404. (T.S. Eliot)

Criticism has one basic task: to explain what is justifiably, rightly extraordinary in a work of literature. This involves making sense of how a work of literature contains within its judgment the conditions that make that judgment appropriate or valid in a particular situation; and this in turn is a form of practical judgment, which depends upon a broader apprehension of what situations demand and what is rightly extraordinary in life and the world beyond art. Criticism is the study, simultaneously of what is extraordinary and right in a work of literature and of what a work of literature judges to be extraordinary and right in the world; they are not identical, but they are inseparable. This is perhaps a variation of the principle that a work of literature ought to be both new and true, radical and conservative, as much renovation of old insights as discovery of new ways of seeing.

Criticism, like history, is pulled in two directions: an internalist account and externalist account. On the internalist account, judgment is foregrounded: the intention and deliberation of the author, or the intention and deliberation of the text-as-person, the standards of rightness and sense of occasion becoming the central focus, with the sense that the work is extraordinary being secondary in the discussion, assumed and glanced at as a matter of course, a starting point, rather than the main object of analysis and description. On the externalist account, the extraordinary quality is foregrounded: the conventions of an oeuvre, a genre, and era, or an entire tradition are arrayed in the background of this extraordinary fusion of elements, and the exact feel of that fusion communicated by the critical account, with the significance of an author’s judgment being secondary in the discussion, implicit in the account of the work’s creation. Both perspectives are vital. Both depend on comparison and analysis. Both depend on wide and imaginative reading. But they are exemplified by different critics. In the twentieth century, Empson is the paramount internalist critic, buoyed by his capacity to read an entire culture’s codes of belief in the judgments of an individual. Eliot in English, and Auerbach in European languages, are the crucial externalist critics. Empson is the microscope; Eliot the telescope.

Eliot, though, is strange as an externalist critic, for he wrestles frequently with accounts of what an individual must do to transcend the forces of personality, character, circumstance that are essential considerations, though not crassly deterministic, of Empson’s internalist criticism. And this speaks to something deep in Eliot’s poetry, which goes beyond the thought that the poetry seeks impersonality, wears masks, or fragments the unified self. It suggests that Eliot’s ideal poet aspires to the sort of poetry that cannot be adequately accounted for by an internalist perspective; that the poetry he wants to write would resist that perspective. Even if Eliot bears no active animosity towards internalist criticism, he suggests that the greatest poetry inspires, and even requires, a critic to adopt an externalist perspective. He wants, it might be sad, to write a poetry whose surfaces critics must respect, that they will not be tempted to ‘get inside of.’

His praise of Ben Jonson as a poet of surfaces is as central to his criticism as his more famous piece on Andrew Marvell’s wit, which, in its account of Marvell’s wit as depending upon “a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible” could be said to prize that capacity to stand apart from, rather than within, actuality. Eliot does not ignore the person writing the poetry; his essay on Blake is centrally about Blake’s honesty, and about its circumstances, but it is also about Blake’s lacking the materials to construct an object that stands apart from him, expressive of his vision. He wants in English something like the strange flatness of Dante, which does not preclude experience, history, responsibility, or a soul, but which places it in view of the pilgrim, in response to his questions; the depths exist as a source for what will be laid out on exhibit, displayed, and where they are not, as in the aporia of Ugolino, there is no invitation to speculate. The admiration from Donne lies in part of the feelings made into objects: at the tips of the fingers, they are felt along, and not within. The famous bizarrely praise of James, that his prose was not “violated by a single idea,” speaks also to a perfection of surface—one that James himself gives figure to in the pagoda of Wings of the Dove, the structure at the center of consciousness, inviting only a tap and resonant sound. Eliot’s lack of charity to the Romantics and their immediate Victorian heirs is of a piece with this, in so far as his criticism suggests that they intimate depths and volume rather than delineating perceptions; in practice, of course, Eliot owes a great deal to them, and Wordsworth’s sense of depths (carried in the wonderful prepositions and dramatized in the encounters with solitaries) is an item of faith that encounters the resistance of surfaces.

