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A heap of broken images: the varied voices of T. S. Eliot

Today, September 26th, is the 124th anniversary of the birth of the poet, playwright, and critic T. S. Eliot. Apart from being one of the twentieth century’s most important writers, Eliot is, more importantly, one of my top-five favourite poets of all time. He is a poet of language, a poet of many voices, and today I want to explore some of those voices and how they use the resources of the English language.

He do the police in different voices

Eliot’s original title for Part I of his magnum opus The Waste Land was taken from Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend. In the novel, Mrs. Betty Higden explains that her son reads the newspaper to her, particularly the crime stories, acting out the various characters:

You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.

Although Eliot dropped the quotation from the final version of his poem, it provides a key to his use of language. The Waste Land is a collage, made up of a variety of voices, languages, and sources, from the German and French quotations of the first part (“Oed’ und leer das Meer”) to the reference to the Hindu Upanishads which close the poem:

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih shantih shantih.

It can be difficult to accept that the author of The Waste Land is the same who wrote Macavity the Mystery Cat, but the reconciliation of these extremes is, in fact, central to understanding Eliot’s writing. The literary culture of his time was set between the old and the new, looking backwards to Victorian propriety and Romantic literature, but seeing the possibility of a vastly changed future brought about by technological advancement, bringing massive benefits but also the potential for massive destruction, as the First World War had clearly shown. Eliot and many of his contemporaries strove to find a way of expressing the often painful contradictions of the new world that they found themselves in. Eliot’s response to this was to adopt a chorus of voices, as varied as the flotsam and jetsam of traditional Anglo-American culture from which they were constructed.

Sapient sutlers and salonnieres

Eliot has something of a reputation for being obscure. Certainly, one of his many voices is that of the erudite academic, a voice heard in the Four Quartets: “Thus love of a country Begins as attachment to our own field of action”. He was a very well-educated and scholarly man, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find him using weird and wonderful words such as anfractuous, inoperancy (failure to operate or function), and polyphiloprogenitive (very prolific). That last one, in particular, is an example of Eliot’s delight in showing off his cleverness, using it as a tool of humour:

Polyphiloprogenitive The sapient sutlers of the Lord Drift across the window-panes.

Eliot taunts his readers with lines such as these, daring us to reveal ourselves as ignoramuses by not getting the joke.

It is telling that the Oxford English Dictionary also lists Eliot as early evidence for the word salonniere, meaning a society hostess. The language of the beau monde sits alongside that of academe in his works, but although the words can be equally recherché, their obscureness is of a different sort. Whereas Eliot’s intellectual language seems to be a reflection of himself, of the scholar who suspects his listeners of badly-hidden ignorance, the language of the fashionable world feels uncomfortable in Eliot’s mouth, something which he has learned to copy but finds tremendously enervating. In the words of one of his best known poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, this is the world where “women come and go, Talking of Michaelangelo”. The voices of the fashionable set, unlike the knowing voice of Eliot’s intellectualism, grate on the nerves, and are full of breathless, half-uttered statements which try (but fail) to be truly profound:

How much it means that I say this to you – Without these friendships – life, what cauchemar!

It is no wonder that the poet soon finds a “dull tom-tom” beginning inside his head as he endures the pretentiousness and vacuity of these people. And when Eliot finds himself speaking in this manner, the experience brings on self-contempt: “Oh no, it is I who am inane.”

Sandwich papers and salmon paste

Alongside (perhaps Eliot would have said “beneath”) the intellectuals and the snobs, we hear the voices of the common people. The representation of everyday language, and particularly of the language of lower-class people, in poetry was still relatively avant-garde when Eliot was writing. His inclusion of these voices in his writing is part of the modernist philosophy of his work, breaking down the traditional poetic aesthetic and building it up again using fragments of the old techniques alongside the sounds of modern life.

The title of Eliot’s unfinished verse drama Sweeney Agonistes leads us to expect a poem with epic themes, along the lines of John Milton’s 1671 poem Samson Agonistes. The epithet agonistes, of which Milton’s use is the first recorded in English, means “one who is engaged in struggle or combat”; the Biblical hero Samson being an ideal subject for such a poetic treatment. Eliot’s Sweeney, on the other hand, is by no means a hero. He is first encountered in the poem Sweeney Erect. The title of the poem is a pun, of course, drawing on the elevated associations of erect as a description of upright posture, but also on the sexual meaning, which is first recorded by the OED in use in 1897.

