The Power of T.S. Eliot
October 3, 1989
Oct 3, 1989
17 Min read time
Seamus Heaney on the power of T.S. Eliot
As a schoolboy in a Catholic boarding school in Derry, I was daunted by T. S. Eliot and all that he stood for. Nevertheless, when an aunt of mine offered to buy a couple of books for me, I requested his Collected Poems. Name and date—1955—were duly inscribed, so I was fifteen or sixteen years of age when the dark blue, linen-bound volume came into my possession: the British edition of Collected Poems 1909-1935, the one that ended with “Burnt Norton” and had by then been reprinted fifteen times. It arrived in a food-parcel from home, and it had an air of contraband about it, because the only reading matter we were permitted, I am shocked to recollect, was what the sparsely stocked college library held, or what our course syllabi required. So there I was in 1955 with my forbidden book in hand, with a literary reach that exceeded my grasp, alone with the words on the page.
For a long time that book represented to me my distance from the mystery of Eliot’s poetry and unfittedness—as reader or writer—for the vocation it represented. Over the years I could experience in its presence the onset of a lump in the throat and a tightening of the diaphragm, symptoms which until then had only affected me in math class. Later, during my first year at Queen’s University, when I read in E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End an account of the character called Leonard Bast as somebody doomed forever to be familiar with the outsides of books, my identification was not with the privileged narrative voice but with Bast himself, pathetic scrambler on the edge of literacy.
Do I exaggerate? Maybe. Maybe not. The fact that I would not then have been able to put the matter in exactly these terms does not mean that the inarticulate ache towards knowing, towards adequacy, towards fitting oneself out as a reader of modern poetry, did not exist. It did exist and ached all the more for being unrequired, because one did not need to know any literary thing in particular in the 1950s to know that Eliot was the way, the truth, and the light, and that until one had found him one had not entered the kingdom of poetry.
Even Eliot’s name was a buzzword for obscurity, and the word obscurity was in turn suggestive of modern poetry, a term in those days as compelling as the terms simony and paralysis were for the young boy in Joyce’s story “The Sisters.” For the moment, however, the whole burden of this mystery was confined in four pages of the school poetry anthology, a bilious green compendium entitled The Pageant of English Verse. About one quarter of the poems in this book were set each year as part of the official syllabus for the Northern Ireland Senior Certificate of Education, and in our year the syllabus included “The Hollow Men” and “Journey of the Magi.” It was the first of these that made the truly off impression. It was impossible not to be affected by it, yet it is still impossible to say exactly what the effect was:
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And the voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star
What happened as I read was the equivalent of what happens in an otherwise warm and well-wrapped body once a cold wind gets at the ankles. A shiver that fleetingly registered itself as more pertinent and more acutely pleasurable than the prevailing warmth. A cheese-wire exactness that revealed to you the cheesy nature of your own standards and expectations. But, of course, we were not encouraged to talk like that in English class, and anyhow, like the girl in The Importance of Being Earnest who was pleased to say she had never seen a spade, I had not then ever seen a cheese wire.
All this persuades me that what is to be learned from Eliot is the double-edged nature of poetry reality: first encountered as a strange fact of culture, poetry is internalized over the years until it becomes, as they say, second nature. Poetry that was originally beyond you, generating the need to understand and overcome its strangeness, becomes in the end a familiar path within you, along which your imagination opens pleasurably backwards towards an origin and a seclusion. Your last state is therefore a thousand times better than your first, for the experience of poetry is one that truly deepens and fortifies itself with reenactment.
It was from the rag-and-bone shop of Eliot’s middle-aging heart that all his lyric ladders started.
I now know, for example, that I love the lines quoted above because of the pitch of their music, their nerve-end tremulousness, their treble back-echo in the helix of the ear. Even so, I cannot with my voice make the physical sound that would be the equivalent of what I hear on my inner ear; and the ability to acknowledge that very knowledge, the confidence to affirm that there is a reality to poetry that is unspeakable and for that very reason all the more piercing, that ability and that confidence are largely based upon a reading of Eliot.
