A Book of Answers XX: Dante, Virgil And T.S. Eliot


One point on which I found myself thoroughly in agreement with Robert Graves in his Clark Lectures was his tribute to Eliot’s good sense, to his small but real poetic talent and his conviction that that talent had been vastly overrated by his contemporaries. The immense amount of reverence and commentary amassed by the Eliot Industry around the very exiguous output of a poet who had in any case very little to say, is quite amazing. Eliot was a good and original critic; he had a just and acute sense of values, and he knew how poetry ought to be written. He was quite good at light verse, but his attempts at serious poetry are for the most part pretentious failures in a dispirited and flabby sort of free verse that was doomed from the start. He reminds me of Turgenev’s comment on Taine as a critic: “Permit me to compare Taine with a hunting dog I once had. He would quest, set and point, he was a perfectly trained hunting dog—only he lacked a sense of smell and I had to sell him.” Much the same might be said of Eliot as a poet, and in two passages of East Coker he candidly revealed the reason though he appeared not to have realized the fact. It’s a pity, because he did write genuine poems at times and only lacked the flair to tell the genuine from the factitious. I have imagined him meeting Dante and Virgil in that circle of Hell devoted to the violent against themselves, for it seems to me that Eliot’s failure was due to forcing himself to follow a perverse and impossible method. And it is fitting that he should learn the truth from Dante, of whom he wrote, “that of the very few poets of a similar stature there is none, not even Virgil, who has been a more attentive student of the art of poetry, or a more scrupulous, painstaking, and conscious practitioner of the craft” (A Talk on Dante, 1950). It may seem arrogant and excessive of me to put Eliot in Hell, but I intend it only in the literary sense, as a lost poet, not as a lost soul.

In this instance, in the interests of dramatic narrative I have for once incorporated the original lines in the answer proposed to them.

Home Truths From Abroad or Dante and Virgil answer Mr T.S. Eliot

On the bare cornice of Hell’s seventh crater
We met a shade who said his name was Tom,
After that saint men call the Dubitator.

He would not say what country he was from,
But claimed a major poet among the living
And minor prophet of the wrath to come

Had been his lot. Then, not without misgiving
This Thomas Stearns was questioned by my master
About his life and works, till he, perceiving

What poets we were and where we found him, cast a
Dismal eye on that infernal ground,
Admitting he had been a poetaster.

“And yet,” said he, “on earth my verse was crowned
With laurel which this air below has blasted.
Tell me, you glorious pair, whose names resound

“Through time, whose mighty poems have outlasted
The empires that they celebrated, say
Why were my life-long efforts largely wasted?

“By what misfortune did I go astray
In middle life (though one of you came through it)
In that same wood where he, too, lost his way?”

Then Virgil turned to me and said: “Although it
Is now too late for him to mend the matter,
Should we not succour this unhappy poet?

“Poet born or made?—I rather think the latter—
He was a banker, now he needs a broker.
He has his death—we do not need to flatter,

“But, in the hand Fate dealt him, find the joker.”
Then I to him: “Do you remember, brother,
A poem of yours that touched me once, Fast Coker?

“If I recall, in that, somewhere or other,
You made a humble and sincere confession,
But called your native tongue a false step-mother.

“Could you repeat it to us here in session,
We shall speak truth, with pity as we can,
Though mercy makes no part in our profession.”

“Yes, truth untempered to a truthful man
From men in whom the truth was proved and tried!
Speak on! Winnow my wheat and bolt my bran!

This is what in those bad, last years I cried:
“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate.…”

He broke off, weeping then, and while we waited
Stale airs swirled round us from the nether pit
Till he, his passion some degree abated,

Resumed: “In the same poem, I admit,
I called the old poetic forms of verse
For our new modern talents quite unfit

Yet owned as I went farther and fared worse:
That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

The poetry does not matter! The thing was said,
I thought my master caught his breath in token
Of anger or impatience, but instead

He gazed at our poor shade when he had spoken
In wonder and in pity; then began:
“Was this then verse I heard, so lame, so broken

“That none could tell its measure or make it scan?
Words obey him alone who leads them dancing,
Not him who works to your drill-sergeant plan.

“You cannot hope to call forth their entrancing
Hid music, nor breathe life into their clay
Until the wand of metre sets them glancing,

“Gleaming with light on their celestial way.
Your melancholy half-prose was a venture
Doomed from the start: What more is there to say?”

He paused as though the sill of further censure
Tempted him on; then, smiling turned to me:
“Dante, who shares with you the misadventure

“Of the dark wood and the lost way, will be
A safer guide.” And I to him in wonder
No less than Virgil’s, cried: “What fallacy

“Or misconception did you labour under,
Misguided man? Real poets never ‘try
To use words’, as you put it; your first blunder

“Was treating them like slaves or tools. The high
Art that we serve begins with love and patience
To learn to let the words use us. They fly

“Like leaves from autumn gales your machinations
To ‘get the better of them’! trick, compel,
Your next fault was to take poetic fashions

“As your concern at all; a sense of smell
Is all a poet needs against decay;
The naked muse, the native tongue rebel

“When poets tell them what to wear each day.
Old forms are not outmoded by new speech,
Nor next year’s fruit by roots in yesterday.

“What language was this that you could not reach
So transitory, so ephemeral?
And what truth was it, so worth while to teach

“One day, the next day not worth saying at all?
Journalists plan such perishable wares
But poets should not be at the beck and call

“Of trivial word-flux and such current affairs
As a year’s commerce renders out of date.
Truth ignores fashion and Beauty never cares.

“Your worst fault was to underestimate
Your own gift, or deny it altogether;
Poets do not ‘raid the inarticulate’;

“They waken sleeping images, untether
The captive truths and lead them towards the light,
Break time’s hard frost and foster growing weather.

“To fertilize the mothering womb aright
Their task: not that mechanical construction
Implied in your description of your plight,

“Your poem-factory geared for mass-production,
Your barracks built to regiment raw squads
Of feelings—drilled for conquest? or destruction?

“Such language, friend, reveals you quite at odds
With all true poets know themselves to be;
Earth’s living talismans, the sacred rods

“That strike her rock and set its waters free.
I marvel at the cause of your affliction,
For I, at least, unlike my guide here, see

“In you a poet by instinct and conviction;
A poet ruined, yet a poet born.”

He left us with a kind of valediction
And faded on the blowing of a horn.

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