100. (T.S. Eliot)

All poetry orients itself, to knowledge, to others, to the world or something beyond it; Eliot’s poetry stoically queries and quietly agonizes over the possibility of orientation. To speak of orientation and Eliot in the same breath inevitably summons speculations about orientation of the sexes; and however hollow such speculations might be, they are a valid extension of the experience of reading Eliot, which leaves one not disoriented, but aware of the unsure prospect of finding orientation in life.

Think of some of Eliot’s finest moments, which turn on what it would be to find a still center of the world, which hope to cease turning (to come to a rest, though the figure is not Eliot’s, as a compass needle might), and which prompt disorientation in a reader, often guided by Eliot’s cues, as in the notes of “The Waste Land.”

One Eliot’s early poems most resistant to analysis is on what it would be to face a person at the right angle, to hold them at that proper angle of relation for longer than they can be held:

She turned away, but with the autumn weather

Compelled my inaction many days,

Many days and many hours:

Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.

And I wonder how they should have been together!

I should have lost a gesture and a pose.

Sometimes these cogitations still amaze

The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.

The turns of line and phrase in “La Figlia Che Piange” react with the turning away, the turning towards, and the turning over in the mind, of the scene. The poem’s triple figures: the woman, the man, the voice are themselves uncertainly set against one another, so that the man might be remembering himself or might be recalling another, might be desiring, desiring his former desires, or desiring the desires of another; he might be aloof and observant with the gaze of an aesthete, or he might be deeply invested and detaching himself for self-preservation.

Fragmentation is not in and of itself the end of Eliot’s modernism; instead, the end is in the yearning for a clear facing of an end, and the intermittent perdition, hesitation, uncertainty of where to proceed and how, in thought and action, in memory and hope, that ensues from fragmentation. Not where to go or when: but, prior to that, the uncertainty of how to know where there is that one can go–that draws Eliot’s imagination into its phases of greatest fertility.

The exemplary Eliot poems, not only for illustrating what I describe, but for illustrating Eliot’s achievements, are the Ariel poems, “Journey of the Magi” and “Marina” especially. The former of these, the kings of the Orient, guided to a birth that is a death, are at least guided. In the latter, “Marina,” the speaker wakes from oblivion into the state of disorientation from which the poem proceeds. And even where it ends, on “My daughter,” the reader does not know the orientation of the words, as the daughter may be that of Pericles, alive, or that of Hercules in the Senecan epigram, dead. The poem, like “Journey of the Magi,” is discomfited by, and discomfits the reader with, the  uncertain division of death and life; hence the startling and startled sequence:

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning


Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning


Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning


Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning


“Marina,” like “Journey of the Magi,” depends not only on a disorientation within the text, but a disorientation beyond it: in the case of “Journey of the Magi,” the disorientation is lesser though real. The words of the Magi in the first five lines are the words of Lancelot Andrewes, from a  sermon; the accommodation of voices into the poem’s structure, as the words of the Bishop yield to the words of Eliot, is seamless, but the relation between the words of the one and the other is made less certain by that seamlessness. What is the nature of the difference between the voices? Here, then, is a matter of the orientation of one voice to another; of a poet to a bishop; of the twentieth century to the seventeenth.

“Marina” is a more pronounced case: in an interview with Empson some thirty years after the poem was written, Eliot chuckled that he chose an epigraph–from Seneca’s Hercules Furens–that would keep many critics scratching their heads: “Seneca isn’t in the school syllabus, so all the classical men were caught out.” But that moment of initial uncertainty gives way, falls through, to a deeper uncertainty: how a reader is to experience the poem in relation to either Seneca or Shakespeare; whether the Senecan epigraph, with its implications that the poem is to be felt as shot through with the despair of a man awakening to his own acts of murder, is to be heard as a bass note beneath, or a equal counter-point through the scene in Pericles in which the lost daughter is recovered with the heaven’s music in the background.

In 1930, in a letter of Michael Sadler, Eliot: “I intend a crisscross between Pericles finding alive and Hercules finding dead–the two extremes of the recognitions bene–but I thought that if I labelled the quotation it might lead readers astray rather than direct them.” And to E. McKnight Kauffer: “I didn’t give the reference for fear it might be more distracting than helpful to the reader who did not grasp the exact point: the contrast of death and life in Hercules and Pericles.”

