Saturday, April 08, 2006

Absolutely Everything You Never Needed to Know About Modernism Part One

Eliot, Schmeliot
Let's not be narrow, nasty, and negative. - T S Eliot.

Nobody says something like T.S. Eliot. He is the master of the overstated understatement and the unstated overstatement. He generally conveys meaning by quoting from dead poets who write in dead languages; and when he writes in English, it sounds like he's translating one dead language into another. He makes rhyming into an abstract art form.

A woman once asked him about a line in his poetry: "Mr Eliot, what did you mean by 'three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree'?" Eliot replied: "I meant, 'three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree'".
He wasn't always so straightforward. But then, he didn't seem to like women much, anyway (his satirical line, 'In the room, the women come and go/speaking of Michelangelo' comes to mind).
His dislike of women and his pessimism comes together in The Wasteland, where the following dialogue occurs:

"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
"Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
"What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
"I never know what you are thinking. Think."
I think we are in rats' alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.

Bloody cheerful husband he must have been. But I like that last line. Think of how many places it could be used in:

At a party:
"Jeremy's got the hots for Amy. What do you think?"
"I think we are in a rats' alley where the dead men lost their bones."

After the Movies:
"Gosh, that was a fabulous movie. What do you think?"
"I think we are in a rats' alley where dead men lost their bones."

In Maths Class:
"What is the binomial equation for x2 + 2x +1?"
"I think we are in a rats' alley where dead men lost their bones."

After Sex:
"That was REALLY good!"
"I think we are in a rats' alley where dead men lost their bones."

The possibilities are endless.
So, there's T. S. Eliot for you. A man who had a huge influence on the course of modern literature. If only we knew what it was.

Next: W. B. Yeats!


At 11:11 AM, Blogger Jon said...

I have the same problems with Shakespeare that you have with Eliot, timt. Quite frankly, we would have all known where we stood, literature-wise, if that smarmy gob-shite hadn't gone and given us the beginnings of the modern English language, explored human psychology and interaction in new ways, invented new forms of verse and innovated old ones, etc. Where we stood would have been the dark ages, but still: it would have been so much better.

At 11:46 AM, Blogger TimT said...

I don't know if Eliot really did invent new forms. He just exaggerated what forms there were for comic or expressive effect.

It was a sobering experience for me when I first read Tom Jones and found Henry Fielding using Monty Python-style humour approximately two hundred and fifty years before it was invented.

At 4:58 AM, Blogger Ella said...

I think I remember reading that Eliot's brilliance as a poet was entirely dependant on his terrible marriage.

What kind of a relationship would inspire one to write poetry about rats and alleys and dead men? Sobering thought, really.

At 11:35 PM, Blogger Ben.H said...

As Ella said, anyone who had lived with Vivien Eliot for years would have a pretty bleak opinion of women. Ezra Pound likened the Eliots' household to a private mental asylum - a term Pound was in no position to throw around lightly.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Eliot got married to Vivien in 1915, and one of his early misogynistic poems - 'Portrait of a Lady' - was written in 1917. I'm not sure how that fits in with your theory, since they separated during the early 1930s. I'm just a little sceptical that his view of women all go back to his marriage. (Thank you, Wikipedia, for these facts!) There was an interesting article in The Australian yesterday about how he was consistently anti-semitic, as well. Maybe he was just an unpleasant guy to be around.

Also, wasn't Pound put in an asylum only in his later years? Following his flirtation with fascism?

I'll do another post soon ...

At 9:37 AM, Blogger genevieve said...

Someone here has been to Robin Grove's class and failed to do any further reading :) Don't you love the way lecturers tell the same stories over the years...
Eliot had some personal problems, as did Pound. But The Four Quartets are still poems everyone should have a go at reading if they have any spiritual bones in their bodies at all. And if you miss out on Pound, you miss out on quite a bit of fun besides.
One of my favourite curses is " O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves." The other is "Sweet jumping Jesus on the cross" (from Joyce) for very special occasions only.
Ho Ho, have a jolly Easter then.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger TimT said...

I'm passingly familiar with the Four Quartets, and they do have some very eloquent passages in there. But I'm absolutely befuddled by Pound. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, apparently one of his best poems, was reprinted in my Norton anthology of poetry. I couldn't make head nor tail of it.

I remember vaguely coming across one insulting verse he wrote about Kipling: it started 'Rudyard the dudyard ...' which I had a chuckle over.
Only problem with this verse was: Kipling is a fantastic poet ...

At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, could anyone tell me what is meant by the metaphor: I think we are in a rat's alley. thanks


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