From Despair to Reconciliation

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Issue 291
July/August 2015
Climate: It is a moral issue

Reviews

From Despair to Reconciliation
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Cover: Community, 2014 by Giorgia Siriaco www.gioeucalyptus.com

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Peter Abbs applauds a biography of a poet who shaped modern sensibility. Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land by Robert Crawford. Jonathan Cape, 2015. ISBN: 9780224093880

Lift your eyes Where the roads dip and where the roads rise Seek only there Where the grey light meets the green air The hermit’s chapel, the pilgrim’s prayer.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of T.S. Eliot’s death; a time for tributes, celebrations and further evaluations. And many will take place, for Eliot remains a permanent figure in the landscape of literary modernism. To date the most dramatic event has been the publication of a new monumental biography by the poet Robert Crawford. It must be the most detailed study so far, meticulous in its documentation and eloquent in its execution.

Young Eliot takes the life of the poet from his birth in Missouri in 1888 to the publication of The Waste Land – after it had been brilliantly honed by Ezra Pound – in 1922. At that key moment, Eliot was only 34 and had not lived half his allotted span of years. It is, therefore, heartening to know that Crawford plans to bring out a second volume taking in Eliot’s later work. Certainly, without a full consideration of the growth of his metaphysical masterpiece, Four Quartets, we could not have a rounded portrait of this seminal figure and his final accomplishment. As with all penetrating biographies, the new study of Eliot makes us ask the important questions: why does this man still matter to us? And what is the true nature of his achievement?

One way to suggest Eliot’s importance is to say that he helped to shape the sensibility of our confused age, what he once described as our immense panorama of futility and anarchy. He seemed to know us before we knew ourselves, and gave us a language to meet our perplexed experience. It can be no accident that so many of his lines, like those from the Bible and Shakespeare, have now become all but part of the common language: I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; April is the cruellest month; I will show you fear in a handful of dust; On Margate sands / I can connect / Nothing with Nothing.

But Eliot’s power to create haunting musical cadences was only part of his creative gift. He also possessed a genius for philosophical formulation. Like Dante, Coleridge and Goethe, he was a philosopher-poet. Again and again, in his unending struggle to define an adequate metaphysical aesthetic for the ailing modern world, he coined some of the most arresting formulations. Like many of his memorable poetic phrases, many of these have become part of our collective understanding. Contemporary poets and students of literature will be familiar with all of them: the “dissociation of sensibility”, the “auditory imagination”, the “objective correlative”. Of these many sharp-minded formulations, often designed to counter the excessive subjectivity of Romanticism, I have always found Eliot’s notion of art as the “simultaneous order” one of the most resonant and insightful.

In an early essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent – an essay which for all its dry academic tone was very much a personal artistic manifesto for a radically new style of writing – Eliot described culture as if it were a living ecosystem in which the whole was always greater than the sum of the parts. The individual parts gained their life from interaction with the whole, but (like Gaia) the whole remained supreme. It was a stunning conception.

Inherently holistic and dynamic, such a broad vision thwarts any smaller provincial view of art or history. It is a conservationist aesthetic. And Eliot, who had been reading the Upanishads in Sanskrit, Heraclitus in Greek, Spinoza in Latin, and Dante in Italian, felt he was more than ready to put the theory into immediate practice. In the essay the philosopher-critic was, above all, addressing the poet-creator in himself, saying to himself: Okay, then, now take on the challenge!

And, as we know, the conservationist understanding of the place of the past was revolutionary in its manifestation – almost as crazy as the Dada movement in art, but more lasting, and infinitely more profound. For while extolling the power of the great tradition, Eliot was painfully aware that the present moment was one of painful fracture, and of a deep ecological and spiritual disorientation. He was highly sensitive to the disturbances he felt in himself – The Waste Land was to emerge from a serious emotional breakdown – but also aware of the broken syncopated rhythms that surrounded him on all sides: in Cubism, in Futurism, in stream-of-consciousness writing, in various cinematic experiments, as well as the general quickening of the tempo of life itself. Any evocation of the past would have to be experienced through the disturbing vibrations of the present anguish. For Eliot, this meant a style based on manifold echoes, dislocations of chronology and sudden shifts of tone and sense. Not regular metre or continuous narrative, but the splicing of disparate voices and montage narration. A poetry of broken images, layered cadences, multiple meanings.

It was Eliot’s genius to provide both the theory and the practice of a modern aesthetic for the art of poetry. It made its indelible mark through a modest procession of early work, especially The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Preludes, Gerontion, The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday. These lyrical and polyphonic poems marked a new, uneasy rhythm and a complex sensibility. They made clear the hidden lineaments of modern consciousness.

But there was much more to Eliot’s achievement than a change of style. What was crucial is that he also represented a spiritual quest for redemption. In the story of Modernism he stands as a kind of senex figure, an old man – he always figured himself as old – who has suffered much, but who can see, at times, beyond the bewildering confusion. Eliot’s work thus expresses the struggle of the spirit and the quest for the Holy Grail in an industrial-technological world, a culture of calculation and the will to power, but devoid of soul.

Yet The Waste Land, for all its evocation of dryness and despair, draws together at one climactic point the Buddhist and Christian traditions of ascesis, and ends with the beautiful reconciling cadences taken from the Upanishads: shantih, shantih, shantih. The yearning in the poet, even from an early age, was always to go beyond nihilism. In his own notes for the poem, Eliot, using a phrase from Saint Paul, translated the Sanskrit words through the Christian words The Peace which passeth understanding.

Paradoxically, by the law of dialectical association, the concept of a waste land points towards the very thing it occludes: the contrary state of being inside an all-encompassing mystery. This larger vision of being is given full musical expression in Eliot’s last great work, Four Quartets. This poem must be one of the greatest religious works in the English language, urging, as it does, a condition of complete simplicity / costing not less than everything. Rooted in the whole of the past, it yet remains an incomparable work, standing alone and consistently subverting any single label that one might place upon it.

As far as it was possible, the author-pilgrim had come home. The grey light had found the green air. And this was T.S. Eliot’s final achievement.

Peter Abbs is poetry editor for Resurgence & Ecologist.

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