What Eliot Means to Me

Poetry Friday: The Great Year, Shakespeare, Eliot, Blake, Poems on Work & Poems on Mythology Human Voices Wake Us

Earlier this year, I thought it was possible to supplement this podcast with one weekly (and shorter) additional reading over at Substack; for many reasons, that ambition proved impossible to maintain. Since an illness has kept me from recording a new episode this week, I thought it worthwhile collecting those six weeks of shorter readings here: 3 Poems from my long work-in-progress, The Great Year: “The Autumn Village,” “I was in Iceland centuries ago, ” “Smith Looks Up the Long Road” Two readings from Shakespeare: “Of comfort no man speak” (Richard II, act II scene 2), “All the world’s a stage” (As You Like It, act II scene 7) 3 Poems on Work: Philip Levine (1928-2015): “Among Children,” Elma Mitchell (1919-2000), “Thoughts After Ruskin," Mary Robinson (1758-1800), “A London Summer Morning” Favorites from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets Three Poets & Mythology: Eavan Boland (1944-2020), “The Making of an Irish Goddess," Michael Longley (b. 1939) “The Butchers," Robert Pinsky (b. 1940), “The Figured Wheel” Blake & His Animals: Three passages from William Blake (1757-1827): one from Visions of the Daughters of Albion and the last two from Milton. I hope that plucking these three passages from his longer work can suggest how varied—not just how prophetic and opaque, but simply beautiful—so much of his poetry can be. Don’t forget to support Human Voices Wake Us on Substack, where you can also get our newsletter and other extras. You can also support the podcast by ordering any of my books: Notes from the Grid, To the House of the Sun, The Lonely Young & the Lonely Old, and Bone Antler Stone. Any comments, or suggestions for readings I should make in later episodes, can be emailed to humanvoiceswakeus1@gmail.com. — Send in a voice message: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/humanvoiceswakeus/message Support this podcast: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/humanvoiceswakeus/support
  1. Poetry Friday: The Great Year, Shakespeare, Eliot, Blake, Poems on Work & Poems on Mythology
  2. Caravaggio's Severed Heads / Herodotus Among the Scythians / Ian McKellen on Macbeth
  3. Raising a Musical Prodigy / God's Response to Job
  4. Seamus Heaney: 10 Essential Poems
  5. Psalm 23 / Mary, Queen of Scots is Executed / 3 Poems by Mary Oliver

(for Eliot’s essay “What Dante Means to Me,” go here)

Late in life, T. S. Eliot hoped the essays of his that would last would be those “appreciations of individual authors,” saying he had written best “about writers who have influenced my own poetry.”[1]

He had come a long way from the essays written in his youth, essays famously espousing “impersonality” and the rest. Later, he dismissed these as expressions of the “dogmatism of youth,” deriding both youthful certainty and the reading public’s love of a good fight: “we are enthusiastic, or indignant. And readers, even mature readers, are quite attracted to a writer who is quite sure of himself.”[2] (And, of course, writers are also attracted to appearing so sure themselves)

As we are swamped nowadays with merely negative criticism (indeed, in merely enthusiastic indignation), I find myself agreeing with him, both in that I would rather read about those artists or ideas that people truly love, and that I would rather write about those who have influenced me.

Life is short enough, and it seems a better gift to posterity (or just for a stranger reading this a few days from now) to talk about not what I hate and want to tear down, but what I love and find most meaningful. Eliot remains both of these.

Writing about that great Italian poet, Eliot said, “[T]he kind of debt that I owe to Dante is the kind which goes on accumulating…. [it] is a lifetime’s task, because at every stage of maturing–and that should be one’s whole life–you are able to understand them better.” [3]

This is how I feel about Eliot–but the reasons for this feeling are entirely personal. For many writers, the discovery in youth of one’s first literary heroes can sometimes lead to the dogmatic view that they should be so important for everyone. However, the more I come back to Eliot, the more I discover and rediscover him, the more I continue my dialogue with him, the more I see how personal my reactions to him have been.

He has even been loosed from the “Modernist” movement I so long associated him with. A recent and wonderful BBC documentary about Eliot suggests that Modernism actually began with the third line of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Aflred Prufrock” (where the evening spread out against the sky is compared to “a patient etherised upon a table”). Years ago, such a statement would have fired and inspired me–and it may do the job of inspiring young writers now. But Eliot’s importance for me has nothing to do with Modernism, or other writers he knew, or anything of the sort. It’s something else–not something better, just something different.

