THE STREET HARDLY UNDERSTANDS: Groping for Transcendence In T.S. Eliot's Early Poetry
(Andy Nowicki's novel, CONSIDERING SUICIDE, is available at www.amazon.com/considering-suicide-andy-nowicki/dp/0615263321 , or from the publisher, http://www.ninebandedbooks.com/ . He regularly writes a column for The Last Ditch (www.thornwalker.com/ditch), and also contributes to Alternative Right, American Renaissance, Occidental Observer, and New Oxford Review.... The following essay will eventually become part of his upcoming juicy tell-all memoir: MEIN KAMPF, BOOK TWO: A NOBODY GOES NAVEL-GAZING). Don't miss the delicious autobiographical scandal also recorded in the next post down, entitled "Me And Vinny Murphy."
A literary enthusiast is often brought to the love of his life through a dubious, or at least unlikely, source. Later, the enthusiast in question may cringe when he considers the body of markedly inferior work, which as an immature thinker he used to love, a body of work which, though unremarkable in itself, somehow functioned as a portal through which he later emerged to discover a first-class poet, novelist, or thinker. Or, if he is less of a snob, he may simply reflect that providence often works in mysterious ways, and that all forms, the "high" and the "low," have their merits and their moments. So it is that, without cringing or blushing or displaying any other kind of elitist scorn for my former self, I reflect that without my adolescent's love of the mysterious lyrics of Simon LeBon, lead singer of Duran Duran, I never would have discovered one of the literary loves of my life.
LeBon's lyrics were often so abstruse and weird as to be incomprehensible ("Shake up the picture/ The lizard mixture, with the dance on the eventide"; "Don't wanna be in public, my head is full of chopstick"), but their defects did not matter to me as a starry-eyed, moody teenager back in the mid 1980s. To me back then, they were pure poetry. I appreciated how they so thoroughly avoided the "I love you baby" adolescent doggerel so frequently found in the lyrics to popular music. Looking back today, I recognize the limitations of Duran Duran as art-- though I still enjoy their early music: everything up through, say, 1985, when the band's lineup changed and the overall quality of their craft went into steep decline. But though my fondness for LeBon as a "poet" has sobered since my youthful days, I still have him to credit for introducing me to a far superior wordsmith, whose influence in turn-- and far more importantly-- eventually led me to Christianity. God works in wondrous ways, including through new wave synth-pop 80s bands whose keyboard players wear rouge and bright lipstick.
I still recall holding a newly purchased book of Duran Duran's lyrics in my hands. In that book, LeBon reflected for a moment on his influences. He talked about Shelly and Keats, as well as war poet Wilfred Owen. He also mentioned "the obscure imagery of T.S. Eliot." I liked that latter description; it sounded cool, so I went to the local library and checked it out. Immediately I was struck, as I still am, by the early work of Eliot, particularly the poems contained in the original collection from 1917 entitled PRUFROCK AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS. Here is found the famous "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with its inviting, yet strangely ominous opening lines: "Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table." I read on, was hooked, and still am.
Thank you Simon.
Today, viewed from the perspective of a middle-aged English teacher, whose hair, like Prufrock's, is growing thin, I still find myself most captivated by Eliot's earliest work. As for "The Four Quartets," written later in Eliot's life and long after his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, they leave me cold. There is something about them that is too airy-fairy, too abstract. "The Waste Land," Eliot's most celebrated poem, has its moments of power, but I can't make head of tail out of much of it, and really, couldn't he have cut back on the abstruse literary allusions just a touch? (Those who call Eliot a pedant are no doubt mostly prejudiced against him for his political and social views, but honestly, the guy could lay on the references and footnotes a bit thick at times.)
