Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both.
Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
I an old man,
A dull head among windy spaces.
Signs are taken for wonders. "We would see a sign":
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering Judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fraulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What's not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what's thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devils.
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use it for your closer contact?
These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay? De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a sleepy corner.
Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
One could just about teach a whole unit in literary history based on the murky musings of the gentleman Gerontion. Composed in 1919 Eliot was in London at the time working as an assistant editor of The Egoist. The poem was published in 1920. It appeared in the US under the simple title Poems and in England it was published in an almost identical book, Ara Vos Prec. In the early days Eliot based his compositions on French symbolist poetry, chiefly the works of Jules Laforgue, but through his alliance with Ezra Pound, and advice from his wife Vivienne, and others, he finally arrived as a poet with Gerontion. Just as prominent are his readings of Dante, Shakespeare, ancient literature, modern philosophy, and Eastern mysticism, all of which bear some meaning. It's a poem that anticipates the power of The Waste Land (1922). During the postwar years his prevailing sense of dejection and 'sour irony,' and his belief that modern-day society falls short of past grandeur, hit an open chord in many readers. Eliot is a poet of fragments," Stephen Spender once said, "through which run certain great and obsessive themes." Oddly ambiguous, and at the same time slangy it gave way to notoriety and genuine admiration because of its iconoclastic shrug of boldness toward conventional literary standards.
The disordered reflection of a tradition is a meditative interior monologue in blank verse: nothing like this poem had appeared in English before. Eliot gave voice to this anxiety when he wrote, After such knowledge, what forgiveness? It expresses with great power the world-weary cynicism, and aversion of the period after World War I. Some saw in this time as one of new futures; for the most part many felt an unsettling uncertainty.
The Waste Land is a series of vignettes loosely tied to the legend of the search for the Grail. And while it portrays a sterile world of anxious suspicions, bleak desires, and of beings waiting for some promise of redemption, Gerontion is a glimpse into the soul of an small elderly man whose dreamlike memories wander through a whole panorama of the past. Written in a floating unsustained conversational speech like Prufrock, Gerontion progresses by way of failed relationships, journeys not taken, and questions refused. It's the poetry of a broken world through the fractured mirror yielding a voice that the poet makes no commitment beyond the naming. Professor of education and author John Paul Riquelme makes some observations about who Gerontion is not:
The difficulty of maintaining the illusion of an "I" who speaks becomes greater as Gerontion proceeds, for example, in the fifth stanza with its sequence of sentences beginning with the verb "Think," which continues into the next stanza. The sentences may be in the imperative mood. Or the subject of an indicative verb may have been omitted. The grammatical indeterminacy disturbs the statements' coherence in ways that resist resolution. The language pertains not to a character whose name indicates that he is a person but to one who is named artificially. Like a figure in a medieval allegory whose name points to a concept that is abstract and general rather than personal and individual, Gerontion is not a person but one among many possible incarnations of the meaning of his name in Greek, "little old man."
(From Harmony of Dissonances: T.S. Eliot, Romanticism, and Imagination, 1991.)
All the world's a stage
Gerontion is a modernist's literary work in which the persistent collapse of humanity's efforts to respect the grace of the historical moment is attended by an obbligato of individual cowardice and shame. The title has been borrowed from the Greek geron meaning "old man." T.S. Eliot opens Gerontion with an epigraph from Act 3, scene 1 in Measure for Measure by Shakespeare. His purpose is to set the stage from which he presents the scenes of the poem.
Shakespeare's play is a dark comedy ripe with bitterness and cynicism centered on secret identities and lots of manipulation. One of the main themes that runs throughout it are significant topics with detailed descriptions of Christianity. In this particular scene, a prison, there are three characters present. The Duke, a central figure is disguised as a friar so he can watch what happens in his absence. Unswervingly honest, good, and benevolent the Duke tends to rule a little softly, which is why he enlists Lord Angelo's help. Angelo is a rogue, a man who rules stringently and without pity. He has his own failings, however, and he is detestable more for his hypocrisy above all else. Finally there is the prisoner Claudio, a young man sentenced to death for getting an unmarried woman pregnant. They were engaged by a common-law agreement, but before the marriage they had sexual relations. The Duke's speech to Claudio that includes Eliot's preface is as follows:
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both: for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid more thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.
Measure for Measure III.i
In the end the Duke condemns Angelo himself of defying this law, the death penalty is rescinded in each circumstance and the marriages prosper.
In 1905 A. C. Benson wrote a biography on Edward Fitzgerald who was a translator of Omar Khhayam's Rubaiyat (1859). Line one is an allusion to a paragraph found on page 142 in Benson's biography:
"Here he sits, in a dry month, old and blind, being read to by a country boy," longing for rain: -- `Last night ... we heard a Splash of Rain, and I had the book shut up, and sat listening to the Shower by myself -- till it blew over, I am sorry to say, and no more of the sort all night. But we are thankful for that small mercy!'
