet” whatever energies Prufrock may have generated by his intense dissatisfaction with life dissipate immediately, and we are left with an intelligent, sympathetic, character confronting the realities of his own failure--seeing the emotional sterility of his future but incapable of breaking out, even though at the start of the poem (where the tone is most resolute and imperative) that is what he had set his mind on. He is settling for a life which he knows is empty and meaningless, without music, beauty, movement, except in his dreams.
Eliot’s Rhythmic and Tonal Variety
An essential ingredient in Eliot’s Romantic irony and in his definition of the consciousness of the speaker(s) is his astonishing command of rhythmic variety. His emancipation from the traditional commitment to a regular verse pattern manifests itself in the juxtaposition of often totally contrasting styles.
This serves a number of important purposes. The first I have already alluded to: the sudden unannounced shift in the rhythm is an important part of the deflationary technique of Eliot’s irony, which enables him to moves us through some complex emotional shifts very quickly and effectively:
‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag -
It’s so elegant
‘What shall I do now? What shall I do?’
Here the urgency of an attempt to reach some one else is interrupted by the syncopated rhythms of the popular tune, only to collapse into the prosaic inner self-questioning which we know will lead no where. One might multiply examples like this many times.
A second contribution of Eliot’s apparently freewheeling rhythmic and tonal shifts is to reinforce the sense of the loss of a coordinating formal public speech. There are constant echoes in the Waste Land, for example, of all sorts of traditional forms of discourse--Biblical utterance, blank verse, formal lyric grace. But these can never sustain themselves in the face of the radical anxieties and fractured outer world of the modern age. So the apparently formal presentation of the lady in “A Game of Chess,” deliberately reminiscent of Shakespeare’s magnificent description of Cleopatra cannot sustain emotional stability and breaks into the neurotic conversation of an anxious pair fighting off images of rats eating up the dead.
Thus, an important sense of what we have lost from the past emerges from the constant reminders of past forms of expression up against the modern realities. And this helps to contribute in a decisive way to the definition of the modern consciousness by stressing the lack of a common idiom, any shared and shaping way to interpret experience. We experience, not a common language or a formal set of ways to express our feelings. We are a babble of voices, languages, slangs, desperately seeking significant communication with others and anxiously dreading making such connections.
The world, this style is insisting upon, is in some respects a collection of refugees (and notice the frequency of displaced persons in the poem)--like our cultural past, our languages, and therefore our thoughts exists as fragments. The modern world thus not only features the muddle of collapsing and intermingling and displaced cultures but also brings about a similar situation within the discourse of the self.
Eliot’s Use of the Past
Of course, Eliot’s use of the past involves a good deal more than simply an evocation of traditional styles. For one immediately noticeable feature of Eliot’s style which can cause some difficulties for new readers is his constant use of the past in more explicit ways. Typically Eliot’s style will invoke the past directly in one of three ways:
The first is a direct reference to a well known literary or historical or cultural figure (Coriolanus, Hamlet, Michelangelo, Tiresias, and so on). The second is a more or less explicit allusion to the works-often to something immediately reminiscent of a famous passage (like the opening of The Waste Land, which is clearly an allusion to the opening of Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, or the opening of the Second Section of the same poem, “A Game of Chess,” which is equally clearly based on Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra sailing into Alexandria). The third is a direct quote from some famous source (like Tristan and Isolde or The Spanish Tragedy or Augustine’s Confessions).
What is one to make of these constant references? How is one to integrate them into one’s understanding of the poem? Well, I want to begin by suggesting that one needs to appreciate their importance but (a very important caveat) without giving them an importance incommensurate with their function.
Some readers feel, for example, that this constant and often very esoteric reference to the past makes the poem simply too inaccessible or incomprehensible, and they give up in despair or disgust at what they perceive as willfully elitist and obscurantist: “a piece that passeth all understanding,” “the agonized outcry of a sensitive romanticism drowning in a sea of jazz” (J. M. May); “to all but anthropologists so much waste paper” (Charles Powell, Manchester Guardian). Such a response was by no means uncommon in the first critical reviews of the work.
. . . a pompous parade of erudition, a lengthy extension of the deadlier disillusion, a kaleidoscopic movement in which the bright coloured pieces fail to atone for the absence of an integrated design. . . . [a] mingling of wilful obscurity and weak vaudeville. (Louis Untermeyer)
This response to the poem is understandable--the style does rely upon a cultural background that can be easily interpreted as unnecessarily academic and elitist (a charge that is commonly leveled against a good deal of Modernist culture), and the feature does indeed repel many readers. I have considerable sympathy with the view, especially since, as you may have gathered by now, I am suspicious of any artistic style which self-consciously and deliberately isolates itself from a wide general readership.
