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The Poet as Redeemer and Redeemed

Jack Baker, Durham University




        The Waste Land’s most redemptive sentiments are left implicit. Eliot’s note on the fragment from Pervigilium Veneris, ‘Quando fiam uti chelidon’, directs us to Philomela, and so suggests the poet’s own frustrated longing for transfiguration. But the original sentence runs on: "ut tacere desinam" ("that I may cease to be silent").1 This too is significant, for The Waste Land becomes a rite of passage, though which the embattled poet can finally articulate (and so rise to meet) the challenges of a fractured and alien modernity.

       The newly supple idioms of "What the Thunder said" – ("OK from / here on / I think," E.P.) – enact an aesthetic consolation, even as the psychological integuments of the road to Emmaus seem calculated to deny comfort or closure. No longer do the poem’s myriad references amplify the gulf between an aureate past and a debased present; rather, in the lyric synergies of ‘What the Thunder said’, art and life are brought finally into accord:

I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall I at least set my lands in order?     (V, 71)

These lines assimilate the urgencies of personal experience to a universal register, an effect that anticipates the finest sections of Pound’s Cantos. For in this period, Eliot and Pound were closely allied in their poetic ambitions. As I shall argue on another of the conference panels, Pound’s editing of The Waste Land manuscripts had a greater influence on his own poetic practice than is commonly acknowledged: Eliot’s refinement of an impersonal voice, embodied in the vatic figure of Tiresias, showed Pound how his own "poem containing history" might finally be realised. But whereas Pound, despite periods of struggle and strife, remained remarkably loyal to an idealised vision of poetry as embodying ‘The “magic moment” or moment of metamorphosis, bust thru from quotidien into “divine or permanent world’” (L 210), Eliot’s works are increasingly shaped by religious inhibitions. "I dare say the sweats with tears will wait," Pound observed in January 1922. They waited until The Hollow Men:

At the hour when we are

Trembling with tenderness

Lips that would kiss

Form prayers to broken stone     (III, 82)          

The near-nihilism of The Hollow Men represents an exhaustion of the already vulnerable sensibility of The Waste Land. A socially deracinated consciousness has become helplessly mired in the shadows “Between the idea / And the reality.” Eliot’s response to this impasse was to embody in subsequent poems his thirst for Christian redemption, for consolation not merely in words, but in the Word. In this, Eliot is increasingly estranged from Pound’s part-Hellenic, part-pagan intuitions. Whereas Pound casts his own poetry as extending organic energies – “Cometh from a seen form which being understood / Taketh locus and remaining in the intellect possible” (XXVI/177)2 – for Eliot, not only must the art object be rather willed into being, but so, to some extent, must the tradition upon which it draws:

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice     (Ash-Wednesday, I, 87)

This is not to undermine the poetic achievement of Ash-Wednesday, which in its search for “the still point of the turning world” produces some of Eliot’s most haunting verse. In "Religion and Literature" (1935), he advocates "a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian" and his poetry in this period steers well clear of dogma - witness the plangent economies of the Ariel poems: "let me / Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken" (“Marina” 108). But in Four Quartets, in seeking to universalise a spiritual revelation that in Ash Wednesday had been ennobled by personal feeling, Eliot risks precisely the "deliberately and defiantly" proselytising verse that "Religion and Literature" warns against:

You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid.     (“Little Gidding”, I, 202)

Whereas the subtly indeterminate imagery of Ash Wednesday gestures to epiphanies on the borders of vision, recalling Yeats’s famous observation that “man can embody truth, but he cannot know it”,3 these lines are coercive. Too often in late Eliot, we feel the poet’s finger on the scales. Even in passages rich with tactile, sensory perception – “Between melting and freezing / The soul’s sap quivers” – Eliot encounters a paradox common in literary approaches to the ineffable: it is difficult to represent the afterlife other than as an idealised version of the present, and this can make the world Eliot would renounce seem rather more attractive than the spiritual realm he would have us embrace. Consider, in contrast, Pound’s evocation of his paradiso terrestre in Canto XLVII, which reaffirms the central, Odyssean metaphor of his epic as a voyage after knowledge. It moves seamlessly between borrowed, but authentic voices, from Circe to Odysseus, allowing the poet to inhabit multiple perspectives and to synthesise discontinuous narratives. For the landscape surrounding Rapallo, more sensate and particular than Eliot’s heavily symbolic realm, is transfigured into a setting for classical myth and Eleusian mystery: the redemptive energies are a sublimation of the present, not a negation of it. Nor is the confluence of myths in Canto XLVII laboured, as Eliot’s religious symbolism can sometimes seem. Rather, the connections between past and present, image and symbol, and private and collective experience are enacted visually and musically:

And the small stars now fall from the olive branch,

Forked shadow falls dark on the terrace

More black than the floating martin

                 that has no care for your presence,

His wing-print is black on the roof tiles

And the print is gone with his cry.