For reasons I can’t decipher, I latched onto him and not a handful of other authors I was being introduced to at the time, so that in the sixteen years since I first truly read him, my interests since then (in religion, literature, and history) have become a kind of chicken-and-egg proposition–was this or that begun with my exposure to Eliot, or just informed and helped along with my exposure to Eliot?

It’s all tangled. Like few other authors and poems and essays, I am wrapped in Eliot’s poetry and life story, and his poetry is wrapped in all that I am.

well-read Collected PoemsII.
In my early teens, I found Eliot in the novels of Stephen King (his The Waste Lands most of all), and in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (nobody recites “Prufrock” like Dennis Hopper, or “The Hollow Men” like Marlon Brando), and I’m sure elsewhere, but it wasn’t until my senior year in high school that my English class, thanks to the wisdom of our teacher, was shown a wonderful documentary about him, from the Voices & Visions series:

Watching this documentary again, I realized how lucky I was for that to have been my introduction to Eliot. Only vaguely chronological, it actually begins and ends with Eliot’s readings from Four Quartets, and while in between we are given the skim over of his life, it’s not the narrative that matters, so much as the flashes, the fragments: the anecdotes of a young man from St. Louis going to Harvard, spending some of his nervous and virginal and self-conscious youth in Paris, and ending up in London and marrying his first wife.

It was about a young man from America who became an old and venerated man in England, an England both urban and rural, the scenes filmed in his ancestral village of East Coker eliciting exactly the kind of nostalgia I’ve always felt for that country, for both the age of its cities and the beauty of its landscapes, beauty beyond any sense of age or time.

Besides all this, the scholars and talking-heads shown in the program speak as if to a group of Eliot experts, alluding to Eliot’s allusions and references as if everybody knows about them. This instilled in me not a pompous sense of wanting to be in on the mystery of just another clique, but of moving into a world whose of true meaning, a world worth experiencing.

That a young man had begun his life in America and begun his poetic career around the same age I was as I watched this film, somehow gave me permission to do something similar, to at least start. Much of what Eliot says about two French poets I can safely say about him, and how he taught me to speak:

Of Jules Laforgue, for instance, I can say that he was the first to teach me how to speak, to teach me the poetic possibilities of my own idiom and speech. […] I think that from Baudelaire I learned first, a precedent for the poetical possibilities, never developed by any poet writing in my own language, of the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis, of the possibility of the fusion between the sordidly realistic and the phantasmagoric, the possibility of the juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact and the fantastic. From him, as from Laforgue, I learned that the sort of material I had, the sort of experience that an adolescent had had, in an industrial city in America, could be the material for poetry; and that the source of new poetry might be found in what had been regarded hitherto as the impossible, the sterile, the intractably unpoetic. That, in fact, the business of the poet was to make poetry out of the unpoetical; that the poet, in fact, was committed by his profession to turn the unpoetical into poetry.[4]

Undoubtedly this was my initial attraction to him, the urban Eliot of the “Preludes.” For while the language of Shakespeare (and even on up to Dickens) was undeniably beautiful, Eliot’s was the first language I encountered that was both beautiful but composed of sentences I could hear myself speaking naturally. And while I mostly grew up in rural Ohio, such a scene as this made perfect sense:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.

What also helped was that this, and this alone, could constitute poetry. A scene, a suggestion–indeed, a prelude. Always impressed (still impressed!) by larger visions, it was something for me to immediately discover, beyond the churchyards and the flowering pronouncements of what we were shown of the Romantics, and beyond the full-scale tragedies of Shakespeare and the impenetrability of the Metaphysical poets, that a simple scene, and one I felt I knew very well, could be a poem. And it need not rhyme, either, at least consistently–I have always loved Eliot’s sudden rhymes.

