April is the Cruellest Month
One of our foremost commentators on poetry examines the work of a broad range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English, Irish, and American poets. The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar gathers two decades’ worth of Helen Vendler’s essays, book reviews, and occasional prose in a single volume. Taken together, they serve as a reminder that if the arts and the patina of culture they cast over the world were deleted, we would, in Wallace Stevens’s memorable formulation, inhabit “a geography of the dead.” These essays also remind us that without the enthusiasm, critiques, and books of each century’s scholars, there would be imperfect perpetuation and transmission of culture.
Her readings help to clarify the imaginative novelty of poems, giving us a rich sense not only of their formal aspects but also of the passions underlying their linguistic and structural invention. The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar is an eloquent plea for the centrality, both in humanistic study and modern culture, of poetry’s beautiful, subversive, sustaining, and demanding legacy. In this excerpt, Vendler discusses what many people feel is the most influential poem of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
The Waste Land remains, to most readers, Eliot’s greatest poem, because it refuses any easy reconciling of its revulsion against the appetites of the sexual body and its aspirations toward the idealizing spirit. Eliot will not claim an achievement he has not reached. (Later, in Four Quartets, he will express a more settled spirituality by moving out of society and out of time to “the still point of the turning world.”) Although The Waste Land has been a poem of the West (from Tiresias the seer to “dear Mrs. Equitone” the fortune-teller), it finds, in What the Thunder Said, that it has to move from the bankrupt West to the Ganges and the Himalayas, taking as its starting point (as Eliot’s note reveals) a Hindu sacred text, the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad, which explains the message of the sound of the Thunder. It is the voice of the Creator God, as he instructs the gods, human beings, and demons to surpass the ordinary limit of their natures: the minor gods should control their unruly selves, men should give alms despite their innate miserliness, and the demons should forsake their natural cruelty and sympathize. As the Upanishad says, “That very thing is repeated even today by the heavenly voice, in the form of thunder as ‘Da,’ ‘Da,’ ‘Da.’ . . . Therefore one should practice these three things: self-control, giving, and mercy.”
What the Thunder says sounds remarkably like the reported advice of Dr. Vittoz — advice that is ethical rather than religious, universally applicable rather than sectarian. Eliot’s study of the Upanishads at Harvard almost made him a Buddhist, but in the end his inherited culture was too strong for him, and he knelt at Little Gidding rather than at the Ganges. But here, the granted mercy (“a damp gust / Bringing rain”) comes from Asia, from the thunder- clouds over the Himalayas. Eliot’s strikingly candid elaborations of the Thunder’s three Da words — Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata — restore, for a consoling moment, the possibility of a generous view of human relations:
What have we given?
. . . . .
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender Which an age of prudence can never retract By this, and this only, we have existed
. . . . .
I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only We think of the key, each in his prison
. . . . .
The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands . . .
88 the ocean, the bird, and the scholar
These visions of giving, of sympathizing, and of happiness — even of gaiety — are impermanent not only because they are visionary but also because they are drawn from a Hindu tradition distant from the culture of the protagonist. Their offered expansion of selfhood shrinks, and the ruined Western psyche reasserts its ownership of the poem, shoring, against its tour abolie, its disintegrating European fragments — of London Bridge falling down, of a suffering poet sinking back into purgatorial fire, of a mind envying the singing swallow his mate, of a disinherited prince, of the mad and violent author Hieronymo. It is true that Eliot allows into his closing lines a faint reminiscence of the Thunder by repeating its three words, now “normalized” into English by the absence of their former italics. And yet he cannot remain in a normalized and translated version of the wisdom of the East: he ends his poem with the alien and untranslated self-echoing word “Shantih shantih shantih.” The Thunder-words have been acceptably paraphrased within the poem, but “shantih” remains stubbornly unintelligible to a Western reader, promising only an unattainable ritual end recommended by a Sanskrit text. (Eliot added a note translating the import of “shantih,” but within the poem it remains unexplained.)