On the surface and depth of it, there is something odd here, and a part of what is odd is that the poem, about the force and experience of recognition, depends, in Eliot’s mind, on the reader’s to recognize, rather than be told; as if the telling would confuse more than the sight of the Greek letters, without attribution—an attribution that Eliot, as the remark to Empson strongly implies (it was some time later…), knew would be required if many people were to know at all what they were reading. But Eliot’s intentions in not attributing the epigraph answer to the poem’s sense of what recognition might be: an apprehension without a determinate orientation, so that what is apprehended and even recognized is not to be understood or identified fully.

The poem is founded on a (symbolist?) belief that the intensity of a feeling in an encounter with the world can transcend understanding; that the refinement and degree of feeling in the poem might be of such a quality and at such an intensity that whether the recognition is one of sudden recuperation or sudden loss does not matter. Whether the speaker is oriented towards death or life, the feeling glows beyond the normal range of human experience; and the degree, not the cause of the feeling matters. The poem commences with oblivion and moves towards recognition, with an inhumanly heightened refinement and degree of feeling, but never settles the question of how it is oriented towards what it recognizes, never settles the question of whether the feeling is of grief or joy.

And in its relationship to sources, epigraphs and quotations, the poem is similarly suspended without orientation: they are there, but the poem does not ask for us, the readers, to stand towards them in any determined way. We know there is more to know, but we do not know whether we are assumed to know it, or how the knowledge of the quotation would bear on the title, and the poem.

The poem illustrates, in an especially clear way, the challenge facing an annotator of Eliot’s poetry. A critical edition of any poet confronts questions of a poet’s relationship to knowledge and facts that are not in the poetry itself, but that were a part of the poet’s horizon of experience; poetry has always made claims for itself as a way of knowing and understanding, but its own claims vary and alter in relation to what counts as understanding and knowing elsewhere in that poetry’s world. The knowledge that matters for our reading of Milton is one thing; how it existed to Milton, as he wrote, whether it counted as knowledge, and how that knowledge bears on the knowledge of and in the poetry, is another. A scholarly edition meets chiefly the demands of the former, but in so doing cannot but carry the freight of the latter.

In the case of the new critical edition of T.S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, the case is somewhat different: it is not only the burden of what counted as knowledge and knowing to Eliot and his readers that the edition cannot avoid but also Eliot’s wariness towards (and awareness of) the orientation in life, including the part of life that is reading, that claims of knowledge and knowing seem to provide. Concerning “Marina,” the cat has long been out of the bag; but the poem is illustrative of a larger point.

Ricks and McCue are well-aware of the challenge: the prefatory contents opens with a section titled “This Edition,” shrewd in that it does not claim to introduce the poems, but what they have made of them, and added to them. Shrewder still in that the final subsection of “This Edition” is dedicated to “TSE on treatments of his poems”: it grants space to Eliot’s words, rather than those of the editors, letting them speak not only for themselves, but against themselves; the editors do not aspire to make Eliot’s opinions consistent, though they do make salient key tendencies in Eliot’s views and principles towards annotation. So we have Eliot in a 1934 review of an edition of Marston complaining that the annotations do not provide enough conjecture; and Eliot in 1947 allowing that his poems might be published with explanatory notes, but objecting to annotations; and, with more selections that I leave unquoted coming between, Eliot in 1962, asking that no academic annotate his poems: “I want my readers to get their impressions from the words alone and from nothing else.” Those are the final words, placed as respectfully as an editorial imagination could conceive, of “This Edition.”

Though Eliot does not say it himself, I take his fear to be not only (as he does say) that commentators, illustrators, or score-setting composers would get in the way of the words and the reader, interpreting on the reader’s behalf, but that the words of others would insist on or ask for an orientation to knowledge, to knowing, and to a particular set of words beyond the poetry that Eliot did not want to stabilize or determine; that the determinacy of orientation supposed and imposed by an annotated edition might run against a crucial dynamic of the words in the poetry.

That dynamic has been described by Geoffrey Hill in his appeals against the late poetry:

It was the pitch of Prufrock and Other Observations that disturbed and alienated readers; it was the tone of Four Quartets that assuaged and consoled them. That is to say, Eliot’s poetry declines over thirty years from pitch to tone.