Yet also in the “Preludes” were these closing lines, lines which prepared me for The Waste Land, and eventually the Four Quartets–I mean the easy intermingling of the obviously urban with the mysterious, the visionary, the historical, even the religious:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

As a young man, I also connected to the sexual and social nervousness bound up in “Prufrock.” For while Eliot’s drawing room anxieties in Harvard and environs were far removed from my own wandering of high school football games on Fridays, or of sitting with friends in all-night diners near the highway, Prufrock’s dilemma spoke immediately: the terror of attempting to communicate with a woman and being bluntly rebuffed not with cruel laughter, but with indifference, the result merely of misunderstanding; the certainty of feeling oneself to be a sensitive person, and a poet, whose levels of articulation are so great they demand comparison with the words of a man risen from the dead–but alas, words just shrugged off:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”–
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

But almost immediately, there was an unfamiliar Eliot, one that hinted at an unfamiliar version of myself, waiting to be found. This is the great worth of art, for me: that Eliot was, on the one hand, able to appear recognizable to me in some ways, and in others entirely unknown–but in that unknown, he was able to activate within me interests and aspirations I had always held, but had not found a way to seek out, never yet found a guide for, never been able to articulate.

This was the Eliot of religion and anthropology and classical learning, the Eliot who quoted the Upanishads and learned Sanskrit and considered becoming a Buddhist and later became an Anglo-Catholic, the Eliot who knew his Dante and Virgil and Ovid and medieval Arthurian Romances. It was, to be specific, a few lines from The Waste Land, lines that spoke to nothing in my experience but which pointed to my future. It was these lines, not any from “Prufrock” or “Preludes,” that I copied out by hand, copied out as if I had written them myself:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

battered stained well-read & pocketed Waste LandIII.
But back to that first hour with Eliot in the documentary–even there, already, it wasn’t the urban scenes from The Waste Land that grabbed me the most, or even the continuing references to the disastrous nature of romantic love, but his reading of its closing lines, and the sudden appearance of those words (multilingual, nursery-rhymed, tragic, liturgic) superimposed over a barren landscape shown onscreen: (beginning right at the 40:00 mark)

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon–O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

Eliot has always been tagged a “difficult” poet, but he never appeared this way to me, even at seventeen and seeing the above words for the first time and not knowing what half of them meant. A “difficult” writer for me is one whose initial meaning or method is hard to discern, but whose meaning and method, I gather by instinct (again, a personal reaction not requiring argument), won’t be worth the trouble. With few exceptions, Eliot has always been worth the effort, and has never been trouble.

His ability to pull from Elizabethan tragedy, Hindu scripture, all of English poetry, Arthurian romances, philosophy, popular music, and the rest, seems for many to be an excuse for scholarship and source-hunting; yet for me these aren’t signs of great learning or education, but simply of great feeling, and the great use that Eliot was able to put his feelings to, so that something as useful as B. C. Southam’s Guide to the Selected Poems is wonderful primarily for the light it shines on how vast a space Eliot was able to feel, drawing on the emotions of all of history to illuminate his own contemporary time, in the process making his own contemporary moment as timeless as the works he drew from.

Finally, the filmmakers decided to end their documentary with Eliot’s reading of the closing lines of Four Quartets, while onscreen are four musicians playing Beethoven’s String Quartet #15, op. 132, specifically an excerpt from the long molto adagio/andante (here at about 49:30:)

And here the entire movement:

This was a piece of music Eliot himself said he’d played over and over while writing the Quartets, and it is one I’m playing over and over while writing this small essay, and it has remained one of my favorite pieces of music ever since.

It is hard not to associate its nostalgic and mournful bittersweetness to my own transition from youth to adulthood, and when my wife and I were able to see this quartet performed live at the Metropolitan Museum in 2008, I had the thought that if Eliot did nothing else, his introduction of this Beethoven quartet to me, at that time in my life, was been more than enough.

battered QuartetsIV.
Many of these reflections came later. But from the first viewing of the documentary (which I asked my teacher to borrow to watch again), I was hooked. I ordered his Collected Poems 1909-1962 soon after (reading “The Hollow Men” aloud to my mother on the way home from the mall), as well as a small yellow paperback edition of The Waste Land (the seventy-fifth anniversary edition with a long closing essay by Christopher Ricks–an essay I reread as much as the poem, an essay which was itself my introduction to just the kind of scholarship I love). I still remember sitting with the latter in a Perkins restaurant in Painesville, Ohio, and there the yellow cover was closer to gold, the entire thing feeling important and treasured already, and (despite its worldwide fame) some kind of secret only I knew of.

