Back to the Bay Psalm Book: T. S. Eliot's Identity Crisis and "Sweeney Erect"

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DURING THE EARLY years of T.S. Eliot's expatriation, when the aspiring poet was striving to establish himself as a writer in London, he undertook a rigorous and comprehensive rereading of American literature and history. At this time, during and immediately after World War One, Eliot also began to diagnose the malaise he believed to be afflicting western civilization, or what he was then fond of referring to as the "mind of Europe" ("Tradition," 39). Eliot's solution eventually required him to conflate the vocabularies of several disciplines--notably aesthetics, theology, politics, and psychology--in order to prescribe a remedy for the cultural ailment. Indeed, several scholars have noted that Eliot's most important historical formulation--the dissociation of sensibility-is itself a psychological diagnosis. Over the course of many years, Eliot would describe the ailment he detected as a variety of "immaturity," "heresy," "'provincialism," "whiggery," or any of several types of "hypertrophy." Eliot's aesthetic solution would involve an attempt to "reassemble" as many different aspects of the West's "dissociated" sensibility as was possible ("Wilkie," 461). This project of re-assembly led him to combine various literary styles into a coherent whole. In the process, he managed both to write some of the most innovative poetry of the twentieth century and to reinvent himself as an American-European.

Eliot began to address this larger cultural dilemma in his quatrains, where his disciplined use of formal elements brought under control eclectic subject matter while providing an ironic contrast with the poems' frequently irreverent and eccentric passages. If The Waste Land can be read, at least in part, as the culminating aesthetic attempt to reintegrate the "mind of Europe" through its use of several innovative literary devices--stream of conscious associations, symboliste images, snippets of realist conversation, ironic juxtapositions, and a multivocal collage of allusions to the literatures of several nations--then it is imperative to read the quatrains that preceded The Waste Land, and especially "Sweeney Erect," as a necessary step on the way to the production of this masterpiece of modernism.

Of course the quatrains, perhaps the most overlooked of Eliot's pre-Waste Land poems, can stand on their own merit. But to appreciate fully Eliot's individual works, it is best to understand the trajectory of his career and have a view of his entire corpus in mind. Eliot affirmed this in 1944 when he wrote that a "major poet is one the whole of whose work we ought to read, in order to appreciate any part of it," and one wonders if he was trying to correct his youthful claim that Hamlet was "most certainly an artistic failure" ("Minor," 47; "Hamlet," 47). The distaste Eliot and Pound were expressing after the Great War for the undisciplined excesses of free verse is well documented. The quatrains are more than a sustained move made against verse libre. Though they are ironic and contain allusive and at times esoteric subject matter, the poems are not merely derivative or reactionary. In fact, the poems are not so much negations of verse libre as they are conscious affirmations marking a formal return to a meter and stanzaic structure with a rich and storied history: The Bay Psalm Book.

The first book ever printed in America, The Bay Psalm Book was published by Massachusetts Bay colonists (Winthrop mentions it in his journal in the late 1630s) who were not content to use the Psalm book of the rival and more radical Plymouth colony, whose collection--as Haraszti points out--had been translated in Holland and published overseas. In fact, Eliot's earliest American ancestor had been a member of the colony, and generations of his family had lived there and served prominently over the course of nearly three centuries. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay were non-conforming but non-separating; initially, they acknowledged the authority of the Church of England and wanted to reform it from within rather than break from it, the route prescribed by the Pilgrims. …