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    T.S. Eliot's Poetry...

    Rahma Sboui Gueddah

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    T.S. Eliot's Poetry...

    Post by Rahma Sboui Gueddah on Sat Dec 16, 2006 4:58 pm

    Review of Words Alone:
    One Man's Personal Relationship with T.S. Eliot's Poetry

    Words Alone is an unusual book. It cannot be described as either literary criticism or literary biography. To call it literary criticism would not do justice to the intensely personal and autobiographical quality of the book. To call it biography would not be accurate because the authors choice of material is almost idiosyncratic. Sometimes in life we are privileged to encounter a writer whose work strikes a sympathetic chord within our soul. We find in our encounters with that author that we have met a kindred spirit. That author becomes a lifelong companion, and our encounters with his work become signposts along the journey of our lives. Words Alone is Denis Donoghues personal account of his relationship with the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

    This relationship began with a first encounter as an undergraduate in Dublin, and has continued throughout his life. Donoghue invites us to join him as he revisits some of the signposts which Eliots works have marked in his life. In this book one finds that Donoghue has a profound sympathy with Eliot, which gives him great insight into the poetry of Eliot, as well as the man himself. Donoghues insight permits him to make some incisive observations about Eliots poetry, and about poetry and literature themselves.

    Donoghue first read Eliot as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin. While he was studying literature at Trinity, Donoghue was simultaneously pursuing studies in music at the Royal Irish Academy. This musical background led Donoghue to approach Eliots poems as if they were music become speech. This approach allowed Donoghue to look beyond or through the difficulties of Eliots poetry, to approach them not merely as puzzles to be solved or allusions to be explained, but as tone poems which allow our sense of reasons beneath or above reason to prevail. This sense of reasons beneath and above are what give Eliots poetry its authority, even when he strains the grammar and syntax of English to the breaking point. Donoghue gives an example of what he considers Eliots authority in these lines:

    "Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In deaths dream kingdom
    These do not appear:
    There, the eyes are
    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the winds singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star."

    It is only marginally helpful to the reader, says Donoghue, to have the critic point out that deaths dream kingdom is that of the lost souls in Dantes Hell. But even if one did not know that, the reader would still feel the power of these lines. It comes from the arrangement of the syllables, from the rhymes and alliterations such as between dare, and deaths dream kingdom, and These and There. It is certainly difficult to elucidate the meaning of Eliots words here. But it is not difficult to feel their power.

    For Donoghue, the authority of Eliots poetry is musical, not referential. One might consider, by way of analogy, the opening measure of Beethovens Fifth Symphony. What do those opening notes mean? Surely there is no readily articulable answer. But would anyone deny the authority of those measures? Just as with music, the meaning of Eliots words, it may be said, is sometimes beyond words. The title, says Donoghue, indicates both the authority of words and the perturbation of words (such as those cited above) that cant rely on an authentic syntax. The phrase itself comes from one of Yeats earlier poems, The Song of the Happy Shepherd. Donoghue affirms along with that poem, that despite their uncertainty, Words alone are certain good.

    The book begins with Donoghues account of his first encounter with Eliots poetry. This occurred while he was an undergraduate in Dublin, and the poem was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Donoghue relates that he knew upon his first reading that it was a different kind of poetry from Yeatss or Byrons and that [he] would never forget it. One cannot help but smile when Donoghue reveals that his criterion for poetry at that time was simple: a poem should be memorable. He explains further that in default of knowing what poetry was, I settled for having poems take possession of my mind as Schumanns Ich hab in Traum geweinet did. The choice poems, he says, seized me without any decision on my part in their favor. Prufrock was one of those. At first reading it took up residence in my mind. This poem has taken up residence in the minds of many readers, perhaps, as Donoghue says, because it is an uncanny description of the modern distress: the fear of having already failed, or as this writer would describe it, the illusion of self-sufficiency and the collapse of that illusion.
    One quality of Eliots poetry that strikes the reader forcibly in Prufrock is the indeterminate nature of the character or voice of the poem. Donoghue correctly wonders who is speaking? On the surface one might answer J. Alfred Prufrock. But this answer, Donoghue asserts, does not answer. We are not encouraged, he says, to think of him [Prufrock] as someone who exists. We certainly are not led to think that these lines represent the thoughts of Eliot himself. The relations of the language to its apparent referents is equivocal. In other words, Donoghue is saying, Eliot uses words to create images and impressions which do not attach themselves to any particular persons, places or things. In Prufrock, says Donoghue, these apparently objective references, to things like corners, pools, and drains ...enable us to imagine a scene, but they dont establish it as independent of Prufrock. The effect, he says, is to keep the reader among the words and their internal relations...We are not allowed to escape from the words into another place. Donoghue seems to be saying that Eliots power lay in his ability to create scenes and impressions which, by having no objective referent, are able to induce the reader into appropriating them into his own subjective frame of reference. Hence, Donoghue relates, his contemporary undergraduates at New York University can read Prufrock and take it as an uncanny description of themselves.