Pound somewhere observes, by way of justification for this technique, that one doesn’t stop writing just because the common people don’t know Latin. Well, maybe not. But if your poetry demands a knowledge of Latin and of a great many rather obscure classical references, then you should not expect many of the folk to care very much for or to benefit from your efforts. Put more simply, a writer who turns his back on the general readers should not be surprised if they turn their backs on him.
On the other hand, before making a decision one way or the other, perhaps we should explore a little more into how these references function, because it may well be that having a firm grasp on all these references is less important than it may at first appear. Yes, the style is unnecessarily erudite and allusive, but we don’t have to throw it all away because of that. So let me try to ease the difficulty in a moment.
It is not uncommon for some readers to feel that in order to appreciate Eliot’s style one has to have as full a command of the tradition he is using as he does. This impression is strongly reinforced by the notes Eliot adds to the poem. There is wide agreement that these notes are unfortunate, because they really reinforce the impression I have been describing, which can seriously interfere with a direct experience of the sort Imagism wished to make central to the reading of poetry.
On this point I do not wish to be misunderstood. Obviously, if one can recognize and respond significantly to the reference Eliot is making, then the poem becomes all the richer. However, it is also clear that understanding all those often very esoteric references is not a necessary condition for responding intelligently to the poem. For if one concentrates on what the language is actually doing, then one can usually derive a clear sense of what is going on, an interpretative response adequate to formulating a coherent approach to the poem.
Take, for example, the very opening, the famous lines about April being the cruellest month. This imagery functions to summon up a particular (and startling) image of spring as a fearful time, something hostile to life because it rouses us from our winter torpor. Eliot is doing here something very common in modernist writing generally, and especially in his early poems: reversing the traditional associations with a conventional poetic image. Just as the opening lines of “Prufrock” provide, in that image of a city anaesthetized, a startlingly new and severe image of early evening (often celebrated in poetry as a time of quiet and calm reflection), so the opening of The Waste Land wrenches apart our conventional poetic associations with an invocation of spring. All that is clear enough from a reading of the words without any knowledge of Chaucer’s lines. If we do recognize Chaucer’s original under that text (and many of us will), then the passage becomes all the richer for us, because we see an important point Eliot is making in drawing our attention to The Canterbury Tales, the extent to which the healthy union of erotic and religious sensibilities which Chaucer’s great work celebrates has been lost in the modern age.
Many of the references to the past works in a similar way. They force us, as readers, if we recognize them (or some of them) constantly to juxtapose the sensibilities expressive of the modern consciousness of the speaker(s) with the very different visions of the past, when people brought to the complexities of life things we seem to have lost: courage, erotic confidence, a love of nature, a sense of the divine. There was a time, these references constantly say, when human beings were capable of spiritually intense experience, when people were willing to suffer, to celebrate, to express themselves heroically. References to, for example, Cleopatra, Hamlet, Coriolanus, Augustine, Queen Elizabeth, Tristan and Isolde, like the reminders of the great artists of the past-Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Chaucer, and so on serve to create and sustain an ironic sense of loss.
This element brings out one of the essential features of what has come to be called Modernist art-the attempt to sort out some adequate relationship to the past, an issue that is a foremost concern among writers, painter, poets, sculptors, and philosophers. Where does one go after Nietzsche? What faith can one place in a tradition which led to the Great War of 1914-1918? Is there something worth salvaging, or should we junk the entire tradition? In one way or another, most artists for the first half of the twentieth century wrestled with this question in a way that had not happened before.
Eliot’s early poetic style, especially in The Waste Land, really brings out the sense of the collapse of the past, a pile of fragments shored up against ruins, and he deliberately invokes the past to insist upon this point. What once had meaning no longer does. These ancient visions of a life so much more passionately full and coherent than the present age are gone. They remain only as isolated bits, reminders of the inadequacy of our own times: eros has become a tired mechanical ritual, the beautiful aspects of nature have filled up with cigarette butts and garbage or turned threatening, faith has become empty, the centres of the ancient civilization (Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London) are being destroyed in the universal technological chaos of war, and the world is filling up with refugees (an important element in the characters of the poem).
