(Poem #354) The Waste Land (Part IV)
IV. Death By Water Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell And the profit and loss. A current under sea Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell He passed the stages of his age and youth Entering the whirlpool. Gentile or Jew O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
Eliot, like Empson and Coleridge, has an equal reputation as both poet and critic. His most famous words in the latter capacity are these: "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." - which ties in quite nicely with our discussions of last week. He himself follows his prescription quite scrupulously (though it has to be said, Eliot was never an emotional poet, always an intellectual one); the perceived 'difficulty' in his poetry rises from the fact that he chooses to eliminate the connections between his 'sets of objects, situations and chains of events' leaving it to the reader to elucidate what meanings he or she can. And his range of reference is extremely wide - he quotes Virgil, Dante, Kyd, Mallarme and the Gita with equal facility. In his own words: "Tradition is a matter of [great] significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity." And, rather more snappily: "Some one said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did." Precisely, and they are that which we know." This makes for a fascinating intellectual exercise - Eliot's poems reward patient study and analysis - but it also opens him up to criticisms like Yeats': "He wrings the past dry and pours the juice down the throats of those who are too busy or too creative to read as much as he does." Yeats' quote may have some truth in it, but it is nonetheless unfair to Eliot and to the Modernist poets in general; their works way be erudite and inaccessible, but they remain, incontrovertibly, poetry of the highest order. Which is the point I wanted to make with this extract. 'The Waste Land' is, quite simply, the most important poem of the twentieth century; its influence on poets, critics and readers cannot be overestimated. But what often gets lost amid the wealth of cross-references and quotations, the multi-layered symbolism, the innovations in form and technique, the pschological insight - indeed, all that made the poem revolutionary - is that Eliot retains a consummate mastery of the language, with the ability to craft utterly beautiful verse. Like the lines above. thomas. [Links] All the Eliot quotes are from his collection of critical essays, 'The Sacred Wood', which you can read online at the Project Bartleby archive: [broken link] http://www.peart.com/bartleby/eliot/index.html The Yeats quote is from memory, so it's probably not verbatim.