The strength of T.S. Eliot’s poetry depends on insights that mediate between morality and psychology. Eliot understood the shifting, paradoxical nature of our deepest emotions and judgments, and tried to embody this quality in his style. “All that concerned my family,” he once said, “was ‘right and wrong,’ what was ‘done and not done.’ ” It became the poet’s discovery that what is wrong when acted may be right when remembered, that today’s gladness justifies yesterday’s grief, and that religious serenity may be the upper side of skepticism.
Most of Eliot’s innovations of poetic technique strive to disorientate the reader. They give one a literary experience that follows the contours of reversible emotions. Reading Eliot’s lines sympathetically, one enters into a drama (often incomplete) of moral judgment imposing itself on a flux of contradictory moods. His ambitious effects are formal equivalents of the process by which insight interrupts experience.
The reason Eliot assigned such importance to ambiguous or paradoxical states is that he required high purpose to live by; and purpose involves choice. The eliciting of true decisions from evasive moods became for him a fundamental occupation. The people he grew up with were addicted to high-minded decisions “between duty and self-indulgence.” The affectionate claims of a talented, frustrated, overattentive mother led him to feel at once unworthy of his great opportunities and zealous to make the best use of them. Humble selfdoubt and immense aspiration were the obverse and reverse of his character.
Eliot came to make grave decisions secretly, and to disclose them suddenly, as if afraid that opposition might change his mind. His parents had no warning of Eliot’s first marriage, which followed his original meeting with the bride by only a couple of months. About the same time, he withdrew abruptly from the PhD course in philosophy at Harvard, although he had almost completed all the requirements for the degree.
When Eliot determined to be baptized into the Church of England, he told only the priest and the men who were to be his godfathers. The ceremony took place in an isolated country church behind locked doors. When he made up his mind to leave his first wife, he did not advise her beforehand. While visiting America by himself, to deliver a series of lectures, he wrote to his solicitor, telling him to draw up a deed of separation and asking him to deliver to Vivienne a letter from Eliot explaining the decision.
Again, when he was to be married a second time, Eliot did not even warn John Hayward, whose apartment he had been sharing for over a decade. Eliot asked his solicitor to arrange a secret ceremony; and the couple were married by special license in an out-of-the-way London church at half-past six in the morning.
Such cautious impulsiveness points to large stores of diffidence. Evidently the poet could not risk exposure to the painful reactions that his choices might produce. He could not be sure of standing up to the anger or grief (or ridicule) of his intimates. This lack of confidence, though derived from humility, was tied up with ambition. For Eliot, no success had much value unless it was hardwon.
When a friend gave superlative praise to his book Poems 1909-1925, the poet replied with a clipping from The Midwives’ Gazette in which the following words were underlined: “Blood, mucus, shreds of mucus, purulent discharge.” The gesture was more than a rude joke. It conveyed Eliot’s poverty of spirit, his honestly diffident view of the poems; and it did so, characteristically, in the words of another person.
We may assume that the attitude sprang from the poet’s sense of not deserving (could anyone deserve?) the measure of love that was bestowed on him. But the feeling persisted throughout his life and darkened his imagination. Ultimately, it blended with religious doctrine, for the creed he clung to (after his fortieth year) rested mysteriously on the gap between God’s love and man’s unworthiness.
So it was easy for Eliot to conceive of discipline rather than freedom as the first need of humanity. “At the bottom of man’s heart,” he said when he was twenty-eight—in a phrase that anticipates a line of “Gerontion”—“there is always the beast, resentful of restraints of civilized society, ready to spring out at the instant this restraint relaxes…. As a matter of fact, the human soul—l’anima semplicetta—is neither good nor bad; but in order to be good, to be human, requires discipline.”
The relation between humility and discipline is obvious enough, and Eliot never lost sight of it. Years later, contrasting totalitarian government with his own idea of a Christian society, he said of the latter, “That prospect involves, at least, discipline, inconvenience and discomfort: but here as hereafter the alternative to hell is purgatory.”
It was naturally on himself that Eliot enjoined the severest renunciations and discipline. When he surrendered the career of professor of philosophy and accepted the vocation of poetry, he imposed extraordinary demands on his genius. I do not think it farfetched to say that as a poet he submitted to rigors that might be labeled self-punishing, though suiting his idea of the way to wisdom.
