By Wilbur Dee Case | Edited by Kent Van May

Now I can see why T.S. Eliot disliked Edgar Allan Poe’s verse; Eliot was trying to write a different kind of poetry; and it is no surprise that, for Eliot, Poe was no kindred spirit. Yet it was unwise for Eliot to consider “Poe as a man who dabbled in verse and in kinds of prose, without settling down to make a thoroughly good job of any one genre” when Eliot could easily be likewise judged. Are there any astute critics who regard Eliot’s poems or dramas as pieces of polished perfection?

Yet Eliot’s contention that “an irresponsibility towards the meaning of words is not infrequent with Poe” is correct. His examples from “Ulalume” and “The Raven” emphasize the slipshod elements in Poe’s writing; but Eliot overlooks Poe’s nice turns of phrase, his fine diction, his technical virtuosity, and his metaphoric achievement. Nevertheless, Eliot is right about Poe’s use of words, as in the unbearably repetitive “Ulalume.” Eliot quotes,

“It was night, in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year.”

and shows Poe’s poor usage of the word immemorial. Tennyson’s lines,

“The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And murmur of innumerable bees.”

he points out, are clearly superior to Poe’s; but the above lines are also superior to much in Tennyson’s writing, in “The Princess” and elsewhere, and in Eliot’s writing too. Tennyson could not sustain the humming beauty everywhere in his work any more than Eliot, or any writer, could. That is not a sufficient reason to discount a writer.

Take Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” for example. It is one of the finest poems in English in the early 19th Century, even though the poem’s first sentence flounders about awkwardly between first person and third person with loose pronouns.

“It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.”

Though the meaning here is clear, the grammatical ambiguity shows a moment of irresponsibility on a level akin to Poe’s in the examples Eliot gives. Except for its recognitive value, and the alliteration of the i’s and l‘s, Tennyson’s first sentence of “Ulysses” could be nicely cleared up by attending to the first line.

But when it comes to grammatical ambiguity and poor diction Eliot is a master; and Tennyson and Poe can’t hold a candle to him. Take the following lines from Eliot’s “Wasteland”:

“A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.”

French Renaissance poet and grammar stickler Francois de Malherbe may have had no patience for Poe’s use of the word craven in “The Raven,” but what would he made of the surreal dadaesque excerpt above? It reminds me of Poe (or Dante), but how much sloppier is it, in a slapdash manner stuck together with a series of ands.

Though “The Raven” contains that which is absurd, ridiculous, and substandard, still there is that within it, which, in its own way, seems superior to most of the poetry Eliot wrought. Take the opening stanza.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door—
”Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘rapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.'”

The famous, opening words are exceptional; instead of a run-of-the-mill fairy tale, we are going to hone in on a specific “midnight dreary,” much in the same way that Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” begins with a specific simile:

“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized on a table.”

It is interesting how both the narrator of “The Raven” and Prufrock display similar passive frustrations. The placing of the adjective dreary after the noun supports both the trochaic meter and the internal rhymes weary and curi-ous, but at the same time, ever so cleverly, foreshadows the narrator’s mental imbalance. Another excellence is Poe’s use of alliteration. The obvious n’s in line 3 each echo elsewhere as well: nodded with the on of line 1; nearly with the aforementioned internal rhymes; and napping with the following internal rhymes of lines 3 and 4. The quick, short clipped i sound at the beginning of line 5, helps add to the dead-panned attitude that the narrator ironically insists upon before he meets the bird, something I would have thought Eliot could have admired. Whereas the repetition in “Ululame” grates, in “The Raven” Poe shows a more subtle handling of it. The first repeated phrase in the poem, “While I,” is far enough apart to not impinge on that which begins line 3. And lines 4 and 5 in all the stanzas have just enough variety to increase the cadence of the poem and not bog it down by drawing too much attention to them.

Eliot likewise uses repetition; the fragments of Jesus’ prayer in “The Hollow Men” comes to mind immediately. Another example, from “Prufrock,” is the following six-lined stanza, where the repetition is as overt as Poe’s.

“For I have known them all already, known them all:
I have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a further room.
So how should I presume?”

It is interesting to compare it to the next stanza in “The Raven.”

“Ah, distinctly, I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here forevermore.”

Both stanzas have fine qualities and less than brilliant qualities. Eliot’s rhyme scheme (abbacc) is more subtle than Poe’s (abcbbb), but Poe’s rhymes are more lush. Certainly the argument could be made that they are too lush, too rich, like those in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” Still Poe’s handling of them marks a literary technique Eliot never handled as well. Eliot’s repetitions coincide with the tedium he is striving after, while Poe’s add to the growing tension he is moving toward; but whereas Poe’s repetitions strike one as melodramatic, so too do Eliot’s, particularly of overwrought ennui. Ironically they both excuse their sloppiness through the trick of first person narrators; but, as readers, we are still left with the writing. Both stanzas have striking imagery: lines 1 and 2, in Poe; and line 3, in Eliot; but both also contain jejune writing: Poe’s overt alliteration, “surcease of sorrow” and “rare and radiant maiden”; Eliot’s droning “…all already, known them all.” In meter, both stanzas are awkward; but Poe’s attempt is the more daring. Poe remains true to his trochaic octameter lines, while Eliot vacillates between iambic hexamter and pentameter. Each sixth line is one-half the dominant line. Some examples of Poe’s striking diction include the passion contained in the opening word, his animated use of adverbs and adjectives, the imagery found in the ashes of the dying fire, the hissing of the s‘s in line 4, the assonance of the long a sound in line 5, the continuation of or, even in words like sorrow, the further delineation of the setting, bleak December, and echoic words, like wrought and sought. Eliot’s double use of dying is nicely nuanced; but Eliot’s diction is less dramatic than Poe’s, and the stanza is as listless as “Prufrock.”

Even when Poe’s alliteration runs amok, as in stanza 3 of “The Raven,” it still possesses a strange fascination.

“And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
”Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door:—
This it is and nothing more.'”

One of my favorite techniques of Poe’s style is how his lines run on past his rhymes, as, for example, in the above stanza, all the opening adjectives modify the verbal rustling, that is, moving past the rhyme uncertain. The s‘s of line 1 also instill a sense of disturbance. That the narrator stood repeating, actually allows Poe to get away with repeating phrases like entreating entrance at and ‘Tis some visitor, much in the same way that Eliot excuses a breakdown in language while he writes about the breakdown or emptiness of civilization. I cannot, in justice, excoriate Poe for his flaws, unless Eliot is equally attacked.

At least Poe was aware of some of his clumsiness. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe writes: “Of course, I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of ‘The Raven’”; later, the arrival of the raven has “an air of the fantastic—approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible”; and finally, “however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness, which repels the artistical eye.” Could clerkly Eliot be as critical of his own works? I think not.

Indeed, at times, Poe was as critically perspicacious as Eliot, as, for example, when he points out that “it is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists.”

Indeed, despite its far flung title, Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” is filled with remarkable statements on the importance of working from the denouement, working for an effect, detailing how a work is wrought, and drawing out the conflict in poetry of too long vs. too short. One can take issue with Poe on all these stands; but they do show an active mind thinking. One could have a field day discussing how Poe thinks poems should be written; but his ordered choice of length, province, tone, refrain, climax, graduation [not gradation], rhythm, and locale reveal a ratiocination worthy of serious consideration.

Nevertheless, I do agree with Boston poet James Russell Lowell’s assessment of Poe,

“There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge…”

Yet, despite that fact, I can also agree with French poet Stéphane Mallarmé that Poe’s strange voice

Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu.” [Gives a purer sense of the common man’s language]

At least, Eliot, despite all of his swipes at Poe, looking “at Poe through the eyes of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and…Valery,” did himself, in the end, become “more thoroughly convinced of his [Poe’s] importance, [and] of the importance of his work as a whole.”

Wise choice.

 

Wilber Dee Case is a poet living in Washington State.

Featured Image: A portrait of Poe (left) and a photograph of T.S. Eliot.