In the poem, we encounter Sweeney in a brothel, standing at a mirror shaving while the prostitute he has visited suffers an epileptic fit on the bed. The themes of Sweeney Agonistes are less brutally mundane, but still reflect the “low” society of Eliot’s day, as the voices of the characters suggest. Sweeney tells his thrilled listeners, “I knew a man once did a girl in”: to do someone in, meaning to murder them, is a piece of early twentieth-century slang which certainly had vulgar overtones when Eliot was writing. Sweeney’s speech continues in the same vein. The murderer, he asserts, “didn’t get pinched in the end”, using a slang word for “arrested” which goes back at least to the late 1700s. These voices are also steeped in the language of advertising and mass-produced consumer goods: Eliot is credited with being one of the first to use words such as sandwich paper, salmon paste, and mass-made in print.

The role of popular culture in shaping the voices of people like Sweeney is also very evident. He teasingly tells his girl Doris that he will carry her off “to a cannibal isle” and turn her into “a nice little, white little, missionary stew”. The images are reminiscent of contemporary popular songs, such as 1920’s My Little Bimbo down on the Bamboo Isle, about a shipwrecked sailor who takes up with a local woman, whose main attraction was that “all she wore was a great big Zulu smile”.

The rhythms of Sweeney’s language, meanwhile, are those of the Jazz Age which was in full swing around Eliot at the time. Fragments of jazz also appear in The Waste Land: “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag – It’s so elegant So intelligent”. Interestingly, the editors of the OED back in the early twentieth century identified a use of elegant, meaning “excellent, first-rate”, labelling it as vulgar. Certainly it seems to have been seen as an Americanism of dubious taste. Ironically, of course, Eliot was himself American, but in the course of his life became more English than the English, taking British citizenship in 1927 and converting to the Church of England. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, to find him sneering at the voices of American pop culture, just as he sneers at the British lower classes who frequent pubs and can’t afford to fix their teeth.

The silent sister and the silent Word

A third layer of voices in Eliot’s writing, and for me the most beautiful, is made up of the voices of his religious faith. Eliot had been brought up in an atmosphere of puritan morality, his family having for many generations belonged to the Unitarian church. The Anglo-Catholic branch of the Church of England to which he converted, in contrast, was very like Roman Catholicism in its emphasis on ceremony and ritual. Eliot found a grandeur in Anglo-Catholicism which he had not previously experienced in religion. After his conversion, in particular, Eliot’s poetry becomes suffused with the words and cadences of the Bible and the liturgy.

In the series Ash Wednesday, for example, the words of the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death”, and quotations from the Psalms, “let my cry come unto thee”, are woven into a narrative which is, at least in part, about doubt and the difficulty of faith. The poem is full of figures, “the silent sister veiled in white and blue” and “three white leopards. . . under a juniper tree”, who defy any single interpretation, but recall the language of myths and fairy tales even as they have religious overtones, of the Virgin Mary and the Trinity.

Perhaps no other writer has captured the difficulties and frustrations of faith in the way that Eliot does: “Against the Word the unstill world still whirled About the centre of the silent Word”. The Word is identified in Christian thought with the figure of Christ, the Word made Flesh. But for Eliot, the Word is paradoxically speechless; his pairing of a simple noun and adjective, “silent Word”, is enough to evoke the age-old feeling of religious doubt and fear that God is simply not there. At the same time, the playing on sounds and repetitions in this line mimics a dizzying sense of confusion and doubt. In the face of such madness, it is no surprise that at the opening of Ash Wednesday, the narrator claims that he will “no longer strive to strive” for change or enlightenment: “Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?” Notably, this voice echoes the pre-conversion voice heard in Prufrock: “I grow old… I grow old…”, “Do I dare Disturb the Universe?”

The religious Eliot, at his most lyrical, is not the voice of intellectual polysyllables, or of bawdy slang. Instead, it is the voice which uses simple words and layers them up, turning them upon themselves until the reader is led to the “overwhelming question” of Prufrock. But, as the narrator impatiently exclaims, “do not ask ‘what is it?’” We may be taken to the question, but the answer (if there is one) lies outside language.