When I entered college a few months later and went through orientation, it’s not the orientation I remember (or any of the places I went to in the next few years where I had a moment to read), but that yellow paperback in my pocket, and how I plucked it out of my coat every moment I could. Later, after Four Quartets became the pinnacle of what poetry is for me, it was a standalone edition of the Quartets that I always carried with me.

There are innumerable lines from the Quartets that constantly fill me, and they all swim together and gather up what I’ve written about above: the familiar and the unfamiliar, the experiences of youth and old age, the urban and rural, the religious and visionary, the limitations of words but the value of trying, the meditative and philosophical and prayerful.

Here is Eliot reading the entire thing:

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.                              (Burnt Norton)

Eliot writes about writing quite a bit in Four Quartets, mostly about the failure of writing (“The poetry does not matter”); he also writes about music and timelessness–and these passage drew me to him immediately, and I recognized my own experience in his words. There is also the matter of old age, and the cliché that experience and old age somehow equal wisdom; or, that “writing poetry” suggests some kind of wisdom, too. These are all things that Eliot refutes. If the “poetry does not matter,” then what does? 

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.                                 (Burnt Norton)

    That was a way of putting it–not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.                                      (East Coker)

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.                                          (Little Gidding)

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.              (East Coker)

If the poetry does not matter, then the following suggests what does matter. I cannot count the number of times I have read these lines in moments of personal crisis, and what they have meant to me. Aside from overt religious scripture–something Hindu or Egyptian or Norse–these lines are akin to me to the twenty-third psalm. The most vivid encounter with them, appropriately enough, came after midnight at a Denny’s in northeast Ohio, while sitting alone at the counter. Feeling lonesome for friendship of every kind (romantic most of all, I’m sure), I was also surrounded by the late-night crowd of people my own age, loud and together and enjoying themselves. This was usually when my vocation as a writer separated me from everyone else–who among these other people in their early twenties knew about Eliot at all, etc.? Usually, to be clear, I was at a place like Denny’s with my friends–yet this night I wasn’t, and my paperback copy of the Quartets was with me, and I read these lines, and they taught me a great deal, and still do:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away–
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing–
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. (East Coker)

Part of what the above lines taught me is contained in the following, especially the doubts about the value of writing, but most of all the lines “Love is most nearly itself/When here and now cease to matter,” which has remained a kind of subconscious pole-star when reflecting on those moments that have meant the most to me, and reflecting on the general ways of modern life, where the “here and now” seem to be all that matter:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years–
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. 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 hope
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.

    Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.        (East Coker)

But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint–
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.     (The Dry Salvages)

              If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.                   (Little Gidding)

It is hard to say much about these last pages of the Quartets, except that they are in my blood, and as poetry should, they rise up in me at every moment they are needed, and reform and bring together so much that I have felt and experienced:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.                                  (Little Gidding)

my Quartets notebook, with poem & comments beside

Eliot, then, represents a handful of firsts for me: the first Collected poems I ever bought, the first letters of a poet, the first biography. And while there are other poets who sometimes strike me as hard as he does (Whitman, Stevens, Jeffers, Dante, the anonymous authors of various myths, from Ireland to India), no one fills me with as much affection as Eliot. He was there, as it were, in my beginning. Even when I first moved away from home, and found myself in a small apartment in Macon, Georgia, I didn’t feel as if I’d truly “begun” this new phase in my life until I found, with nearly breathless joy, a VHS copy of that Voices and Visions documentary on Eliot at the library, and watched it for the first time in six years.

On a recent trip to London, where my wife and I were able to find two of his early London addresses, as well as the church where he was baptized in 1927 and where he worshiped for the rest of his life, I realized that the merely-urban nature of his poetry, and the merely social and sexual anxieties of “Prufrock” and other no longer draw me at all, and that what is left now is the entirety of the Quartets, some of The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday, and then only a personal impression, only a series of fragments, only a series of anecdotes, a feeling from what I know of his biography, and how that biography is tangled up in my own, and in my own growing awareness from early youth of what writing, and religion, might be.

Even his plays, much else of his early poetry, and the controversy surrounding his “dirty” poems and the horrid expression of his occasional anti-Semitism–these have all dropped away, and the words of his I’ve depended upon have become as much mine as his.