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27 Responses

  1. james sale

    A great technical analysis – very enjoyable and thought provoking; it is important to see beyond the hype or what is the zeitgeist of the time. Poe was a fine poet indeed, and for me the overarching effect he achieved in the Raven was one of the spell: the language mesmerises us, hypnotises us, perhaps as Coleridge does in Kubla Khan. It is a tremendous achievement. I happen to like Eliot – almost alone of the moderns! – but he is overrated when you consider Yeats, Frost and Hardy; and even when you consider underrated poets like Edwin Muir who had a fantastical imagination and could write verse so well it was poetry! The thing is, of course, Eliot said what the modern world wanted to hear: the world is going to the dogs and there’s no meaning in anything; his later Anglo-Catholicism was too little, too late, and easily discounted.

    Reply
    • Wilbur Dee Case

      James, though, in matters of taste, there can be disputes, still, as the Roman maxim suggests [“de gustibus non est disputandum”] they are purely subjective opinions. Poe, in his hypnotic “The Raven,” accomplishes what Coleridge, in “Kubla Khan” did not; and Coleridge, in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” achieves what Poe did not in “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.” For me Coleridge’s poetry suggests the possibilities of Romanticism, while Poe’s work throughout suggests the limits of it. As an aside, I think Poe’s short stories are a remarkable tour de force.

      I too like the work of T. S. Eliot. His literary essays are among the most clear-headed in the English-speaking world, his dramas clarified the problems of the Modernist moment, and his poetry, though a poetry of “going to the dogs,” attempted to deal with the early 20th century, without entirely overthrowing tradition.

      Reply
      • james sale

        Hi Wilbur – thanks for this – I don’t think we are disagreeing; regarding the comparison of Coleridge and Poe, I think I am talking about the effect of both poems – they are both incantatory – whereas your deeper point, I think, relates to intention and the historical moments when they were writing, and what that meant. Poe suggesting the limits is probably because by Poe’s time Romanticism per se had nearly burnt out. Interestingly, at the beginning of the movement Coleridge’s poem leads us into the ‘milk of paradise’, whereas coming near the end, The Raven, is a self-evident symbol for ‘not paradise’!

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Wilbur, I thought the same of Eliot’s essays in my early youth. Now I can’t stomach them at all, especially after reading the Neo-Scholastic texts on aesthetics. If your Latin slows you down (I also have to slog), then there is always Umberto Eco’s “The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas” which is surprisingly accurate and helpful. Perhaps you have read Coventry Patmore, the English poet? I cannot recommend his collection of essays, “Principle in Art” more enthusiastically (you can find it online in the Open Library). If you are brave enough to handle some very dense but very rewarding essays on poetry, then his “Religio Poetae” is definitely for you (also in Open Library). It is rich and wonderful. If one essay does not immediately please, then simply skip to another one.

        I agree with you that there can be disputes in matters of taste. The Roman maxim can be taken in two ways. No disputes because taste is relative, or no disputes because taste is an absolute science with laws and principles. I also have a maxim you may enjoy, one of my own: “Taste is considered relative only because it is so poorly formed in the greater number of men.” St. Thomas classes taste among the aptitudes. But Coventry Patmore is right to speak of a “vandalism of good taste” as well. There is a an anti-modernist architectural movement taking place today, but it is horribly flawed in making good taste—which it defines as an absolute classicism of conventions—into a kind of tyranny.

      • Robert Milby

        From your overly didactic analysis, you finally like, but not love Poe.

        “‘Remember,’ he said, ‘a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic!’ ” -Jean Sibelius

        Griswold would Love you.

      • James Sale

        A statue has never been setup in honour of a critic? That is of course is a truism, which is largely true, but not completely. On my travels this Autumn I went through Lichfield, the birthplace of Dr Samuel Johnson – more famous as a critic and lexicographer than as a poet. And yes, there was a big statue up for him!

  2. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    This is a very interesting analysis. May I offer a thought which is perhaps a bit more radical? I think this wonderful analysis reveals, perhaps unintentionally, the limitations of both poets. As a student of French poetry, which I have recited on the Paris stage while pursuing my doctorate in French Studies, I should add that Eliot’s greatest mistake was to buy into the divorce poetry from truth. This was not a thinking man, but a man bent on self-sophistication. In Eliot’s day, that meant absurdly trying to make oneself into a French symbolist. The fact that we refer to Eliot’s pessimistic Prufrock as modern, or modernist, or somehow a development “bringing poetry into the modern world” and other shop-worn narratives making Eliot into a kind of Prometheus giving fire to humankind, is no compliment to Eliot, far from it. Mallarmé and the Parnassians eviscerated the poetry they claimed to have inherited from Baudelaire whom, in fact, they badly misunderstood—a rotting platform for a poet like Eliot to stand on. Indeed, they laid the foundation for our current academic misunderstanding of Baudelaire, a poet who is profoundly concerned with sin and redemption, a Catholic. Eliot, just like Poe, is an American Puritan. Eliot was drawn to what he calls Anglo-Catholicism as a matter of social expedience more than anything else. Note that much of Eliot is empty on the level of meaning. While a modernist would praise this aspect of Eliot, a poet of Christian inspiration must reject all of him. It would be one thing if poetry were a kind of clockwork consisting of mechanical pieces fitting together in just such a way, but there is also such a thing as inspiration, and truth. There is no lyricism in Eliot. And herein lies the unintended revelation of this excellent analysis: Eliot can go on all he wants, a kind of wanna-be Malherbe, but the reality is that he has little more to offer than Malherbe. Remember, the statement of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, “Enfin Malherbe vint…” refers only to the purging of anachronisms from the vocabulary of French poetry. Malherbe, the technician, rendered French verse sterile and uninspired, lacking in all the vibrancy and variety of the Pleiade. Eliot, a poet of his time, not a poet of all time, is covered with the dust of modernist angst, something which only pleases the college crowd today, if that, because angst and modernism are considered badges of sophistication for the shallow. Only a pessimist or a popper of anti-depressants can truly appreciate Eliot, because modernism privileges the empty set. Clever rhymes, clever rhythms, clever juxtapositions of thoughts that normally do not go together: These are merely the conceited icing of a cake of air. There are many areas in Eliot where these become a personal mannerism. Indeed, there are a thousand ways to say that Eliot is boring. But all modernism is boring, even when it jingles with borrowed bells.

    Reply
    • james sale

      Thank you Joseph – this is heady stuff – what a fascinating debate. I have to bow to your superior knowledge on the French poets as I am relatively ignorant in this field (though by strange co-incidence have recently, after a visit to Cannes, decided to start translating some French poetry – badly, so far!). On the topic of Eliot, yes, you are probably right. There was a great cartoon in the English papers shortly after his death which showed Eliot ascending to the Pearly Gates and Milton, in a mix of English poets, rolling up his sleeves and saying, ‘I’ve been waiting for this one’! I was seduced by Modernism for far too long and now the older I get, the more pernicious I perceive it to be.

      Reply
      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Isn’t it amazing, James, all the poets we were supposed to bow down to and worship simply because a handful of elites in New York City told us to? The twentieth century was a minus sign on the balance sheet of civilization. This is why I find it so refreshing to read SCP poets and their comments. Who is reading Larking these days? No one. The old “giants of the twentieth century” are gathering dust in warehouses now. Meanwhile publishers like Farrar Straus and Giroux, who can’t sell their latest contemporary poets, are still making money off translations of Petrarch! I have spoken to quite a number of editors over the past several months. “Poetry is a hard sell,” they tell me. And I tell them right back: “How would you know since you only sell chopped-up prose?” They never have an answer for that.

    • james sale

      Hi Joseph – you are so right. The test is: who really reads this stuff? Nobody, except a tiny coterie of self-perpetuating, self-important academics. There is a magazine in England I want to subscribe but never will called The London Review of Books. I want to subscribe because its review articles can be wonderfully insightful; but I won’t subscribe (or rather I won’t pay – I have had 2 free 6 month subscriptions!) because they publish total modernist rubbish, which they pass off as poetry. To pay for that would be tantamount to endorsing it and I want my money to count for what is true, beautiful and good.

      Reply
    • Wilbur Dee Case

      Thoughts on T. S. Eliot

      Though I genuinely feel the flaws in the writings of T.S. Eliot, I cannot easily let go of his accomplishments, which I think are three.

