It’s notable about modern poetry that, while its poets are intent on judging – with bitter skepticism – the present and the entire course of civilization, they idealize the Renaissance and its poetry as a model of what they hope to achieve, and for each poet a different period of the Renaissance is at issue. For Yeats, it is the high Renaissance; with his frequent references to Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, he locates its vision of a “unity of being” as an apogee in the scheme he devises of cultural “cycles” from Homer to the present, as described in his book “A Vision.” For Ezra Pound, the ideal model is to be found in the late Medieval and early Renaissance. And for T. S. Eliot, the final emanation of the Renaissance ideal is the work of the Metaphysical poets, who are essentially ‘medievalized’ in Eliot’s account of them. Donne and Herbert are made bearers of a unity of being achieved under the aegis of the Christian sacrament, an indivisibility of thought from feeling by which these poets “feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” And in Eliot’s view (in “The Metaphysical Poets”), by the mid-seventeenth century with the increasing secularization of politics and society, “a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.” Eliot hopes to create poetry that can restore that ultimately sacred juncture between feeling and intellect and forge an imaginative form that is self-sustaining in the face of the ruin of modernity, of its cultural disintegration and squalor. “Self-sustaining” sounds familiar, for it is a tenet of the French symbolists’ early modernist aesthetic that the art work should be autonomous and thus escape the deadnesses of modern prefabricated language, thought, and feeling. For Eliot, such autonomy is achieved by impersonality, “an escape from emotion… [and] personality” (as he states in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”); “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates,” and the “transmutation” of passion which results achieves what Eliot elsewhere calls an “objective correlative,” a nicely mathematical-sounding term for the autonomous, self-sustaining image in literature.
Like Henry James, Eliot was an American expatriate, and even more than the novelist, he embraced a European identity. It is not only that he became an English citizen and a devout member of the Anglican Church; it is, as he writes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that the abode housing and finally possessing his imagination is “the mind of Europe… – a mind which [the poet] learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind.” With his conservatism, his European allegiance, and his authoritative style, Eliot’s imagination survived Europe’s mutilating fascism, its self-immolating wars in which millions perished, including the gifted generation of the War Poets, Brooke, Owen, Rosenberg, etc. Eliot, along with Yeats, takes up where the war poets ended – and died – in attempting to answer the question of how the power of the imagination can be extended to include the torn and broken nature of modern life in the midst and in the aftermath of the World War. Eliot’s ‘answer’ differs greatly from Yeats’, despite the influence of each on the other. As I tried to show in an earlier post, Yeats struggles to affirm how the imagination both shapes and is shaped by the experience of passion and suffering and in that way is connected to deeply felt emotion. His poetic voice affirms this connection by projecting an authority of self-reckoning and reckoning.
Eliot, in contrast, seeks the authority of “impersonality” – that of a sage and ironic guide, whose detachment enables him to register yet to position himself above the vagaries of experience and history, to judge the entire course of civilization, and in his later work to affirm a religious purgation as the sole source of language and value. As an essayist, that authority helped to establish the modern canon of literary thought in his era, both its formalism and its texts. As we saw, his critical voice conveys the gravity of impersonality, both in the sense of bearing the weight of its authoritative judgments and in the sense of emanating from a grave familiarity with death, with the deadened, burned-out self (Yeats remarks that Eliot seems incapable of sufficient “self-surrender” by which he meant openness to the resinous life of the heart). Eliot’s criticism projects just such grave authority, for example, when he speaks of the condition of dissociation “from which we have never recovered,” or even when he faults Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a failure, for it supposedly does not attain the impersonal ideal of the “objective correlative.”
It is the poetry that best illustrates the force and authority of Eliot’s imagination as he constructs a vision of modernity, of what he later termed “The Wasteland.” From early in his career, he was a master of control as he laced together incantatory repetitions of often squalidly deflating sounds and words. “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights and one-night cheap hotels… / Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question . . . / Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.” This mocking speaker is only one of the discordant voices in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which presents a stream of selves in which speakers ride on waves of shifting images, sustained conceits (for example, the recurrent “yellow fog”) amid other schizoid fragments of city life. Here is one of the voices, hurting and bitter: “And I have known the eyes already, known them all – / The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, / And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, / Then how should I begin / To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?” Eliot’s control over these voices is powerfully sustained, as they pour out their mockery or bafflement or self-loathing while registering the conditions of modern urban life. Finally, the coalesced voices in the poem yearn to be submerged in the cleansing magical waves which promise rebirth, truly in the stream of language itself, even as death inevitably approaches when their own “human voices wake us, and we drown.” Life appears to equal death in this early poem, and the same seems to hold in his modernist masterpiece of the nineteen-twenties, “The Wasteland,” to which I’ll turn in my next post.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulate. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]