In fact, while most things in my life have changed drastically since I first opened that book of T.S. Eliot's poetry as a 15-year old kid, one thing hasn't changed at all. My favorite Eliot poems are still the early ones, specifically the ones that comprise PRUFROCK AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS. Today, most of Eliot's fans are those who share, or are at least in substantial sympathy with, his beliefs, which were officially enumerated in 1927: "an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a royalist in politics." Eliot's enemies tend to dislike him for the same reason his fans tend to like him: they think he is too conservative and too religious. As a teenager and a young adult, however, I was an ardent leftist; it always distressed me a little that I couldn't reconcile my opinions with those of my favorite poet. Yet Eliot spoke to me in ways that no revolutionary-minded, left-leaning poet ever had. It would have been easier for me if I could have said that Shelly or Byron or Walt Whitman or Alan Ginsburg was my muse, but such was not the case; it wasn't the innumerable wild-eyed, crazy-living, bearded bohemian bards who caught my fancy, but rather the buttoned-up, respectable, sober-eyed, middle-class banker Eliot whose literary style I wanted to emulate. It was a bit uncomfortable that I was an ostensible left-winger who loved the work of an ultra-conservative writer, yet at the same time it never occurred to me to "ditch" Eliot; instead, I endured the cognitive dissonance that comes from holding two irreconcilable positions at once. Of course, something had to give eventually, and what "gave" (after several years of gamely enduring cognitive dissonance) was my leftism and my agnosticism. Through the influence of Eliot (and, I believe, God), I came to see the value of orthodoxy and tradition; I soon followed his path to Anglo-Catholicism, before going one step further and dropping the "Anglo" prefix entirely two years ago.
It's often been intimated to me that, now that I'm a good believer in sacramental Christianity (though now of the "Roman" rather than the "Anglo" stripe), I ought to gravitate towards Eliot's later work, written when he was a good (Anglo) Catholic. Yet for some reason, it's Eliot's early work that still holds the most appeal. This is particularly true with PRUFROCK AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS, a collection of poems in which the speakers grope desperately for a sense of transcendence, for a connection with the divine in the midst of a world that they feel to be utterly drained of spiritual vitality. But why should this appeal to me more than the more "settled" and calm quality of Eliot's later works, like "Ash Wednesday" or "Little Gidding"? Perhaps because I'm still a moody teenager at heart, still restless in some ways, still searching.
PRUFROCK AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS contains what could be called four "major" poems: the famous "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and the lesser-known "Portrait of a Lady," "Preludes," and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." Shorter poems are interspersed between these larger ones, including the wry "Cousin Nancy," about a sophisticated woman who "smoked and danced all the modern dances," and whose aunts "weren't sure what to think of it," as well as the satirical "Boston Evening Transcript," whose readers are said to "sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn." Here, I wish to consider mainly the four longer poems of the collection, and their collective meaning and effect.
It's quite fascinating that a man in his early twenties would feel compelled to write "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." It is, after all, about the travails of a middle-aged man, one who fears that life has passed him by and dreads the approach of old age and death ("I grow old... I grow old... I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker/ And in short, I was afraid.") It is, of course, always inadvisable to try to read a writer's work autobiographically, but I've always wondered to what extent Eliot could identify with Prufrock, even though by all accounts he wrote the poem as a newly-minted college graduate. (A few years later, the still young Eliot would follow with "Gerontion," about a decrepit old man reflecting upon the emptiness of his soon-to-end life.)
Prufrock's dramatic monologue sets the tone for the entire collection; as with every other major poem in PAOO, it is told from a first person point of view; as with the other poems, the speaker often lapses into curious, impressionistic, and rather gloomy descriptions of urban scenes-- here, we have the extended description of "yellow fog," which one suspects to be pollution; the fog is compared to a cat, and is said to "rub its back upon the window panes," "lick its tongue into the corners of the evening," and "curl about the house." We also hear that the speaker "has seen the smoke that rises from the pipes of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows." These descriptions help to reinforce a context of the speaker's feeling of anonymity in the midst of a harsh, smoggy, and unforgiving city filled with isolated, lonely men (who mirror Prufrock's own sense of isolation) and unobtainable, high-class women who "come and go, talking of Michaelangelo." The speaker is hesitant to approach these latter, much as he desires company, for fear that they will turn him down cold.
Prufrock fantasizes about fearlessly expressing himself in a very forthright manner, showing himself to be a powerful man, living an extraordinary life, but he isn't sure it's worth the risk, so he refrains:
Would it have been worthwhile, 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 setting a pillow and throwing back a shawl, and turning toward the window should say,
'That is not what I meant at all
That is not it, at all."
