• Email
  • Print

Eliot’s ‘Headland’

In response to:

Mr. Eliot's Martyrdom from the February 9, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

At the end of his thoughtful essay-review entitled “Mr. Eliot’s Martyrdom”(NYR, February 9), Irvin Ehrenpreis objects to a claim made by Derek Traversi in his T.S. Eliot: The Longer Poems. “Traversi,” Professor Ehrenpreis writes, “assumes that the headland in The Dry Salvages, Part I, is the same as the ‘promontory’ in Part IV. But as it happens, the first is on the coast near Gloucester, Massachusetts; the other is at Marseilles.”

How Ehrenpreis arrived at this determination I should like to know. Throughout The Dry Salvages, Eliot compares modern secular existence to an endless voyage, a random journey with no apparent destination. Hence it seems likely that, in writing Part IV of the poem (a prayer addressed to the Holy Virgin, asking her to guide and protect sailors), Eliot had in mind the Church of Our Lady of Good Voyage, which overlooks not Marseilles, but Gloucester harbor. A noteworthy feature of this church, particularly relevant to Eliot’s poem, is its statue of the Virgin, who stands between two spires and cradles in her arms not the infant Jesus, but a sailing ship.

David L. Simpson

English Department

Northwestern University

Evanston, Illinois

Irvin Ehrenpreis replies:

Eliot said that when he wrote, “Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,” he had in mind the Church of Notre Dame de la Gard, overlooking the Mediterranean at Marseilles. (See William Turner Levy and Victor Scherle, Affectionately, T.S. Eliot, p. 121.)

It could not matter less which church the poet was thinking of; neither the meaning nor the value of the poem depends on the fact. What I drew attention to was Traversi’s assumption that The Dry Salvages would be a better poem if the reader took the “headland” and the “promontory” to be the same.

I am uneasy because of the principle implied, one widely accepted by academic critics, that coherence of this sort is a mark of good writing. It is time to stop invoking such a principle, because a number of great masterpieces can be made to seem esthetically coherent only through acts of interpretative legerdemain.

There is an unavoidable coherence in practically any extended discourse uttered by a single person. Inevitably, themes, words, and classes of imagery will reappear. A child complaining about his parents’ mistreatment of him, or an ill-educated septuagenarian writing to his daughter about his illnesses will produce a “coherent” discourse.

To praise great poets for that sort of unity seems to me to destroy the idea of literary merit. Precisely by seeking it, Traversi led himself (here and elsewhere) into unnecessary, unilluminating error. Eliot characteristically altered the reference of his poems from point to point. Just as Mr. Eugenides is not a Phoenician sailor, and Tiresias is not a young man carbuncular, so also the Lady of Ash Wednesday II is not the “veiled sister” of section V. In The Dry Salvages, Eliot, who was a master of repetition, would not have changed “headland” to “promontory” if he had wished to dwell on the identity of the two locations.

  • Email
  • Print