      One is his poetry. True, his is a poetry of fragmentation. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins…” But nonetheless I admire his ability to use the technique of fragmentation, endemic to the Modernists, and still rampant here among New Millennials. The Wasteland has always seemed to me a poetic, neurotic breakdown. “You Hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

      Another quality I like about his poetry is its seriousness; though I am offended at its opacity. And though I would not go as far as you do to say “there is no lyricism in Eliot,” I would definitely agree it is lacking. Of course, as artists, we all argue against that which we do not appreciate, and few knew this as well as Eliot, who frankly understood his biases against Puritan Milton or atheist Shelley. I understand my biases against Eliot, but I cannot reject all of him. I would place him on the level of a Shelley (or a Hopkins), but not on the level of a Milton.

      Eliot’s second accomplishment, in my mind, was his foray into drama. A disaster—yes. But think of drama in the last two hundred years. Perhaps you can help me with this; but who shines out from Shelley’s closet drama Prometheus Unbound to Pinter’s two act play The Homecoming? Of course, there’s Wilde’s comic achievement, particularly The Importance of Being Earnest, Shaw’s many plays, including Man and Superman, and there are many other playwrights, including Yeats, Ibsen in A Doll’s House, Chekhov’s quartet, Brecht in Galileo, Beckett in Waiting For Godot. And then the Americans around the 1930s and 1940s, O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Wilder in Our Town, Williams in Streetcar Named Desire, and Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

      I do not think T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, or any of his other plays, is the equal to any of these dramas; nor, for me, is any one of the aforementioned plays satisfying poetically: The Family Reunion, in noniambic pentameter blank verse, The Cocktail Party, lacking in Euripidean power, and the verse of The Elder Statesman. But, and here’s my point, from the poet’s point of view, as far as I know, he understood the height of poetic drama in English, the Elizabethan period, better than any poet in English.

      His third accomplishment is his literary criticism. I am not suggesting he has any essay as profound as Aristotle’s Poetics, nor, for that matter, as good as Pope’s Essay on Criticsm in heroic couplets, written when Pope was in his early twenties; but Eliot’s voice, covering the vast territory of European literature, is the one I return to time and again, over every other literary critic in English.

      For example, in just some brief examples from one of his essays, he suggests Baudelaire’s “comprehensiveness…tempts the partisan critic, even now, to adopt Baudelaire as the patron of his own beliefs…” and that “Baudelaire’s morbidity [like Poe’s, I would add] cannot be ignored.” Eliot goes on to suggest that though Baudelaire’s poems possess “excellence of form [and] perfection of phrasing” they have “the external but not the internal form of classic art.” And Eliot would know, because his poetry has that same quality.

      As many know, Baudelaire is frequently contradictory. At one place he writes, “La poésie ne peut pas, sous peine de mort ou de déchéance, s’ assimiler à la science ou à la morale; elle n’a pas la Vérité pour objet, elle n’a qu’Elle-même.” But then also, “Le temps n’est pas loin où fraternellement entre la science et la philosophie est une littérature homicide et suicide.” And I seem to remember him saying somewhere that all poetry is moral, and somewhere else that every book is immoral.

      Anyway, I truly enjoy your arguments; they are heartfelt, powerful, and suggest English literature has a creative force within its midst. I truly enjoy your knowledge of French literature; and I hope you will bring more of its insights to the SCP. After all, who else in New Millennial poetry speaks of Malherbe, Boileau, or the Pleiade [Even the French, caught in the stupidity of deconstruction, do not.]

      Finally, I agree with all of your indictments against Eliot’s poetry but one, and that is that he is not worthy of consideration, because we do not share his beliefs. I must admit that I do not agree with any writer completely, even the great mathematical logician Gottfried Leibniz, the co-inventor of calculus. So, although I disagree with Leibniz’ monastic attitude, and am averse to his monads, as well as so much more in his writings; still, his notational symbols of the derivative in calculus are a stroke of genius I will not soon relinquish. Nor will I soon be dropping Eliot, for the aforementioned reasons.

      Reply
      • james sale

        This is an excellent appreciation of Eliot and you are especially right about his critical writings, which are extremely insightful. I too have a penchant for Eliot despite detesting modernism and I ask myself why? And I think one aspect of his work that you haven’t commented on except obliquely is the fact that the poetry is marvellously quotable: lines taken out of context still resonate – ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’, for example, or ‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge …’. And why is he so quotable? Yes, because of course he pilfered all the classics! The crowd of whom he had not known death had undone so many is from Dante. Truly, modernism even at its best is so parasitic.

  3. G. M. H. Thompson

    This is all very fascinating and erudite discussion, but I think Mr. Eliot is being unfairly blamed for the free verse unpoetry that currently dominates the empty stage that is modern-day poetry, just as the American colonists unfairly blamed King George for what they perceived to be the tyrannies of British rule when in reality, the poor German monarch was little more than a figurehead, if you will pardon that cliche. For, both he and Ezra Pound were rebelling both against the flaccid, weak Tennyson derivatives that dominated published poetry of the early 20th century, such as that of the Georgian School and the War Poets in England, and also against the vast swath of uninspired free verse that was rampant even back then, such as the “poetry” of William Carlos Williams and the Imagists.

    True, Pound is often credited as the founder of Imagism, but by 1915, he had already broken with the movement and, along with Eliot, concentrated on writing verse that was not as free as free verse, but which was free of the 19th century. The results of this for Pound were poems such as “Near Perigord”, “Homage to Sextus Propertius”, and “High Selwyn Mauberley”, and for Eliot, such works as “The Hippopotamus”, “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”, and, yes, “The Waste Land”.

    For, Mr. Eliot’s much reviled magnum opus is not only one of the most prominent poems of the last hundred years, it is also one of the most subtly metrical poems of the whole of English literature. That it is a formal poem is often missed I think, partly because it frequntly changes it’s cadence, partly because it was edited so as to disguise some of it’s metrical nature, and partly because most readers do not have the time, skill, or patience to give the poem more than a cursory skimming, but this formalism can be better elucidated by considering some of the excised passages. This is the original start of THE FIRE SERMON:

    Admonished by the sun’s including ray,
    And swift approaches of the thievish day,
    The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
    Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes.
    Electric summons of the busy bell
    Brings back Amanda to destroy the spell;
    With coarsened hand and hard plebeian tread,
    Who draws the curtain round the lacquered bed,
    Depositing thereby a polished tray
    Of soothing chocolate, or simulating tea.

    Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
    Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
    Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
    Eases her labor till the deed is done.

    This passage (written quite obviously in rhymed iambic pentameter) is about the most elegant and formally structured passage I am personally aware of about going to the bathroom, but Pound advised Eliot to cut it, and about 60 lines that follow along the same lines, because in structure he thought it too much like the verse of Pope (on which it was based) and in content, too much like “Ulysses” (on which it was based). And the formalism is ubiquitous even in the final form of the poem. The opening passage is accentual with four beats per line following (with perhaps a few mistakes, for which I appologize) approximately this pattern:

    /uuu/uu//u
    /u/uu/u/u
    /uu/u//u
    //u//
    /u/u//uu
    /uu/u//u
    u/u/u//u
    /uu/uuu/uu/uuu
    uu/uu/u/uu/uu
    uu/u/u/uu/uu
    u//uu/uu/
    uu/u/uuu/uuu/
    u/uu/u/uuu/u
    u/uu/u/uu/
    u/u/uu//u
    /u/u/u/uu
    uu/u/u//
    u/uuu/uu/uu/u

    And a passage that has already been quoted, lines 377-384, is written in a very tasteful system of interlocking iambic and trochees as such (I count “violet” as two syllables because that’s how it’s said, but I am not site if that was how it was said in 1920):

    u/u/u/u/u/
    u/u/u/u/u/
    u/u/u/u/u/u/
    u/u/u/
    u/u/u/u/u/
    u/u/u/u/u
    /u/u/u/u/u/
    u/u/u/u/u/u/u/u/

    I could give more examples of how “The Waste Land” is inherently a work of formal poetry, albeit one that frequently and quite drastically changes it’s metre, but I think the few examples I have given should suffice to prove my point, which is that Eliot and his most prominent poem is not free verse, and this cannot justly be blamed for the waste land that is all too much of contemporary poetry, which, as someone rightly noted above, is merely prose (autobiographical, utterly unimaginative prose at that) that arrogantly styles itself as “Poetry”.