What Prufrock fears is the awful feeling of putting oneself on the line, making oneself vulnerable, only to have one's interlocutor reject what he has expressed as irrelevant or tiresome. Yet Prufrock's angst transcends the problem of being shy around the opposite sex. Ultimately, what he wants is a sense of connection, not merely on a romantic level, but in a more profound sense. "Prufrock" is not an explicitly religious poem, but its speaker clearly suffers from spiritual thirst-- he wants more than can be provided by the dry, sterile desert of a modern world he inhabits, where faith seems to have altogether evaporated. It is not by chance that Prufrock invokes figures like John the Baptist and Lazarus, comparing himself unfavorably to these great men who played such an important role in the origins of the Christian faith. Prufrock feels that he has suffered just as they have, but his suffering seems meaningless, because it hasn't been redeemed by the ability to believe in a transcendent realm, in a God who, in the words of the author of Revelation, "wipes every tear from our eyes." Prufrock has "wept and fasted, wept and prayed," and has even, like John the Baptist, "seen (his) head.... brought in upon a platter," but Prufrock, unlike the Baptist, cannot take the real step into martyrdom and faith, so he remains insignificant: "I am no Prophet,” he mourns, “and here's no great matter."
Near the end of the poem, Prufrock walks along a beach and looks out to the eternally rolling waves of the ocean; this provokes a vision of a rather sensual spiritual realm, inhabited by "sea girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown," who "ride seaward on the waves, combing the white hair of the waves blown back." The mermaids sing to one another, he observes, before adding poignantly, "I do not think that they will sing to me."
In the last three lines, the first person "I" becomes the collective "we," signifying that Prufrock is not meant to be viewed as an isolated case, but rather as a microcosm of the universal state of modern man. Like Prufrock, we all "have lingered in the chambers of the sea," in a state of ecstasy (rendered in suggestively erotic terms through the imagery of the beautiful mermaids) that is, however, only a fantasy state; in reality, we have no faith, so we can only drown when we wake, and after dying, we cannot be raised, as Lazarus was, from the dead.
In the hyperallusive "Waste Land," a common motif is the depiction of impotence, joyless sexuality or lack of fertility as representative of spiritual emptiness. In "Prufrock," this same theme is rendered in reverse: the speaker's dreams and fantasies involve romantic and sexual success, but these dreams are in fact representative of Prufrock's unfulfilled spiritual urge for a connection to the divine. In both cases, Eliot uses sexuality as a metaphor for spirituality; Prufrock as well as the debauched characters in "The Waste Land" yearn for a meaningful union with God, but cannot access the faith that came more easily to their pre-modern forbearers, so they cannot succeed even at having a fulfilling physical union with their fellow human beings.
In "Portrait of a Lady," the second of the major poems in OBSERVATIONS, we again have a story in which a character seeks love and ends up unfulfilled; this time, however, the speaker, rather than being the one who fears rejection, is the one who does the rejecting.
The "lady" in question appears to be a well-bred, well-educated older woman approaching the age of spinsterhood; the speaker is a younger man who visits the lady occasionally for tea out of a sense of politeness, but secretly feels derision for her. As the lady goes on about the sublime nature of Chopin's music, the travails of middle-aged life and other subjects in a somewhat grandiloquent and pretentious manner, the speaker is bored, restless, and a little frightened. He observes that the Lady's tea room has "an atmosphere of Juliet's tomb," and that her voice resembles "the insistent out of tune/ Of a broken violin on an August afternoon." The speaker is aware that the Lady has designs on him; she is rather forward in her ladylike way, praising highly his sensitivity and kindness ("I am always sure you understand/ My feelings, always sure that you feel,/ Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand."), which is especially ironic, given the cruelty of the speaker's inner monologue regarding her. Later, the poem subtly indicts the speaker, who may well be a largely autobiographical figure, when the lady tells him that "youth is cruel, and has no remorse/ And smiles at situations which it cannot see" and the speaker responds by smiling, confirming the truth of her declaration.
