(for the text of the poem, click here for Bartleby.com - I simply cannot resist this choice out of many possibles; the poetical link between Eliot and Melville, between the man of religious faith and the nihilist)
Unlike the Metaphysical Poets, whom he adored and in part invented, and for whom death was merely an event and an amusing literary conceit, Eliot took Death as his personal theme: physical, spiritual, emotional, above all cultural death. His canvas is the landscape of stagnation and sterile decay; his art the lyrical embroidering of nothingness.
The old man, Gerontion, at point of death, has no self, no ghosts, no life, only nostalgia for other people’s memories, and regrets for a life unlived. His home is “decayed”, his landlord an object of xenophobic disdain, his view of himself self-pitying. Why on earth, then, do we bother to read him? This man who can do no more than wallow in his own mire, bleak of vision, littering gloom and despondency with each new poem that he scatters to the winds. Where is the transcendence? Where is the creation? Unable to make his own poetic formulations, he is reduced to evoking other poets’ visions - would we not gain more if we cut out the middleman and read the originals ourselves?
And if he was neither at the hot gates nor fought in the warm rain, if all he did was lead a married life in Bloomsbury - that splendidly opulent Regency bohemia - and work in a bank (respectably well-paid, conventionally secure), then by what rights does he claim despair for his territory, in 1920 of all years? How dare he, a rich American tourist, come to war-ravaged Europe and speak to us of his suburban anxieties, his provincial angst; how dare he rape and pillage our culture to satisfy his literary concupiscence? What does he know about the estaminets of Antwerp, let alone the depravities of May along the Somme? And where, where, are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish?
Behind Cezanne’s apples we feel the powerful impulse of a soul desperately striving to reconcile its anxieties, and thereby overcome them; behind Kafka’s immense paranoia we hear the voice of one who is lost in the wilderness, desperately seeking Pisgah; behind Camus’ tortured musings upon the Absurd we recognise the extraordinary dignification of Man through his refusal to collaborate in his own victimhood; behind Beckett’s minimalist silence we take comfort in laughter and companionship and hope-however-false. But behind Eliot’s despondency - only the nothingness, planted out with sick flowers. In these years when Owen, Graves, Sassoon and Rosenberg were publishing their visions of the trenches - how dare Eliot perform these ceremonies of personal immolation, how dare he put on the stolen crown of thorns, and offer no transcendence?
Then why do I love his poetry; why has it endured, and will continue to endure?
Imagine a young man, of romantic sensibility, lyrical gift and melancholy disposition, nurtured on “the glory that was European culture”, yet himself brought up in quite another world: the exiled kingdom of the European Puritan who had denounced that culture as sin and dreamed of creating a new world on a distant continent. Philistine and Barbarian, that dream had failed, the god of the Puritan had turned out to be Mammon, and in place of sinful culture, the cult of fantasy with its child-priests and priestesses rose up. For he-who-would-be-Keats, a journey across the ocean to reclaim his roots was the only option. But Keats’ world had been ravaged in the trenches of the Great War, and now the exiles too were returning, not to reclaim their kingdom, but to evangelise their new order. To Eliot, the past he craved was dead, the future he feared and had tried to flee was imminent. America had followed him to Europe. How, then, to inhabit the present?
Death becomes the symbol of Eliot’s impasse; he poses the essential questions of every thinking artist in the twentieth century; his nostalgia, his lack of transcendence, his inability to posit a creative response, are precisely the problems his art espouses. If we have no solutions, at least we can pose the questions in the most meaningful way, at least we can go on asking, for perhaps our very resilience in continuing to ask will one day lead us back towards a world in which an answer may be tenable. Eliot continuously evokes the past, precisely to ensure that it does not die. Poetry has become a rearguard action against the forces of unculture; by embroidering the nothingness, it ceases to be nothingness. And in this sense his poetry is heroic; the poet offers himself as a martyr, a sacrificial victim, in the underground resistance movement against the cultural Ubermensch. Eliot’s poetry is magnificent in the same way as Michelangelo’s anatomical studies of ten-year corpses. If the world contains only death, is it not an achievement indeed to have contrived to make death beautiful? And if we are indeed “swaddled in darkness”, is there not some hope at least in awaiting “the juvescence of the year” when the soul of Death will be revivified and the Messianic Answer may be born?
Kazantzakis has written: “The purpose of life is to struggle to convert as much matter as possible into action, thought and beauty, to climb upwards with agony.” Kazantzakis believed that matter was dynamic, kinetic; Eliot perceived it as inert, or at best atrophied, moribund. The purpose, and the agony, remain the same.
Where Eliot fails - where Pound was so right to prune him so remorselessly - is in the long rigmaroles of his metaphysical speculation and pseudo-philosophical musings. His rhythms have the languor of a fin-de-siècle chamber orchestra, and work their lassitude upon the reader in a minor key, carefully staccatoed to prevent inattention: unlike Proust, we cannot drift asleep as we float on the long, slow stream of his sentences. His images, crystal clear, are placed with assiduous care one upon the next with the phlegmatic diligence of a stonemason: haunting enigmas, potent evocations, each stone individually quarried, cut, dressed, mortared into place. But then the essays mar the work, as if the self-doubt of the artist - truly Beckettian in the case of Gerontion - his mistrust of the canvas, has induced him to write a gloss upon each work and hang that, too, upon the gallery wall. Eliot is at his best when he gives us his Torah without his Talmud - should I better say, his Gospel without his Aquinas? - the bare emptiness which is the face of God, needless of commentary.
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