Friday, April 30, 2010

T.S. Eliot has a massive reputation that extends beyond poetry afficionados and into the larger world. Reading Adam Fieled's article, and re-reading Eliot's work recently, I can't help thinking that rarely has such a big reputation been built on so slender an achievement. I do value much of Eliot's poetry, and I wouldn't like to be without such poems as Prufrock, Ash Wednesday and Marina. But there are many other twentieth century poets whose work seems much more substantial, and some of Eliot's work, like the Sweeney poems, seems rather dated now. The concept of "The Waste Land" entered the popular imagination in the same way that the concept of "Waiting for Godot" did; but "The Waste Land" was co-authored with Ezra Pound, and, re-reading "Four Quartets" I can't help thinking that that poem would have benefited from Pound's red pen.

"The Four Quartets" has some striking images, and some fine passages, which are deservingly well-known: the passage with the thrush, the children and the pool in sunlight (forgive the paraphrase) in "Burnt Norton", or the opening of "The Dry Salvages":

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
is a strong brown god...

But much of the poem reads like a long-winded sermon, with way too much verbiage. "The Dry Salvages", following the passage just quoted, descends into line after line of this type of thing:

I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations - not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable...

I can't be persuaded that this is skillful writing; that last line reminds me of the unintentional bathos in some of Wordsorth's late poetry. Overall "The Four Quartets" reads like a series of
striking images and short, pleasing passages - usually when the poet uses concrete imagery - padded out with long sections that are simply verbose and badly written; including the version of Dante in "Little Gidding" which makes a mockery of Dante's fast moving and snappy dialogue. Is this a heresy? Or is Eliot's reputation not what it was in academia or elsewhere?


I re-read "Four Quartets" at the same time as re-reading Beckett's "Worstword Ho" - a piece written much later, but about the same length, and the contrast was marked. Beckett's poem espouses an outlook that's unredeemably bleak - no consummating final image ("the fire and the rose are one") for him; and yet, "Worstword Ho" is not depressing to read: the language is innovatory, and the poem, paradoxically, feels like a celebration of language, and thereby of human endeavour.


Aidan Semmens said...

Sure, Alan, there's not really much Eliot that's worth keeping - but the little good stuff there is matches up to almost anything the 20th century has to offer, at least in England.
If Pound was so crucial to The Waste Land, how come it's so much better than anything he wrote himself?
As Pound himself put it (I paraphrase), it's better to write one good image in a lifetime than voluminous works. Pity he didn't follow that advice himself.
Oh, and if you're on the trail of over-inflated reputations, how about Pound? I'd happily jettison him (and his musical equivalent Wagner) out into deep space. How such a flatulent writer came to have such influence, and how that influence spawned such fine work from some others, is to me one of the great mysteries.

Alan Baker said...

Aidan, you ask of Pound "How such a flatulent writer came to have such influence, and how that influence spawned such fine work from some others". Well that's an interesting question. First, I'm not sure I'd describe all of Pound's work as long-winded (or "flatulent"). A poem like "The Return" for example is economical, carved verse. But yes, the Cantos can be very long-winded in places. I think the thing that Pound did was to try (and sometimes invent) a whole bunch of techniques and ideas that other writers could take and refine (and often improve). Certainly, Pound no longer seems such a influential figure, compared to, say, Wallace Stevens; he seems to have wanted poetry to be more than it was (a history, an encyclopedia, an economics textbook) which had the effect of reducing poetry to those things. As for The Waste Land, it's interesting that a collaborative effort produced something better than either of those poets could have produced individually.

Aidan Semmens said...

OK, you're right, Pound was capable of writing taut verse. As Verdi said of Wagner, he has some wonderful moments, and some dreadful quarters of an hour. It's the Cantos I mostly object to.
All your other points seem fair :-)