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Necessary Inhibitions

T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style by Ronald Bush (Oxford University Press, 1984)

Here is a learned, literate, thoughtful book about T. S. Eliot that ought to bring his poetry closer. Then why does it make you feel, long before you have finished reading it, that Eliot’s poetry is drifting further away? Eugenio Montale once said that there is a danger that scholarship and criticism will act together to shed ‘too much light’ on a work of art. Only the captious would accuse Ronald Bush of having shed too much light here, but it will be a forbearing reader who does not sometimes conclude, while puzzling his way through this densely argued monograph, that any poetry which induces such a complexity of exegesis might just possibly have something wrong with it.

Mr Bush himself voices doubts about the consistency of Eliot’s achievement after The Waste Land, but modestly refrains from adducing, as supplementary evidence, the fact that he felt compelled to write a book-length commentary which might have been a mere article if Eliot had gone on succeeding — or, at any rate, had not failed in a way that requires so much help from explicators in order to be made intelligible. Mr Bush does not blame Eliot for needing him. Professor Denis Donoghue, we remember, betrayed no such hesitation in the case of Yeats, saying that what was wrong with Yeats was that he needed so much learned attention from the likes of Professor Donoghue. It is possible, however, that Professor Donoghue picked up this notion from the late Dr F. R. Leavis, who thought that the total number of ‘fully achieved’ poems written by Yeats was two, or perhaps three, and that everything else was vitiated by its crying need for illumination from an outside source. Leaving aside its infernal arrogance, the palpable falseness of this idea did not stop it from becoming a talking point in its turn, a contribution to the exponentially expanding literature on Yeats, as opposed to the relatively contracting literature of Yeats.

Mr Bush has composed a distinguished increment to the literature on Eliot. Before deciding whether the literature of Eliot has been further shrivelled as a consequence, we can count ourselves lucky that a scholar with a critical mind — or a critic with scholarly equipment, if the converse priority is preferred — is on the case. Admittedly, Professor Hugh Kenner covered the same subject more than twenty years go, but The Invisible Poet was a volume of his modern marvels encyclopaedia only marginally less frenzied than the one devoted to Ezra Pound. Besides, Eliot’s private life was hard to discuss at that time. Relevant data having piled up in the interim, the way is clear for another very clever, but this time less hagiographic, book: a book connecting the man who suffered with the mind that created. Mr Bush takes the opportunity with enthusiasm, especially in the matter of Eliot’s human frailty, which gets a lot of emphasis — to the point where we might be inclined, perhaps unwisely, to regard the man who wrote The Waste Land as an ordinary human being like the rest of us, who didn’t write it.

But if Mr Bush can’t fully approve of what came after The Waste Land, at least his disapproval helps him to approve of The Waste Land, so to some extent he stays attached to the reality of the matter, which is that Eliot, when he did succeed in writing poetry, wrote something no amount of explanation can fully explain. Having remembered in this one case that he is dealing with an entity rather greater than the sum of its elements, Mr Bush is able to talk informatively about the elements. That The Waste Land, whether or not it is a lament for a wrecked civilisation, is certainly a lament for a wrecked marriage has been argued before, most notably by Ian Hamilton in A Poetry Chronicle, whose chapter on The Waste Land seems to have escaped Mr Bush’s otherwise panscopic attention. A pity, because its example might have kept him down to earth. But he stays down to earth long enough to get some pertinent things said concerning the various ways Eliot avoided speaking outright about his personal suffering, and so wrote a poem whose impersonality became, and still becomes, the private property of any reader.

Eliot’s two main stratagems, one of which Mr Bush likes a lot and the other of which he likes less, were the ‘accidental image’ and the applied myth. The accidental image had its heritage in French Symbolism, and there can be no doubt that Eliot, as well as being intellectually drawn to the technique through the opportunities it offered for compression and resonance, really did find his own psyche more accessible when he took it by surprise, rather than through a frontal assault.

Mr Bush gives the poet good marks for achieving in The Waste Land even more of what he had achieved in the earlier poems by way of outsmarting his inhibitions. He gives bad marks, though, for how the same poet, looking upon what he had wrought, foisted a myth-schema on to it so that it would look more portentous or, at any rate, less vulnerable. The poetic moments, the critic concludes, are the real McCoy, but the overall pattern is a put-up job.

Though Mr Bush makes too much of this when dealing with Four Quartets later on, its relevance to The Waste Land is hard to question, and for a while we are given some real criticism to ponder. But the attendant speculation might have been of higher quality, instead of just high-flown. The biographical details that are not supposed to be available (if the poet’s widow had allowed an official biography straight away, it might have dished out neatly the beans that the unofficial biographies have so clumsily spilled) are brought in by Mr Bush with welcome tact, but not even so fastidious a scholar can resist constructing a straw man with them. Mr Bush’s straw man was always inhibited. He always had difficulty expressing himself. Mr Bush might have asked himself again, if he asked himself at all, whether the real man was that simple. Suppose, for example, that Eliot knew all about his own mental condition and cherished it as the motor of his gift. Would a poem that directly complained about the agony of his marriage have been a desirable, or even imaginable, artistic object? When Eliot, towards the end of his life, finally achieved the bliss of married love, it produced exactly one lyric.