In traditional literature (especially plays and novels), it is through the education of the affections that the soul achieves moral intelligence: famous examples are Tom Jones and Sophia, Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. The pursuit of the beloved offers tests and challenges that dissolve impurities and clarify virtue. But Eliot distrusted the easy parallelism between courtship and illumination unless the lover’s hopes were unsatisfied. In an early “Song” he yearns for significant passion but anticipates deprivation. This poignancy of revelations missed, of love evaded, was to stay with Eliot to the end of his course:
The moonflower opens to the moth, The mist crawls in from the sea;
A great white bird, a snowy owl, Slips from the alder tree.
Whiter the flowers, Love, you hold, Than the white mist on the sea;
Have you no brighter tropic flowers With scarlet life, for me?
The economy, meticulous sound patterns, evocative imagery, and exact versification of this Tennysonian lyric all suggest the eagerness for self-denial that the poem expresses. Not only does one recognize the triple motif of humility, sacrifice, and barely attainable love. One also recognizes the poet’s submission to an ascetic conception of art. It is in this spirit that an older Eliot was to say of unrhymed verse, “The rejection of rhyme is not a leap at facility; on the contrary it imposes a much severer strain upon the language.”
Humility, I think, contributed to his habit of using other men’s words rather than starting afresh with his own. Partly this is an acknowledgment of the older writers’ excellence, a hint of the foolishness of making newborn speech do jobs that inherited language can do better. Often Eliot chose expressions that do not sound archaic or identifiable and yet seem to revive recollection like a half-forgotten proverb:
Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins
Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,
(“Portrait of a Lady,” I)
The touch of regular pentameter underlines the drum beat; the phrasing and rhyme come from J.R. Lowell’s “Vision of Sir Launfal”—commonly read at school.
But when the echo sounds strong enough to revive the context of the source, the effect becomes subtler. In discussing Eliot’s deliberate allusions, our danger is to take them as referring to concrete persons or situations, particularly to conditions of life or heroic figures of the past, supposed to be offered as preferable to those of our own time. But it is always a poet’s rendering that Eliot retrieves for us, rather than a fact or deed in its nakedness.
So he produces not the murder of Agamemnon but the tragic resonance of that crime for Aeschylus; not the routines of Italian monasteries under Boniface VIII, but Dante’s idea of the contemplative life. Eliot had an ample supply of historical learning, and did not have to be told how much bleaker the circumstances of most men were in remote centuries than in the present. We are not asked to imitate the domestic manners of old heroes and saints but to discover ideal visions that can haunt us like theirs.
So also in finding out images, Eliot strove to be true to himself without celebrating his personality. He wanted images to be authentic, and therefore drawn from his own experience—if possible, from the deepest level of that experience. But they were also to belong to the archetypal sensibility of mankind, or at least be such as evoke strong, lingering associations in most men. He further preferred that they should have appeared in the work of earlier masters. Even for imagery as apparently original as the “Preludes” ‘
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands…
he turned to a passage in a French novel he admired.
Yet again, the images were to suggest the paradoxical nature of moral judgment—that what seems meaningless now may be drenched in meaning later, that what seems like renunciation at dusk may be self-fulfillment at noon. Putting the elements together, one gets highly charged ambiguities in reverberating speech.
So it is that winter may represent both life and death, in words that echo the Victorian James Thomson (Waste Land, I). November may be confused with spring, in an image borrowed from Campion (East Coker, II). Fire may mean lust or purgation or divine love, in terms used by Buddha, St. Augustine, or Dante.
For the poet himself, the authority of his predecessors validated the images and their meaning. For the listener who picks up the reverberations (whether or not he identifies the source), they enrich the force of suggestion. But at the same time, as an expression of humility, such images diminish the personality of the poet. He hovers over the work without manifestly entering it.
Working within these limits, the poet makes himself something of a martyr. In a sense, he exchanges his identity for his poetry. But he wins a substantial reward; and this is the powerful, tenacious quality of verse that stirs us with its right rhythms, its mysterious overtones, and depth of meaning—verse that belongs to us like our early memories.
Yet on the opposite side, ambition constantly affirmed its claims. In his critical prose Eliot exhibited from the start a magisterial self-confidence that barely glanced at opposition. His assurance and assertiveness demolished an old orthodoxy and established a new one. They also served, I believe, to fence off Eliot’s doubts about his poems.