The sport that the speaker has at the Lady's expense comes back to haunt him near the end of the poem, when nearly a year after his first meeting with her, the speaker returns to tell the lady that he is going abroad for an extended period of time. Shortly afterwards, the lady expresses her regret that they had not grown closer over the time that they had corresponded:
“I have wondered frequently of late...
Why we have not developed into friends…
For everybody said so, all our friends,
They all were sure our feelings would relate
So closely! I myself can hardly understand.
One has the impression that the speaker's conscience is pricked by this confession, but he does not repent for his callousness, nor does he pity her. Instead, he rather brutally imagines that if she were to die one day soon and leave him "sitting, pen in hand... Not knowing what to feel or if I understand," that this would mean that she would "have the advantage." The speaker is most upset, not by his own lack of gallantry, but by the notion of in some manner being one-upped. Once more, as with "Prufrock," there is a lack of connection, a failure to communicate, and the result is unfulfilled desire and resultant sterility; one imagines that the speaker was the lady's last chance at finding a mate; now she will grow old and die without having children.
The two final major poems in OBSERVATIONS are more impressionistic, telling less of a story than evoking a mood. "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" has a phantasmagorical element; one could almost call it "psychedelic," featuring as it does talking street lamps and other strange sights and sounds. Here, the speaker is walking the streets of a city at night, in a trance-like state. At midnight he hears street-lamps beating "like a fatalistic drum.” Later, starting at half-past one, a particular lamp begins talking to him, pointing out various sordid sights, including a likely prostitute whose dress is "torn and stained with sand" and the corner of whose eye "twists like a paper rose."
At half-past two, the same lamp shows the speaker how a stray cat in the gutter has "slipped out its tongue/And devour(ed) a morsel of rancid butter." At half-past three, the lamp draws the speaker's attention to the moon, which the lamp characterizes as an elderly woman who has lost her memory and sits alone in the sky in a pathetic, geriatric stupor.
Each time the lamp speaks, its words cause the speaker to remember various things he has seen: first, inanimate objects which seem to have some somber significance, including "a twisted branch upon the beach/ Eaten smooth, and polished/ As if the world gave up/ The secret of its skeleton,/ Stiff and white," then a child stealing a toy with an impassive look on his face and a crab (recalling the famous "pair of ragged claws" from "Prufrock") clinging to the end of a stick. Humanity, in the person of the boy, is here depicted as animal-like, tenacious and remorseless, dwelling in filth, doing what is necessary to survive but having no apparent soul. The lamp's reference to the moon, curiously, brings to mind the heartless, dirty goings-on of the corrupt city, savoring of prostitution, drunkenness, and other vices: "female smells in shuttered rooms/ And cigarettes in corridors/ and cocktail smells in bars."
At four o clock, the speaker's phantasmagorical experience has come to an end; he is instructed by the street lamp to go to his apartment, open the door with his key, brush his teeth, go to bed, "sleep, prepare for life." Yet the reader gets no sense that anything has been gained from this unique night of visions and memories. Indeed, the lamp's final words are perceived by the speaker as being "the last twist of the knife." The speaker aches, in some inchoate way, for a sense of goodness and transcendence, but all he has been shown by the street lamp reeks of filth, corruption, and (in the "person" of the moon) pitiful decrepitude.
If the mood of "Rhapsody" is ultimately despairing, "Preludes" is more wistful; there is a glint of hope here, or possibly merely an expressed hope for hope. This poem is divided in four sections, the first two of which are impressionistic street scenes. The first section describes a city at dusk, with an unnamed person observed by the speaker as surrounded by "grimy scraps of withered leaves" and tossed-away "newspapers from vacant lots." It is, we are told, one of those "burnt out ends of smoky days." Again, there is pollution, and an understated sense of dreariness about an urban landscape.
The second section of the poem is set in the same place at morning-time, describing the urban population's mad stampede to work, what in later decades would be called a rush hour. There are "faint stale smells of beer," no doubt from excesses of the previous night, and "muddy feet" that "press to early coffee stands." At this point, the speaker's thoughts turn to "all the hands/ That are raising dingy shades/ In a thousand furnished rooms."