    Rather, if one wanted to pinpoint the causes of poetry’s currently blighted state, one would do much better to look at poets like Williams, Stevens, Robert Lowell and the Confessionals, Sylvia Plath (who, like Eliot, was actually a very subtle and adept formalist whose legacy has been pirated by unthinking zealots), and especially Alan Ginsberg and the Beats, whose emphasis on spontinaety, narcissism, and profanity has much more to do with the way most “poets” are currently writhing than anything T. S. Eliot ever wrote or said.

    Reply
    • james sale

      Some excellent points in this. As with morals, so with poetry, certain people want the easy way, the way without discipline, and the quick cut to it always involves the phoney cry of ‘freedom’ – a freedom not to be free, but to do whatever, and a freedom not to create but to download unresolved, amorphous psychic tensions and call it poetry.

      Reply
  4. Wilbur Dee Case

    Forgive me for being inattentive so long, G. M. H. Thompson, to your solid and valuable arguments.

    First let me state unequivocally: I admire T. S. Eliot’s criticism, poetry and drama—in that order.

    My argument is mainly with Eliot’s position against Poe’s writing. The original title of my essay was From Eliot to Poe, a reference to Eliot’s essay entitled From Poe to Valery, which I was arguing against.

    I agree that Eliot and Pound rebelled against the flaccid, weak Tennyson derivavtives of the early 20th century; though I would argue that, although derivative, Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, and Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est face the English poetic tradition straight on. Sadly their careers were cut short in the War.

    My main argument is against Eliot’s attack on The Raven in his essay From Poe to Valery. So I chose an equally flawed, but likewise remarkable poem The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.

    My main point is that Eliot’s attack on Poe was short-sighted, and strange applicable to his own poetry.

    I also agree that Eliot and Pound wrote vigourous verse in their early days; though I must admit I remain convinced that The Wasteland demonstrates both disillusion and dissolution. I do think that The Wasteland, with Pound’s editing, is a remarkable poem; but remain convinced its central flaw is its collapse. As I pointed out earlier there are flaws in all written works, including prose masterpieces.

    Think of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, Samuel Pepys Diary, Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, John Donne’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Federalist Papers, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathemathica, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, Isaac Azimov’s A History of Chemistry, Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, the Hebrew and Greek translation of the King James Bible, Thomas Browne, who Jorge Borges thought our greatest prosaist, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, T. S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent, Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Carl Boyer’s A History of Mathematics, James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Francis Bacon’s Of Studies, C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, William James’s The Principles of Psychology, Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, A J Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes, John Milton’s Areopagitica, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, et cetera.

    However, back to poetry. My mention of Milton reminds me of Eliot’s attack on Milton’s style, which he suggests is responsible for the bad poetry of the 18th and 19th centuries. I understand and I appreciate his point; however, I am applying his attack back upon his work.

    Still, don’t get me wrong. I think T. S. Eliot is the finest literary critic in the English language, superior to Dryden, Pope, despite his youthful Essay on Criticism, S. Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, et cetera. Admittedly I have been swept away by the power of his literary criticism.

    To wind down this lengthy reponse, but perhaps to inaugurate another tempest in a teapot, I think the early Robert Lowell had more promising poetry than either Eliot or Pound; but he, like them, yielded to the Whitmanic yawp; and I grant that figures, like Williams, Stevens and Plath, offer interesting reactions to the great tradition of English poetry—but mainly only that.

    Finally, James, you sure hang in on these poetic discussions; your critical stamina is remarkable.

    Reply
    • G. M. H. Thompson

      Thank you for your considered response, Mr. Case, and I must say that I agree with almost all its points, but I also must say that my post was mostly a response to a particular tone I detected in the responses to your article & not a response to the article itself, which I found to be well-reasoned, erudite, and a pleasure to read.

      Indeed, I can’t say that I disagree with anything in your article, except perhaps an assertion made in the first sentence that Eliot was trying to write a different kind of poetry than Poe, for as you yourself in this article noted, there are really quite a number of similarities between the verses of these two great masters. But that is a slight quibble & I agree that Eliot certainly wished to be perceived as being a very different kind of poet than Poe, and certainly that he almost undoubtedly perceived himself as being so.

      Perhaps the biggest point I was (and still am) trying to make in my post was that T. S. Eliot & the great formal poets of the past, of which Edgar Allan Poe was one, were not so different, as Eliot himself wrote a great deal of formal poetry, a fact which I am not particularly convinced is widely appreciated. And I think that this kinship between Eliot & Poe was one of the main driving elements and corollaries of your good article, but please correct me if that’s not the case.

      Furthermore, I never contended that The Waste Land, in either form or content, was without flaw, though I do think it’s very well done. I merely sought to assert that it was a formal poem & not a work of free verse.

      And I do like some of the War Poets, particularly Wilfred Owen (especially his innovations in consonance rhyming, which would later be furthered and perfected by Sylvia Plath), much of whose poetry is strikingly similar to parts of The Waste Land, but I must admit that I believe the War Poets, on a whole, to be quite overrated owing to the tragic & nationalistically-charged natures of their deaths and that I find many their poems to be little more interesting or complex than nursery rhymes (and I’m only sorry for saying that because doing so feels like a nasty insult to nursery rhymes). And I do suppose that one could level the same charges against much of the poetry of William Blake, but Blake’s sublime, prophetic imagination more than amends similar faults in his poetry, for imagination was one of the most conspicuous elements missing in the War Poets’ verse, and indeed in the verse of much of formal poetry in the last one hundred and fifty years.

      And I’m sorry but I simply can’t agree with the assertion that Robert Lowell, in any of his mediocre manifestations, has more promising poetry than either Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot; I even have serious qualms as to mentioning that grand inquisitor of narcissism in the same sentence with two of the three triumvirs of High Modernism (the third being Yeats), or with any other great poet, for that matter. Like Longfellow, Emerson, or Thoreau (just ask Poe what he thought of these pretentious rubes), Lowell was a rhetorical, wooden New Englander whose verse, though structurally admirable, would better serve as planks in a whaler or firewood to fend off those fierce puritanical winters than anything that is intended for human entertainment, as poetry, in its essence, is (the highest entertainment entertains the highest of intellects, as the highest poetry does). I’ve tried at least seven times to read Lord Weary’s Castle, and though I’ve forced my way through both The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket & At the Indian Killer’s Grave as well as a number of the others, I just find his verse too tiring & have never managed to make it through the whole thing. If Robert Frost was a piece of cardboard marinated for seventy years in a barrel of turpentine, he’d be Robert Lowell.

      But I wholeheartedly agree with you on Stevens and Williams (though not on Plath— her consonance rhyming is the finest and most accomplished I know of and this, together with her work with syllabic verse, marked, I feel, a definite advance in the field of twentieth century English poetry, and indeed in the whole of English letters; I feel that Plath, owing to the superficially feminist nature of her work (it really has very little to do with her being a woman, besides a few obvious pieces like Morning Song, but don’t tell her legions of fans that— they probably would burn you at some sort of stake if you were to whisper such a heresy), has yet to be properly understood or appreciated).

      Finally, I just must say that I wrote my first post on a smart phone and autocorrect inexplicably changed several words without my permission or noticing, and this caused me to make several embarrassing errors. Notably, in the excerpt I gave from the unedited Waste Land, ‘including’ should be ‘inclining’ and ‘back’ should be ‘brisk’, and in my penultimate paragraph, ‘this’ should be ‘thus’. I should probably apologize for misspelling Allen Ginsberg’s name ‘Alan Ginsberg’, but I’m not going to because Alain Gainsburg deserves to have his name mutilated in any number of horrifying ways, and I refuse to apologize for virtue.

      Reply
  5. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    G. M. H. Thomson,

    I thoroughly enjoy your literary judgments and pronouncements, even when they are diametric’lly opposed to mine, because they are grounded.

    Eliot’s quote in From Poe to Valery, “Poe dabbled in verse and in kinds of prose…” is correct. But what if someone else wrote, “Eliot floundered in verse and tried kinds of prose.” Would they not also be correct?

    I prefer the poetry of Eliot to Poe: The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Wasteland, The Hollow Men, and the Four Quartets easily outweigh The Raven, but there is a verbal music and a sense of completion in Poe’s work, that none of Eliot’s works attains; maybe because of his use of formal poetry and free verse; maybe by using alternating styles his work breeds disquiet; I’m not sure.

