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By Charles Matthews

Monday, February 1, 2010

Poem of the Day: T.S. Eliot

Five-Finger Exercises 

I. Lines to a Persian Cat 
The songsters of the air repair 
To the green fields of Russell Square
Beneath the trees there is no ease 
For the dull brain, the sharp desires 
And the quick eyes of Woolly Bear. 
There is no relief but in grief. 
O when will the creaking heart cease? 
When will the broken chair give ease? 
When will Time flow away?

II. Lines to a Yorkshire Terrier 
In a brown field stood a tree 
And the tree was crookt and dry. 
In a black sky, from a green cloud 
Natural forces shriek'd aloud, 
Screamed, rattled, muttered endlessly.
Little dog was safe and warm 
Yet the field was cracked and brown 
And the tree was cramped and dry. 
Pollicle dogs and cats all must 
Jellicle cats and dogs all must 
Like undertakers, come to dust. 
Here a little dog I pause 
Heaving up my prior paws, 
Pause, and sleep endlessly.

III. Lines to a Duck in the Park
The long light shakes across the lake, 
The forces of the morning quake, 
The dawn is slant across the lawn, 
Here is no eft or mortal snake 
But only sluggish duck and drake. 
I have seen the morning shine, 
I have had the Bread and Wine, 
Let the feathered mortals take 
That which is their mortal due, 
Pinching bread and finger too, 
Easier had than squirming worm; 
For I know, and so should you 
That soon the enquiring worm shall try 
Our well-preserved complacency. 

IV. Lines to Ralph Hodgson Esqre. 
How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson! 
                          (Everyone wants to know him) -- 
With his musical sound 
And his Baskerville Hound
Which, just at a word from his master 
Will follow you faster and faster 
And tear you limb from limb. 
How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson! 
Who is worshipped by all waitresses 
(They regard him as something apart) 
While on his palate fine he presses 
The juice of the gooseberry tart. 
How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson!
                          (Everyone wants to know him), 
He has 999 canaries 
And round his head finches and fairies 
In jubilant rapture skim. 
How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson! 
                          (Everyone wants to meet him).

V. Lines for Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad Ali Beg 
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot! 
With his features of clerical cut, 
And his brow so grim 
And his mouth so prim 
And his conversation, so nicely 
Restricted to What Precisely 
And If and Perhaps and But. 
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot! 
With a bobtail cur 
In a coat of fur 
And a porpentine cat 
And a wopsical hat: 
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot! 
                            (Whether his mouth be open or shut).
-- T.S. Eliot

Some people will never forgive T.S. Eliot for Cats. But I rather liked it when I saw it, so my grievance with Eliot is the line "April is the cruelest month," which has become a cliché that lands with an annual leaden thud in the ledes of newspaper articles across the land. (Anyway, he got it wrong. He had lived in Massachusetts, so he must have known that March, in which the calendar promises spring but the streets are packed with gray slush, is the cruelest month up there. Here in California, not so much. Maybe November, especially when they start playing Christmas carols too early.)  

No, I really don't like T.S. Eliot. I don't like his Tory politics or his anti-Semitism or his Anglo-Catholicism. (He would have loved Benedict XVI.) And I don't much care for his verse, except for some of the lyrical parts of the "Four Quartets." I don't like the obscure allusions and the early 20th-century ennui. I wish Ezra Pound had cut even more from "The Waste Land." 

But he still demands attention, so I've paid it. In my volume of the Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950, these five little poems are listed as "Minor Works," which seems about right. The best-known is the last one, Eliot's deprecatory self-portrait. (I was told, but can't confirm, that Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad Ali Beg were Eliot's cats. The latter seems also to have been the pseudonym of one Godolphin Mitford, a theosophical writer, so far as my Googling can tell. Ah, the Mitfords! Now that's another story.) There's a certain creepy charm about these verses. 
As for reallly creepy, there's Eliot's first marriage, which I wrote about in a review for the Mercury News: 