    It is all too common in contemporary criticism to apply a set of critical methods or a theoretical construct to a literary work in a cookie cutter fashion. This has led to the proliferation of critical stances which have removed criticism from any identifiable relation to the literature it is supposedly criticizing: thus we have the feminist reading of Shakespeare, the Marxist reading, the queer reading, and so on. One is left asking, yes, but what about Shakespeare? One measure of Donoghues sympathy with Eliot is that one never finds himself asking yes, but what about Eliot? Donoghue makes a conscious and consistent effort to show the connections between Eliots poetry, literary criticism and personality.

    Eliot acquired early in his career a reputation for being a cold, bloodless person. According to Donoghue, this particular oversimplification was started by Bertrand Russell, and spread by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set. But it is true that Eliot often conceals more of himself than he revealed in his poetry. Rarely does Eliot, as opposed to Pound or Yeats, indulge in the conceit of expressing his own opinions or feelings through the voice of a poetic persona. No one, for example, would seriously maintain that the persona of J. Alfred Prufrock is giving voice to Eliots own thoughts and feelings. In fact Eliot seems to go out of his way to bring to his poetry expressions of emotions which are alien to himself. Eliot read widely in poetry of other languages: Dante and Virgil to name a couple. He did this, as Donoghue says, in order to access a range of feelings beyond his own.

    Because of Eliots use of alien emotional content in his poetry, and because of Eliots own stated theoretical positions in his literary essays, Donoghue believes that not only was Eliot not the cold and bloodless figure of caricature, but a man, especially in his youth, of exceptionally intense and dangerous feelings. Donoghue sees Eliots theory of Impersonality, as explicated in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, as demonstrative of Eliots intense nature. In that essay, Eliot wrote:

    "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, it is an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things."

    Donoghue thinks that Eliot was quite literally describing his own poetry in those words, and he believes that Eliot saw his own poetic work as a form of escape from the self.
    Donoghue deals with one aspect of Eliots life and work far more sympathetically than do many other critics, namely his conversion to Christianity. It is almost a commonplace in the current lit-crit establishment that Eliot ceased being interesting or important as a poet and writer when he became a Christian. Of course, this says more about the critical establishments anti-Christian animus than its literary discernment.

    But Donoghue is unhappy, and rightfully so, about the calumnies which have been heaped upon Eliot largely as a result of his conversion. It is another commonplace of contemporary critical wisdom that of course Eliot was an anti-Semite. The evidence for this, as presented by the critics, is a phrase about free-thinking Jews, misunderstood and quoted out of context, in Eliots book The Idea of a Christian Society. It is, unfortunately, a rather standard tactic of the left to try to discredit its opponents with charges of anti-Semitism. Such charges as were laid against Eliot, and later against Dr. Russell Kirk, really have to do with the lefts fear of and failure to understand conservative principles and temperament. Donoghue puts the charge of anti-Semitism to rest with the explanation that for Eliot, the problem was not one of race or religion, but deracination. Eliot was concerned with, and disgusted by, the modern tendency of uprootedness from religious or cultural tradition. His problem was with hollow men, be they Jewish or anything else.

    Donoghues method is to base each chapter on one of Eliots major works, such Prufrock, or Ash-Wednesday, and to use that poem as a starting point for considerations of Eliots style, method and thought. But Donoghue goes beyond literary criticism to make observations on culture and modernity in general, such as a fascinating treatment of the Enlightenment in chapter nine (Stevens and Eliot). The wide-ranging quality of the book makes it difficult to categorize, but delightful to read. The final chapter, The Communication of the Dead, is a profound and insightful study of the interpenetration of Eliots faith and poetry.

    Donoghue is profoundly sympathetic to Eliot, and one cannot read Words Alone without sensing his profound respect and affection for his subject. Although Donoghue only met Eliot once (this meeting is described in the first chapter, and was rather anti-climactic), it is no exaggeration to say that Donoghue understands Eliots writing at least well as anyone who may have known him personally. The reader of Words Alone will come away from the book understanding Eliot better and appreciating Donoghues gifts as a critic and thinker.

    Robert Johansen is a seminarian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He holds a Master's Degree in Classics from the Catholic University of America and a B.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Illinois.

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