Book of Practical Cats, Harold Bloom, La Figlia che Piange, Murder in the Cathedral, poems, Poetry, T S Eliot, The Cocktail Party, The Four Quartets, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land
The other great example of American poetic genius, and indeed the most important and influential English language poet of the 20th century, was T S Eliot. Bloom is not quite as enthusiastic about him as I am, but he grants that this is also a personal judgment relating to what he sees as Eliot’s anti-Semitism. I am not so sure that it is fair to dismiss Eliot as anti-Semitic, since he seems rather to have reflected the prevalent view in Western society about Jews, before their undoubted economc power provided invaluable assistance to the Allies in the First World War, and they became respectable.
To ascribe moral inadequacy to those who were contemptuous of the Jews before that is as silly as it would be to find reprehensible those who were contemptuous during colonial times of people whose colour was darker than their own. One can certainly find admirable those who resisted the common prejudices of their times, but Jews tend to be ultra-sensitive, and can afford to be, in a manner that is not open to those who do not exercise similar economic and political power.
Asian and African critics cannot then ascribe racism to great writers reflecting the common perspectives of their times, and assert that this takes away from their genius. Fortunately, despite Bloom’s moral fervor, he does grant Eliot’s genius, and provides useful insights into some of his poetry.
He does not however deal with the whole canon, which is a pity, because Eliot had a fantastic range, and can be both illuminating and inspirational in all his work. We need only to think of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and the superb use made of its various characters, demanding admiration as well as sympathy. The way in which he puts together traits we associate with cats and over the top portraits of people we can recognize is skillfully imaginative. My own favourite is Macavity, the Mystery Cat
He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard’s.
And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair –
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!
And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair –
But it’s useless to investigate – Mcavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
‘It must have been Macavity!’ – but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long-division sums.
Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spaer:
At whatever time the deed took place – MACAVITY WASN’T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!
but there is much to be said for Bustopher Jones
Bustopher Jones is not skin and bones —
In fact, he’s remarkably fat.
He doesn’t haunt pubs — he has eight or nine clubs,
For he’s the St. James’s Street Cat!
He’s the Cat we all greet as he walks down the street
In his coat of fastidious black:
No commonplace mousers have such well-cut trousers
Or such an impeccable back
And for a pair of ordinary criminals orperhaps just mischief makers
And when you heard a dining room smash
Or up from the pantry there came a loud crash
Or down from the library came a loud ping
From a vase which was commonly said to be Ming
Then the family would say: “Now which was which cat?
It was Mungojerrie! And Rumpleteazer!”
And there’s nothing at all to be done about that!
Eliot’s great achievement was of course The Waste Land, and nothing else really captures the sense of loss that affected Europe after the First World War, of a civilization in decline, and a world without an anchor. It is full of striking phrases and images, which evoke a sense of loss, though Eliot at the same time suggests the hollow nature of past splendours too
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering 5
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 10
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie, 15
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
Eliot’s own translation of the italicized line, ‘I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, I am a real German’ emphasizes the rootlessness engendered by the First World War, and is a precursor of the mad rush to consolidate land through nationalism and internationalism that marked the German and the Russian dictatorships during that period.
Unfortunately I cannot quote as much from the poem as I would like, so I will content myself here with a devastating throwaway critique of modern morality (though we must note that this is followed by mention of the affair of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester, and Eliot is more worried I think by the lack of romantic emotion rather than the sexuality in itself)
The typist home at tea-time, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays, 225
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest. 230
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house-agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses, 235
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence; 240
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall 245
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronizing kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover; 250
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand, 255
And puts a record on the gramophone.
The commentary of Teiresias, the Theban seer who sought the experience of both sexes, adds a wonderful touch of world weariness to the whole exposition.
Before The Waste Land there had been The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, which is quite devastating in its presentation of modern romance. I will cite here however the passage in which Eliot brilliantly attributes an insidious feline sensuality to the fog
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And also a line Richard de Zoysa and I would fling at each other for its undramatic assertion of a conclusive diffidence
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Late in life Eliot produced The Four Quartets, which is full of religious feeling, but also appeals to a general sense of both spirituality and human sympathy. Unlike Bloom, I do not find the Catholicism here oppressive, for there is as much here about the soul responding to the world and its experiences therein, as there is about salvation through God.
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.
Eliot’s capacity to throw images together, his use of half remembered words and phrases to create new ideas, his juxtaposition of the lyrical with the pedestrian, all serve to stir up both thought and memory of the thoughts of others. And some of the principles he enunciates (two concepts of history, expanding the scope of love through memory) still resonate, in an age of blind patriotism and a failure to distinguish between detachment and indifference.
There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives – unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as an attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
After Eliot, standard rhymes and rhythms were less easy to use, because they seemed artificial unless deployed with great skill. This is ironic, because Eliot had no qualms about the most artificial use of verse, as in his plays. Bloom finds these disappointing, and they are difficult to perform, except for Murder in the Cathedral, which can be extremely powerful, as in Archbishop Beckett’s willing acceptance of martyrdom
You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
And even less dramatic works, such as The Cocktail Party, can prove fascinating with a cast able to deliver the verse satisfactorily.
Everyone’s alone — or so it seems to me.
They make noises, and think they are talking to each other;
They make faces, and think they understand each other.
And I’m sure they don’t. Is that a delusion?
Or the even more bleak account of marriage
Two people who know they do not understand each other,
Breeding children whom they do not understand
And who will never understand them.
I will end though with Eliot in an unusual mood. Despite his generally bleak view of the human condition, and individual emotions, Eliot could also draw attention to the romance they engender. La Figlia che Piange, with an epigraph from the Aeneid (which suggests Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido, even though this line was addressed not to her but to the goddess of love, asking how he should address her?), celebrates the lasting impact of memory, and its capacity to expand emotion rather than allow it to wither on parting.
O quam te memorem virgo
Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.