Friday, March 25, 2011

T.S. Eliot on the Metra: Urban Alienation and the Urge for Community

Maybe it's appropriate that I've been doing all my thinking about T.S. Eliot on the train, from the windows of which I catch fleeting glimpses into other people's lives: a bent-over old man with a plastic shopping bag shouting angrily at a bent-over old woman; two kids in kelly green hoodies running down an alley, looking back over their shoulders; a laughing, shirtless, dreadlocked man seen through the open blind of his apartment window, a bottle of wine in his hand; other quick flashes of people living out their particular stories, in which I won't, in all probability, play even a walk-on role.  Eliot was, after all, a great poet of urban alienation, of the strange mix of intimacy and distance created by life in the modern metropolis.

Except for my commute on the Metra, where I've been poking around Eliot's Selected Poems on my Kindle, I haven't had much time to devote to Eliot lately, but I do want to start getting him into my mind, since the impossibly glorious summer, free of teaching and (I hope) free of administrative chickenshit, lies just a few weeks in the future, and I'm hoping to bang out two chapters of the big, boring book I've been writing (now called Power and Poetics: A Social History of Aesthetic Autonomy in Poetry): one chapter on the rejection of Tennyson by poets coming of age in the 1890s, and another on Yeats and Eliot. 

The interesting thing, for me, is how both Yeats and Eliot act out versions of Tennyson's old dilemma in radically different contexts.  Tennyson really does have two distinct careers: one as a writer of somewhat cryptic, symbolic, ambiguous poems — poems like "The Kraken" or "The Eagle" or even "The Lady of Shalott" — poems that resist being converted to moral messages; and another career as the writer of poems like Enoch Arden or "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which told the bourgeoise reader what he wanted to hear about decency, self-sacrifice, and the keeping stiff of the upper lip.  He had the dilemma because he inherited a tradition of aesthetic autonomy from one of the main strands of Romantic poetics (Keatsian negative capability, Coleridgean ideas of polysemous symbolism and organic form, etc.), but he wrote at a time when a certain kind of middle-class reader turned to poetry for a particular kind of self-affirming moral guidance.  By the 1880s and 1890s, though, the public that had sought moral guidance in poetry was finding it elsewhere, and publishers were less interested in poetry relative to other genres than they had been.  The public was rejecting poetry, and poets were rejecting the public right back, turning, with a new intensity, to aestheticism, to art for art's sake, and to an attitude that rejected poor old Tennyson as a stooge for the middlebrows.  When Harold Nicholson tried to revive Tennyson's reputation in the 1920s, he did it by disowning the "Charge of the Light Brigade" side of Tennyson's poetics, and embracing the Tennyson canon to which we still cling — the side of the work that shies away from overt moralism.  This was, of course, to truncate Tennyson in order to make him more amenable to our tastes, and in a way to kidnap him out of his own context and fit him to the Procrustean bed of our own time.  For me, this is a real loss, since we miss the struggle in Tennyson between two incompatible urges, the battle between the aesthete and the moralist, which was the real dilemma of the poet in his time.  It's a dilemma that Yeats and Eliot inherited differently.

Yeats is, of course, drawn to esoteric wisdom, arcane and polyvalent symbolism, and to ideals of transcendent beauty (for which one of his most famous symbols is the rose).  But he's also drawn to a very specific kind of politically and culturally engaged poetry, a poetry at the service of national liberation.  The gymnastics he goes through trying to square that circle can be excruciating.  Here's the beginning of the poem "To Ireland in the Coming Times," where he tries to make the rose of esoteric, otherworldy beauty compatible with the politics of Irish liberation:
Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland's wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song;
Nor be I any less of them,
Because of the red-rose-bordered hem
Of her, whose history began
Before God made the angelic clan...
You can feel the anxiety: he wants to devote himself to the rose of eternal, autonomous beauty, but he also wants to write ballads of Irish nationalism — a heteronomous poetry if ever there was one.  He ends up claiming that esoteric beauty and Irish nationalism are compatible by making up a kind of bullshit history, where Ireland's past was devoted to this rose, and where that past endures now in the "Druid land" of Ireland.  Yeats wants to have it both ways, but only by pretending that Irish nationalism is also aestheticism because of an ancient-yet-enduring commitment to esoteric beauty can he do it.  And that's just one stop on the long, strange trip he took trying to work out those incompatible urges.