One thing you might like to consider in exploring these reference to the past is the presence in them of any patterns, especially those which coincide with the patterns established in the imagery. One feature that immediately strikes me is how many of these past reference are to famous lovers, those passionately committed to someone else and ready to sacrifice a great deal for a powerfully achieved faith and trust in eros: Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Elizabeth and Leicester, Ferdinand, Dante. I’m tempted to see in this pattern and the insistence on the aridity of the Waste Land some important source of the malaise of the modern world. This seems to me a much more promising approach than to rush off to read that modest volume From Ritual to Romance, a familiarity with which (in my experience) does little to assist with a close understanding of Eliot’s poem.
The point I’m trying to insist upon here, to get back to the Imagist manifesto with which we started, is that the best way to read The Waste Land and “Prufrock” is simply to read the text, slowly and repeatedly, without getting too worried about all the external apparatus you think you need to bring to the poem. Let Eliot’s images, rhythms, ironies--all of which are so extraordinary--do their work unmediated. You will, I think, fairly soon come to realize the uniquely great quality of this style.
If we read the poem in this way, however, we have to confess, I think, that it is not always easy or even possible to make coherent connections between the images and someone coordinating meaning. That is, many of the images clearly point beyond themselves and create pressure on us to make connections with something that might help to create an overarching meaning. But again and again we are unable to do this is a satisfactory manner. A common experience of reading this poem is a sharpened desire to make sense of it together with a sense of defeat-if there is a total coherence to be found, it eludes us.
This particular feature of the poem is yet another common characteristic of much modernist art-nowhere more eloquent and disturbing than in the writer we are going to encounter in two weeks, Franz Kafka. One does not have to be an expert in a great deal of modernist painting to recognize that there, too, the technique of the symbol or the image directing us somewhere that we can never attain is a common stylistic ingredient.
This, in fact, becomes a commonplace of modernism. It’s as if in the modern world we are surrounded by reminders and promises of meaning but, unlike earlier artists, we have no means of coordinating these into an integrated world picture (in the way that, say, Dante or Hildegard could) or into an integrated sense of the self (in a way that, say, Wordsworth does).
Since I began by putting these two poems in something of a historical context, I would like to conclude with a few remarks on a few details of the effect of these poem and of the later career of T. S. Eliot himself. These remarks will necessarily be somewhat cursory, but they may help to arouse interest in an important and intriguing part of the history of modern English literature.
I have already made passing reference to some of the hostile comments made in the press about The Waste Land, and I can remember from my childhood BBC radio reports on funding to the arts in which hostile critics quoted a chunk of “Prufrock” (“I grow old . . . I grow old . . ./ I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled”) as examples of the idiocy of governmental support for the arts.
However, the effect of The Waste Land on young poets was immediate and decisive:
“To us . . . [The Waste Land] very definitely made a pronouncement. It pronounced doom” (Stephen Spender)
Then out of the blue the Dial brought out the Waste Land and all our hilarity ended. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turn to dust. To me especially it struck like a sardonic bullet. I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of the new art form itself-rooted in the locality which should give it fruit. I knew that in certain ways I was defeated. (William Carlos Williams)
The style that Eliot launched transformed the writing of poetry. It also contributed to shifting the centre of gravity for English poetry from England to North America, largely because so many young Englishmen died in the war (including, for example, Rosenberg, Owen, Brooke, and countless others). And the reforms the Imagists insisted upon and the style of poetry they favoured became and have remained one of the mainstreams of modern English poetry. That is not to say that all elements of Eliot’s style immediately became the standard. Not all poets agreed with Eliot’s extensive concentration upon the use of the European past, which to some, like the American William Carlos Williams indicated “men content with the connotations of their masters” (Prologue to Kora in Hell).
Eliot himself took many of the elements of his style and applied to the critical understanding of poetry, becoming one of the major and most influential literary critics of the century. There is no time here to explore his enormous contribution our transformed understanding of poetry, although we might note in passing that the renewed interest in the lyrics of John Donne, in the poetry of Dante, the New Critical approach to literature, in the reassessment of Milton, in Renaissance drama, all these and other significant trends in the study of English literature were decisively influenced by T. S. Eliot.
Eliot himself seems to have been somewhat surprised by the success of The Waste Land--especially the praise from those who celebrated it as a modernist epic of sorts. And he steadfastly refused (with occasional exceptions) to offer his own commentary upon it.
Various critics have done me the honour to interpret the poem in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism. To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life. It is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.
This comment seems rather disingenuous. Eliot was indeed going through a particularly difficult time in his marriage, and it may well be that the pain the poem expresses has strong roots in his emotional pain about his relationship with is wife (at her insistence some lines were removed from the poem: “And we shall play a game of chess;/ The ivory men make company between us/ Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door”; Eliot restored the lines in 1960, after his wife’s death).
