Appendix 13: Eliot Possessed?

The dramatic changes in emphasis and style of post-War poetry are well typified by Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”, first published in1922. Regarded as a symbolic poem of urban despair (1a) (not, seemingly, an issue for Victorian poetry, despite the social issues of the Industrial Revolution, but see note 6 below), it was, as stated earlier, a sort of avant garde “Lamentations of Jeremiah”, written in a style that has been variously likened to a cubist painting, to a literary collage, and to viewing the world as reflected in a shattered mirror. Eliot was hailed as “the sceptic of the hour, the spokesman for the ‘lost’ generation, venting the bitterness of its disillusion with the elders who had led them into a needless war”. (1b) Actually, Eliot objected to this image of him, for, as he saw it, his devotees were focussing on the despair in the poem, without seeing this as “subsidiary to a search for belief.” (1c) To be fair to his devotees, however, though the urban despair is obvious, in such lines as “I think we are in rats’ alley” (line 115) and “Unreal City / Under the brown fog of a winter noon” (lines 207-8), the “search for belief” is far from obvious. The significance of the lines “To Carthage then I came / Burning burning burning burning/ O Lord Thou pluckest me out” (lines 307-9) remains unclear, even given Eliot’s own notes on the lines, indicating that lines  307 & 309 are from St. Augustine’s Confessions, and line 308 from Buddha’s “Fire Sermon”. Eliot’s readers can be forgiven for not realising that these lines indicate “a search for belief”, for they could just as easily indicate pious disdain, say. Much of Eliot’s preoccupation with, for example, the lives of the saints (eg the writings of St Augustine and St John of the Cross, or paintings of the martyrdom of St Sebastian) – hence with sin, redemption and the problem of evil – and with the likes of Evelyn Underhill’s classic book Mysticism (1911) (1d) – remained so much in the background that his devotees can surely be forgiven for getting the emphasis of the poem wrong. The fact that the final version of the poem was heavily edited (1e) may well have contributed to this. For example, section IV of the poem, “Death by Water”, was edited down from an original 93 lines to a mere 10 lines (2a). Again, some 40 lines written in about 1915, which were originally, it seems, intended as part of the “The Waste Land”, were all but cut out (they remain as lines 25-29), becoming, instead, the poem “The Death of St. Narcissus”, which didn’t see publication until 1950.(2b) Had these lines remained part of “The Waste Land”, it might have made Eliot’s intentions a bit clearer. Or maybe not – many would argue that the poem was so obscure that one could happily have inserted part of a cake recipe into it, at random, without causing any more confusion than most readers had already suffered!  Eliot’s obscurity – not just in “The Waste Land” but in his other poems as well – is certainly a problem for would-be interpreters. But if “a search for belief” didn’t come across clearly in “The Waste Land”, it comes across clearly in his life-story. In 1927 he joined the Church of England (1f), disillusioning many of his devotees as a result, and the more so with his views on religious discipline as a solution to urban despair (1g). By 1934 we find him as a Vicar’s Warden at St Stephen’s Church (1h); in the years immediately after the Second World War we find him with an “extreme antipathy to the paganism of the age” and sleeping under a large crucifix (1i); and in 1954 we find him saying of himself that he combined “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinistic heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.” (1j

The search for belief is only one Omarian thread in Eliot’s life and poetry, however. There are others: the issues of “the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering” (1k); his “acute awareness of mortality” (1l); and the urge “to shed the illusions of Time and, with it, the temporal order: the deceptive schemes of sexual love, worldly ambition, and political power, all the vanities of all the fools under the sun” (1m). Again, Eliot closed his essay “Thomas Heywood”, written in 1931,with two lines from Heywood’s play, A Woman killed with Kindness (1607):

Oh God, Oh God! that it were possible
To undo things done; to call back yesterday!

Eliot rightly said of these lines that “surely no man or woman past their youth can read (them) without a twinge of personal feeling” (1n), and readers of the present essay will not need me to remind them of the overlap here with the “moving finger” of FitzGerald’s verse 51.

