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on March 22, 2004
"Let us go then you and I" . . . "April is the cruellest month" . . . These are merely the two most famous examples of Mr. Eliot's ability to haunt us with a memorable line, a phrase, even a word: "Here I am an old man in a dry month" . . . "Do I dare to eat a peach?"
Mr. Eliot was the last in the line of great authoritative voices in poetry-- the bookend on a shelf which includes Milton, Pope, Wordsworth and Tennyson. He wielded a certain power later poets have lacked (though Toni Morrison has held it among novelists). The power of this Midwestern boy transformed to London banker and Nobel winner was due to his prose as much as to his verse, and his plays contributed significantly to it as well. One might even say Mr. Eliot was the Dr. Johnson of the 20th century.
Mr. Eliot's vast influence has inspired imitation, then revolt. College freshmen will fall under Mr. Eliot's spell, adopt his Prufrockian tones, only to turn against his conservative sensibility (in politics, religion and art) by the time they are seniors. It doesn't help that Mr. Eliot was anti-Semitic.
So his reputation continues to take hits. His authority has crumbled (postmodernism rebels against all authority, save a few French critics). But the magic of his haunting lines persists. We listen to Wagner and see words in "The Waste Land" jump from the libretto. We read "The Tempest" and feel an extra tingling sensation when we come across "Those are pearls that were his eyes." And we even sometimes wonder, when we are old, shall we wear our trousers rolled?
Well-placed literary allusions are not the only secret to Mr. Eliot's magic. His rhythms are hypnotic. Not jazz (as Mr. Ellison thought) but Jeremiah, Ezekiel-- the pessimistic chants of a prophet ("Because I do not hope to turn again/Because I do not hope"). Unfortunately, the greatest poet of the preceding century wrote very little poetry. Aside from a handful-- not of dust, but-- of cramped quatrains centered around a fellow named Sweeney, most of his efforts have little or no form.
The "Prufrock" poems of 1917 do possess rhyme and some iambic meter. But where is the pattern? This is, indeed, playing tennis without a net. Lines can be as long or as short as the poet desires. And the next stanza need not echo the previous.
"Gerontion" and "The Waste Land" are where Mr. Eliot ventures far beyond the boundaries of poetry into that most despicable of all things-- free verse. We encounter a jumble of words, some in German, others in Italian (including the words of Mr. Eliot's favorite poet, Dante), incomplete thoughts, all confused, or confusing. No one has ever explained to me what "The Waste Land" means. He who do the police in different voices gave us many a memorable phrase, but each time I read these fragments, by Hieronymo, they drive me mad again!
Of course, you can show how smart you are by pointing out the sources of these literary allusions. But where is the beginning or the end to these heaps of heavy symbolism? Nothing means what it says, so it can mean anything. That's why graduate students who become college professors are allowed to write essay after essay on "The Waste Land" yet not inform us what it means. It's why a million free verse poets after Mr. Eliot have been able to rearrange prose on a page, give it a catchy title, and tell us nicely not to ask what the poem means.
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