Mr Bush finds the poems between The Waste Land and Four Quartets too incantatory, too dependent on wilful echolalia — in short, too patterned. Before, myth was doing the patterning at a late stage of composition, but now the patterning was being done from the jump by Eliot’s weakness for assonance: that is, by his strength for assonance left unguarded. Again, this is well argued, but the essential point is left out, which is that ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘Ash-Wednesday’ are full of lines hard to forget even at their most obviously contrived.

It is no doubt true that Eliot, in shifting his admiration from the poetry of Donne to the prose of Lancelot Andrewes, renounced the self-indulgence of the metaphysical quiddity and embraced the chastening ideal of a reasoned verse. To add that ‘Eliot fastened upon philosophical precision not as a mode of public speech but as a way of avoiding it’ is a justifiable turn of the screw. But even when you take into account — as Mr Bush perhaps too generously does not — the sheer tedium of the choruses from The Rock, there is nevertheless enough in Eliot’s period of plain and fancy chant to remind you that although incantation may be a bad word in Mr Bush’s vocabulary, André Gide thought that poetry should consist of nothing else.

But Mr Bush has a line to push. Eliot’s proneness to pattern-making, he says, reaches its culmination in Four Quartets, which is, or are, damaged as a consequence. Once again, there is enough in this notion to save it from being self-evidently silly. There is something wilful, even mechanical, about the sequence of ‘movements’, a pretension to musical form that makes Eliot sound unmusical for the first time in his life. But Mr Bush might have asked himself whether Dante — to take an example closely relevant to Eliot — was not being equally mechanical when he decided to write three canticles of thirty-three cantos each with each canticle ending on the same word. The Divine Comedy proves that a work of art can be mechanically organised and still be organically alive. So does Four Quartets, which is not only as marvellous in its poetic parts as Mr Bush says it is but also much more poetic in its prosaic parts than he seems to realise. Throughout the book he underestimates the value that Eliot placed on — and that we should place on — the verse that was just prose but more than just prose. When Eliot wrote the ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet’ sequence in Prufrock, he hit pay-dirt.

Not all of his image-free verse is his best, but much of his best verse is image-free. Mr Bush, stuck with his theory of the accidental image, finds this fact harder to appreciate than he ought, and he is thus too ready to believe Professor Donald Davie’s confident pronouncement that the passage in ‘The Dry Salvages’ containing the line about the ‘very good dinner’ is disastrously dull. But Professor Davie’s ‘devastating critique’ of this supposed lapse would be disproportionate even if it were correct. Eliot is either pretending to be an old buffer, or he is an old buffer, but it fits either way. If those lines are blemishes, so are liver spots.

Deafness to tone is not among Mr Bush’s drawbacks, but he parades enough academic affectations to make it seem to be. The occupational hazard of strained argument automatically produces the deadly catch-phrases that try to say the argument isn’t strained at all. ‘It’s no accident, then...’, ‘It is not surprising, then...’, ‘... it is neither accidental nor surprising...’, ‘It is not for nothing that...’ This is not too gruesome a tally as publish-or-perish texts go, but it is lucky that the body of the book contains nothing to match a lulu in the notes at the back: ‘My gesture towards Finnegans Wake is deliberate.’ My own gesture, upon reading this, was equally deliberate: a hand pointing towards the door. Get out, sir, and come back when your tongue is clean.

Mr Bush’s tongue will be a healthy pink again after the fever of book writing passes. Too appreciative of his subject to be completely fooled by his own theories about it, he retains at the end some of the excitement with which he began. As Brecht said in his little poem, when the fork with the lovely bone handle breaks, the trick is to discount your new knowledge that it must always have been flawed, and remember how you thought it flawless. Mr Bush tells the story of a fork revealing its flaw, but at the end he remembers. Indeed, he remembers too well, calling ‘Little Gidding’ not just the high point of Eliot’s poetry but the high point of modernist verse, beyond which the post-modernist variety has not gone and apparently may not go. Any literary criticism that sounds like science is bad, but this sounds like bad science.

The book contains enough good criticism to redress the balance. It is a solid contribution to the literature on Eliot. Bright students may be directed towards it in the certainty that they will pick up something, if only a decent respect for the author’s wide reading. But surely the chance is getting slimmer that they will have the time, the energy and the necessary innocence to make the literature of Eliot their own.

(Atlantic Monthly, January, 1984)