What all this isn’t, then, is an aesthetic statement. Just as poets or writers say that a poem or a novel they wrote actually chose them, I think the same way about our relationship with certain writers, certain movies, certain (supposedly) chance encounters with nature or any place that speaks immediately in ways nothing ever has before. All of this moves me greatly, but does not move me to make any certain statements about art or culture, or about aesthetics or poetic tradition and poetic standing, about poetic ranking or rankling.

There is no fight to pick here. Eliot is my old friend, but I can’t expect that to be the case for anyone else. It amuses me that even I took my reaction to Eliot the wrong way at first (and for so long), and tried to replicate my experience with his poems and letters and biography with the poems and letters and biographies of many others, all to my own detriment, and all to a great waste of time.

Eliot wrote of a “lifetime burning in every moment,” and the encounter with poetry and art constitutes such an experience for many people–it’s the kind of experience, like romantic love, that we all seek. Yet in order to keep that experience going, or to reignite or legitimate it, in between those ecstatic moments “where here and now cease to matter,” lovers of poetry and art twist themselves into pretzels trying to make sense of the moment, to intellectualize it, to categorize everything, and end up arguing about one’s love of this author against someone else’s love of another author.

Yet in glancing back at my time with Eliot (nearly half my life, now), it is wonderful to see how central he is to me, but also how personal that reaction is, how mysterious. I cannot pretend to speak objectively about Eliot or anybody else, especially since an attempt to do so would take away from time better spent rereading them.

In a lecture called “What Dante Means to Me,” given in 1950, Eliot says of his early experiences with the great Italian poet:

I read Dante only with a prose translation beside the text. Forty years ago I began to puzzle out the Divine Comedy in this way; and when I thought I had grasped the meaning of a passage which especially delighted me, I committed it to memory; so that, for some years, I was able to recite a large part of one canto or another to myself, lying in bed or on a railway journey. Heaven knows what it would have sounded like, had I recited it aloud; but it was by this means that I steeped myself in Dante’s poetry.[5]

For me, these lines bring to mind my freshman year in college, which again was remarkable not for the classes but for the northeast Ohio autumns I still adore, and how I remember driving my old Subaru with the windows down, going over traintracks and around the suburbs nearby, listening to tapes of Eliot reading The Waste Land and Four Quartets.

This was my way of memorizing my early guide, even and especially when the meaning was unclear and only the rhythm carried me. And when I was alone in the quiet on the campus, or elsewhere, and I recited a great deal of those lines to myself, those moments mean more to me than I can say.

And it’s strange to realize that I come to his poetry, and to all the poetry I return to, not for what it says but how it transforms my silences, how it transforms my moments of recollection, prayer, introspection, meditation. Standing in his parish church in London, and remembering that Eliot himself had served as church-warden in that very building, and had also lived in the attached buildings for a time, I was reminded of the opening and closing passages of his Ash Wednesday, and I was at peace:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still

1 To the Criticize the Critic and Other Writings, “To Criticize the Critic,” 18, 20.

2 Found most simply formulated in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published when he was thirty-one: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

In 1961, he wrote regretting the “errors of tone” in his early essays, “the occasional note of arrogance, of vehemence, of cocksureness or rudeness, the braggadocio of the mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter” Explaining the fame “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in particular, he attributes it to the “dogmatism of youth,” and goes on to say: “When we are young we see issues sharply defined [….] When we are young we are confident in our opinions, sure that we possess the whole truth; we are enthusiastic, or indignant. And readers, even mature readers, are quite attracted to a writer who is quite sure of himself.” (To the Criticize the Critic and Other Writings, “To Criticize the Critic,” 14 and 16.)

In addition, as early as 1929 Eliot said his statement on “impersonality” was a “bluff” (Letter to E. M. Forster, August 10, 1929; quoted in Lyndall Gordon’s T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, 484), that he expressed himself “badly, or that I had only an adolescent grasp of that idea” (On Poetry and Poets, “Yeats,” 255), and in his preface to the 1964 edition (a year before his death) of The Use of Poetry & The Use of Criticism, he refers to “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as “juvenile,” and goes on to say that part of the reason to republish the present book is in the hope that future editors of essays-anthologies might choose something other than that essay.

3 To the Criticize the Critic and Other Writings, “What Dante Means to Me,” 126, 127

4 To the Criticize the Critic and Other Writings, “What Dante Means to Me,” 126.

To the Criticize the Critic and Other Writings, “What Dante Means to Me,” 125.

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