As in "Rhapsody," the sights and sounds the speaker sees and hears help to trigger his memory, and in the third section of the poem he returns to the "you" referred to briefly in the first section. The "you," we find, is someone who lay in bed (behind one of those thousand "dingy shades," no doubt) the previous night, probably a woman and likely one of dubious morals, who witnessed in a revelation "the thousand sordid images of which (her) soul was constituted." Having gained this unflattering self-knowledge, she is then afforded another vision when morning comes, one only described as "such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands."
The street, after all, as the speaker reveals in section four, only knows the everyday occurrences; it has no transcendent knowledge, such has been given the woman. The street only knows sounds like those made by "insistent feet/ At four and five and six o'clock," and the sight of "short square fingers stuffing pipes," and "eyes/ Assured of certain certainties." The speaker, however, inexplicably finds in these moments an exquisitely sad indication of "some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing."
With these lines, it would seem that the speaker and the object of his attention share a moment of knowledge, a connection. This notion, however, is nullified by the final three lines of the poem, in which the woman, apparently having awakened from her trance of the previous night, roughly and crudely rejects the speaker's sensitive insight:
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
This is another "That is not what I meant, at all" moment, in which an attempt at communication is harshly dismissed. Here, however, one gets the impression that the emphasis is less upon the rejection, and more upon the transcendent truth that is still no less true for having been rejected. What truly lingers in the mind of the reader of the "Preludes" are the lines about having "such a vision of the street" and getting a notion of "some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing."
The latter is the first hint of a Christian sensibility on Eliot's part, a striking characterization that could be applied to Christ but also to Mary-- indeed, it represents a highly Catholic understanding of Christianity, one centered around the Passion, where suffering is in some manner redemptive, where one can claim the divine to be "infinitely gentle" and "infinitely suffering" without fear of being charged with blasphemy, since God himself in human form was scourged, mocked, and nailed to a cross, and did not retaliate against his attackers, but rather prayed for them.
Of course, this portion of the poem is only a hint, a clue that a reality exists beyond the mundane and sordid goings-on of the city. After all, the street itself "hardly understands" such profundities, and the same can be said for many of the street's dwellers, who are too focused on worldly concerns--sex, money, the daily routine-- to pay attention to such "fancies." For the speaker, however, these "fancies" are the one thing needful, pointing as they do to an answer to the "overwhelming question" referenced earlier by J. Alfred Prufrock, an answer, one gathers that the both the speaker in "Preludes" and Prurock desperately seek, because it represents a leap from the impermanent, with all of its wretched and meaningless "masquerades that time resumes," to the transcendent, represented here by a perpetually suffering, yet eternally loving, divine presence.
It is precisely this vague dissatisfaction with the state of things, this yearning for transcendence, that motivates the restless search undertaken by the diverse cast of characters assembled in PRUFROCK AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS. Eliot, in a later stage of life, may have felt that he had outgrown this phase; he is reported in his old age to have dismissed "The Waste Land" as part of a youthful "grouse against life." Chances are that he might have felt similarly about many of his pre-"Waste Land" poems, which are similarly bleak in tone. But what Eliot captured so well in these early poems were the very aspects of the godless life which cause a person to seek God in the first place-- the sense of emptiness, of despair, the sickening fear of impending death and decay.
If one is to be truly converted to belief in a transcendent realm, one must first be convinced that the world is a thing of naught. Thus there can be a thin line between black, suicidal depression and enlightenment, but often, perhaps always, one cannot access the latter without first enduring the former. This, in turn, is why I find it hard to conceive of Eliot's early poetry, with its emphasis on despair, as being distinct in theme from that of his later work, with its emphasis on faith. To me, it has always seemed like comparing two different points in the trajectory of the life of a Christian convert, two different sections of the same story. Poetry, like all forms of literature, must be true to every facet of life, including life's less savory or pleasant moments. In a very real sense, we are all still searching as long as we are alive; doubt and struggle cannot be wholly expunged from our souls until we are perfected in Heaven. Prufrock and the rest of the characters chronicled in OBSERVATIONS, then, speak to some part of us all, if we are honest enough with ourselves to admit it.