But how far was Eliot influenced by FitzGerald and Omar, or did he just follow a similar path? Certainly, at an early age Eliot did ‘discover’ The Rubaiyat. He wrote:

“I can recall clearly enough the moment when, at the age of fourteen or so, I happened to pick up a copy of FitzGerald’s Omar which was lying about, and the almost overwhelming introduction to a new world of feeling which this poem was the occasion of giving me. It was like a sudden conversion; the world appeared anew, painted with bright, delicious and painful colours. Thereupon I took the usual adolescent course with Byron, Shelley, Keats, Rossetti, Swinburne.”(3a)

At that time, he even wrote some very gloomy quatrains of his own in the form of The Rubaiyat, which, however, seem not to have survived. (4) Again, the opening lines of his 1920 poem “Gerontion” (“Here I am, an old man in a dry month,/ Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.”) are known to be based upon a description of FitzGerald in A.C.Benson’s biography of him (5). But by 1933 his youthful enthusiasm had waned, perhaps not surprisingly in view of his conversion to the Church of England, for in that year he wrote, “I can still enjoy FitzGerald’s Omar, though I do not hold that rather smart and shallow view of life.” (3b)

Whatever influence Omar had had on Eliot, it was not strong enough to feature in Lyndall Gordon’s 700 page biography of him (as note 1), unlike Dante, who was “the most profound, and persistent influence in his life because…he helped him see the connection between the medieval Christian inferno and modern life.” (1o) Another more profound influence on Eliot than FitzGerald came in 1908 when he picked up the newly published second edition of Arthur Symons’ book The Symbolist Movement in Literature, through which he discovered the French poet Jules Laforgue. Eliot referred to Laforgue as “the first to teach me how to speak.” (1p) Another major influence was Baudelaire, who “taught him the poetic possibilities of the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis” and “the possibility of juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact and the fantastic” (1q). In 1930 Eliot wrote an essay on Baudelaire (he wrote three on Dante in the course of his life!) (1r) He never wrote an essay on FitzGerald, though. Again, in the various available biographies of Eliot, the works of St. Augustine receive more mention than The Rubaiyat – indeed, in the majority of biographies, The Rubaiyat receives no mention at all.

We come, then, to the case that has been made, by Vinnie-Marie D’Ambrosio, in her book Eliot Possessed: T. S. Eliot & FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat (1989), for quite an extensive background, almost subliminal, and somewhat insidious influence of The Rubaiyat on Eliot and his poetry. Prof. D’Ambrosio charts what she calls Eliot’s “long struggle against ‘possession’” by Fitzgerald, starting with his “first intense acceptance” of The Rubaiyat, followed by “his enduring conflict with the poet and the poem”, and finally “his release from them.” (p.3) But when all of Eliot’s known direct comments on FitzGerald and The Rubaiyat (most of which I have quoted in full in this Appendix) can be summarised in a single paragraph, which Prof. D’Ambrosio actually does on her p.4, this simple fact alone leaves one seriously wondering whether Eliot could have been all that “possessed”! If one sits down and reads Eliot’s poems  in the cold light of day, it is difficult to see how Prof. D’Ambrosio reaches such conclusions as “FitzGerald exists under the parodic mask of Omar Khayyam in ‘The Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock’” (p.5); or how far it is Fitzgerald (as opposed to Eliot himself) who is represented as “an old, embittered, and skeptical recluse” in “Gerontion” (p.5); or how far it is FitzGerald (again as opposed to Eliot himself) who “rises, resolved, to archetypal size as Tiresias in ‘The Waste Land’” (p.5); or, finally, how it is that “the Rubaiyat was the protagonist’s ‘drug of dreams’” in “Animula”. (p.33)

Taking these in turn, D’Ambrosio says that “’Prufrock’ seems to be, of all Eliot’s poems, “the most heavily saturated with elements taken directly from (and sometimes twisted out of) the Rubaiyat.” (p.121) Yet the dispassionate reader will find little hard evidence for this. The most obvious “element” is Eliot’s phrase “some talk of you and me” which parallels FitzGerald’s “some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee” (verse 32), though the context in Prufrock is so different that even this could merely be a coincidence of words:

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worthwhile etc

Again, Eliot’s lines:

To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question

vaguely recall FitzGerald’s line “The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes” (verse 50); “Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all” recalls its opposite in the phrase “Not one returns to tell us of the Road” in verse 64 of FitzGerald’s 3rd, 4th & 5th editions (verse 67 in the 2nd); and Eliot’s phrase “as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen” recalls FitzGerald’s “Magic Shadow-show” (verse 46). Hardly “heavy saturation” with Omarian elements, and certainly not enough, for most readers, to see “FitzGerald … under the parodic mask of Omar Khayyam” in the poem! (For D’Ambrosio’s analysis of “Prufrock”, see her p.119-128.)