But the style of the prose is not experimental. It was in verse that Eliot resolved to experiment, innovate, change. He wished to join his name to fundamental transformations of the technique of poetry: hence the variety in the small body of his oeuvre. Having mastered one set of devices, Eliot went restlessly on to another, bolder scheme—Prufrock, “Gerontion,” The Waste Land—till he reached the audacities of Ash Wednesday. Then he swerved on himself in a movement of conservation, from “Animula” to the five-part sequence of “Landscapes” (1933-1934). These embody the sense of place and the emotional trajectory of the final masterpiece, the Quartets, which came soon after.
We may estimate the height of Eliot’s ambition from his aspiring to work not only with new metrical patterns but also with fundamental aspects of language itself: disruptions of syntax and meaning that startle the reader into attention while forcing him to reconsider the purpose and value of literary experience: proper names intruding with no reference to identify them, until we question the significance of identity; verb tenses slyly melting into one another, till we ponder the reality of time; third persons becoming second and first, till we stumble in the relativity of perception.
Eliot practiced confusing the literal and figurative sense of the same word; he gave intangible subjects to concrete verbs, and let the verbs themselves look like participles in one clause while serving as predicates in another. It becomes clear to attentive listeners that speech can separate men from each other, as well as join them; and the mystery of a divine Logos begins to seem not so different from the mystery of communication between self-contained persons.
Meanwhile, from “Prufrock” on, the experiments in versification were seducing and startling those who followed them. I think we may distinguish persistent modes related to changing themes. For example, the old poignancy of evasive moments and missed opportunities kept returning on the reader in patterned lines, incantatory and subtly regular: “She has a bowl of lilacs in her room” (“Portrait of a Lady,” II); “Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair” (“La Figlia che Piange”); “He passed the stages of his age and youth” (Waste Land, IV).
The nostalgic moment recurs in passages of free verse, blank verse, and lyric stanzas: “Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown, / Lilac and brown hair” (Ash Wednesday, III). It triumphs in Eliot’s lament over the destruction wrought by the Second World War; and here the echoes of Tennyson are distinct. (The ash is dust settling after an air raid):
Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house—
The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.
The death of hope and despair, This is the death of air.
(Little Gidding, II)
Frail and transient are the things that feed such pathos—too fragile for a man to live by, although they tempt him to make the effort. As Eliot acknowledges and stands back from the temptation, he finds a second mode—irony, or his consciousness of the impotence of momentary yearnings to sustain high purpose. This consciousness may appear in the gentle mingling of pathos and irony, as in “Portrait of a Lady.” It may also slip into satire—both self-satire and the ridicule of social types like oneself; or it may sink further, into loathing of oneself and others, as humility becomes a bottomless sense of unworthiness.
Here is the aspect of Eliot touched by Laforgue. We hear the satiric voice restrained, in free verse that tightens at points into blank verse; we also hear it bitter or even raging, in rhymed quatrains. The risk of such satire is that readers can ignore the poet’s sense of degraded kinship with the figures he mocks; for his attitude is that of Baudelaire in “Les Sept vieillards.” If Eliot did not blame himself far more harshly, he would never stoop to injure someone like “Cousin Harriet.”
Deeper yet is the risk of the spiteful rants against “Apeneck Sweeney” and “Bleistein—Chicago Semite Viennese.” With these one must see that it is the squalor of the poet’s own mind, the shallowness of his own culture, the lusts of his own eye, the passivity of his own will that he excoriates in the caricatures. And precisely because he is enlightened as they are not—and still lingers in bestiality—he passes the heaviest judgment on himself.
There are alternative modes to nostalgia talgia and satire. One is the direct confrontation of graceless reality: the view of the world as infernal, or at least as antechamber to hell. This is precisely the view from which one first sought refuge in nostalgia, and the poet flinches as he looks. Sometimes Eliot could wring lyricism from this contemplation, in a sensational mode reminiscent of Baudelaire. Sometimes he could give a more chaste account, in a style one might call Dantesque: “Eructation of unhealthy souls / Into the faded air” (Burnt Norton, III).
He could also leap to the extremes of vision, the very high and very low, both informed by Dante. So we meet the last despair of nightmares like—
…the stair was dark,
Damp, jaggèd, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an agèd shark
(Ash Wednesday, III)
and we catch as well the glimpse of salvation—
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light
(Burnt Norton, I)
I have been suggesting a relation between Eliot’s styles and his responses to the human condition. I would also suggest that the satiric impulse died after he wrote The Waste Land because to separate himself from any class of humanity, if only in appearance, became in his eyes an immoral act. So also the impulse to embody the various modes in dramatic speakers faded after Ash Wednesday as the poet grew less covert about doctrine. The hidden springs of his poetic energy had always been didactic. With age he seemed to accept the fact and to let his unqualified voice be heard. Perhaps the writing of plays absorbed the imagination he had drawn on when assuming roles in verse.
