T. S. Eliot
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Reviewed by Marylin Mell
Indeterminacy can be understood as that which hovers, quivers, and pushes towards a fulfillment never quite achieved. Despair fractures us, forcing us to burrow inside ourselves, and plumb the depths of shadowed sadness. One cannot live fully if committed to uncertainty and habitually shutting out others, or so T. S. Eliot repeatedly muses. Offered as part of Oxford University’s Lives and Legacies series, Craig Raine’s study insists upon recognizing the pivotal importance of feeling in appraising Eliot as a master poet and critic. In “The Social Function of Poetry” (1945) Eliot claimed that it is the failure to express emotions which leads to their atrophy, and that one of poetry’s central goals must be “the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility” . All considerations of the heart, nuanced feelings, desires thwarted and achieved, and all ironies thereby implied by this redirected reading of a poet too often misunderstood as stone cold are placed dead center in this reassessment. Not to know one’s self emerges as the approximation of not to live. Within this anxiety-producing center, Eliot’s work finds its slant: establishing a space where the play of emotions is to be maximized, then distanced through an aesthetic framing where all false sentiments are banished. In deftly tracing out Eliot’s inner conflicts, Raine stages his sequence of chapters as: an Introduction on Eliot and the Buried Life, followed by The Failure to Live, Eliot as Classicist: The Inquiry into Feelings, The Wasteland, Four Quartets, Drama, and Criticism.
Eliot’s eye is persistently drawn to the contours of life too quickly eroded by the weight of unrealized potential, possibilities too long contemplated or actions never taken. He meditates upon how a life not lived feels akin to being pushed inside a grave until the flesh itself seems buried alive. “After Strange Gods” offers the assertion “but most people are only flesh very little alive” . Eliot takes Matthew Arnold’s theme of the buried life as a cornerstone to his own life long meditations, even as he consciously seeks both to modernize and maximize its depths. Quoting Animula, a 1929 poem, Raine shows the pivotal importance of how death creeps into life, potentially capturing us as the “little soul”:
Life drains away in an awful tedium, and authentic self-recognition is a rarity in relationship to the ever-shifting false identities we keep constructing to survive daily struggles. Animula shares with The Waste Land (1922) death as a common topos, its “accumulated documentation, the paper detritus we leave behind” . Raine sets these two poems as the measure of how Eliot envisions life caught in death: Animula showcases the “little soul” while The Waste Land magnifies the problem of “blood shaking my heart” . Deceit and illusion offer us daily companionship, allowing us to keep betraying ourselves and others in routine fashion. In “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” (1927), Eliot referenced Nietzsche and his quasi-fatalist philosophy pronounced in Beyond Good and Evil, “I have done that,” says memory. “I cannot have done that”—says my pride, and remains adamant. At last—memory yields” . Raine indicates that Eliot’s method is first to pinpoint, and then to explore this space of dialectical tension, the human impulse to defer responsibility for our wrong doings as long as possible. History, too, surfaces as a space where the psyche comes to understand its own alienation. In Gerontian, the poem famously poses the question—“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”— followed by the speaker considering how “history has many cunning passages, contrived corridors” where:
At this juncture, between the truths we cannot inhabit, or even continually fail to grasp, and the costumed selves we construct to cloak our memories and exorcise ghosts who haunt us, lies the seeds of Eliot’s profundity. As he struggles to overthrow the shadow of Romanticism, and what he perceived as its indulgence in over-steeped feelings, Eliot preferred to concentrate on those fugitive emotions which hover at the outskirts of consciousness, not quite fully recessed, but still influencing how we act . In the poet’s attempts to animate the force of emotions, and to craft a space where they exert maximum sway, Eliot’s signature moves spin.