    As for inaugurating a tempest in a teapot:

    On the Mediocre Manifestations of Robert Lowell
    for G. M. H. Thomson
    by U. S. A. Bedweleric

    The poetry of Robert Lowell would better serve as planks
    in whalers or for firewood for stern New England Yanks.
    That grand inquisitor of narcissism left his curse
    of wooden, Puritannical, rhetoric’lly-stiff verse.
    Lord Weary’s Castle is so ti-rrr-ing it wears one down;
    its Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket bears one to the ground.
    If Frost had been a piece of cardboard soaked in turpentine
    for seventy long years, he have become a Lowell twine.
    L. Bogan nailed his style—high-pitched, Baroque intensity—
    a cross between Donne’s Metafizz and Melville’s density.

    Reply
    • JAMES sale

      Thank you Wilbur for your kind remarks on my stamina, although others equally seem to be engaged. It has been a fascinating run and I love your provocative, almost throw away line at the end, “offer interesting reactions to the great tradition of English poetry—but mainly only that” – ‘only that’ says it all. The older I get the more anti-modernist and anti-post-modernist I become if only because I spent so long wasting my time trying to get ‘it’ when there is no ‘it’ to get. Some of TS Eliot’s poetry is powerful nonetheless, although for me Dr Johnson is the greatest critic in the language, but we need not widen the scope of the debate to include criticism, except tangentially. But it is important. I am currently near to finish reading Michael Schmidt’s (if you haven’t heard of him: he’s an American, born in Mexico, who’s a huge cheese in the UK, got an OBE from the Queen for services to poetry, and runs Carcanet Press and is general editor of PN Review, one of the three ‘biggest’ poetry magazines in the UK) ‘Lives of the Poets’, a 800+ page tome on English speaking poets of the last 500+ years. Nothing if not ambitious, as the title apes Dr Johnson’s sublime work. What is most interesting, though, from the point of this debate is that the C20th and modernism begins to take up more pages than the preceding 5 centuries; and whereas Shakespeare’s poetry is covered in 5 pages, Ezra Pound, that criminally insane traitor and fascist, gets 7!!! Pound is clearly a bit of a hero, and if you are an American you will be delighted to know if blind patriotism is your bag, that loads of other American nihilists are too. But he is even handed in that if he can find a Brit who doesn’t ‘moralise’ and isn’t too preoccupied at all with ‘meaning’ (another word he seems to have an aversion to), then he’ll go on at length about them too. Iambs are no good; whole lines are the structure – and we ‘breathe’ them. It can’t really be parodied – see for yourself. But don’t buy a new copy – get it second-hand. The reading and erudition make it/him formidable, but that only shows how disabling intellect can be when it is philosophically so wrong. And ultimately that is the underlying issue behind our judgements on poetry: good old fashioned words that Plato might have used – goodness, beauty, truth – still need to apply and be re-used, re-commissioned in the service of art.

      Reply
  6. G. M. H. Thompson

    Lieu. Ceres Bawd,

    You’re too kind. But I must disagree with the contention that Mr. Eliot floundered in verse, just as I must disagree with Mr. Eliot when he contends that Poe dabbled in verse, for verse as sublime as “The Raven”, “To Helen”, & “Dream-Land”, to name just a few examples, is not the result of mere dabbling. Rather, it is the very breath of God (to steal a phrase from A Bit of Fry and Laurie: https://youtu.be/ZFD01r6ersw).

    Yet, you make a fine point when you note the greater musicality of Poe & also when you note the lack of completeness (completeness being, in my opinion, a very important metric to keep in mind in analyzing a poem, and also in writing one) present in much of Eliot’s work. Still, I think that Mr. Eliot achieves completeness in The Waste Land (in no small part thanks to Ezra Pound’s aggressive editing), as well as in The Hollow Men (& a number of his lesser works).

    But The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in particular has always seemed unfinished to me. In fact, for the longest time, I positively despised it, at least consciously so, as being a very ostentatious, empty, and pedantic piece of whimpering self-pity. Yet, little snatches of it always impressed me, “Let us go then, you and I,” “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”,

    “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
    The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
    Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
    Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
    Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
    Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
    And seeing that it was a soft October night,
    Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.”

    & I just kept rereading it, despite being, at least to my active mind, repulsed while doing so. One day, to my surprise & even amazement, I realized that I was somewhat fond of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and furthermore, I realized that I even could be said to “like” and “enjoy” the poem, for indeed, I did (and still do), despite considering it rather flawed and definitely overrated (as I still do).

    And I think of the two works, The Raven is the better, both in terms of its structural soundness and the power of its thought (that last term is not one that I am at all comfortable with, but I can think of no better way to express what I think is the nexus of poetic theme, diction, and clarity of thought; perhaps “poetic magic” would do, but that sounds too hocus-pocus;— besides, clarity of thought is not always good, contrary to what English teachers try to brainwash students into believing— : it often leads to banal, boring thought, and I in no way wish to imply that The Raven is based upon commonplaces, or that thinking in commonplaces will allow one to write poetry similar to The Raven).

    I thought your poem quite amusing & charming and really much more of a complement than I deserve. I also thought it more than a little reminiscent of Ezra Pound (especially in line 5, but the voice was Poundian throughout, at least to this ear), & I mean that as a complement and not a low one.

    And thank you, Mr. Sale, for recommending Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets. I have as yet only read the two passages in question, & while I agree that Mr. Schmidt should have given more time to Shakespeare than Pound as Shakespeare is unquestionably the greatest English-language poet of all time (as Schmidt himself notes a number of times), this task is far from easy as the only thing known about Shakespeare for certain is his will (pun intended). Indeed, for the longest time (& still today, amazingly), a number of people held a number of highly imaginative & highly ridiculous views on whether Shakespeare was or was not actually Shakespeare, as I’m sure you are all well aware. Only recently, thanks to advances in computer technology and analytics, has statistical analysis been able to prove these theories to be little more than wishful whitewashings of history (https://youtu.be/K-aAUwAFZlQ), but throughout the nineteenth & twentieth centuries, this debate raged hot & fast (or as hot & as fast as literary criticism written mostly by shut-in, overweight, middle-aged white guys in wigs about a 200+ odd years’ dead man with a receding hairline can rage), which serves to illustrate strikingly how perilous, futile, & silly mining the Bard of Avon’s work for biographical information can be (as Joyce famously has Buck Mulligan (Puck Mulligan) remark in Ulysses, “Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.”).

    Pound, by contrast, is strongly buttressed by a geyser of highly-reliable personalized information, as he wrote many letters, published a number of greatly influential manifestos on how to write & interpret poetry, and established a good number of well-documented friendships with other notable twentieth-century poetic personaes, whole conversations of which are definitively-known things. Furthermore, it can be argued that Uncle Ez had a greater impact among his contemporaries and immediate predecessors than Shakespeare did among Shakespeare’s contemporaries & immediate predecessors, if one restricts the conversation to nondramatic verse, as Schmidt does (& as I stridently think he should not— discussing Shakespeare without discussing Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, etc. is like going to a Halloween party without wearing a costume (going as yourself doesn’t count unless you go wearing no clothes at all)). Brer Rabbit, as Old Possum affectionately nicknamed him, might have been a criminally insane traitor and fascist (also, an anti-Semite— you forgot anti-Semite (he later recanted this view and went on to apologize to Almond Grapesbourne, among others)), but as a poet, he fundamentally changed the way poetry was written & even perceived, and that can’t really be said of Shakespeare (yes, I know, that sounds like sacrilege, but please consider it with an opened mind before you crucify me).

    For, while the Bard is, as I have already said (& as Michael Schmidt says in Lives of the Poets), the greatest English poet, without question, he was not an innovator. Blank verse came from Marlowe, and before him, Seneca, as did many of the conventions and devices of Elizabethan Theater Shakespeare was to use with such lightning and stardust. The sonnet was the most common form of fashionable poetic expression in the 1590s. And almost all the plots and characters even of his plays were based heavily upon previous plays written by authors who were not, in fact, William Shakespeare. Today, this would be called plagiarism. For, the genius of Shakespeare was not the genius of pure invention and imagination so much idolized (and unrealistically, prohibitively quested after) today, but rather, it was a genius of perfecting existing if nascent forms of his day, and perfecting them to such a pitch and peak that sonneteers & playwrights writing in English have never equaled in the 400 years since.