The familiar images and motifs persist amazingly and in many forms, because the poet deliberately built his later work on the earlier. By a cunning irony the motto of East Coker, “In my beginning is my end,” reminds one not only of Mary Stuart but also of the Lady in Eliot’s “Portrait” saying, “But our beginnings never know our ends!” Thus the close of his career bows to the opening.
Yet the momentum of change continued. In technique the poet kept his instinct for matching form to meaning, but the experimental ambition dwindled. Instead, Eliot concentrated on refining and transforming his habitual modes. By gradations he arrived at the counterpoint of four modes in the Quartets.
At least as early as “Animula” (1929) one notices the accents of direct speech; for here, describing the gestures of infancy, the poet seems an unpretentious observer, acting no part:
Moving between the legs of tables and of chairs,
Rising or falling, grasping at kisses and toys,
Advancing boldly, sudden to take alarm,
Retreating to the corner of arm and knee….
As if to compensate for the lack of a mask, Eliot offered expressive variations of regular form. In “Animula” he has pentameter lines rhyming with the unpredictability of kittenish movements (like the fog in “Prufrock”), and quiet manipulations to match the shifts from an infant soul’s quickness (participles and verbs starting lines, accented nouns ending them) to the uneasy conflicts of an older child (obstructive verbs crowding the lines, and less emphatic endings)—then the corruptions of maturity (initial participles again, but resisting motion); and to close, the types of meaningless death (irregular lines, feminine endings, no rhyme).
Once more, in the poem “Virginia” (1933) the contrast between the still heat of the external landscape and the restlessness of a mind agitated by stubborn thoughts implies no mask but is a deeply personal contrast. Here when Eliot says, “Ever moving / Iron thoughts came with me / And go with me,” whatever the source of the words may be, they do not invite us to think of anyone but the poet. We are not required to know about the sick wife or the deed of separation; “iron thoughts” direct us to the anxious speaker as himself; and that is whom we hear in the Quartets, for whose design the series of “Landscapes” including “Virginia” may have been a model.
And it is in the Quartets (1935-1942) that the great change of direction after Ash Wednesday culminates. Here an unmasked poet gives voice to his reflections. He uses a fourfold mode of meditation derived from blank verse but freely expanding and contracting, turning inward and out on immediate thought and perception; rising to brief visions; interrupted by nostalgic memories; sinking to grim prospects of death in life.
Against the flow, the poet thrusts intensifications of the extreme modes: formal lyrics of purgatorial vision and prayer. And now he resolves the strain between humility and ambition by letting the theme of art emerge, and openly commenting on the labors of creation. In the brilliantly expressive versification of the last important poem he wrote (Little Gidding), the poet once more triumphs in paradox; for he reviews the disappointments of the creative imagination in a style of absolute mastery, and dramatizes his own personality in the voice of Dante.
To establish an independent point of view, I have tried to examine Eliot’s poetry without invoking his own critical principles. Excellent scholars have surveyed his career with the support of those principles and without dwelling on his private character. For my own approach I have leaned heavily on the work of F.O. Matthiessen, Helen Gardner, and Grover Smith.
Among recent books on the poet, two deal with the relation of his personal life to his published works; another deals with his long poems but excludes the bearing of biography. Certainly the most important of these books is Lyndall Gordon’s Eliot’s Early Years, a biographical study centered on the poet’s religious development up to the age of forty.
Miss Gordon was granted access to many unpublished manuscripts, and showed exemplary initiative in tracking down a mass of informative material neglected by her predecessors. She reveals much about Eliot’s spiritual development, especially the doubts and hesitations that lay behind his declarations of faith. She also provides a lively account of Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, based on her diaries, letters, and other primary sources. Incidentally, Miss Gordon supplies dozens of helpful facts and reproduces fascinating photographs of Eliot himself and of people who were close to him. In two valuable appendices she analyzes the influence of Joyce’s Ulysses on The Waste Land and surveys the stores of documents she drew on for her book.
Miss Gordon’s main argument is that religious preoccupations underlay Eliot’s poetry during the twelve years preceding the final draft of The Waste Land. Several of her strongest pieces of evidence are unpublished manuscripts. For our knowledge of them we are asked to rely on Miss Gordon’s descriptions and interpretations; and her case depends on the accuracy and sound insight that she has brought to bear on her sources. Unfortunately, if we are to judge by Miss Gordon’s handling of texts already published or easily seen, it would be imprudent for us to accept her accounts of those otherwise unknown.