Moving to “Gerontion”, now, given Eliot’s own admission (p.150) that this poem used imagery based on Benson’s Life of Edward FitzGerald, one can certainly see that in the poem the phrases “an old man…being read to by a boy”, “my house is a decayed house”, “an old man in a draughty house” and “in a rented house” could certainly all be based on FitzGerald. But does this mean that the poem is in any real sense about Fitzgerald? Or has Eliot merely adopted some useful images of FitzGerald to adorn a fictional character (presumably representing Eliot himself) who also says “I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch” and who is “driven by the Trades to a sleepy corner” – whatever that might mean, for even D’Ambrosio is forced to admit that “Gerontion” is obscure even by Eliot’s standards (p.149)! Before I decide how far this poem is about FitzGerald, I would like to know to whom the line “the jew squats on the window sill” refers, and who “Mr Silvero…who walked all night in the next room” is! Likewise, who Hakagawa, Madame de Tornquist, and Fräuline von Kulp are, not to mention De Bailhache, Fresca and Mrs Cammel! A simple line by line reading of “Gerontion” reveals no phrases that unequivocally recall The Rubaiyat – not even anything as mildly suggestive as “some talk of you and me” in “Prufrock”. (For D’Ambrosio’s analysis of “Gerontion”, see her p.158-181.)

As regards The Waste Land, another simple line by line reading of the poem again reveals no phrases which unequivocally recall The Rubaiyat – again, not even anything as mildly suggestive as “some talk of you and me” in “Prufrock” – and the three mentions of Tiresias (in the third section of the poem) can hardly be said to refer unequivocally to FitzGerald! Indeed, D’Ambrosio’s links between Fitzgerald and Tiresias are at best tenuous – as indeed she herself admits at one point (p.146).To confuse matters even further, D’Ambrosio not only has FitzGerald as Tiresias, but she has Eliot as Tiresias as well. Indeed, at one point she assures us that “Eliot, Gerontion and Tiresias become one in the amusing line…. ‘There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes blind.’” (p.159) This, we should add, comes a few pages on from the assertion that Prufrock, Gerontion and Tiresias are “one developing persona”(p.151.)

As for D’Ambrosio’s claim that “the Rubaiyat was the protagonist’s ‘drug of dreams’” in Eliot’s poem “Animula”, the key line reads: “the pain of living and the drug of dreams”. This surely just refers to harsh reality and the means of escape from it., for – yet again – a simple line by line reading of the poem reveals no phrases which unequivocally recall The Rubaiyat – not even anything as mildly suggestive as “some talk of you and me” in “Prufrock” – nor any lines, like “an old man in a draughty house” in “Gerontion”, which recall FitzGerald via Benson’s biography. And yet D’Ambrosio says:

“It is Eliot’s belief in his own damnation that dominates Section III of “Animula”, the poem in which salvation becomes possible only by taking Dante’s part against a Tiresian FitzGerald.” (p.180)

But getting back to “The Waste Land”, on her p.183-188 D’Ambrosio gives a Table of Textual Comparisons between the poem and The Rubaiyat, FitzGerald’s Letters, and Benson’s FitzGerald. In her prefatory paragraph to this Table she writes:

“From that astonishing poem – perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century – comes Eliot’s final break with FitzGerald. But we have already been grounded prospectively for understanding the break, and we need only know, prefatorily, that Eliot’s characterological integration of FitzGerald with Gerontion definitely foreshadows FitzGerald’s integration with Tiresias, who speaks in The Waste Land. Eliot’s rupture with FitzGerald now occurs on several levels. The Rubaiyat itself still lives in Eliot’s poem, but in a transformation that bespeaks Eliot’s crushing power over it. The themes that the Rubaiyat shares with The Waste Land are fruitful to explore: sterility and fertility, isolation and alienation, time, the questioning attitude, power, the ambiguity of the ‘you’ address. A few of the many symbols shared, but transformed by Eliot’s forceful originality, are the waste, the desert, washing rituals, Nothingness, broken images, rebirth after burial, wind, Procne, checkerboard games. Even structural parallels exist, though transformed. The original drafts reveal, for example, that like the Rubaiyat, The Waste Land had at first opened with a tavern scene, and then, also like the Rubaiyat, proceeded to ruminations on spring. Even Omar’s language, when it is present, Eliot has exploded into atoms.” (p.181-2)

The trouble is that D’Ambrosio’s use of phrases like “a transformation that bespeaks Eliot’s crushing power over it”, “the many symbols shared, but transformed by Eliot’s forceful originality” and “Omar’s language, when it is present, Eliot has exploded into atoms” are actually tantamount to saying that The Waste Land isn’t really much like The Rubaiyat at all! The first comparison in her Table, for example, pairs Eliot’s opening lines of “The Waste Land” (“April is the cruellest month breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire…”) with the opening two lines of FitzGerald’s verse 4 (“Now the New Year reviving old Desires, / The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires…”)