    Which is one reason why Ezra Pound was such a revolution & such a revelation. After Big Bad Billy Shakes yet prior to Pound, English poets more or less (with one or two notable exceptions of which Whitman is the most conspicuous, but even his verse resembles some of the freer moments in the plays) tried to write like Shakespeare. Which is to say, mostly in iambic pentameter with blank verse being the dominant form of long poems (sure, Milton had a lot to do with this, but who was Milton if not a Puritanical Shakespeare? (yes, I know, he wrote no plays, but the Puritans didn’t believe in theater (or playing cards, or dancing, or teaching their daughters more than one language despite having masterful knowledge of at least five) besides, what are both Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained if not closet dramas, and what is a closet drama if not a work of theater?)). The great rhymed long poems of the nineteenth century were based in no small way upon the work of Pope, and he was in no small way a student of Shakespeare as well as the successors of Shakespeare, such a Milton & Dryden.

    The movements and the writers and the translations Pound thrust upon the world were a massive challenge to the oppressive fugue English poetry had sunk into since its brilliant peak at the end of the sixteenth and start of the seventeenth centuries. In the three hundred years since then, as I have pointed out at some length already, poetry composed in English said little that was new and little that was said in a different way than it did under Queen Elizabeth and King James of England. It took Pound’s Yankee ingenuity to wake it up again by favoring the trochee over the iamb, by advocating accentual verse rather than verse bound by more rigid forms of metrics (that’s what his famous “musical phrase rather than the metronome” quote is talking about), and by introducing Chinese, Japanese, and other foreign-language-derived techniques to English verse, along with a good variety of other liberating innovations. For, if one cannot outdo someone (as no one can reasonably expect to outdo Shakespeare writing like Shakespeare), one had better do something different than that someone, or else run the risk of looking like a cheap imitation.

    And as for Mr. Schmidt giving as much time to the twentieth century as to the five centuries preceding it, that might be because from a numerical standpoint, there have been more poets and more poetry (not good poetry, but poetry nonetheless) in the last 125 years than there were in the 500 years before that (this is one of the many tragedies of democracy and mass-education). Conversely and ironically, there are fewer readers and enjoyers of poetry than ever, and this is due to great variety of factors quite beyond the scope of this discussion, but I do want to note that I think the primary culprit for this malaise is Post-Modernism, not Modernism, and that there is a definite difference between Post-Modernism and Modernism (and Michael Schmidt seems to stand with me in these views, as do a number of other historians of English poetry who have written on the twentieth century). It was Howl and not The Waste Land, Skunk Hour and not Sestina: Altaforte, Tulips (I don’t universally like Plath, just much of her work) and not Sailing to Byzantium that destroyed public interest in English poetry, and indeed, very much destroyed English poetry itself as a living tradition.

    Reply
    • G. M. H. Thompson

      I’m sorry for having to tack this post so artlessly onto my last post, but it’s come to my attention that I most clumsily mangled its only pun (a sin which I brood o’er with the gravest of hearts), which should have read, “the only thing known about Shakespeare for certain is Shakespeare’s Will (pun intended).” Also, and this should have special interest for you, Euclid’s War-Bee, I wanted to bring the discussion back to its nominal focus and out of the happy hunting grounds I so carelessly let myself mislead it into– :

      I noted in my second post that I took issue with the assertion that Eliot was trying to write a different kind of poetry’s than Poe. Now, at the time when I was thinking and writing that post, this was little more than a visceral suspicion in my mind. But since then, I have began reading Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets thanks to Mr. Sale’s recommendation; I have also been refreshing my memory on the history of English poetry’s using various online sources as well as David Perkins’ two volume A History of Modern Poetry (a source that is well-written and informative, but four decades out-of-date I’m afraid as it was published in 1976; still, it is sufficient for my purposes and I recommend it). These informal investigations have led me to remember that just as Poe was the first and most cunning father of Symbolism/Fin de Sicele/”Art for Art’s Sake”, Eliot was very much its last & greatest son (young Tom Eliot first met Jules Laforgue, Symbolism’s King of Dandyfluff (just as David Bowie would later become Rock ‘n’ Roll’s King of Dandyfluff), in 1908, and this practitioner of what was essentially the style of Edgar Allan Poe had an electrifying, transformative effect upon the poet’s virgin style (as y’all probably already know), just as another Symbolist, Rimbaud, was to forever change the voice of a curious young man named James Douglas Morrison in the early 1960s; W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and High Modernism in general were also all very much the products of that most French of poetic movements, Symbolism, which sprang directly from the pallid bust of Poe perched above Baudelaire’s chamber door– only this and nothing more).

      Thus, I assert that Poe and Eliot were (& are) ravens of the same feather and cats of the same coat when it came (& comes) to poetry, for they were both writing in the psycological & sensation-laden, unrhetorical, and image-centric vein that Poe invented and Eliot perfected (perfected as in brought it to its furthest and greatest point, not as in made it without flaw), no matter what Eliot the critic wanted the world to believe (and indeed, probably ardently believed himself, for the best critics are magicians and the best magicians believe in their own magic, even if it is only a trick). Indeed, much of what Eliot the Critic said, brilliant and eloquent as it was (and it was brilliant and eloquent), was gainsaid by the poetry of Eliot the Poet, and this discrepancy is only to the credit of both of these great literary figures.

      Reply
    • JAMES sale

      Hi GMH – thanks for this wonderful response – you make so many points that at last I think I have to lay down and rest. Where to begin? First, let me just say that your link to Shakespeare and the linguistic proof he wrote the plays is superb – I had not seen this before. To date the best book on the topic is James Shapiro’s (a New York prof) Contested Will – a masterpiece in demolishing the preposterous theories that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare, but the linguistic evidence is new to me and I love it. It reinforces all we really know about Shakespeare and his style, though the idea that he collaborated with Marlowe on H VI pt 1 & 2 is really intriguing. Anyway thanks for that.

      I take your point about modernism v post-modernism, the latter being the real ‘dog’, but that said I do find it impossible to appreciate, like or in any way rate Ezra Pound (unlike WB Yeats: the greatest poet of the century). With the single exception of his The Ballad of the Goodly Fere it seems to me all arcane, ugly, and academic. Even the much vaunted ‘metro’ poem leads me to wonder: so what? Who cares? Why bother? Give me GK Chesterton’s The Donkey any day. Technique for the sake of technique is just so tedious. I remember Joyce saying something to the effect that his Ulysses would give the academics something unravel for several hundred years – and obviously thinking that was good. So with the Cantos. What is the point? Who reads this stuff, apart from academics and the intellectually curious, who in my case drop it and get rid of it.

      I think we’re on the same page: I rate Poe and Eliot – because they’re poets, not wannabes!! All the best

      Reply
  7. Lew Icarus Bede

    Beware of typos, flaws in judgment, etc.

    James, from what you say about Michael Schmidt, his work “shows how disabling intellect can be when it is philosophically so wrong,” I shall forego the pleasure of reading his Lives of the Poets.

    G. M. H. Thompson, we can agree to disagree on Eliot’s floundering in verse. I come at my assessment from struggling through his verse in happily unpublished works of mine, like Cicadas’ Voices, and The Spaced Spanned.

    As for The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, I still lean on it, as for example, in this far-from-perfect tennos of last year, on the centenary of its publication, Gallipoli, and the Armenian holocaust.

    The Mark of the Feast
    by Darius Çeleweb

    “…i’ son quel de la frutta del mal orto,
    che qui riprendo dattero per figo.”
    Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto 33, lines 119-120

    The evening is spread out against the scarlet, screaming sky,
    as if it were a corpse upon the altar of the eye.
    On half-deserted, Sunday streets, one sees Armenians
    are rounded up, as prisoners, by Ottoman gendarmes.
    It’s 1915, in Constantinople, during war.
    The Dardanelles Campaign—Gallipoli—is at the door.
    Hagia Sophia, surrounded by four minarets,
    once dedicated to God’s Wisdom, Logos, it now sits
    atop a small hill overlooking both the Bosporus
    and Sea of Marmara, exceeding cru’l and barbarous.

    Another recent tennos of mine on pollution in Delhi, India, draws from the yellow fog section you quote.