Was Old Possum really a rat?
That's pretty much the conclusion Carole Seymour-Jones comes to in her biography of Vivienne Eliot, the first wife of T.S. Eliot. Like Nancy Milford, in her biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, and Brenda Maddox, who wrote ''Nora'' about James Joyce's wife, Seymour-Jones examines the effects of marriage on the work of a major 20th-century writer. ''Painted Shadow'' gives us an unsettling point of view on Eliot and his work.
Thomas Stearns Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood were both 27 when they met in 1915 at Oxford, where he was doing postgraduate work. Three months after their meeting, they were married. Marry in haste, repent at leisure: This time the repentance took 32 years, until her death in a mental institution in 1947.
Only a few weeks after they married, Eliot sailed for the United States to attend a family reunion. Vivien (as she had begun spelling her name) stayed behind, and while Eliot was away she began seeing quite a lot of their new friend, Bertrand Russell. After Eliot's return, the two future Nobel Prize laureates and the lively but not particularly well-educated young woman formed a sort of ménage à trois -- Russell even paid the Eliots' household bills -- that lasted almost three years.
Seymour-Jones is convinced that T.S. Eliot was gay, and that Eliot married in hopes that a heterosexual union would ''cure'' him of his desire for his own sex. She finds ''an element of homosexuality by proxy'' in Eliot's apparent acquiescence in his wife's affair with Russell. (Though Russell once denied that the relationship with Vivien was sexual, Seymour-Jones is having none of it.)
In any case, Eliot and Vivien were temperamentally mismatched: She was nervous and impulsive (Virginia Woolf once referred to her as a ''bag of ferrets'' that ''Tom wears around his neck'') while he, again in Woolf's irresistibly quotable words, was ''sinister, insidious, eel-like, also monolithic, masked, intensely reserved.'' And neither was in the best of health: Both repeatedly suffered physical and emotional breakdowns.
But Seymour-Jones sees Vivien as Eliot's ''Muse'' and their marriage as a ''crucible of dysfunction which, rather than hindering the poet's creativity, provoked it.'' The troubles in their marriage may be reflected in the tension between men and women evident in ''The Waste Land'' and other poems. But as Seymour-Jones documents, Vivien also contributed lines to ''The Waste Land'' and suggested changes to the ones Eliot had written. And she was fiercely proud and supportive of his work as a writer.
For a time he reciprocated her loyalty and encouraged her own writing: When he became editor of the quarterly Criterion in 1922, he published many of her reviews and stories. ''It is possible that Eliot first encouraged Vivien's writing to assuage his own guilt,'' Seymour-Jones comments. ''Together they could make a quarterly, even if they could not make a child. And for Vivien her writing could become a substitute for the flesh and blood infant for which she longed. What began in part as therapy became a new career.''
But in the end it succeeded as neither therapy nor career. In 1925 Eliot published Vivien's devastating caricature of the Bloomsbury set and was forced by the scandal that ensued to promise that he wouldn't publish her again. Seymour-Jones thinks he set her up for the fall: ''It seems inconceivable that Eliot as editor would allow a piece of hers to go through of whose contents he was ignorant. To the innocent eye the assumption must be that Eliot encouraged Vivien to risk her reputation by satirizing their closest friends.'' But ''he may have had a darker motive: . . . he was negotiating a new contract . . . for a quarterly in which there would be no place for Vivien.''
And increasingly there was no place in his life for Vivienne -- she returned to the original spelling of her name in 1928. Eliot had begun drinking heavily, and she had grown dependent on various chemicals -- bromides, chloral hydrate, ether. Her use of the strong-smelling ether, which had been prescribed as a numbing agent for neuralgia, particularly drew comment -- Aldous Huxley observed that the Eliots' ''house smelled like a hospital.''
In 1932, Eliot was invited to lecture at Harvard, and he spent eight months in the United States. In 1933, he returned to England -- but not to Vivienne, who was surprised to learn that he had come back without making contact with her. Eliot dodged all encounters with the frenetic Vivienne as she turned into a kind of stalker, trying to arrange meetings with him.
Abandoned by husband, family and friends, she became increasingly erratic: In 1934 she joined Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, and thereafter often showed up at concerts and the theater, in a cloud of ether fumes, wearing the fascist uniform. Finally, in 1938, she was committed to the mental institution where she remained until she died in 1947 -- reportedly from a heart attack but possibly, Seymour-Jones believes, a suicide. Eliot never visited her.
Seymour-Jones surmises that Vivienne was manic-depressive, but that her institutionalization was unnecessary -- her husband and her family simply didn't want to be bothered with her. Her brother Maurice, who had been instrumental in getting her committed, expressed remorse toward the end of his life: ''It was only when I saw Vivie in the asylum for the last time I realized I had done something very wrong. She was as sane as I was.''
Though she has a harrowing story to tell, Seymour-Jones' book can be a bit of a slog -- she's a colorless writer. But ''Painted Shadow'' -- the title for which comes from a line about the protagonist's dead wife in Eliot's play ''The Family Reunion'' -- gives us some intriguing ways of looking at Eliot and his work. Finding the reflection of his tormented marriage in his poems takes them beyond the historical context in which they are often read -- as an expression of the spiritual and intellectual crisis provoked by the First World War -- and into the more universal context of human frailty.
The Eliot of this book is, to say the least, emotionally complex. His stiff-collared, buttoned-down public manner and his cultural ultra-conservatism -- which he once summed up as ''classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion'' -- may have been an attempt to erect a bulwark against psychosexual chaos: Privately, he composed comic verse full of buggery and scatology, and once shocked his friend Conrad Aiken by sending him a page torn from a publication about gynecological disorders.
Seymour-Jones believes that Eliot's misogyny stems from his relationship with his formidable mother and from his intensely repressed homosexuality -- the evidence for which is circumstantial but strong, though Seymour-Jones sometimes works over the evidence a little too bluntly. Nevertheless, women found him attractive: He led at least two women to believe that he was going to marry them before he finally married his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, in 1957, when he was 68 and she was 30.
It was Eliot's moral cowardice, his unwillingness to face up to distasteful realities, Seymour-Jones concludes, that destroyed Vivienne: ''Had Eliot confronted her just once, and spoken to her honestly,'' she comments on his avoidance of Vivienne after his return to England in 1933, ''he might have given her the sense of closure she needed. Instead, his cowardice prolonged her agony -- and his.''
''How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!'' he wrote in one of his poems. No kidding.
PAINTED SHADOW: The Life of Vivienne Eliot
By Carole Seymour-Jones
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 701 pp., $35

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