'Where Are the Eagles and the Trumpets?': The Strange Case of Eliot's Missing Quatrains
Alderman, Nigel, Twentieth Century Literature
T. S. Eliot rated the quatrain poems he wrote between 1917 and 1919 among his best and most important work. Shortly after the publication of The Waste Land, for example, he wrote to his brother, Henry: "I consider my Sweeney poems as serious as anything I have ever written, in fact much more serious and more mature than the early poems but I do not know anyone who agrees with me on this point except William Butler Yeats and Vivienne who have both said much the same thing about them" (Letters 608). Further evidence of his high regard for them can be found in the two selected editions published in his lifetime--the contents of both of which he chose. In the first small selection in 1940 he included "Sweeney among the Nightingales" rather than "Portrait of a Lady," and in the second and fuller selection he made eight years later (which remains the standard selected edition), he included all seven of the English quatrains.(1) However, his opinion has not been endorsed by academic criticism.
One of the most striking aspects of this criticism until recently is the unquestioned and unquestioning organic narrative that is used to chart Eliot's poetic career. In this narrative the quatrains are located between on the one hand the greatness of the two "central" early poems, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Portrait of a Lady," and on the other the work that is depicted as the fulfillment of his "first period": The Waste Land. Ronald Bush, for example, uses just such an organizing structure, asserting that "the causes of [Eliot's] evolution were there from the beginning" (ix), and spends five pages out of three hundred on the quatrains. Grover Smith uses a similar rhetorical strategy but is prepared to be more blunt about his antipathy toward the poems: "From 1917 to 1919 he based his technique more on Gautier than anyone else. Pound having disastrously encouraged him to study Gautier's Emaux et camees, he set to work being amusing" (38). Periodical criticism shows a similar lack of balance, as essays on the quatrains are few and far between, and those that do exist are normally either short, allusion-hunting pieces or are primarily biographical.
Even while this imbalance appears to be changing in two recent books (Robert Crawford and Kinley E. Roby), the quatrain poems, when they have been considered at all, have generally been portrayed as only useful stepping stones in Eliot's development as a poet.(2) F. B. Pinion is exemplary in this regard: "Though [Eliot's allegiance to Gautier] produced a number of poems which excited the younger generation with their daring and wit, the Gautier period must be regarded as temporizing and preparatory" (85-86). By using the term the "Gautier period," Pinion rhetorically intimates that they were too derivative, influenced only by Gautier. Yet there is also the paradoxical admission that they were perceived in very different terms at the time--they "excited the younger generation with their daring and wit." The use of the word "wit" is particularly problematic here, since critics, including Pinion himself, generally valorize the term by using Eliot's definition of it (which he formulated in some of the theoretical essays he was writing at the time) to explain the power of the later poems, especially The Waste Land.
Indeed, Eliot's assertion in the letter to his brother that no one liked the quatrains apart from himself, his wife, and Yeats is certainly not true, as Pinion points out. Angus Calder, however, is more explicit about whom of the "younger generation" the quatrains "excited," although he too exemplifies the typical critical approach to Eliot's quatrains: "Most of the [new] poems in English were written in quatrains," he writes, "[and] Pound's Mauberley sequence at the same time was largely composed of not dissimilar verses. Their retreat from vers libre towards an erudite formality is an interesting reaction" (45). Calder sets the work of the two poets during this period in opposition to the "reality" of the trenches and postwar "working-class agitation" and so charges "reaction" with a double-edged signification: a conservative recoil from vers libre and a reactionary response to the politics of the time. He then criticizes them for being too artificial, for displaying too much formal ingenuity, for not being "real" enough: "|Art,' or we might say not unfairly, |artiness,' provided a fortress to which they could retreat" (45). After arguing that they were too "art[y]," too arid, Calder asserts that they also reveal Eliot's "routine middle-class WASP anti-semitism" and "right wing political reflexes," which enables him not only to minimize the importance of the sentiments and the quatrains, but also to disown them both on his own behalf, and, even more insidiously, on Eliot's behalf as well (45). Having put the poems in their minor place, Calder in the next sentence reveals that it was these same poems that made Eliot's name: "Eliot's quatrains captivated amongst others the Sitwells . . . and clearly intrigued a major writer, Hugh MacDiarmid ... [who] refers casually to |Burbank' as if the poems were common knowledge, and actually parodies Eliot's already parodic |Sweeney' poems. Extracting witty new life from the quatrain, an easy |traditional' form, Eliot educated the generation of Auden and Betjeman and Stevie Smith, born in the century's first decade" (47). After this extraordinary passage, Calder then blithely says that the poem that Ara Vos Prec was really "about" is and was "Gerontion."
What is particularly revealing about the pattern of showing the quatrains' influence and then denying their importance is that their influence seems to have been creative, their lack of importance academic. The people who are ritually shown to have been impressed by the quatrains are poets themselves, whereas academic criticism disowns them. This dichotomy seems to have been operative even in the early twenties: when W. H. Auden is quoting the Sweeney poems, F. W. Bateson is reading The Sacred Wood,(3) This would seem to suggest that there is something about the poems that is resistant (or even antipathetic) to literary criticism as it had been institutionalized and was practiced in the Anglophone world until recently. Clearly, one aspect of this general critical agreement is the easy susceptibility of poems like "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Portrait of a Lady," and "Gerontion" to being fitted into certain comfortable paradigms about the reading process that were quickly developed in the 1920s by the academy. They appear to have an overall self who speaks--however fragmented that self might appear--and they seem to have a meaning that can be plumbed. On a certain level, as with The Waste Land, a hermeneutical reading can be constructed without seeming particularly forced: there is general agreement as to what these texts are "about," an aboutness within which and around which the critical arguments are contained. The quatrains, on the other hand, are far more resistant to the possibility of any such satisfying, closed hermeneutical reading; critics are still arguing over what the quatrains are about, what is happening, who is being portrayed.(4) That is to say, using Paul de Man's later formulations, the quatrains foreground the questions of what one is reading, of how one reads, "questions all belonging to the realm of empirical poetics ... rather than hermeneutics (what is the truth of the text)" (113).
Although the production of strange narratives has been endemic in Eliot criticism as a whole, the bizarre nature of those engendered by the quatrains is on a level all its own. As Christopher Ricks comments: "Most critics of poetry are poets manque, but many critics of Eliot are novelists manques" (15). To a certain extent this is an inevitable result of Eliot's poetic technique: his poetry, with its ellipses, allusions, jumps, successions of images that seem to interrelate, creates a need to provide links, the connecting tissue. As Eliot famously wrote in his preface to his translation of St John Perse's Anabase:
Any obscurity of the poem, on first readings, is due to the
suppression of "links in the chain," of explanatory and
connecting matter, and not to incoherence, or to the love of
cryptogram. . . . The sequence of images coincides and
concentrates into one intense impression.... The reader has to
allow the images to fall into his memory successively without
questioning the reasonableness of each at the moment; so that, at
the end, a total effect is produced. (7)
Peter Ackroyd agrees that the quatrains are particularly opaque in this way, but then, like a number of critics, suggests that the solution is a biographical one, revolving around Eliot's marriage: "The poems are difficult principally because although they seem to work in objective or dramatic terms--with the titles setting the |scene', as it were--their transitions and imagery …
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Publication information: Article title: 'Where Are the Eagles and the Trumpets?': The Strange Case of Eliot's Missing Quatrains. Contributors: Alderman, Nigel - Author. Journal title: Twentieth Century Literature. Volume: 39. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 1993. Page number: 129+. © 1999 Hofstra University. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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