To detail all the imperfections of a scholar to whom we are much indebted would be ungracious. I shall merely indicate the kinds of errors to be found in the book and cite a couple of examples in each class. Miss Gordon is often unreliable in her facts, quotations, and references. Quoting a four-line passage from “The Death of St. Narcissus”—a poem important for her argument—she chooses the text of an intermediate draft rather than the final copy, and misquotes two of the lines. Quoting a few sentences from the “Appendix” to Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society, she refers it to the “Postscript” and omits a word.
When Miss Gordon is accurate, she often fails to explain fairly the meaning of her data. Thus she mentions Eliot’s inscription on the flyleaf of a book he sent his mother, “with infinite love,” but omits the circumstances that make it interesting: the author’s name (Gamaliel Bradford), the year of the gift (1919), and the fact that Eliot had reviewed it. Discussing The Waste Land, Miss Gordon says that in the earliest sketches Eliot worked with “what he once called ‘some rude unknown psychic material.’ ” Actually, Eliot used the phrase in a lecture delivered thirty-one years after The Waste Land was published; and he intended it for the genesis of any piece of meditative poetry.
Miss Gordon’s interpretations of Eliot’s meaning are often eccentric. She paraphrases the “Song” that I have quoted above, as representing a young man regretfully escorting a “pale white woman.” She mentions another early poem “Humouresque” (misspelled) as revealing Eliot’s opinion of “the shoddiness of women’s minds,” although no woman is mentioned in it. Referring to the passage I have quoted from the poet on his family’s concern with right and wrong, Miss Gordon says Eliot observed that his parents “did not talk of good and evil but of what was ‘done’ and ‘not done.’ ”
Still worse, Miss Gordon regularly treats the poems as simple autobiography, disregarding the chance that Eliot might have used a mask or spoken ironically, or that he got material from another author. She is likely to take any mention by the poet of a husband and wife as a revelation about the Eliots themselves, any allusion to religion as an expression of Eliot’s religious principles, any comment on sexuality as reflecting the domestic life of the poet.
Referring to the scene I have quoted from the third “Prelude”—of a woman sitting on a bed—Miss Gordon describes it as set in a Boston suburb; she does not consider the possibility that the poem was written in Paris and the images derived from the novelist Charles-Louis Philippe. She confidently describes the obscure “Ode” of 1918 as “self-characterization” and ignores its dependence on Laforgue’s version of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda.
Consequently, Miss Gordon tends to simplify and cheapen Eliot’s character and talent. When she declares that Eliot “regarded lust as the most corrupting of all sins,” she endows him with a grotesquely shallow conception of evil.
If Miss Gordon had arranged her findings in an orderly way, supplying an accurate, chronological account of Eliot’s life, with brief reports on the literary works, she would have served scholarship well. Unfortunately, though she clusters the material in chronological divisions, she skips about unpredictably within or across the periods, makes disjointed remarks on miscellaneous events, and offers dubious analyses of hidden motives. The sad truth is that after providing herself, through a magnificent effort of research, with immense opportunities, Miss Gordon has used them badly.
James E. Miller’s book, T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land, is narrower and less helpful than Lyndall Gordon’s. Miller believes that Eliot enjoyed a homosexual friendship with a Frenchman named Jean Verdenal who was killed in the First World War. According to Miller, the poet expressed his grief over the loss of Verdenal in The Waste Land, and the memory of the loss persists in later poems. This line of interpretation goes back to an essay by John Peter first published in 1952.
The evidence for a romance between Eliot and Verdenal is sparse. When Eliot was in Paris during 1910-1911, he lived in the same pension as Verdenal, a medical student almost his own age, who wrote poetry. Verdenal died in the Dardanelles campaign, May 1915, and his body may have been lost at sea. In 1917 Eliot dedicated Prufrock and Other Observations to Verdenal. Eventually, he added to the dedication an epigraph from Dante expressing deep affection for the dead man.
I’m not sure there is any method of demonstrating that two young friends did not have homosexual relations sixty-five years ago, but Miller hardly demonstrates that they did. It is far from certain that Verdenal drowned, and it was seven years from the time of his death to the publication of The Waste Land.