And behind the difference of pitch and tone is orientation:

In ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1910-11) the distinction between I, me, my, we, us, our , you, your, his, her, they, then, one, it, its, is a proper distinction in pitch; in Little Gidding (1942) communication is by tone

      You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

How is the repeated ‘you’ to be understood? Is it the modern second person singular or the second person plural, or is the emphatic demotic substitute for what the OED terms a ‘quite toneless, proclitic or eclitic, use of “one”‘? Is Eliot instructing himself, self-confessor to self-penitent, taking upon himself penitentially the burden of common trespass, or is he haranguing the uninitiated, some indeterminate other–or others–caught trespassing on his spiritual property? Do these lines contain, even, a redundant echo from The Waste Land, the exclamatory ‘You’ of line 76, the closest Eliot could get, in the grammar of modern English, to the pitch of Baudelaire’s ‘Tu’ in line 39 of ‘Au Lecteur’? What it is, it is no match for the quality of pitch which Eliot caught in two words, just two words, in Antony and Cleopatra. Ricks, in his final appraisal to which I have referred, says that we cannot be sure of the ‘posture proper to the cry’ and that ‘the responsibility for settling upon the best response has been manifestly delegated’ to us by Shakespeare. My argument does not require that we should be relieved of the office proper to our intelligence. My objection to the lines from Little Gidding has nothing to do with deliberated indeterminacy of pitch; I hear in the the semantic equivalent of tinnitus atrium, and I say that one cannot rightly be expected, as reader, to take responsibility for this condition. (“Dividing Legacies”)

The Ricks that Hill quotes approvingly in his assessment of Eliot’s praise of Shakespeare is Christopher Ricks the co-editor of the new edition, and also Christopher Ricks the defender of the late Eliot. Ricks has responded to Hill that he cannot make sense of the distinction between pitch and tone, but Ricks perhaps provides the best figure for distinguishing the two: language existing along an axis and also possessing orientation on the axis; the posture and position of a word on its axis.

For Hill, pitch is a control of a word’s orientation such that, in the context of a poem, the reader cannot adjust the orientation of the language to conform to his or her wants, whims, or prejudices; it is an orientation that disorients—and in Eliot’s case, that disorients in the service of poems that seek for grounds for orientation. Tone, on the other hand, is a failure to orient language on an axis such that the burden of responsibility for orientation lies with a reader.

We might think that to insist that a reader orient a word is a form of poetic disorientation; but Hill makes the case, convincingly to my mind, that it is no such thing; that it is instead a turning away from the problem of orientation at all, accepting that any and all orientations are valid; as a consequence, the poem is all to easily oriented. For Hill, Four Quartets is fatally wounded by the failure to orient; made not disoriented, but too oblivious to the challenge of orientation that is the poem’s theme.

And it is in response to Hill’s challenge that the orientation of this annotated edition of Eliot takes fullest effect:though the McCue-Ricks annotated Eliot at times takes us towards knowledge by which we might orient ourselves, it chiefly to the words that may have been swirling around Eliot’s mind, ears, coffee table, bookshelves, conversation, letters; it is information, and knowledge, but it is knowledge of Eliot’s horizon of language, so that the character, posture, and inclination of his words might be better understood and felt. Our awareness or recognition of the orientation of particular words, and of the alternatives against which an orientation is made, can, as Hill explains, provide us with a clearer apprehension of the disorientation we are to feel in reading the poems, and of the disorientation manifest in them.

In the case of the lines that Hill quotes from Little Gidding, the Ricks-McCue edition provides us with Eliot’s own later attempt at explaining what he wanted to mean: “for some of us, a sense of place is compelling…I am aware that not all persons have such a sense of place (as I describe it), nor is it necessary for it to exist to make prayer valid.” And a note alerting us to Eliot’s markings in a book of spiritual letters, where he scored a passage on praying: “The strangest part is when we begin to wonder whether we mean anything at all, and if we are addressing anybody, or merely using a formula without sense.”

Though it might not answer Hill’s objections, the two quotations do show clearly what Hill describes as a poem’s flaw: that the orientation of “you” is to be left open…but we might from this ask whether Hill is right in feeling that he has been made responsible for selecting a proper orientation of the word. The poem, we might think, is registering, by the openness of the word “you,” its own sense of disorientation towards its audience: Eliot is aware that not all persons have that sense of place, though some have. Something in him is moved to note a passage on the uncertainty of whether a prayer reaches God; it is a moment of the poetry where he is uncertain whether the lines reach a reader, or even himself. The word is not casually abandoning orientation and its challenges, but is written in a moment of the poem when the challenge of orientation, towards God, towards readers, towards his own experience, is felt to be uncertain; the word is oriented towards blankness.

And elsewhere the annotation is richer still; these lines of Little Gidding are relatively sparse in commentary. But what we find through the edition is an opportunity to sharpen our vision of the words and their directions; to gain a more refined feeling for the poetry’s pitch of disorientation.


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