Eliot faces a different situation, since the politics of national liberation aren't really an issue for him, and there isn't really a strong constituency urging him to write for the greater glory of his nation.  The Irish eventually made Yeats a senator, such being the esteem attached to poets during periods of national liberation, but that sort of situation hasn't really been available for poets from powerful nations like 20th century America: when Yeats wrote to Ezra Pound saying "don't let them make you a senator" (or words to that effect), he must have known that such an event was impossible.  And it was just as impossible for Pound's more respectable friend Eliot.  In fact, Eliot was so far from being an American nationalist that he became not only an ex-pat, but a nationalized British citizen.  Instead, his dilemma had to do with the conflict between a commitment to French symbolist poetics, with all their glamorous obscurity and aesthetic autonomy — Eliot was so drawn to this that he even wrote some poems of that kind in French — and a commitment to poetry at the service of a community of Christians, a yearned-for society of people committed to the same principles, the same tradition, the same past, and the same places — the grounded community of "the same people living in the same place" for generations, as he put it in After Strange Gods (a people for whom he wanted to perform "the role of a moralist").

What I've been thinking about, as I read Eliot's early poetry between glimpses out the train window, is just how Eliot's need for a coherent, rooted, traditional society grew out of his experiences of alienation as a young man in London [correction: in greater Boston, given the dates of composition for "Preludes"].  Consider the experience of urban space in the famous "Preludes" from Prufrock and Other Observations.  The dominant impression is of a strange combination of closeness and distance, of constantly seeing other people in their private moments without actually knowing those people.  If you've lived in a little apartment in a big city, you know what he's talking about.  Here's the second section of the poem:

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampeled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

This is the poem of a man whose senses always take in the intimate traces of other people's lives: he smells what the people around him drank last night, and what they're drinking this morning, he sees their footprints in the street, he sees their hands, and the dinginess that is the trace of the repeated actions of their hands, on a thousand window shades.  The bodily presence of others is near, and palpable, and not really meant to be the acknowledged public face — the "masquerade" — they present to the world.  There's intimacy, and bodily proximity, but there's also total anonymity.  Eliot doesn't know the people raising their dingy shades, and seems to glimpse them only partially.  It's proximity without community, the world of the lonely crowd, the depersonalized modern world of gessellschaft.

The impression in the final section is much the same, at least initially:

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

It's all in those stubby fingers, isn't it?  There's more of the intimate proximity of people in their private acts, but once again the people are seen only in parts — as fingers, as eyes — and don't belong to anyone known, to anyone with a proper name.  The poem ends with the speaker (let's call him young Eliot) feeling the pathos of this lonely crowd, perhaps yearning for some kind of connection to the people he only glimpses in brief vignettes of their private lives — until he breaks away with a brusqueness that seems like an attempt to place himself above his own yearnings:

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.

The imagination would provide some fanciful connection to the people around him, some emotional intimacy with those Eliot smells, hears, and briefly sees.  But then Eliot backs away, laughing at his pretense, and trying to be the tough-minded, cynical person the metropolitan way of life seems to demand.

"Rhapsody on a Windy Night" is even better (though here the setting seems more like Paris, and the critic B.C. Southern argues that the images are actually culled from Charles-Louis Phillipe's Bubu-de-Montparnasse, but that's neither here nor there, and only the most ink-stained of pedantic wretches would mention it in a parenthesis).  The imagery suggests a metropolis of the kind familiar to many of us, where the mentally ill wander, disconnected, through the uncaring streets, and where the illusion of intimacy presents itself in terms of base commerce:

Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drumm
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one, 
The street-lamp sputtered,
The street-lamp muttered,
The street-lamp said, "Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her with a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin."

The intimately-observed sordidness, the seeing-past what is meant to be seen (that stain, that strangely twisted eye), recalls the anonymous proximity of "Preludes," and the odd hesitancy, as the prostitute eyes young Tom Eliot up, trying to gauge whether he's too jammed up for the awful daring of a moment's surrender, is powerful stuff: we feel a strange stand-off, which could result in cold distance or an act of sexual commerce that is much like the alienated intimacy of "Preludes," where we can see, smell, and almost touch the closeness of others without any real intimacy.

The poem moves on to a string of images less literally connected to the street setting.  My favorite is this:

I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.

We return to those eyes looking out from behind shades, seen by other eyes: a curious kinship between the observer and the observed, a kinship in anonymity and alienation.  And the pairing of this with the image of the stick-grabbing crab is wonderful, because the man-stick-crab combination is an intimacy, but also a distance: it's play, but it's also struggle for the stick, and the man and the crab, while involved in the same action, are such utterly different forms of life, so terribly alien to each other.  Like "Preludes," it's all about distance-in-proximity, the alienating condition of life in the rootless modern metropolis.

