“Notes will help him who is in need”

This post is about Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of my all-time favorite poets. Too many English classes that cover Eliot begin with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and end with The Waste Land—two modernist poems that operate in the ironic mode and present pretty despairing visions of the world.  The problem with this is that Eliot’s life and work don’t end there. (Did you know Eliot won a Tony award for his lyrical contributions to the musical Cats? Or that he was a great admirer of Groucho Marx and exchanged letters with that heavy-browed comic genius?) If you only make it to The Waste Land, you might think that Eliot only ever despaired about the fate of humanity. But he didn’t. He escaped the ironic mode. Or rather, like Dante, he made it through the ironic mode. He too journeyed into the depths and beheld the ultimate vision of despair, and then he kept going and came out on the other side and started toiling up Mount Purgatory. And that’s why I think he’s a good person for us to get to know today.

In 1977, author and critic (and Inkling) Owen Barfield wrote that

. . . perhaps the one [menacing sign] which fills people with the greatest foreboding is the growing general sense of meaninglessness . . . How is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it?

More than fifty years before Barfield wrote, Eliot wrestled with this question in The Waste Land, a long poem which looks especially at the loss of meaning through the breakdown of language.

I have to confess that I first read The Waste Land in junior high because I had a vague idea that Eliot was an important writer and that The Waste Land was some sort of famous work. Somehow, I also had the mistaken notion that the mere act of reading The Waste Land would suddenly endow me with all the powers of literary insight that I desired.

So I bought the poem (at the best little used bookstore in town!) and got home and read these opening lines (the poem’s epigraph):

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi
in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα
τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.

In the words of Wayne Campbell, “Exsqueeze me? Baking powder?” I had no clue what the lines meant. With the help of some good teachers, I’ve since learned their meaning. But on the first read, I could make no sense of them at all. And that’s sort of the point.

Throughout The Waste Land, Eliot makes all sorts of obscure references and uses lots of non-English phrases. I don’t think he expects readers to understand every allusion, and I don’t think we’re supposed to to stop and look up every explanation or translation either. I think Eliot writes this way partly to give the reader a sense of the loss and separation that he encountered in the modern world. The Waste Land was published in the wake of World War I, a war that shocked and shattered western culture. When we read Eliot’s poem, we encounter words which we know must have some meaning, but the meaning is mostly lost to us because we lack the knowledge to translate. Written words devolve before us into mere marks on a page. Suddenly, as readers, we find ourselves, like Eliot, searching for meaning in a confused and reeling world.

The translation of The Waste Land’s epigraph reinforces this idea. Taken from a 1st century A.D. work called the Satyricon, the lines describe the Cumaean Sibyl, an ancient Greek priestess/prophetess. According to legend, she asked the god Apollo for everlasting life, which she got, but she forgot to ask for everlasting youth. Translated, the lines read:

I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her ‘What do you want?’ She answered, ‘I want to die.’

The image of the sibyl fits into what Northrop Frye describes as the ironic mode of the imagination. The sibyl is a weak and pitiful character, cut off from and persecuted by society. But in this case, it is Apollo, not society, who ultimately causes the sibyl’s suffering. This pushes the ironic mode’s despair to the extreme: divinity itself conspires against humanity. Given her long life, the sibyl speaks as something of the voice of human history. However, her experience has profited her little and she desires to escape her sufferings through death, but even that action is denied to her. The sibyl, and, by extension, humanity, appears doomed to go on shrinking and withering, with the increase of years only bringing an increase of sorrows and offering no way out.

Eliot ends the first part of The Waste Land by applying an image from Dante’s Inferno to his vision of contemporary humanity:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street . . .

On their own, these lines sound despairing enough, and considering the reference to Dante compounds the despair. When Dante first enters hell and sees the souls crossing the river Acheron, he says: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Eliot takes Dante’s words about souls in hell and applies them to souls still living in London. Not a very cheery thought.

Given this despairing view of the modern world and human society, it seems impossible for Eliot to move beyond his vision of humanity trapped in the ironic mode. Yet he does. And he articulates the whole process in another long poem called The Four Quartets (first printed as a single work in 1943). As the title suggests, music is central to The Four Quartets. Eliot wrote about being inspired by Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132, and the similarities in theme and structure between the two works are pretty astonishing! The next post will look at some of the shared qualities and how Beethoven’s music can shed light on the path that Eliot took to move from despair to true hope.


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