If Eliot was in love with Verdenal, we must ask why he voluntarily returned to Harvard in 1911 merely (as he said) to study philosophy, or why he did not visit Europe again until 1914, when he planned to continue his study of philosophy not in Paris but in Marburg and Oxford.
We must also wonder why, when he remained in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between 1911 and 1914, Eliot became attached to Emily Hale, in a friendship which lasted until his second marriage, and which is documented by hundreds of letters now deposited in a university library.
Finally, we must wonder why Eliot-watchers have secured no other example of a homosexual liaison during the poet’s long life.
Turning to The Waste Land, we meet the theory that the poem makes sense if we read it as the grief-stricken reflections of a poet recoiling from a catastrophic marriage to live over the pain of losing his lover years before. To suggest the fragility of Miller’s reasoning, I shall examine one fundamental support. A section of the poem which seems crucial for Miller’s theory is Part IV, “Death by Water,” which in eight lines treats the death of a Phoenician sailor named Phlebas.
Although Miller has read the admirable essay on these lines by Grover Smith, he does not seem to have grasped Smith’s implications. Miller supposes that the drowned sailor alludes to Verdenal and he takes the tone of the passage to be affirmative and sympathetic, associated with a key experience of the speaker’s, which Miller calls “profoundly spiritual.” So he is puzzled by the similarity of “Death by Water” to a distasteful poem “Dirge,” only published posthumously, in which Eliot describes the decay of a drowned Jew’s corpse.
But in fact, a “Phoenician” for Eliot’s generation meant not a hero but a Semitic trader. The opening lines of “Death by Water” echo a passage in William Morris’s Life and Death of Jason (Book IV), in which the “bright-eyed Phoenician” is described as tempted by greed for possessions to risk his life in commerce until he “rolls beneath [the] waves” (lines 119-134).
Eliot would have been familiar with Frederic Leighton’s large painting, in the Royal Exchange, of Phoenicians trading with the early Britons. Here the Phoenicians look like caricatures of Jewish peddlers, and the Britons are depicted as uncorrupted pastoral types. It is with these associations that the poet appeals to both “Gentile [and] Jew” to consider the sailor’s fate.
As Grover Smith pointed out, not only can “Phlebas” mean penis in Greek, but the phrase “profit and loss” connects the sailor’s sexuality with commerce. It would have been a curious tribute for Eliot to celebrate his dead friend through such innuendoes.
Those who seek biographical allusions might reflect that sailing was the one sport which Eliot ever mastered, and that the fortuneteller in The Waste Land assigns the drowned sailor’s card to the poet himself. In “Prufrock”—written before Verdenal died—the speaker drowns metaphorically.
In general, Miller supports speculations about Eliot’s character by forcing interpretations upon the poems, and bolsters intepretations of the poems by invoking speculations about his character. The circularity is not persuasive; and readers who find this path through The Waste Land enticing will find a more subtle guide in the old, more tentative essay by John Peter.
Derek Traversi’s T.S. Eliot: The Longer Poems is a painstaking analysis of Four Quartets preceded by shorter but detailed analyses of The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday, which Traversi regards as leading up to the other poems. He refrains on principle from biographical comment, and similarly avoids didactic interpretations. He warns us not to assume that the speaker in the poems is Eliot himself, and not to raise the issue of the truth of the poet’s doctrines. Traversi would like us to respond to the poems “as poetry,” and this tends to mean Eliot’s concept of poetry as expounded in his criticism.
The result is a sober, cautious, unexciting series of analytical paraphrases staying close to the poet’s text and tending to disclose coherence of design in the verse. Sometimes the summaries are elegantly clear and pointed, as in a paragraph on the setting of the great “terza rima” section of Little Gidding, II. Sometimes the comprehensive analyses gather many relevant points into a neat order, as in the pages on the general structure of the Quartets. Rarely does one feel awakened by quite fresh insights.
The book moves too slowly for the understanding or appreciation it advances. Few new facts are produced; few cruxes of meaning are clarified. To illuminate some not very dark concepts, Traversi brings in long comparisons between Eliot and other writers, especially Proust and Keats. But these are neither lively nor penetrating, and only seem to delay the unfolding of the argument.
When he turns away from personality, history, and problems of doctrine, Traversi is naturally drawn to imply that internal consistency deserves praise. Yet the search for coherent, purposeful design can also mislead a critic. For example, Traversi 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. Here as so often, Eliot was seeking diversity. And besides, a coherent design is not necessarily a mark of literary value.
February 9, 1978