Pound is “the poet as sculptor,” returning poetry to its status as an object of the poet’s making beyond the poet’s self. But Eliot is something else, more difficult to identify, more elusive; he is more akin to a cubist of the past, with history and its layers of language unfolded and set on a single plane; Eliot’s effect is not, as in Baudelaire, that a surface yields further surfaces; and it is not, as in Jim Powell, the encounter with the surface of the past; and it is not, as in Stevens, the experience of, and orientation within, a world of surfaces; instead, it is like the Sybil of Cumae, to whom he alludes in the epigraph; the poem is rendered a volume, disassembled and scattered on the floor; The Waste Land gives the most perfect example of this. The words are both Eliot’s, in his possession, and on the surface of a page that he did not write, that he does not inhabit, but that he stands and reads from. The effect is not one of depths that we are precluded from entering, but in other circumstances might; and it is not one of an experience of alienation lay bare for all to see; instead, it is one in which the surfaces seem to contain, as in the allegorical method of Dante, all of the significance to be had, as if there were nothing to be gained by looking beneath. Marie’s story, in the first lines of the poem, does not have an inside; it is the recollection shared on a sofa, in a letter, for what it is, a splinter of a world no deeper, though more complete, than what her anecdote reveals; Madame Sosostris reads cards; Stetson, the brand of a hat, is one of the dead flowing across the bridge, called upon to answer a question of phantasmagorical grotesquerie; it’s not the throne in the opening of “A Game of Chess,” but the voices recorded throughout that the most disquieting surfaces. There is nothing in any of these to go into. But that is not to say that there can be no account of the poem; only that an externalist account will do, remarking what is extraordinary in the language, without foregrounding the judgment, but instead the variation on available texts, a variation on the design of the surfaces presented; it is, surprisingly, very much the effect of turning what was not ornament into something that, in its transformation into a surface, becomes something like ornament. Ultimately, what makes for the rightness of the poem is not the sense that an individual has judged correctly of the situation, but that the world presented in the poem is a world of surfaces that could justify no other presentation; assuming everything in life to be a (not mere, not simply, but flatly) surface, experiencing the world as surfaces, the poem must adhere to the same standard.

Having said all of this, I’d like to think instead about the poem that marked Eliot’s falling away from externalism and surfaces: the incomplete masterpiece Coriolan. Of the first section of the poem, Geoffrey Hill writes: “Eliot’s ‘Triumphal March’ brutally juxtaposes the ‘aethereal’ aloofness of the conqueror (‘the eyes watchful, waiting, perceiving, indifferent;’) with the raucously populist (‘Don’t throw away that sausage’). What clearly fascinates him, as he had been fascinated in his great early work, is the requirement to make incoherencies cohere, without imposing the ruminative, well-modulated voice of a man of letters.” One way that he brings about coherence is to bring everything to the same plane—not only approaching the poem’s elements as so many surfaces, but arraying them on the same plane:

5,800,000 rifles and carbines,
102,000 machine guns,
28,000 trench mortars,
53,000 field and heavy guns,
I cannot tell how many projectiles, mines and fuses,
13,000 aeroplanes,
24,000 aeroplane engines,
50,000 ammunition waggons,
now 55,000 army waggons,
11,000 field kitchens,
1,150 field bakeries.
What a time that took. Will it be he now? No,
Those are the golf club Captains, these the Scouts,
And now the societe gymnastique de Poissy
And now come the Mayor and the Liverymen. Look
There he is now, look:
There is no interrogation in his eyes
Or in the hands, quiet over the horse’s neck,
And the eyes watchful, waiting, perceiving, indifferent.
O hidden under the dove’s wing, hidden in the turtle’s breast,
Under the palmtree at noon, under the running water
At the still point of the turning world. O hidden.

Now they go up to the temple. Then the sacrifice.
Now come the virgins bearing urns, urns containing
Dust of dust, and now
Stone, bronze, stone, steel, stone, oakleaves, horses’ heels
Over the paving.

That is all we could see. But how many eagles! and how many trumpets!
(And Easter Day, we didn’t get to the country,
So we took young Cyril to church. And they rang a bell
And he said right out loud, crumpets .)
Don’t throw away that sausage,
It’ll come in handy. He’s artful. Please, will you
Give us a light?
Et les soldats faisaient la haie? ILS LA FAISAIENT.

The list in the first part of the passage—taken verbatim from The Coming War by General Erich Lundendorff (published by Faber in 1931)—is a list of materiel, the numbers staggering and numbed, but what follows is not a break from the list; the voices, the spectators, the private aside of the parentheses, the soldiers, the quotations are all part of the march, on a level with the materiel. This first part of Coriolan is not characterized not only by “brutal juxtaposition” but by exhaustion and depletion found in, occasioned by, abundance; nor is there “brutal juxtaposition” of past and present, of historical epochs, but instead Eliot has elevated, or lowered, history onto this plateau that is not to be found in any chronology or chronicle, but into which all are dissolved. It is like a tepid puddle that offers nothing but the promise of greater thirst; but it succeeds because that feeling of thirst, for the light, for the stillness, for something not apart from, but present alongside, but radically different from (and here Eliot draws no doubt on the theological imagination, God’s place in the wolrd), the surface of which it is a part, finds expression in the surface itself. And that happens in the lines:

And the eyes watchful, waiting, perceiving, indifferent.
O hidden under the dove’s wing, hidden in the turtle’s breast,
Under the palmtree at noon, under the running water
At the still point of the turning world. O hidden.