A constituent of the Irish aristocracy Fitzgerald renounced his lordship and became embroiled in the Catholic Emancipation of 1798. It was a cause that united "Protestant, Catholic and dissenter" in an effort to establish an Irish Republic. He was mortally wounded in during the uprising.
The "hot gates" Gerontion refers to in line three is an English form of Thermopylae, a seaside pass that was a little more than fifty feet wide at the time of the ancient Greek battle. The route was an important connection between the cities of Thessaly, Locris and Phocis. In 480 BCE, led by Leonidas, 300 Spartan s as a part of a contingency of 6,000 Greeks battled the vast army of the Persians under Xerxes.
The "woman keeping the kitchen and making tea" again alludes to the biography of Edward Fitzgerald who wrote to Frederick Tennyson, "I really do like to sit in this doleful place with a good fire, a cat and dog on the rug, and an old woman in the kitchen. This is all my live-stock. The house is yet damp as last year ... "
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.
Throughout Gerontion Eliot uses deliberate Christian imagery: "In the juvescence of the year / Came Christ the tiger." Each and every one of the devastated homes in the windy spaces of Gerontion's worn out brain refer to Europe's war-shattered civilization. They are abruptly plopped into the framework of the rejection of Christ. Rubble is related to religion and eventually manifests into to an unusual kinship amid knowledge and unbelief. Lancelot Andrewes was not only a contemporary of Shakespeare but also the favorite preacher of the court of James I. Here Andrewes and Eliot rely on two Biblical passages in lines 17 through 21. First, in Matthew 12: 33-40 Jesus replies to certain Pharisees splitting hairs over his miracles and secondly John 1.1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
This stanza takes on the theatrical imagery from the previous one. As the Jew awaits his prey the, scene becomes overlaid by one of greatest houses in history, the house of David. The tenants in this apparition of the house of Israel are the Pharisees, Christ, and the combination of nineteen hundred years of history. The landowner squats on the windowsill of Europe. Joining in are many half brothers, impudent upstarts who irrevocably change Abraham's line. The denial of Christ by his brothers in blood led to an opening of the house of Israel. Anyone of any race whatsoever who would acknowledge Christ in faith was taken into the new Israel, the Christian Church. The residents in Jacob's greater house include, then, Christ's adopted brothers and joint inheritors. The house of Israel, like the house of Gerontion, is decayed, dry, wind-sieged. Eliot's core allusion in this second verse paragraph is to a sermon preached before King James I by Lancelot Andrewes on Christmas Day in 1618:
Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal
Word not able to speak a word; a wonder sure and . . .
swaddled; and that a wonder too. He that takes the sea
"and rolls it about the swaddled bands of darkness," to
come thus into clouts, Himself.
The ruin in all of the houses in the poem is related to the destruction of this temple. The content for Andrewes's sermon and for Eliot's poem is the order by the Pharisees that Christ give them evidence of his divinity--"We would see a sign!" they claim. This passage draws the focus on another house within the house of Israel. The mind of the Pharisees and it is in some ways parallel to the mind of Gerontion.
Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas." (Matthew 12:38-39)
Jewel Spears Brooker exams modernism as a cultural and literary phenomenon in her book Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism (1994). She writes:
This passage is crucial to understand Gerontion, for it identifies the curse that has brought all these houses (Greek, Jewish, Christian) to ruin; this curse is a mentality that isolates intelligence from passion and from belief. Separated from its context, the... passage seems to say that Christ refused to give the Pharisees a sign, demanding that they accept him by faith alone. In context, the passage says almost the opposite. Most of Christ's career was devoted to giving signs to these professors of law and religion; but whenever a sign was given, the proud but unperceiving scholars took it for a wonder and, ironically, resumed their campaign for a sign. In the incident quoted... Christ gave two signs of his divinity. First, he restored a paralyzed hand, and then he cast out a demon, which was making its victim blind. The Pharisees witnessing these signs responded with their usual request, "We would see a sign!" They accepted the authenticity of the miracles, but they refused to accept their validity as signs. They would soon see the supreme sign, but their unbelief, inseparable from their learning, would prevent them from recognizing it.
This rejection by the Pharisees, quoted by Andrewes and by Eliot, was a turning point in the life of Christ and in history, because it led to an expansion of the house of Jacob.
Also significant to the stanza is William Blake's, The Tyger.
It's interesting to note that the same year Gerontion was composed Eliot evaluated Henry Adams' The Education of Henry Adams. "Adams (1838-1918) was a Harvard-educated diplomat, says Ian Lancashire at Representative Poetry Online, "a man of letters, a European traveller (for a time he was an American in England), and a professional historian who, having descended from several American Presidents, wrote a nine-volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. The reviewed and the reviewer had more than passing similarities. Adams' autobiography has the following passage on spring in Washington, D.C.:
The Potomac and its tributaries squandered beauty ... Here and there a Negro log cabin alone disturbed the dogwood and the judas-tree ...The tulip and the chestnut tree gave no sense of struggle against a stingy nature ... The brooding heat of the profligate vegetation; the cool charm of the thundergust in the deep and solitary woods, were all sensual, animal, elemental. No European spring had shown him the same intermixture of delicate grace and passionate depravity that marked the Maryland May. He loved it too much as if it were Greek and half human.