    The Yellow Fog
    by Sri Wele Cebuda

    Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, today,
    said, acting on the even-odd scheme, did not do away
    with as much air pollution as was hoped-for…would retreat,
    but did reduce conjestion of the traffic on the street.
    The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes,
    and licks its tongue into the corners of the day, remains.
    And in the city, rickshaw autos and the taxis drive
    in droves around the littered roads where millions plod alive;
    yet murdering the myriads, the muttering retreats,
    will there be time to save them from the smoke along the streets?

    As for The Hollow Men, here is a bauble.

    The Shallow Men
    by B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    We are the stuffed shirts.
    We are the hollow faces.
    We’ve had enough of Kurtz.
    We want the pillow cases.

    For me, Poe’s importance is in his short stories, (not so much in his poetry and criticism) and bringing German Romanticism tangentially into English via E. T. A. Hoffmann.

    On the Mediocre Manifestations of Robert Lowell is a bauble that owes what little power it possesses to you. [Typo: In line 8, the he should have been he’d]. I really enjoy your prose; but I would still argue Lowell’s sonnets are remarkable poetic artifacts, and the poem’s style, partly derivative of Lowell. As for its Poundian tendencies, in the same way I yielded to the dark side—Eliot—I also yielded to Pound. But I have argued against him as well. The first work is a bilding, a structure I created with a rhyme scheme of ababcbcdcdad.

    On Ezra Pound
    by B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    For eighty-seven long years, he was out of key
    with his time, attempting to maintain the sublime,
    striving to resuscitate the old poetry,
    il fabbro. What did he think he’d attain in rhyme,
    that savage idiot with a prose cinema?
    What chance did he have with wax in his ears? His clime,
    like Dante’s, was through Troy’s hell, Jonah’s Nineveh.
    Wrong from the start, Flaubert was no where to be found
    between Scylla and Charybdis, the minimum.
    The age demanded someone who was tough and sound,
    like Vergil carrying Homer to Italy,
    not cutting the wasteland down to size, Ezra Pound.

    The second is a sonnet with an extra parenthetical line.

    Sonnet On Pound’s Cantos
    by Walibee Scrude

    Pound’s Cantos are a heap of rubble that
    became the landscape. Fulminating loud,
    like an old prophet on his Ararat,
    he spouted disillusionment out proud
    (in his panscopic grab bag—error fat);
    and though there are a few…specks in the pan,
    still, after sluicing a hole hillside, there
    isn’t a lot of paydirt (daylight)—some flotsam
    and jetsam, just plain junk in with despair.
    They are an architectural shambles
    filled with particulars, self-pity, spite;
    the whole o’erwhelmed by Whit-manic brambles,
    suffused throughout with Eliotic blight.
    And yet, they do reflect that wretched time:
    a madding crowd of millions out of rhyme.

    I try to write poems on the instant, like the following two recent tennos on the Belgian and Pakistani terrorist attacks, the first responding to Ezra Pound, the second to William Butler Yeats.

    In a Station at the Maelbeek Metro
    by Sir Bac de Leeuw
    “Literature is news that stays news.”
    —Ezra Pound

    Then suddenly a loud explosive’s deadly blast demurred;
    some faces in the crowd, like petals on a black bough, stirred.
    Some ghastly apparitions sprawled about the broken glass.
    They turned amidst contorted metal shapes they could not pass.
    Without a word, the smoke rose through the ill-lit tunnel’s dark.
    Not all who came near Charon’s car were ready to embark.
    Some pried the glass doors not blown out to leave that underworld,
    where recently so many gentle people had been hurled.
    Most ran away up to the light along Rue de la Loi,
    but twenty-one remained. The car was ready to take off.

    Easter 2016
    by Waseel Budecir

    The ceremony everywhere of innocence is drowned,
    and gruesome wickedness continues at the kids’ playground.
    Close by a children’s swing set at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park,
    on Easter Sunday in Lahore, east Pakistan, near cars,
    a member of the Taliban, unleashed his bomb device…
    o, many women died, so many kids were sacrificed.
    His target was the Christians celebrating Easter day,
    the flames so high above the trees, the bodies borne away;
    stampeding chaos following, in mad rush to escape:
    a horrid ugliness has shown its wretched face again.

    I can’t be rid entirely of them, Pound, Eliot and Yeats, but one does move on. As Pound tried to get beyond Browning, I have left Pound behind. And this is where Shakespeare helps, as well as Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Milton, Pope, Keats, Byron, Hopkins, Dickinson, and others.

    Other literary traditions add power, as Pound and Eliot knew, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, etc. And we can learn from the prosaists in English, as well as abroad.

    Writings
    by Wilbur Dee Case

    One never could describe the writings of a period,
    because all of the works therein would be a myriad:
    There’s oratory, allegory, satire and romance,
    epistles, journals, memoirs, sermons, law and reference,
    didactic, lyric, epic, education, history,
    translation, science, criticism, and philosophy;
    there’s comedy and tragedy, math and biography
    short stories, fables, novels, essays, and theology,
    expository, politics, descriptive, prophecy,
    persuasive, narrative, e-mails, proverbs, poetry;
    there’s drama, sketches, articles, how-tos and monologues,
    advice, opinions, dissertations, resumes, and blogs,
    notes, copywriting, editing, research and technical,
    wit, humour…Damn, the best thing is to be eclectical!

    Think of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, Samuel Pepys Diary, Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, John Donne’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Federalist Papers, Alfred North Whitehead’s An Introduction To Mathemathics, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, Isaac Azimov’s A History of Chemistry, Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, the King James Bible, Thomas Browne, who Jorge Borges thought our greatest prosaist (he certainly created the most interesting vocabulary), Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, T. S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent, Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Carl Boyer’s A History of Mathematics, James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, Herman Melville’s Mardi and Moby Dick, Francis Bacon’s Of Studies, C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, William James’s The Principles of Psychology, Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, A J Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes, John Milton’s Areopagitica, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, et cetera.

    As for Shakespeare, here is a recent poem on him, which is both parody and eulogy. I apologize for its imperfections; but I wrote it on April 23, 2016, and I refuse to tweak it despite its flaws. By the way, it is my theory that all poetry and prose is flawed.

    Composed Upon the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s Death: April 23, 2016:
    by Wilude Scabere

    Shall I compare his language to a grave?
    It is more lively and more flowery.
    His rough-shook words refuse to be death’s slave.
    No tomb’s as showy or so showery.
    A sepulchre, though hard as rock, erodes,
    and shrines do often lose their lustre’s prime,
    while monuments, though nice, make poor abodes,
    and sadly catacombs decay in time.
    But Shakespeare’s language will not go away.
    Unceasingly, his lines play in the mind.
    They pop up even on a summer’s day.
    Unlike a crypt, they will not stay behind.
    Alas, poor Oracle, his song goes on,
    despite all efforts of oblivion.

    1 3 25 20 16

    2 17 14 8 24

    21 19 12 6 7

    23 11 4 22 5

    18 15 10 9 13

    Like Dürer, in his Melencolia it’s obvious that the magic square at least indicates the year the poem was written in its upper corner.

    I tried to write a poetic drama last decade, entitled Nelson; but I was still under the spell of iambic pentametre, and I recently threw away all my research and proofs. Shakespeare’s accomplishment is all the more extraordinary for his taut poetic dramas, like Macbeth. In Macbeth one can see the brilliance of his language contrasted with the competent versifier who penned Hecate’s speech. I admire the dynamic richness and purity of Shakespeare’s language. I admire his prose there as well in the letter to Lady Macbeth, the Porter’s speech, and Lady Macbeth’s somnambulism. Even in some of the least significant passages, the language is magnificent. Not all is perfect, but so much is spectacular; yet we must move beyond Shakespeare too. Shakespeare has his limitations, as do we all. By the way, I have never, since I was introduced to Shakespeare’s language, accepted that someone else wrote his works. His style, like Chaucer’s, Spenser’s, Milton’s, Pope’s, and Dickinson’s, is so idiosyncratic, it is unmistakable.

    To a large degree no writer is an innovator; we are all using the language we were born into, or came to. Yet, on the flip side of that, nearly every writer is also writing his or her language in a unique way. Eliot addresses this in Tradition and the Individual Talent. I would call Milton’s Samson Agonistes poetic drama, even if it be a closet tragic drama.

    I really have stirred up too much with this essay. I don’t like Poe’s Raven that much; but I would have to say that part of its remarkable power is that it is trochaic, long before Pound. What I admire about Pound is his attempt to attack ancient Greek literature; though I do not think him as successful as Hölderlin was, or even for that matter the florid Keats.