Somehow Eliot pulls these lines away from epiphany; the “O” is muted; the lips that speak too parched to do more than utter this next item in a list of items, the presence of the hidden accounted as one more in the sequence. Even the preposition “under” looks in two directions: “under the palmtree at noon” lies flat on the ground; “under the running water” need not be underneath the river on its bed, but under the water that runs, as from a string or brook, again placing the vantage on the ground, looking up from its stillness. “The still point of the turning world” might well mark the point of God’s intersection with history, but its place in the poem refuses hope or testimony; it is no less present than the triumphal march, but its hiddenness is itself another element in the march, rather than a promise of escape or victory over it. Even more than these lines the bare significance of “light” at the end, repeated, as it becomes something more than mere light, more than the light that plays on the surface of things, is a gesture of faith, but faith that can find no root in the ground of the poem. History has been flattened, dispossessed of its situation in a grand tide or parade of human affairs; composing instead a parade that represents a triumph without a cause, without a struggle or end worth celebrating; history itself has been rendered flat and desiccated, barely capable of giving faith that it coexists with something else.

“Difficulties of a Statesman” is no less magnificent. In its first part, in it the voice crying in the wilderness is rendered into the refrain of “Cry what shall I cry” and the answer given is a list of another kind, the list of bureaucratic accounting of citizens and civic affairs; true rhetoric, the rhetoric of civic persuasion, is as impossible as the prophetic crying of John. Then in its second part, the cry is that of an infant for its mother, the allusion to Tennyson  (“An infant crying for the light| And with no language but a cry”) recalling the light from the “Triumphal March.” History is flattened onto the same plane once again, but the tension in the poem is between public and private life, and the poem’s extraordinary poignancy depends on the feeling that the private life, situated upon the same plane, the same surface, as public life, is exposed and vulnerable: we are not asked to enter into the surface, but to see the surface as capable of feeling, of feeling itself to be too capable of being felt.

O mother (not among these busts, all correctly inscribed)
I a tired head among these heads
Necks strong to bear them
Noses strong to break the wind
May we not be some time, almost now, together,
If the mactations, immolations, oblations, impetrations,
Are now observed
May we not be
O hidden
Hidden in the stillness of noon, in the silent croaking night.
Come with the sweep of the little bat’s wing, with the small flare of thefirefly or lightning bug,
‘Rising and falling, crowned with dust’, the small creatures,
The small creatures chirp thinly through the dust, through the night.
O mother

What shall I cry?
We demand a committee, a representative committee, a committee of investigation


The voice is subject to being seen from without, to living without having a place to hide; and the final answer is devastating, an indictment of the exposure of the modern state that in its accounting and rationalization renders everything of a surface. To the final question “What shall I cry?” comes the answer: “Resign resign resign.” It refers of course to the general Coriolanus, and the Statesman facing the public, but also to the struggle: resign oneself to this, since there is no option. What shall I cry? Cry yourself to sleep, in effect: cry to yourself to resign. Beyond the title of the poem and the section, and the awareness of Coriolanus’ story, the only thing we know about this voice is that it cannot leave the surface of things, the surface of which it is a part; it does not so much traverse the surface of the poem as, in the design of the poem itself, in the integration of the voice into all that has come before and after, become part of the same surface that it bewails. Whereas the first part thirsted after that which was hidden but contiguous with, coexistent with, the surface of things; this part thirsts after the possibility of something that is hidden at all, whether the perfect hiddenness of God, His hiddenness no longer a source of doubt and anxiety but instead a solace, or else the hiddenness of the private life, the return to the womb, made impossible.

Geoffrey Hill has suggested that had Eliot completed Coriolan, he would not have written Four Quartets as we know them. Perhaps. At any rate, Coriolan represents a culmination of Eliot’s poetry of the surface; that it could not have been finished is not unfitting, finding in that incompletion the hiddenness of art that remains possible, the interiority that can be had only because it cannot be approached or even fathomed by another.


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