A thousand small deliberations
A number of other notable references about the last stanzas that are worth mentioning are Limogesis and Titian. Limogesis a city in central France celebrated for its fine china and porcelain and the "Titians" are paintings by the late 15th and early 16th century Venetian master of portraits and sacred subjects. Tiziano Vecelli (1477-1576). The line, Vacant shuttles/ Weave the wind. I have no ghosts can be compared to Job 7:6-7 when he grieves: "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hope. O remember that my life is wind: mine eye shall no more see good."
By now it's clear that the poet is connecting the allusions with one another breathing into them a life of their own. The richness of the past becomes as important as the poverty of the present; indeed, the reality of the past begins to be the fullest indictment of the present- it could be that Eliot is seeking a purposeful correlation for the agonized and ominous clouds forming over post World War I Europe. Critic James Longenbach presents an interesting comment about the poet's creative process:
Eliot's drafts for Gerontion show that the passage on history was finished in all but one crucial point before other sections of the poem were given their final forms. In his last revision, Eliot altered only one word: he substituted "history" for "nature." Had the change not been made, our sense of the entire poem would be drastically different; on a much smaller scale.
( From Modernist Poetics of History: Pound, Eliot, and the Sense of the Past,1987.)
"I have not made this show purposelessly" Gerontion tells the reader. This line is tailored from The Revenger's Tragedy (circa 1606). It's a story of retribution. In it the Duke murders Vindice's mistress because she refused to sleep with him. Avenging her death, Vindice delights in dressing up a dummy in women's clothing, topping it off with a skull and smearing its lips with poison. After the Duke kisses the Vindice gloats:
Now to my tragic business; look you, brother,
I have not fashion'd this only for show
And useless property; no, it shall bear a part
E'en in it own revenge.
Kissing the deadly skull the Duke dies in agony to the gratification of Vindice. From this tale of revenge the reader is taken to the 'backward devils' of Dante. These were foretellers of the future placed in the Inferno and punished by being forced to walk backwards.
Other than Gerontion, Fresca is the only other character that the reader can gather any real clues about. She is a character from part of The Fire Sermon in The Waste Land that was removed before its publication, but later on Eliot would depict her waking in the morning in his pastiche of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock:
Admonished by the sun's inclining ray,
The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes ...
Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done.
As a madman shakes a dead geranium
Alone in his grim passageways of houses Gerontion begins an emotional shuddering, verses probe a life of his own, that seems almost to unfasten himself from the author. Men bungle blindly down the corridors of history. With vanity as their guide they are deceived by triumphs, avowing no control over choice between good and evil but obligated to unpredictable substitutes. It's an endless labyrinth of futility. And while some would say that Eliot's compulsive image is the abyss. It is the corridor, the blind hallway, the old man attends to with anxiety while the corrupted wind sweeps his world "Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear / In fractured atoms." Grover Smith explained it long ago:
Gerontion describes only "the unstilled world," the turning wheel, the hollow passages--not "the Garden / Where all love ends," the ending of lust and the goal of love. The point at which time ends and eternity begins, at which history disappears in unity and the winding spiral vanished in the Word, is lost to the world of the poem. Yet the Word exists; it is only history, which cannot find Him, history with a positivistic conception of the universe, a deterministic view of causation, a pragmatic notion of morals. As Chesterton's Father Brown remarks, "What we all dread most ... is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is only a nightmare." Eliot's symbol of the mazelike passages, or the clocklike wheel of time, or the whirlwind of death, the gaping whirlpool, is the antithesis of the single, unmoving, immutable point within. History is the whirlwind, for history is of the world, and history like the world destroys all that dares the test of matter and time.
( From T.S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning, 1956. )
Lastly the Straits of Belle Isle are a Canadian waterway that divides the Labrador Peninsula from Newfoundland Island and the Horn refers to Tierra del Fuego, Chile, a land located at the southernmost tip of South American that was described by Charles Darwin in his Voyage of the Beagle as a place of death.
Congratulations if you've followed along this far. In the end Christ the tiger comes for the aging protagonist mired in decadence and lost passion, Gerontion asks then if redemption of the world is still possible. Desolation reaches an apex and the houses are multiplied. In his anguish the detached Gerontion has considered the pollution of windward punishments and his guilt is not passive, but as in the Dante's Purgatory he suffers perhaps to purify.
The finest of Eliot's poems have an amazing ability to reveal a man who was not only an inspired artist but also a keen observer of culture. His work encourages readers to re-examine their ideas of literature. The impenetrability of Eliot's poetry comes, I think, from the difficulty of his world: that heap of broken images. Even so, in the entirety of his poem, Eliot comes to reaffirm an image steeped in the recovery of the integration of religions, philosophies, and politics. His answers may not belong to us all, but still, who can resist the command of his nostalgia for a world that is whole.
Measure for Measure
Public domain text taken from Gutenberg
What TS Eliot Almost Believed