    I’m not sure there is less poetry today than there was in the past, only that it has to compete with so many more kinds of writing . I do count as poetry, lyrics of Rap, Rock, Country, etc. as well as advertisements, slogans, and other popular expressions. In that expansive definition, there may be more poetry than ever before. I do admit I came to poetry in my youth, via figures, like the Beatles, and countless other figures.

    “Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.”

    Reply
    • JAMES sale

      Some very funny things in these parodies; I like them. I have just finished Schmidt – it is a monumental work and I have discovered some beauties through it – or rather re-discovered in the case of Robinson Jeffers the sublimity of ‘Shine, Perishing Republic’; and discovered too the New Zealand poet James K Baxter, whose work looks interesting from the taster provided. But as I said before, there is something wrong at the root of the enterprise; ultimately the book degenerates into lists of dozens of poets and one is left wondering, Who is worth reading? The Pareto Principle should have been applied: more about the vital 20% and cut the fatuous 80%, although I suspect his cut would have left me profoundly dissatisfied, since I feel he would have included Ginsberg Howl and excluded Charles Causely or Tony Harrison – but, I could be wrong. Thanks for all your fascinating comments and I should share with you that ‘I Am the Walrus’ is my favourite Beatle song! Man – you should have seen them …

      Reply
  8. G. M. H. Thompson

    Wild Beer Sauce, I first must thank you for continuing to humor me with this discussion, as I find it most entertaining. Also, your poetry is delightful, although I disagree with what it says concerning Ezra Pound. And you’re right about The Raven being trochaic long before Pound, but I did say that there were exceptions to the trends of history I was attempting to isolate (yet I neglected to mention that Poe was one of these exceptions).

    Upon rereading (and in a few instances, I must admit, reading for the first time) Lowell sonnets in Lord Weary’s Castle as per your recommendation, I must confess to finding several that I would say were good poems, namely Concord and War. I also like Dea Roma (although it is not a sonnet), yet without my knowledge of Roman history, which derives from college courses of the same, I would have no idea what he was talking about, and I do not think that the poem, or indeed most of his poems, succeed on their own without specialist knowledge, which is ironic in the context of this conversation, because the same has been said of much of Ezra Pound’s poetry.

    I am personally of the opinion that Pound’s fine sense of diction, the grandeur of his poetic vision, and the musicality of his verse was far greater than those of Lowell, yet that is just my opinion. It is certainly true that the quality of Pound’s verse is not always consistent, and this is especially the case in The Cantos, which I recommend reading in selected editions and not in full. And it is also certainly true that Pound did write a good deal of free verse (or at least seemingly free verse) and that this aspect of his career has been amplified for reasons of poetic politics (many of Pound’s partisans, like many of Eliot’s partisans and many of Plath’s partisans, hate formal poetry and can’t comprehend or even suspect that their hero would stoop to writing it). Nevertheless, Pound did write some formal poetry, much of which I consider good, and in the interest of possibly turning the hearts of formal poets who congregate herein, I will now take the liberty of transcribing some few of these poems (all written before 1923, mind you):

    PLOTINUS [by Ezra Pound, 1908]

    As one that would draw thru the node of things,
    Back sweeping to the vortex of the cone,
    Cloistered about with memories, alone
    In chaos, while the waiting silence sings:

    Obliviate of cycles’ wanderings
    I was an atom on creation’s throne
    And knew all nothing my unconquered own.
    God! Should I be the hand upon the strings?!

    But I was lonely as a lonely child.
    I cried amid the void and heard no cry,
    And then for utter loneliness, made I
    New thoughts as crescent images of me.
    And with them was my essence reconciled
    While fear went forth from mine eternity.

    MASKS [by Ezra Pound, 1908]

    These tales of old disguisings, are they not
    Strange myths of souls that found themselves among
    Unwonted folk that spake an hostile tongue,
    Some soul from all the rest who’d not forgot
    The star-spun acre of a former lot
    Where boundless mid the clouds his course he swung,
    Or carnate with his elder brothers sung
    Ere ballad-makers lisped of Camelot?

    Old singers half-forgetful of their tunes,
    Old painters color-blind come back once more,
    Old poets skill-less in the wind-heart runes,
    Old wizards lacking in their wonder-lore:

    All they that with strange sadness in their eyes
    Ponder in silence o’er earth’s queynt devyse?

    [‘queynt’ is an antiquated term for ‘extinguished’, and ‘devyse’ is an antiquated term for ‘command’; that these eldritch terms serve as the final stroke of the poem are entirely in keeping with its character and nicely complement its overall argument]

    SESTINA FOR YSOLT [by Ezra Pound, 1909; ‘flower(s)’ has only one syllable in this poem (very Scottish)]

    There comes upon me will to speak in praise
    Of things most fragile in their loveliness;
    Because the sky hath wept all this long day
    And wrapped men’s hearts within its cloak of greyness,
    Because they look not down I sing the stars,
    Because ‘tis still mid-March I praise May’s flowers.

    Also I praise long hands that lie as flowers
    Which though they labour not are worthy praise,
    And praise deep eyes like pools wherein the stars
    Gleam out reflected in their loveliness,
    For whoso look on such there is no greyness
    May hang about his heart on any day.

    The other things that I would praise to-day?
    Besides white hands and all the fragile flowers
    And by their praise dispel the evening’s greyness?
    I praise dim hair that’s worthiest of praise
    And dream upon its unbound loveliness,
    And how therethrough mine eyes have seen the stars.

    Yes, through that cloud mine eyes have seen the stars
    That drift out slowly when night steals the day,
    Through such a cloud meseems their loveliness
    Surpasses that of all the other flowers.
    For that one night I give all nights my praise
    And love therefrom the twilight’s coming greyness.

    There is a stillness in this twilight greyness
    Although the rain hath veiled the flow’ry stars,
    They seem to listen as I weave this praise
    Of what I have not seen all this grey day,
    And they will tell my praise unto the flowers
    When May shall bid them in in loveliness.

    O ye I love, who hold this loveliness
    Near to your hearts, may never any greyness
    Enshroud your hearts when ye would gather flowers,
    Or bind your eyes when ye would see the stars;
    But alway do I give ye flowers by day,
    And when day’s plucked I give ye stars for praise.

    But most, thou Flower, whose eyes are like the stars,
    With whom my dreams bide all the live-long day,
    Within thy hands would I rest all my praise.

    Reply
  9. Bruce Dale Wise

    Robert Milby,

    You are right. I like Poe, but do not love either Poe, or Eliot.

    However, as to statues of critics: Poe and Eliot were both literary critics; and their statues are their works.

    For me Poe’s greatness lies in his short stories; Eliot’s in his criticism. Poe’s “The Raven” is marvelous; it is America’s most Shakespearean piece; and though I find it puerile compared to Eliot’s major poems, no poem of Eliot is as striking.

    James Sale,

    I remain impressed by your devotion to English literature.

    Since I first read Eliot’s essay “Poetry in the Eighteenth Century,” I have been taken by his quote: “…if lines 189-220 of “The Vanity of Human Wishes [by Samuel Johnson] are not poetry, I do not know what is.

    In Eliot’s extensive essay “Johnson as Critic and Poet,” he writes, “…amongst the varieties of chaos in which we find ourselves immersed to-day, one is a chaos of language, in which there are discoverable no standards of writing, and an increasing indifference to etymology and the history of the use of words. And of the responsibility of our poets and our critics, for the preservation of the language, we need to be repeatedly reminded…” by writers, like Samuel Johnson.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Bruce – I am impressed by your commitment too; you are not only committed, you are irrepressible, which is a good thing! I am semi-reluctant to return to this debate as GMH Thompson has far more stamina than me, so it would be dangerous to get him/her (?) started! But thank you for mentioning Dr Johnson, a personal hero of mine, and – despite the Wordsworth parody (the pot calling the kettle black, as it is and was so easy to parody Wordsworth) – I find much real poetry in The Vanity of Human Wishes. The late, lamented but not great actor, David Carradine made the point that ‘If you cannot write poetry, be the poem’. Dr Johnson wrote a small amount of real poetry, wrote a substantial amount of genius criticism, but his life was the poem as Boswell and every biographer since has discovered. Truly remarkable.

      Reply

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