One wonders if the situation isn’t akin to that encountered elsewhere in this essay (chapter 11), of an art critic interpreting Millais’ painting “Bubbles”. There is the problem of what we know Millais wanted to put in the painting, as opposed to what he might have put into it subconsciously, but there is also the problem of what the critic’s own imagination might have added to the interpretation. Actually, the situation is more complicated in the case of Eliot’s poems, because his wording is so obscure, and his meaning so uncertain, that one wonders if it allows some equally obscure and uncertain interpretations – a sort of literary Rorschach exercise. One wonders what Millais would have said about some interpretations of “Bubbles”, and likewise one wonders what Eliot himself would have said of Prof. D’Ambrosio’s book. If Eliot was so ‘possessed’, is it not surprising that he didn’t say more about The Rubaiyat in his essays – as G.K. Chesterton did, for example, when he famously dismissed The Rubaiyat as “a thing not fit for a white man”?

Notes to Appendix 13.

App. 13, Note 1
Lyndall Gordon, T.S.Eliot: an Imperfect Life (1998): a) p.156; b) p.192; c) p.189; d) p.88-90; e) p.185-7; f) p.223-4; g) p.227-8; h) p.261; i) p.460-1; j)p.532; k) p.64; l) p.120; m) p.261; n)p.243; o) p.85; p) p.39 & p.42; q) p.27; r) p.483.

App. 13, Note 2
See T.S.Eliot – The Waste Land: a Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, edited by Valerie Eliot (1971): a) p.54-61 & Gordon, op.cit. p.181-2 & p.361.    b) p.90-97 & Gordon, op.cit., p.153-4. (It is possible that what became “The Death of St Narcissus” was always intended as a separate poem, and that Eliot decided to ‘borrow’ 5 lines of it for “The Waste Land”. If so, the problem remains – the use of only 5 lines without the rest was almost bound to generate obscurity.)

App. 13, Note 3
a) This comes from Eliot’s book The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, first published in 1933, but with various reprints since. The quoted paragraph is to be found in the Introduction to the book, in his “Note to Chapter 1 on the Development of Taste in Poetry”. It is cited in some biographies, for example A.D. Moody, Thomas Stearns Eliot, Poet (1980), p.3and Peter Ackroyd, T.S.Eliot (1984), p.26.

b) From Eliot’s 1933 essay “Shelley and Keats” in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, p.91.

App. 13, Note 4
See, for example, Moody, as note 3, p.3; Ackroyd, as note 3, p.27. Valerie Eliot, in her Prefatory Note to Poems written in Early Youth by T.S.Eliot (1967), wrote, quoting what her husband had told her:

“At about fourteen he wrote ‘some very gloomy quatrains in the form of the Rubaiyat’ which had ‘captured my imagination’. These he showed to no-one and presumed he destroyed.” (p.7)

Eliot’s own account of these verses was given in an interview entitled “T.S.Eliot, The Art of Poetry No.1”, which was transcribed in the Paris Review no.21 (Spring-Summer 1959). He said:

“I began I think about the age of fourteen, under the inspiration of Fitzgerald's Omar Khayyam, to write a number of very gloomy and atheistical and despairing quatrains in the same style, which fortunately I suppressed completely – so completely that they don't exist. I never showed them to anybody.” (p.49)

App. 13, Note 5
F.O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (1958), p.62-3 & Matthiessen’s note 6 on p.73-4,and Moody, as note 3, p.66; Benson is the work referred to in note 1b of the main essay. The relevant passage is on Benson, p.142.

App. 13, Note 6
I am not aware of many examples, but George Meredith’s poem “London by Lamplight” (1851) is arguably an example of it, as is James Thomson’s more graphic poem, “The City of Dreadful Night” (1874), this latter fuelled by Thomson’s own depressive illness and alcoholism. Urban despair seems to be much more represented in the novel than in poetry, starting, of course, with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838), and later with Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845). Towards the end of the 19th century, the examples multiplied: Walter Besant's All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882); George Gissing's The Nether World (1889); Rudyard Kipling's The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot (1890); and what became, perhaps, one of the best known ‘smash hits’ of its time - Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896). Art, like Poetry, seems largely to have chosen not to dwell on urban despair, though many of Gustave Doré’s engravings in London - A Pilgrimage (1872) are excellent examples of it, as is Luke Fildes’s extraordinary painting “Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward” (1874).