“The Hollow Men” was read as part of the curriculum. “Ash Wednesday,” however, was originally read as part of my self-improving venture with Collected Poems, and the unlikely, oneiric conditions prevailing in that particular poem bewildered me entirely. Those leopards and bones and all that violet and violet scared me off, made me feel small and embarrassed. I wanted to call on the Mother of Readers to have mercy on me, to come quick, make sense of it, give me the pacifier of a paraphrasable meaning and a recognizable, firmed-up setting:
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
My panic in the face of these lovely lines was not just schoolboy panic. It descended again in my late twenties when I had to lecture on “Ash Wednesday” as part of a course for undergraduates at Queen’s University, Belfast. I had no access to the only reliable source for such teaching, namely, the experience of having felt the poem come home, memorably and irrefutably, so the lecture was one of the most unnerving forty-five minutes of my life. I scrambled around beforehand, snatching at F. O. Matthiessen’s The Achievement of T. S. Eliot, and George Williamson’s A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot, and D. E. S. Maxwell’s The Art of T. S. Eliot. But whatever they had to say in their commentaries had nothing to fall upon, or to combine with, on the ground of my reader’s mind. “Ash Wednesday” never quite became a gestalt. Nowadays, I talk about it more freely because I am not as shy of the subject as I then was: purgation, conversion, the embrace of an air thoroughly thin and dry, joy in a vision as arbitrary and disjunct from the usual as the vision of the leopards and lady in a white gown—all this offers itself far more comprehensively and persuasively to someone in his late forties than to someone in his late twenties.
The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying . . .
Those qualities that created resistance in the first place now seem to meet the valuable things about this work. The sense that the poem stood like a geometry in an absence was what caused my original bewilderment. I sensed myself like a gross intrusion, all corporeality and blunder in the realm of grace and translucence, and this unnerved me. Nowadays, however, what gratifies me most is this very feeling of being privy to an atmosphere so chastely invented, so boldly and unpredictably written. Things like bones and leopards—which pop into the scene without preparation or explanation and which therefore discombobulated me at first—these things I now accept not as the poet’s mystifying whim but as his gift and visitation. They are not what I at first mistakenly thought them: constituent parts of some erudite code available to initiates. Nor are they intended to be counters for a cannily secluded meaning. Rather, they arose airily in the poet’s composing mind and reproduced themselves deliciously, with a playfulness and self-surprising completedness.
Of course, it is true that a reading of the Earthly Paradise cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio prepares one for the rarefied air of Eliot’s scene, just as some familiarity with Dante will take from the unexpectedness of the leopards that start up in the very first line of Section II of “Ash Wednesday.” Yet it is wrong to see these things simply as references to Dante. They are not hostages taken from the Divine Comedy and held by Eliot’s art in the ascetic compound of his poem. They actually sprang up in the pure mind of the twentieth-century poet and their in-placeness does not derive from their having a meaning transplanted from the iconography of the medieval one. It is true, of course, that Eliot’s pure mind was greatly formed by the contemplation of Dante, and Eliot’s dream processes fed upon the phantasmagoria of the Divine Comedy constantly, so the matter of Dante’s poem was present to him, and Dante had thereby become second nature to him. Dante, in fact, belonged in the rag-and-bone shop of Eliot’s middle-aging heart, and it was from that sad organ, as we are more and more realizing, that all his lyric ladders started.
Needless to say, thoughts like these were far in the future for that student in St. Columb’s College, clutching his anthology and worrying about the exams. It was a few years later, at Queen’s University, that a more deliberate engagement with Eliot’s work began. There I packed myself with commentaries and in particular advanced upon The Waste Land with what help I could muster in the library, I even read chunks of Jesse L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. I began to hear the music and to attune myself, but chiefly I obeyed the directives of the commentaries and got prepared to show myself informed. Yet perhaps the most lasting influence from this time was Eliot’s prose, all assembled and digested by John Hayward in a little purple-colored Penguin book, the particular tint of purple being appropriately reminiscent of a confessor’s stole. There I read and re-read “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” essays on “The Metaphysical Poets,” on Milton, on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. On the music of poetry. On why Hamlet doesn’t make it as a play, as an objective correlative. But more important of all, perhaps, was a definition of the faculty that he called “the auditory imagination.” This was “the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to an origin and bringing something back . . . fusing the most ancient and civilized mentalities.”
Eliot’s revelation of his susceptibility to poetry lines, the physicality of his ear as well as the fastidiousness of its discriminations, his example of a poet’s intelligence exercising itself in the activity of listening, all of this seemed to excuse my own temperamental incapacity for paraphrase and my disinclination to engage a poem’s argument and conceptual progress. Instead, it confirmed a natural inclination to make myself an echo chamber for the poem’s sounds. I was encouraged to seek for the contour of a meaning within the pattern of a rhythm. In the “Death by Water” section of The Waste Land, for example, I began to construe from its undulant cadences and dissolvings and reinings-in a mimetic principle which matched or perhaps even overwhelmed any possible meaning that might be derived from the story of Phlebas’s fate.
At this stage of readiness to listen, I was also lucky enough to hear Eliot’s poetry read aloud by the actor Robert Speaight. I had made an introductory foray into Four Quartets but was finding it difficult to retain any impression unified and whole in my mind. The bigness of the structure, the opacity of the thought, the complexity of the organization of these poems held you at bay; yet while they daunted you, they promised a kind of wisdom—and it was at this tentative stage that I heard the whole thing read aloud. That experience taught me, in the words of the poem, “to sit still.” To sit, in fact, all through an afternoon in Belfast, in an upstairs flat, with a couple of graduate students in biochemistry, people with a less professional anxiety about understanding the poetry than I had, since in their unprofessional but rewarding way they still assumed that mystification was par for the course in modern poetry.
