NOTES ON A VOICE: T.S. ELIOT

In our eighth instalment of Notes on a Voice, Emma Hogan considers the rhythms and registers of T.S. Eliot's verse

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011

T.S. Eliot is known for a variety of reasons, not always the right ones. Born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888, dying a British citizen in London in 1965, he was one of the most innovative modern poets. But he tends to be seen as a poet you study rather than read. Seamus Heaney has said that the first time he encountered Eliot’s masterpiece “The Waste Land” he “froze in the headlights”. 

Now Faber and Faber, where Eliot worked from 1925, has released “The Waste Land” as an iPad app. You can hear his finest poem read by Fiona Shaw, Viggo Mortensen and Alec Guinness alongside Eliot himself in his Anglo-American accent. In some ways, he has been coerced into the 21st century. In others, he was already there.

Key decision

Letting Ezra Pound edit “The Waste Land”. Pound told Eliot to ditch an epigraph from Conrad, which was replaced by one in Latin and Greek, launching Eliot’s reputation for obscurity. He cut descriptive passages—“too easy” or too “personal”—and banned “perhaps” (“dam per’apsez”, Pound scrawled on the manuscript). The poem became starker, bleaker, but also more exciting and cinematic.

Strong points

“The braggadocio of the mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter” (“To Criticize the Critic”). His poetry combines mild anxiety with startling braggadocio in its turns of phrase. Eliot writes in snapshots, picking up the smallest details: teeth as “accidental stars” (“Hysteria”) or “the damp souls of housemaids/Sprouting despondently at area gates” (“Morning at the Window”). His poetry is rooted in landscape—old-style New Hampshire, a sordid London, or the later religiosity of East Coker. He makes them both familiar and strange, creating the effect Fiona Shaw hears in the “Unreal City” of “The Waste Land”, where the poem becomes a “prick to the back of the mind”.

Golden Rule

To be not just a poet. While writing “The Waste Land”, Eliot worked in the foreign department of Lloyd’s bank, and his poem owes much to the area “along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street”. It allowed him to have the double life he parodies in the prose work “Eeldrop and Appleplex”: “I am, I confess to you, in private life, a bank-clerk…” Respectable by day, less so by night, in “The Waste Land” Eliot moves between snatches of coarse conversation, lines from Shakespeare and the background noise of the pub. As he switches rhythms and registers, the poem seems to eavesdrop on itself.

Favourite trick

Delaying rhymes over several lines, which makes them feel as natural as everyday speech. In his early poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), the obvious, repeated couplet “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” is framed by other, quieter rhymes: “half-deserted streets” with “muttering retreats”, or “indecisions” fittingly coupled with “revisions”. Eliot can obscure such rhymes through the sheer length of his sentences, clauses often running over 12 lines or more to stretch languorously down the page, “like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent/To lead you to an overwhelming question…” Far from tedious, Eliot’s verse is tightly controlled—favourite words include “meticulous”—and yet it shows the lightest of touch.

Role models

The metaphysical philosopher F.H. Bradley taught Eliot to write with carefully constructed phrases. But it was the metaphysical poets who helped him forget such carefulness. Donne, said Eliot, “feels an idea; almost as if it were something he can touch and stroke.” Drawing on Dante’s Inferno and the flânerie of Baudelaire, Eliot could not have created his 20th-century inferno without such divergent influences.

Typical lines

“At the violet hour, when the eyes and back/Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits/Like a taxi throbbing waiting” (“The Waste Land”). 

The Waste Land for iPad, Faber/Touch Press; £9.99/$13.99. 

Emma Hogan is a Cambridge graduate and soon-to-be Intelligent Life intern who has written book reviews for The Economist and the TLS. 

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke