Eliot’s Whispers of Mortality

With the exception of “The Hollow Men,” most of T.S. Eliot’s poems don’t 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 that’s 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. Eliot’s 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 didn’t immediately appreciate all the literary allusions, the general meaning of the poem was clear even on a first reading. Although I don’t think I’ve 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 Jane’s advice here.

After I’d actually found a poem by John Webster, my enjoyment of Eliot’s poem was enhanced by his allusions. Indeed, perhaps I’m 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 couldn’t 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.

Eliot’s 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:

VANITAS VANITATUM

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 Webster’s poem to Eliot’s, but having it in front of me certainly adds depth to Eliot’s poem and would have probably added even more depth if I could have automatically recalled it as I read his poem. That’s 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 Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.” Knowing Eliot’s tendency to use literary allusions, I can’t believe that the similarity of the titles is accidental. Here’s 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 Wordsworth’s 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 Wordsworth’s view that children come into this world “trailing clouds of glory,” God’s promise that, if we do our part, the world will get better, not worse. However, if society tells a person often enough they’re a sinner, they’ll 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 Eliot’s poetic skills, his poetry seldom touches my heart because I’m unable to share his vision of man’s 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.

20 thoughts on “Eliot’s Whispers of Mortality

  1. How much I admire your hopefulness! Thank you for this wonderful analysis, and for doing so much legwork to make clear the allusive nature of the poem in question.

  2. No I don’t mind if you use this in a research packet as long as you give credit for it.

    I’m not sure that much of what I post is meant for college level work, though I know some professors have linked to sections of my site.

    But anything I write is written with the intention of being used by others to further their understanding, but mostly, their enjoyment of poetry.

  3. I don’t agree with you when you say “if society tells a person often enough they’re a sinner, they’ll probably believe it” – since when has society ever reminded me of my sin? If anything it attempts to convey self-gratifying illusions that I’m generally a good person and ‘worth it’ (cf. ‘Loreal’ ad).

    I think Eliot was alert to the distracting nature of society’s gossip, self-promotion, degradation and ultimately trivial concerns (cf. capitalist societies we all live in – what does a Biblical God think of them?). “Pneumatic bliss”, not divine/eternal bliss, is sought by our societies. We keep our ideas of God “warm” (metaphysics), yet we never get our ‘hands dirty’ – never specify who/what God is and isn’t. A sobering thought. I mean, what the heck are warm and fuzzy feelings about the world going to do for me if I don’t know Jesus when he comes back (if you believe the Bible that is)? The point I’m trying to make is not that Christianity should be shoved down people’s throats, but that people should be true to their core belief; that nominalist anything results in a vacuous existence because the source and authority (that became watered down into such a nominalist form) never wanted to be just an afterthought, just a “whisper”. I think that’s one of Eliot’s points here. Who cares if the reader doesn’t ‘feel good’ about it? – it’s a bloody relevant observation! Our society is like the Church of Laodicea – ‘lukewarm’… and we’re so proud of it.

  4. Hi,
    I just happened to have stumbled onto this page somehow, and feel entirely fortunate for having done so! These poems are incredible.

  5. wow…2003…welcome to 6 years from now.

    and i hate to disagree with you about your views of how people view their idea of sin..i mean afterall have you not read “the scarlet letter”? its a terrible book..i know..but oh wait someone has already expressed my opinion..well..damnit.

  6. I’ve not only read The Scarlet Letter, I taught it for over 20 years. That doesn’t mean that I agree with the Puritan view of human nature.

    Neither did those who wrote our Constitution, or else there would have been a Bill of Rights, all based on the concept that given freedom individuals will pursue “Christian Ideals.”

  7. Thank you for shedding such light on this poem.
    But thank you indeed for your optimistic stance on the world – I couldn’t agree with you more.
    It’s always better to laugh than it is to cry.

  8. Hopefully that university coursework will serve as a compass for finding your own truths, sophy, It has certainly served that purpose in my life, often providing a gyroscopic balance much needed to maintain my sanity.

    Oh yeah, that’s what this blog is dedicated to.

  9. “I couldn’t find a Webster poem that contained a reference to “Daffodil bulbs instead of balls/ Stared from the sockets of the eyes!”

    In Scene IV of his Webster’s play ‘The White Devil’ we have just that image:

    “A dead man’s skull beneath the roots of flowers!”

  10. remembering a college poetry class. the prof detested the use of the word “thing” … having selected this somewhat obscure Webster poem out of a book I found on a shelf at my parent’s I then had to deliver it in front of the class and finish with a sort of analysis…in reciting the last few lines the word “things” loomed up at me and I made the connection for the first time (prof.poetspetpeeve)
    I felt nothing for a few seconds.
    And I don’t remember anything else after that. I was 17. Now at 57 I still remember that exact moment.
    and it took me years to realize that the use of the word was perfect and the gasps i thought I heard from my classmates may have been the air being let out of the Poetprof.

  11. Just thought I’d interject this, as I’ve been studying this poem in prep. for my thesis on Eliot. Have you looked into the connection between Eliot and Francis Herbert (F. H.) Bradley? If you like the poem already, I can guarantee that looking into this connection will be highly rewarding. Bradley’s philosophy is wonderfully pervasive in Eliot’s work and, I believe, is an ordering principle in much of his poetry—applying Bradleyan philosophy is like fitting the last pieces into a puzzle! Basically, this poem is about the divide between the sensual and metaphysical world (not necessarily, and I’d argue probably not importantly, religious)—Donne and Webster lived in a time in which the two were unified, but in the Modern world, poets like Eliot experienced a disunified sensibility. After applying this, metaphors and various other tropes jumped out at me all over the place to support the reading… which is why I’m writing a thesis on it!

    • I’m off birding for the next week, but I’ll try to remember to look up this connection when I get back.

      Perhaps more importantly, it will inspire the many readers who somehow end up here to use it to pursue their study of the poem.

  12. Thanks for this perspective Loren, and for hosting the ensuing dialog. Your diligence in discovering the Webster and Wordsworth connections is most appreciated by those of us with limited time for such endeavors. I must say though – I don’t usually find that Eliot’s poems invoke an image of the world as a wasteland.

  13. To read this has been an intriguing perusal of ideas – I am glad that this article has remained on the web. I am sharing T. S. Eliot with a group of Year 12 Literature students and find it difficult to tease out the ideas at their level. Thanks for this discussion.

  14. Why’d she smell more like a jaguar than a jaguar does? Or is that just a metaphor to make her seem like a predator whom it might be dangerous to get close to?

What do you think?