It's the notion of humanity under these conditions  as "some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing" that drives Eliot to dream of a more rooted world, a world united by shared traditions, shared religion, and the kind of stability of trans-generational habitation of the same space that the industrial world destroys.  Seeing this makes me about as sympathetic to Eliot's reactionary politics as I'm ever likely to get.  Glimpsing the world from my train window, I feel much the same as he felt, looking at those eyes  behind the shutters.  The difference was that he arrived at a prescription for the condition, in After Strange Gods, The Idea of a Christian Society, and Notes Toward the Definition of Culture — a narrow, somewhat authoritarian, hierarchical, and ultimately a xenophobic prescription.  Me, all I've got is a sense of the problem.  That, and a deep skepticism about people with comprehensive plans for the renovation of civilization.


  1. Hearing the recording of Tennyson reading "Charge of the Light Brigade" largely dispels the moralism charge.  Christopher Ricks, the main T. scholar of our time, has explored this.

  2. It's really fascinating to look at how Tennyson responded to comments from his reviewers (some of whom were old Cambridge pals). As Ricks notes, T. was always very responsive to what they said, and while Hallam had urged T. to be something of an aesthete (and T never forgot it), people like Christopher North and James Spedding wanted T to step up and make some important moral statements. The revisions T made to "The Lotos-Eaters" show him moving from a kind of negative capability to a kind of "duty first, stiff upper lip, let's put our shoulders to the wheel, lads" view of things. But the back-and-forth never really ended. I've got about 18,000 words on this I'll inflict on your for comments if you've got too much time on your hands!


  3. I read this post while drinking coffee at the supermarket after shopping, and then I thought a bunch about it while driving home, so my thoughts were too long for a comment and became a blog post of my own:

  4. Hey, cool. I'll check it out.

  5. The psychological motivation you attribute to Eliot is a fairly common one. It's the same quest for Order in the face of a chaotic, unmanageable, unpredictable existence that drives most reactionary political thought. Coupled with the myth-making desire to return to a Golden Age, you often end up with people who get autocratic, even fascist, in their social urges.

    But there is an alternative, which also is represented in the arts, perhaps by people like Duchamp, Cage, and Man Ray. People who are comfortable with uncertainty, with indeterminacy, whose response to the Chaos of living is not to try to repress it, as Eliot tried to do (and influenced a lot of criticism for far too long to try to do), but to embrace it. Charles Ives, WCW, and Stevens were all of the same generation, but there response to modernity was the opposite of Eliot's, in many ways, it seems to me. They weren't afraid of the chaos or uncertainty, if they didn't embrace it at least they didn't try to suppress or control it.

  6. Yes, it's an interesting set of contrasts. And it tells us something about ourselves, too: when I read Yeats' essays about the need for "unity of being," I feel how different he and I are. When I read Deleuze and Guattari I respond immediately to the talk of multiplicity and contingency. But the really interesting thing for me is not to go "ah, they were wrong and we're right, and the tradition we respond to is the good one" (I don't mean that you're doing that, but I run into that all the time). The interesting thing, for me, is to look for why they felt as they felt, and why we feel as we do. I try not to attach a value to the embrace of chaos, or the embrace of order -- they're things that happen, or they're the way things look from a particular set of circumstances.


  7. Yes, very interesting, I think someone will write a monograph in future on the America that Eliot & Pound left behind or effaced, in St. Louis and Idaho (I know some have already tried that... but not radically enough).

    I'm ONLY 58 yrs old, but I grew up in a place & time (American midwest) when one was required to memorize the "Charge of the Light Brigade," and recite it in class, or receive a hard swat on the fingers with a ruler (my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Close)... Where the main English-class reading for the semester was "Idylls of the King" (Mr. Lundholm)...a place where my mother was best friends with Longfellow's granddaughter (the daughter of "Laughing Allegra")...

    there are continuities beyond the poetry wars...

  8. Is it established that the "infinitely gentle / infinitely suffering thing" is "humanity"? It seems to me there's a more obvious candidate.

  9. I hear you, Vance. The "curl" image ties it back to the woman, presumably a prostitute, we see earlier in the poem. I suppose I'm willing to take her, and her condition, as an image for humanity in the metropolis. I also sometimes run across the interpretation that the "infinitely gentle / infinitely suffering thing" is Christ, in which case I'm still willing to see it as an image of humanity, in that Christ is God become man, and entering into a bodily suffering that is human (as well as a suffering that is done on behalf of humanity). But that's me. There's some interpretive wiggle-room, for sure.


