With the exception of The Hollow Men, most of T.S. Eliots poems dont reach out and grab me, though I find myself liking them better than I did years ago when I first encountered them in college. Perhaps thats because I no longer am pressed to explicate them in a long, tedious essay that seems as boring as some of the poems themselves. No longer obliged to explicate every nuance of a poem, I can simply look for poems that I enjoy reading. Eliots image of daffodil bulbs instead of balls/ Stared from the sockets of the eyes in Whispers of Immortality is such an outrageous, yet apt image that I was almost immediately captured by this poem:
WHISPERS OF IMMORTALITY
Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.
Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.
Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense;
To seize and clutch and penetrate,
Expert beyond experience,
He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.
Grishkin is nice: her
Russian eye is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
The couched Brazilian jaguar
Compels the scampering marmoset
With subtle effluence of cat;
Grishkin has a maisonette;
The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.
And even the Abstract Entities
Circumambulate her charm;
But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm.
Although I didnt immediately appreciate all the literary allusions, the general meaning of the poem was clear even on a first reading. Although I dont think Ive ever thought about breastless creatures under ground when confronted by a friendly bust that Gives promise of pneumatic bliss, I have been put off by being stalked like a scampering marmoset. Thoughts of death may well give us reason to question our actions and to decide that fulfilling carnal desires is less important than attaining eternal happiness, though I still think I prefer Yeats Crazy Janes advice here.
After Id actually found a poem by John Webster, my enjoyment of Eliots poem was enhanced by his allusions. Indeed, perhaps Im fond of this poem precisely because the first part of the poem does remind me of the metaphysical poets, poets like Donne and Marvell. Although I couldnt find a Webster poem that contained a reference to Daffodil bulbs instead of balls/ Stared from the sockets of the eyes! that is precisely the kind of delightfully-shocking image one would expect from the metaphysical poets.
Eliots allusion to Webster (how could I resist such a name) led me on a multi-hour search in old textbooks and on the internet before I found the following poem by (John) Webster:
ALL the flowers of the spring
Meet to perfume our burying;
These have but their growing prime,
And man does flourish but his time:
Survey our progress from our birth
We are set, we grow, we turn to earth.
Courts adieu, and all delights,
All bewitching appetites!
Sweetest breath and clearest eye
Like perfumes go out and die;
And consequently this is done
As shadows wait upon the sun.
Vain the ambition of kings
Who seek by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.
I may actually prefer Websters poem to Eliots, but having it in front of me certainly adds depth to Eliots poem and would have probably added even more depth if I could have automatically recalled it as I read his poem. Thats unlikely, of course, because I found it sandwiched, all one-quarter page of it, between a play by Marlowe and a play by Shakespeare. It’s unlikely that someone who has forgotten the name of a favorite student from ten years ago is going to remember a quarter page poem, even by an author with the same last name, in a 1000 page text.
There is, I think, another important literary allusion suggested by the ironic title of this poem, an allusion to Wordsworths Intimations of Immortality. Knowing Eliots tendency to use literary allusions, I cant believe that the similarity of the titles is accidental. Heres probably the most famous selection from that poem:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
I suspect Eliot meant Whispers of Immortality to serve as a refutation of Wordsworths famous poem. After all, Wordsworth is often considered the greatest Romantic poet, but his optimistic view of life had certainly fallen into disfavor by the time Eliot had written this poem. Eliot rejected the idea of natural innocence, just as he rejected the Unitarianism of his upbringing, and embraced Anglo-Catholicism, in a public and controversial conversion.
Unlike Eliot, I still subscribe to Wordsworths view that children come into this world trailing clouds of glory, Gods promise that, if we do our part, the world will get better, not worse. However, if society tells a person often enough theyre a sinner, theyll probably believe it, and their divinity will soon fade into the light of common day. Eliot is right that the thought of death is not easily, or lightly, dismissed, but neither do we have to live life haunted by the inevitable death that awaits us.
Though I admire and envy Eliots poetic skills, his poetry seldom touches my heart because Im unable to share his vision of mans nature or his view of the world itself. Even my tour in Vietnam, my divorce and resulting separation from my children, and my years of teaching too many students who saw literature as a waste of time could not convince me that the world is the wasteland that is pictured in most of his poems.