While meticulously framing Eliot’s radical questioning of time and consciousness, Raine asks for an aggressive redirect of Eliot’s reception. Eliot needs to be reclaimed as the critic who in reflecting upon Dante’s far reaching achievement asserted that “poetry can communicate before it is understood” . Eliot shifts us from an emphasis on what we feel to what we ought to feel. In his work we can see and feel a slow crawl towards a centering calm. Four Quartets plays with what happens when the simultaneity of time is collapsed. This phenomenon is gorgeously materialized in its East Coker section where the frisson of late November and the disturbance of spring kinetically shape the haunting, but subtle image of “Late roses filled with snow” . Raine’s brilliant eye, shaped by his own decades of laboring as a poet and a professor, frequently dazzles as it glosses Eliot’s illuminations. In attempting to show why it would be a gross miscalculation to cast Eliot as a cold fish, a man disconnected from his feelings, Raine insists that the creator of Prufrock should not be mislabeled as priggish or hopelessly indecisive. False polarizations have framed him through a prism of half-truths: the century’s most famous poet, but also its most abstruse; a would-be American philosopher academician turned diligent editor and publisher; a man whose too fierce infatuation rushed him into marriage, only to have his separation and failed marriage be dragged through the long trials of his wife’s infidelity, madness, and sanitarium commitment. Raine indicates that critics have failed to recognize the contradiction between the risks he took in his personal life and “his dominant theme of debilitating caution” [xv]. It is the recasting of experience, the need to reconfigure emotion into its new and heightened form inside the language of the poem that surfaces as pivotal. Great art results, not from the magnitude of feelings, but by pushing past “the control of accidentals, of subjectivity, of mere contingencies” and submitting to “the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place” [xvi].
Eliot positioned the theories of impersonality and the objective correlative as his working center. Using this non-subjective center as his modus operandi, Eliot reacted against the Romantics’ legacy of extravagant feeling still lodged in modern poetry, and attempted to push through modernism’s jarred and jumbled reframing of classicism, towards a space where a new-styled objectivity could resonate. In his theory of the objective correlative, he sets up as a mannered way of understanding how poetry works. How is it that a poet can manipulate a sequence of images which will allow him to stir a similitude of the same experience in another? In other words, how does language allow a reduplication of, not the experience, but the feelings it originally provoked? Ironically, and Eliot is highly aware of art’s staging of its own heightened pleasure, a poem can more powerfully configure the original emotion in its second casting, even allowing it to be experienced with greater depth. Yet how does this nearly miraculous transmutation occur? It happens when and where “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events . . . shall be the formula of that particular emotion” . This intricate relationship is knotted in how the emotions are tied to the visual. Eliot evaluates Macbeth as a successful play since Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking physically embodies her guilt, and audiences intuit this immediately. In contrast, Eliot judged Hamlet as a failure since the Danish prince presents occluded emotions. How can the audience determine what the Prince himself fails to do, since his emotions are quite powerful but, nonetheless, “unparticular and unfocused” . Here Eliot can be seen reworking Matthew Arnold’s meditations on how “the buried life” surfaces as “the failure to realize our emotional potential`-- essentially because the business of living supplants the cultivation of the inner life” [xx]. Hamlet explodes with emotions, and he is stamped with a rich inner life, but his dramatic presence falters since he fails to bypass his own indeterminacy. In contrast to the Renaissance where Shakespeare is able to work with emotions recherché, or inexpressible emotions, Eliot as a modernist labors to achieve artistic objectivity by stamping a new posture on what was actually lived and felt. His method is to stagger its reenactment, a disingagement with what actually happened, and insisting upon a new shape for what was originally felt.
One of the monograph’s more intriguing observations is that language itself can disrupt perception. Eliot’s major and minor poems illustrate how the poet re-treads experience, infusing it with deflected emotion, until how we see the world itself is altered. Writing about Baudelaire in 1930, Eliot pronounced:
Raine suggests Eliot’s position must be read in a non-literal manner, but from a perspective informed by the modernist battle between theology and humanism. Eliot took as his stance that moral relevancy was dangerous since its slippery slope ended with nothing really mattering. The Hollow Men offers an extended attack on negativity, but it is also interested in tracing out the treacherous path by which we close ourselves off from others. If limbo is identified as ‘the valley of dying stars’ - “an eternity of entropy”, it is a space belonging to “the paltry who were never alive” whose averted eyes never meet another’s gaze . Eyes focus instead on “sunlight on a broken column” as souls plead “let me be no nearer” . In the third section, What the Thunder Said, religion is attacked as a space where false transferences may occur. Religion and prayer are to be viewed as suspect if they insist upon disfiguring eros, on disguising the erotic rather than embracing it directly . Religion is split from spirituality, and surfaces as evasion, substitution, transference when:
Limbo is understood as “death’s dream kingdom” , a space where we move towards death, but have not yet embraced it. Eliot’s poetry illustrates how poetry enacts experience as held in abeyance and possibly understood for the first time only inside of literature. Operationally, poetry prods consciousness into more fully recognizing the depth inside the daily lives from which we habitually retreat.