The Waste Land surveys a domain of lost hopes, charlatan advisors (Madame Sosostris), destroyed cities, affectless sexuality, hordes of refugees, religious uncertainty, social hatred, lost ideals, and, above all, helpless loneliness and suffering in an arid desert. “Why not say what happened?” Robert Lowell was to ask defiantly, much later, in his final poem, “Epilogue.” In 1921, Eliot was the first modern poet writing in English to say, in a very broad way, “what happened” to himself and to Europe during and after the Great War. Accusing his society of covering up its despair, he borrowed words from Baudelaire’s “Au Lecteur” to double the force of his anger at social hypocrisy: “You! Hypocrite lecteur! — mon semblable, — mon frère!” But we must recall that in spite of the cultural and personal wounds uncovered and probed by The Waste Land, its literary fame arose not only from its investigations of death and sex but also from the memorable voices (not least the voice of its anguished protagonist) through which those obsessive themes arrived on the page.
Eliot had thought of calling the poem “He do the Police in different voices” — a quotation from Chapter XVI of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, in which old Betty Higden says of her adopted foundling, Sloppy, “I do love a newspaper. You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.” She means that Sloppy reads out the transcripts of court trials in full dramatic fashion, taking on a different voice for each of the participants: Eliot, too, does the social world in different voices, each with its own diction, each with its own rhythm. We have already heard the unstoppable pub monologue of Lil’s companion; just as distinctive in A Game of Chess is the staccato discontented rhythm of the frustrated upper-class wife:
“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
She is speaking aloud, as her quotation marks show; her morose husband does not answer aloud but responds in unquoted despairing thought:
I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
Other voices intercut that of the protagonist: one with a snatch of song (“Frisch weht der Wind”); another with a reproach (“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago”). Or a different voice altogether will begin to speak in an elaborately Shakespearean pastiche:
The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines From which a golden Cupidon peeped out . . .
A ragtime voice breaks in upon the neurotic woman, but she quickly resumes control of the page:
“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag — It’s so elegant
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”
Among his voices, Eliot makes room for a crowing cock — “Co co rico co co rico” — and a Whitmanian hermit-thrush — “Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop.” Such interruptions and counterclaims of sound, such generic leaps — from stylized imitation to music-hall blare, from birdsong to Ariel’s dirge — electrify Eliot’s score for The Waste Land.
Several of Eliot’s voices were edited out by Pound, notably the vulgar voice of a drinker who stops off at a bar, a music hall, and lastly a brothel. His lines originally opened the poem, serving as a prelude to “April is the cruellest month”:
First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place, There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind. . . .
. . . . .
“I turned up an hour later down at Myrtle’s place. . . .
. . . . .
Get me a woman, I said; you’re too drunk, she said, But she gave me a bed and a bath and ham and eggs.”
By cutting this American prelude and a later passage spoken by an American sailor, Pound made The Waste Land a consistently non-American poem. He also cut a prelude that opened The Fire Sermon, a coarse Swiftian pastiche in which an upper-class woman named Fresca is shown going through the motions of her morning: first, drinking hot chocolate (or tea) brought by her maid, then going to the toilet (“the needful stool”), then reading and answering letters, then bathing:
This ended, to the steaming bath she moves, Her tresses fanned by little flutt’ring Loves; Odours, confected by the cunning French, Disguise the good old hearty female stench.
(Pound revised “cunning,” with its obscene pun, to “artful,” one of his many alterations, always for the better.) If it is true that Pound’s deletions and pun- gent comments, visible in the margins of the 1971 facsimile of the Waste Land manuscript, shaped Eliot’s several sections into their present form, it must be remembered that it was Eliot himself who wrote the marvelous lines of the poem, with their nervous rhythms, their musical counterpointing of voices, their religious yearnings and their satiric abysses, their imperious forays into other languages, their montage of social scenes, and their departures into eerie sexual surrealism:
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 . . .
In such lines, the Renaissance canzone turns modern. And The Waste Land is an anthology of such lyric genres — the elegy, the prophecy, the lament, the homily, the vision, the pastoral, the satiric lyric, the love lyric, the lyric of re- morse. While its every turn is literary and allusive, its anecdotes display the contemporary. Its dissonance of dramatis personae is countered by the exquisitely managed succession of its lyrical modes. Eliot may have said that the poem was “only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling,” but what else could he say — “My marriage is in ruins, my father has disinherited me, I have lost my faith, the social world disgusts me”? Hardly. Nor would such a confessional summary properly represent the extraordinary assemblage that we know as The Waste Land — a poem that reached so far beyond its origins in both life and literature that it revolutionized modern verse.