Shortly after completing The Waste Land, Eliot sought refuge from the distress of his perceptions of modern life by converting to Christianity, adopting the High Anglican faith, and by becoming an outspoken defender of certain elements of the tradition. He became a leading figure in the attempts to revive verse drama (producing his best known play Murder in the Cathedral and a modern adaptation of Aeschylus’s Eumenides--The Family Reunion). He established himself as the leading literary and cultural critic of the time, and it is (I think) fair to claim that no American has ever wielded such power over the official cultural establishment in England as T. S. Eliot.
The major emphasis of T. S. Eliot’s poetry changed correspondingly. The centre of attention moves from the sense of the apocalypse, which so many people saw in the early poems, to redemption, to a revitalization of faith. Once this happened, critics went back to The Waste Land and discovered that the seeds of this change are, indeed, there. Other interpreters of the early poems contest that claim.
Few writers have played a more decisive role in my own education than T. S. Eliot. He shaped the approach to poetry of most of those who taught me, and I cut my teeth as a critic by reading his essays, still among the finest works of concise and decisive evaluation one can read. When he died in 1965, there was a spontaneous outpouring of tributes in London, where I was then living, and I attended a special reading of his work which the theatrical community instantly organized.
As to the long-term influence of his early style on the writing of poetry, there is disagreement. That it had an enormous influence, few critics will dispute. What one might like to debate is the value of that influence. I have already mentioned the deliberately “elitist” tendency of Eliot (and Pound’s) views of poetry. The extraordinary quality of Eliot’s early poems, one might argue, encouraged a style that helped to remove modern “high” poetry further and further from the reach of the average reader. I’m not prepared to defend this accusation at the moment, except perhaps to observe that, if that is the case, it is part of the widespread tendency in many areas of modernist art to promote styles guaranteed to minimize readership, simply because the language becomes too obscure, private, and inaccessible.
That this tendency is an important feature of much modern poetry, fiction, and art, few will deny. And the effect is a denial of what many an Enlightenment writer or artist (including Wordsworth) saw as a major responsibility: to address the widest possible audience. Thus, however eloquent and sophisticated the style Imagism (and Eliot) encouraged, it tended to drive further a wedge between “serious” art and the public consciousness. Or, alternatively put, it removed art further and further from the realm of public discourse, thus marginalizing art from the most immediate questions confronting the citizen.
I have no time to go into this complex question here. But it may be worth noting that there is potentially a fertile connection between avant garde styles in art and poetry and oppressive regimes, simply because the more remote an artistic style is from public discourse, the less impact it is going to have. And it is relatively easy for a politically tyranny to foster such art, as opposed to promoting the forms of art most congenial to the Enlightenment temper-a widely accessible medium addressing questions of urgent public concern. There may be thus a certain irony in seeing The Waste Land as the triumph of the Imagists’ modernist aesthetic. Yes, it did indeed demonstrate that poetry could address wide social issues and confront the immediate issues of contemporary culture. On the other hand, the price was high, for the style would seem severely to limit the readership for this new style and thus the public importance of serious poetry.
More than one critic has observed that Eliot, in setting himself so strongly against the immediate Romantic tradition of his time, may have exacerbated some of the inner problem of Romanticism, so as to enormously weaken the accessibility of poetry:
The subjective personal content of the Romantic poem has become private, esoteric, at times an almost impenetrable secret; the Romantic interest in image and symbol has become an obsession: poems have been written in what can only be called code; Romantic ‘sensibility’ is now expressed in its purest possible form, free from all the distortions of conventional communication: the vestigial rhetoric the Romantics allowed themselves has finally been dispensed with-not even the laws of grammar and syntax need now apply. . . . Poetry seems not to be developing, but disintegrating. (P. Stone)
Apart from that, of course, there is the still controversial question about the nature of the relationship between a self-consciously “elitist” and esoteric style and various forms of tyranny, a question constantly brought to the forefront by new facts about the connections between many of the leading figures in modernist art and, for example, anti-Semitism and Fascism. This raises the complex (perhaps impossible) question about the extent to which a refusal to endorse any instinctively creative urge from within as the direct subject for poetry, the insistence on the externality of the object, may limit the creative possibilities of the poem--a lack of contact with aspects of human nature which require more consideration before being dismissed.
I see your words wrung out in pain, but never
The true compassion for creatures with you, that Dante
Knew in his nine hells.
Plutzic, “For T.S.E. Only”)