What I heard made sense. In the opening lines of “Burnt Norton,” for example, the footfall of the word “time” echoes and repeats in a way that is hypnotic when read aloud, yet can be perplexing when sight-read for its meaning only. Similarly, the interweaving and repetition of the words “present,” “past,” and “future” goes round and round, like a linked dance through the ear. Things going forward meet each other coming back. Even the word “echo” meets itself on the rebound. The effect is one of a turning and a stillness. Neither from nor towards. At the still point of the turning world:
Time present and time pass
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush?
By its orchestration of theme and phrase, paraphrase and reprise, its premonitions of the end recoiling into the beginning, this passage is typical of the poetic procedure of Four Quartets as a whole. This procedure is available through a silent reading, of course, since (to quote again from Eliot’s own definition of “auditory imagination”) it operates below the level of sense; but it operates much more potently when the poem is spoken aloud. Gradually, therefore, I began in the early sixties to permit myself to take pleasure in the basement life of Eliot’s ear.
Eliot was one whose note was uniquely beyond the common scale, a thin pure signal that had the capacity to probe in the universe of spirit as far as Pluto.
These were also years when I was trying to make a start as a poet, and searching for the charge that sets writing energy flowing in a hitherto unwriting system. Yet much as I was learning from Eliot about the right way to listen, he could not be the starter-offer of poetry for me. He was more a kind of literary superego than a generator of the poetic libido, and in order for the libidinous lyric voice to get on with its initiations, it had to escape from his overseeing presence. So I turned towards more familiar, more engageable writers like Patrick Kavanagh, R. S. Thomas, Ted Hughes, John Montague, Norman MacCaig. All of a sudden I was making up for not having read contemporary Irish, Scottish, and English poetry; and that way, I got excited and got started.
Then I came upon C. K. Stead’s book, The New Poetic, with its revelation of Eliot as a poet who trusted the “dark embryo” of unconscious energy. Stead revealed Eliot as a much more intuitive kind of writer than the commentaries had allowed one to believe. It is not that this lessened one’s awareness of the strictness of his mind or the scrupulousness of his withholdings. Eliot was still a rara avis, one whose note was uniquely beyond the common scale, a thin pure signal that might not wash genially across the earthy reaches of one’s nature but had the capacity to probe in the universe of spirit as far as Pluto. Yet one could grant this inimitable status to his poems and still recognize the process that produced them as the usual, uncertain, hopeful, needy, half self-surrendering, half self-priming process that all the rest of us also experienced.
What one learns ultimately from Eliot is that the activity of poetry is solitary and, if one is to rejoice in it, one has to construct something upon which to rejoice. One learns that at the desk every poet faces the same kind of task, that there is no secret that can be imparted, only resources of one’s own that are to be mustered, or not, as the case may be. Many of the things Eliot says about poetic composition are fortifying because they are so authoritatively unconsoling.
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
If Eliot did not help me to write, he did help me to learn what it means to read. The experience of his poetry is an unusually pure one. You begin and end with the words alone—which is admittedly always the case, but often in the work of other poets the readers can find respites and alibis. With Frost and Yeats or Hardy there is a corroborative relation between a landscape and a sensibility. The words on the page can function in a way that is supplementary to their primary artistic function: they can have a window effect and open the blinds of language on to subjects and places before or behind the words. I would suggest, however, that this kind of mutual help does not exist—and is not intended to exist—between the words of Eliot’s poetry and the world that gave rise to them. When I visited Burnt Norton, for example, I did indeed find a rose garden and a dry concrete pool; but I found this very documentary congruence between poem and place oddly disappointing. I realized that I did not really want a landscape to materialize as I had long since internalized a soundscape. And I had a vivid lesson in how truly Eliot is a child of the French symbolists.
Perhaps the final thing to be learned is this: in the realm of poetry, as in the realm of consciousness, there is no end to the possible learnings that can take place. Nothing is final, the most gratifying discovery is fleeting, the path of positive achievement leads directly to the via negativa. Eliot forfeited his expressionist intensity when he renounced the lyric for philosophic song. It may even be truer to say that the lyric renounced Eliot. But in accepting the consequences of renunciation with such self-knowledge and in proceeding with such strictness of intent, he proved a truth that we want to believe not perhaps about all poetry, but about those who are the necessary ones. He showed how poetic vocation entails the disciplining of a habit of expression until it becomes fundamental to the whole conduct of a life.
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October 03, 1989
17 Min read time