In this space where language is seen as recasting experience, even negatives can have a presence. For it is in the fullness of speech that language discovers what is at odds with experience. Eliot crafts a language which descends into a space simultaneously present and other. In The Wasteland, Wagner fades into the hyacinth girl, and Madame Sosostris, the medium in “The Burial of the Dead” surfaces as a tabloid Tiresias . Eliot creates a poetry capable of descending into “race memory” where the original excitement once felt by our ancestors returns. A Cockney version of The Wasteland announces:
Eliot explores how what appears has already appeared. In Four Quartets, he wrestles with mysticism, an experience which resists being slotted into either linear or simultaneous time. In Section V of Burnt Norton, “all is always now” until eventually “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break under the burden” . Time is recognized as utterly unchangeable, as evidenced elsewhere by how “gods are remade constantly and put to service in different religions” . In Four Quartets Eliot sculpts new inroads to the rather stodgy mystical tradition of English’s religious poetry. Quoting how words will “slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still” . This manipulation of linguistic indeterminacy, a stylistic choice Raine cites Eliot as intentionally choosing before the craze of Derrida’s deconstruction, is employed to generate slippage. It is here inside of Eliot’s deft manipulation of a linguistic formula which appears sloppy on its surface where he can cleverly describe “something that takes place out of time, yet can only be remembered in time” . Raine frames how Eliot’s poetic temperament oeuvre is stamped through this overlay of multiple surfaces, a process relying upon the conjoining of technique and emotion. This doubling of experience and meaning is traced through Eliot’s abiding respect and modeled borrowing from Dante. Raine illustrates how Eliot turns to previous manifestations of vision-literature as a way of reflecting and shaping his own poetic versions. What is being commented upon is that Eliot looked to his predecessors as a way of tapping into his own poetic powers. Here, too, then is a doubling: Eliot looking to poetry’s past as a way of considering how to best sculpt his own immediate, national, or mythic past. Yet, it is always the tentative which gets powerfully released.
Eliot claimed that to master Shakespeare was to grasp literature almost in its entirety, so Raine’s mastery of Eliot offers access to modern literature’s central terrain. Eliot argued that all of Shakespeare was actually one poem, and Raine labors to present Eliot’s oeuvre as a seamless whole. He admiringly underscores Eliot’s strategic restraint in coming to know himself, while suggesting it is this thinker’s astonishing ability to pause and reload which propelled him into becoming a great poet of the ages .
Tennyson pondered how our coming to terms with knowledge that cannot be gained at once, but insists upon its delayed reception offers us access to our own hidden depths. In Memoriam (1850) commemorates the life of Arthur Henry Hallam, meditating upon how emotions, especially grief, cannot readily be tapped, but must be fished for:
Repeatedly, Raine displays his gift for tracing out these sorts of evolutions, of establishing contexts for how better to understand Eliot. Raine suggests that to grapple with the complexity of Eliot’s religious thought, his skepticism must be framed inside of time. Eliot is one who must be read in conjunction with others, especially Arnold, Wordsworth, and Tennyson, and not in isolation. What Eliot seeks to do throughout his life’s work is what he announces poetry must do in “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” (1933.) Poetry should seek to keep a reader’s mind “diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him” . Throughout his life, Eliot labored to master those literary tricks which would achieve these ends. Still Raine maintains that the key to Eliot’s integration as a poet is his meditation on the synthesis of the auditory and the imagination. Raine indicates is not accidental that the for Eliot the auditory imagination “also serves as an account of the buried life in language” . For what is happening is that the oral qualities of poetry:
Raine indicates that in Eliot’s emphasis on how the auditory imagination melds sound and meaning, he is again illustrating how the base and the profound intermingle in literature and its operations . Strategically, Raine has demonstrated in this monograph how emotions work within a parallel sphere of semiotic organization. For what is happening is that sound and its effect on the ear, or how we hear utterances, is repeated in the patterning of how we process emotions.
If, as Raine claims, The Wasteland is the greatest poem stamped by impersonality, there nevertheless is imbued inside his life’s wok a desire to rewrite history. He cannot completely exclude himself, or his sometimes overbearing passions and even petty annoyances, from his work. Despite his commitment to shifting away from the tyranny of the subjective position, Raine concedes that Eliot, and especially his reception, is burdened by his voice: its signature, styles, and mannered ways . He is a poet of many voices, “all of them Eliotian”, which collectively generate a “shining verbal stylistic signature” which can grow wearying . Yet, Raine’s admiration for the complexity of Eliot’s gifs will not be so easily put off by this potential irritation. Instead, he suggests that great writers exude this sense of style even in translation. Raine offers Eliot this accolade: Eliot is a poet who can be recognized and must be praised for his ability to surprise us with his vocal unpredictability. At the last, Eliot must be appraised as one who writes, not about himself, but about all of us and our buried histories.