So light is thy weight on Tellus

Thy notch no deeper indented

The weight less than the shadow

Yet hast thou gnawed through the mountain,

                 Scylla’s white teeth less sharp.     (XLVII/ 237-8)

This passage is aligned with the spirit of Tiresias, and its measured surety offers an illuminating contrast with Canto I. There, Tiresias’ fearsome prophecy – “Odysseus / “Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas, / “Lose all companions” – is a fleeting rhetorical triumph, leading to anticlimax: “Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus” (I, 4-5). But here Pound is able to inhabit Tiresias’ persona without apologia or guiding speech marks. The result is not an isolated monologue, but an authentic voice in a sequence of voices, which amplifies the range and category of insights available to the poet, without sacrificing the depth of feeling that attaches to individual personae. Indeed, the compression of the lines above attests to the extent of Pound’s poetic development from the earliest Cantos. Multiple implications attach to the “small stars”: the Pleiades are re-imagined as the petals of an olive tree flower; a delicate image in which symbols of celestial permanence are made transient and local, and so drawn into the ambit of the poet’s own mortality. Daniel Pearlman observes, persuasively, that the “relation of these short-lived spring flowers to the branch is like that between the brief existence of individual men and mankind,” and this universalising symbolism, which runs parallel to the mythic associations embedded in the same chain of images, is indicative of Pound’s extraordinary facility for charging even recondite allusions with keen emotive force.4 But the final section of the canto, which adopts a first-person address, is perhaps the most striking. The “I” of the poem is still, in strictly narrative terms, Odysseus; but the conflation of Homeric wanderer and exilic American, which has been building throughout the canto, is now complete:

The light has entered the cave. Io! Io!

The light has gone down into the cave,

Splendour on splendour!

By prong have I entered these hills:

That the grass grow from my body,

That I hear the roots speaking together,

The air is new on my leaf,

The forked boughs shake with the wind.     (XLVII/238)

Canto XLVII begins in darkness, and one of its central images, of small lights floating upon water, captures the fragility of personal attempts to achieve knowledge. But now the poet has become sublimated in the very organic processes that had at first seemed to overmatch his creative powers, as the limpid images of this passage confirm the canto’s overall movement from “thou” to “I” as a movement from dark to light, and from ignorance to understanding. A progenitive oneness with Tellus, which in the Tiresias section had seemed impossible, becomes an ecstatic reality: “The air is new on my leaf, / The forked boughs shake with the wind.” The metaphorical implications of this passage are clear, aligning the poet’s craft with the redemptive organic processes it labours, like Odysseus, to apprehend.

Even in Drafts and Fragments, which register a poignant personal defeat, Pound is sustained by a numinous (his detractors would say nebulous) sense of cultural and organic energies that persist independently of his own powers of articulation: “It coheres, alright, even if my notes do not cohere.” This “live tradition” is quintessentially optimistic in a way that Eliot’s etiolated requiems never are. Geoffrey Hill’s censures are characteristically exacting: "It was the pitch of Prufrock and Other Observations that disturbed and alienated readers; it was the tone of Four Quartets that assuaged and consoled them. That is to say, Eliot’s poetry declines over thirty years from pitch into tone, and these late-published papers [Eliot’s Clark Lectures] contribute significant evidence to the history of that decline."5

        In the argot of Hill’s criticism, “pitch” and “tone” correspond, respectively, to language in which the semantic associations are carefully wrought, and language which is merely gestural. This is a damning critique of an oeuvre that, for many critics, constitutes the greatest individual achievement in 20th century verse. I do not include Hill’s criticisms because I regard the authority of his judgements as final. But when we consider that Hill has far more sympathy with Eliot’s religious convictions than with Pound’s political ones, his obvious preference for Pound’s poetics over Eliot’s (see Hill’s subtle and penetrating analysis of Pound’s ‘Envoi (1919)’) warrants further investigation.

        My own, provisional position is that the lyric amplifications of Pound’s paradiso terrestre afford a more captivating vision of human possibility than Eliot’s graceful retreat into Christian certitudes.




1 T.S. Eliot, The Poems of T.S. Eliot: Volume 1, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber, 2015). All references to Eliot’s verse are to this volume.

2 Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, [1996]). All references to The Cantos are to this volume.

3 W.B. Yeats, The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954) 922.

4 Daniel Pearlman, The Barb of Time: On the Unity of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (New York: Oxford UP, 1969) 186.

5 Geoffrey Hill, “Dividing Legacies”, in Collected Critical Writings, ed. Kenneth Haynes (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008) 377.