  10. As you say, I'm not valuing one as better than the other, embracing chaos or embracing order. I agree that it's interesting to look at why the dear old poets felt as they felt. As the saying goes, "The past is a foreign country," so sometimes when studying Victorian values I feel like I'm doing ethnographic fieldwork. It can feel that alien from my own life now. (BTW, have you read Robert Peters' excellent work on the Victorian poets?)

    But we also are not floating consciousness in a value-free nebula of assessment. We're still people with our own alliances. We feel as we do, now, as well. So we also need to know where we might fall along a given continuum.

    For myself, having spent a lot of time reading Jung, I would say that both chaos and order are necessary, both Dionysis and Apollo, and that when we get into trouble is usually when we fall off the point of dynamic balance one way or the other. I could make a case for Eliot having fallen out of balance on the side of embracing order; a case you sort of make here, anyway. It seems to me that Yeats was trying to stay on balance between chaos and order, allowing chaos into the poetry while trying to make order happen politically. If we look at things through the lens of finding this dynamic balance, how does it affect one's interpretation? Food for thought.

  11. Yeats? Sure! The whole business of going to his wife Georgie's automatic writing, then reshaping the material consciously, would argue for a process much like the balancing act you describe.

  12. Bob, I realize this is just a detail, but the Christ option seems much more plausible to me. We humans have limited gentleness (alas) and capacity for suffering (thank goodness); that either of these could be infinite is a "fancy" one can imagine occurring unprompted; together they're pretty distinctive. (And we know where TSE went in later years.)

    I like these poems too, but I have to say there's a tinge of class prejudice to them. Even the short, square fingers seem meant to suggest manual labor.

  13. Oh, totally. Class prejudice is all over these things. I mean, he's different from us, T.S., and despite the kind of American pep-talk "difference is good!" mantra, not all difference is something we find it easy to stomach. One of the funny things about early TSE is the way the poems are simultaneously very guarded and very revealing: there's acute confessionalism in them, about his jammed-up sexuality, about his quiet rage at his family, about his class-prejudice, his discomfort with human proximity, about his anti-semitism, about his religious crisis, etc. -- but all deflected or oblique, sometimes by the old "objective correlative," sometimes just by syntax and bits of ellipsis.

    As for the Christ reading -- well, maybe we have a theological difference. I mean, Christ for me is both entirely divine and entirely human (as an image -- I'm no kind of Christian). But I see what you mean. And I think the poem is ambiguous enough for there to be wiggle room even beyond the territory we're staking out.



  14. Jamie McKendrick11:16 PM

    Eliot keeps that "notion of some infinitely gentle/ infinitely suffering thing" vague - 'fancies', 'notions','thing' so there has to be a space for interpretation as long as it acknowledges that the poem denies the reader any certainty. The nature of this "thing" would seem very much in opposition to the "eyes/Assured of certain certainties".
    The problem with identifying it with "humanity" is that the descriptions of people in the poem have been characterised by fastidious distaste up to this point.
    Still the account of Eliot's uprooted urban life makes sense of the images and, perhaps, of his later yearning for a like-minded Christian community. In another context entirely,that of Italian Catholic anti-Semitism of about the same time and of a very similar nature, I've been thinking about his remark in 'After Strange Gods': “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.” - Though some of the theological bigotry is more wary (for reasons of conversion)than Eliot is of the concept of "race".
    It's always struck me as extraordinary that Eliot, being an immigrant, should presume to proffer such ugly advice as to which(very specific)kind of immigrants are undesirable.

  15. Despite writing extensively about the metaphysical poets, I always had the impression that Eliot was pretty anti-mystical. Yeats was far more open to the spiritual, in the end than Eliot, as you know.

    Which is why Yeats, I believe, would have known something that perhaps Eliot did not, despite his religious conversion(s). That is: The term Christ is an office, properly referred to as "the Christ." Lots of people just think Christ was jesus' surname. LOL In fact, there's a whole mystical tradition around the figure of the Cosmic Christ that I'm pretty sure Yeats knew about. I don't know if Eliot did.

    On the other hand, there is the "Four Quartets." I always find it interesting how many of Eliot's hardcore rationalist fans reject those poems as somehow a betrayal by Eliot of his own poetic principles. And yet I've always found them to be sublime.

  16. Thanks for the interesting essay Bob. That early collection was one of the first books of poetry I read. Powerful stuff; the compelling rhythms and imagery were intoxicating, difficult if not impossible to get out of the bloodstream.

    Re class prejudice, of course Eliot was prejudiced, and clearly racist too. But I think it's worth keeping in mind that the voice in poems such as the Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night (and also Prufrock, which they are forerunners of) is that of a persona. If these poems were short stories, or short films as per the images above, this might be more obvious. No doubt there is more than a flavour of Eliot's personality (to paraphrase P Kavanagh), but I think a distinction should be made between Prufrock & Co and the old Possum himself.

  17. Oops! I think I said Rhapsody and Preludes were 'forerunners' of Prufrock. Hardly, since they were published in the same collection! Please disregard/delete both these comments. Thanks.

  18. Nifty work, Bob. Only caveat -- acc. again to Southam, Preludes I & II were written at Harvard in 1910, so prob not showing the influence of TSE in London.

  19. Hey, people. Thanks for all the comments. A bit much to respond to as I run off to a bonehead meeting, but I should say a couple of things:

    - I see Jaime's point about the infinite suffering/gentle thing being at odds with the particular images of sordid life -- I like to read the line as a moment where Eliot entertains (as a "fancy") a sense of humanity transcending its sordid condition, before he dismisses it with the wipe of the hand. But yes, agreed -- the passage is polysemous (which fits the whole symboliste thing in young Eliot).

    -Scroggins. Damn it. Right you are. Sadly, the Kindle edition comes without notes. So in the imaginary errata sheet for this post let's add the entry "In discussion of 'Preludes,' for 'London' read 'Greater Boston.'"

    -Granier. I'm a bit of a heretic when it comes to the whole "it's a speaker not the poet" thing in many lyric poems, probably because of spending too much time with the Romantics, where in many cases the distance separating speaker and poet diminishes almost to the vanishing point. I suppose I technically subscribe to the faith of Wayne Booth (the narrator is different from the implied author who is different from the author per se) but in practice I tend to let that slide, probably more than I should.

    -Art -- yes, Eliot's is certainly a different kind of religious impulse than what we find in Yeats. For TSE, there's a strong attraction to the social or community-oriented angle of religion, but Yeats (in part due to his negative reaction to post-liberation Ireland's heavy-handed Catholicism -- see the "Crazy Jane" poems) was often wary of that aspect, unless it came in a form where he felt empowered (as in his days dreaming of an almost missionary Irish mystic order based at Castle Whatsit (can't remember the name, rushing out the door).



  20. One further thought:

    Are we finally at the point where we can admit to ourselves that urban alienation, as central to Modernism as it once was, has now become unnecessary? That it's just a pose?

    We have never been more connected, technologically, by choice, then we are now. Social networks, indeed. So if we want to remain alienated, especially in terms of our literary expression, we need to admit to ourselves that what was once a deep cultural insight (early Modernism) has by now become an artistic cliché and fashionable accessory (postmodernism).

    When I read Eliot, even now, I feel that his urban alienation was authentic. It was of his times, it was genuine, and it was one of the New Things that had to be told about in poetry (since poetry is the news, as some other early Modern put it). When I read "The Waste Land" even now, I still get that charge.

    But when I read that same urban alienation stance in poetry written in the past twenty years or so, it feels at best derivative, at worst merely a reflection of literary fashion in which someone thinks they're supposed to talk that way about life.

    Octavio Paz wrote in one of his great essays on literature about fragmentation, about how the tools and techniques of the original avant-garde have become exaggerated, mannerist, and what Paz called "avantgardism." All revolution, all the time, even when the establishment one used to revolt against has dissolved, and the revolutionaries have become the new establishment. As such, fragmentation and alienation as literary tropes are recycled tropes, no longer fresh and meaningful. My biggest problem with fashionable trends like flarf, which essentially are recombinant remixes using existing collage techniques, is that it's nothing new or particularly original. Yawn. When Gysin and Burroughs invented their cut-up method back in the 1960s, it yielded some pretty amazing results. By comparison, the hot new things in literary remixing are rather bland.

    It also seems to me that the idea that there's nothing to be done about urban alienation, that the problem is insoluble, has become another fashionable pose, rather than an authentic one. Of course there are things that CAN be done about urban alienation—but their doing requires giving up one's pose of angst-filled ironic (academic?) distance, in favor of becoming actively engaged, and reaching out a hand in simple compassion towards another. We seem to spend a great deal of effort writing about our helplessness in the face of the end of world—apocalyptic fiction, the pornography of despair, has never been more popular—rather than looking for answers. I don't like Eliot's autocratic answers; he was much better at asking questions. And there IS a lot of pain in the world. But "Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased."

  21. Conditions certainly are different. Barring catastrophe, I think I must belong to the last generation of people to lose track of their high school friends.


  22. Your skepticism about "comprehensive plans" is of course wise. My work is about Texas farmers,and there is no more skeptical population. Yet even they, in the thirties, had to come to realize that skepticism taken to the extreme merely paralyzes good people and allows economic monsters to take over the field.