Elizabeth Caffin recalls first looking into T S Eliot’s poems.
Some time in the mid-1950s I gave a morning talk to the third form of a Christchurch secondary school. My subject was the poetry of T S Eliot; I was reprimanded by the mistress for choosing such an obscure and pretentious topic. I am glad to say I remember feeling contempt rather than shame though I bowed my head dutifully. The mistress was well known to be mean-minded except when dealing with her own subject, which was music, when her face lit up and she showed a gentleness otherwise well hidden.
I had discovered the sky-blue Faber paperback of Eliot’s Selected Poems in the section of my parents’ bookcase which housed a rather random collection of “literary” books: D H Lawrence’s The White Peacock, Walter de la Mare’s anthology Come Hither, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Lorna Doone. The poems that made such an impact on me aged 12 were the early ones, from Eliot’s first two volumes. I was astounded by the opening lines of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, “Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out across the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table”, and I remember quoting in that talk “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”. It may have been the dramatic voices and the vivid scenes of those poems that so intrigued me or the combination of sophistication and sleaze neither of which was easy to find in 1950s Christchurch. Or it might have been the patterns of sound and rhythm, the very evident echoes of conventional poetry, casting a strange light onto grubby urban settings. In the city library I found one of those British Council pamphlets on Eliot, learned a few banal facts about him and cobbled together the talk that so offended.
These were not the first Eliot poems I had struck. Several years earlier, Doris Sullivan, the wife of the Dean of Christchurch cathedral, had organised an evening of music and readings to celebrate the Canterbury centenary. The music was provided by the cathedral choir (among whom almost certainly was David Caffin whom I later married) and of the readings all I can remember was Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” and Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”. The first of the “Ariel” poems, this too was an invented voice, the rush of an old man’s memories, precise and evocative, suddenly switching pace into the slower more reflective mode so typical of the later verse.
This poem is connected in my mind with Murder in the Cathedral, surely Eliot’s best play, perhaps because I first saw it too in Christchurch cathedral or perhaps because here too the dramatic event is of less interest than the internal debate, the agonising paradox: “were we led all that way for/Birth or Death?”; “The last temptation is the greatest treason:/To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
The last of these recollections of an adolescent passion is a slim green hardback volume with a pale green and now scruffy dust jacket bearing FOUR QUARTETS in black lettering and “By T S ELIOT” in red type a little larger, all beautifully letterspaced in Faber manner. The list on the back cover of “Books by T S Eliot” (in italic) reveals that this book cost 8s 6d; and inside the front cover I have written “Elizabeth Phillips/Christmas 1958”. The book was first published in 1944, and this is the eleventh printing. I pored over these famous poems, thought about them, memorised lines and phrases. A few years ago a friend gave me a set of tapes of Eliot reading the Four Quartets aloud. As I lay on my bed and listened I found to my acute embarrassment that tears were coming to my eyes at this stirring of my younger self.
I was of course not alone in this enthusiasm. Two whole generations from the 1930s to the 1960s were imprinted by Eliot’s verse, many of his lines became common currency, poets absorbed him and critics adored him. In his recent memoir C K Stead writes, “My reading was also establishing T S Eliot as part of the inner library I would carry with me always …”, a truth amply borne out in his poetry and his critical writing. But Eliot’s influence has waned now and no teenager today would dream of earnestly imposing him on her fellows. His politics did him a lot of harm and the lordly pronouncements of Four Quartets sit uncomfortably with later generations, different times. I myself feel ambivalent about his work all these years after and would think of Yeats certainly and Wallace Stevens probably as more enduring poets of that time.
Yet he still stands as my first encounter with modernism. The jagged allusive text of The Waste Land, its pervasive bleakness, its rejection of innocence, progress, harmony was shocking, puzzling and unsettling. It represented the wars, suffering and disillusion of the first half of the century, “a world in agony with epochal transformations” as Curnow says, all very far away but impossible to avoid. I began to understand that poetry could do a lot more things than I had realised – the jarring changes of register, the multiplicity of voices, the intense amalgam of past and present, added up to something powerful. It’s not a poem that attracts or haunts though, now or then, and I can see how I homed in on the Four Quartets. It’s that cathedral – the stable, conservative, hierarchical, very Anglican world I grew up in and that Eliot moved towards. Eliot became an Englishman with the fervour of a convert or should we say an ex-colonial. England in 1950s Christchurch was still the distant place of origin, the dreamland where one would one day return. By the time you got to Little Gidding you understood him perfectly:
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
It is painful to admit this now but I see I have drawn a pencil mark beside these lines.
I can’t remember when I first read Eliot’s famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” but The Sacred Wood, the first book in which it appeared, was on that Christchurch bookshelf. (The copy I have now belonged to David and has his English Honours comments in the margins.) I got rather a shock when I read it again recently because I realised how deeply and unconsciously it had influenced me. When I spoke in public about our work at Auckland University Press I used to say that publishing poetry and good works of history was exciting because you knew these books would survive long after you were dead and that each one entered the ‘tradition’ or the living body of works that already existed and ever so slightly altered that “tradition” and was altered by it. Now where did that come from? And what about the rejection letters I wrote as editor at Auckland University Press, in which I tried to explain that poetry was not the direct expression of personal feelings but a highly skilled craft which remade personal experience into an independent work of art; or in other words, “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material”?
Reading Eliot’s poems in 2010, I am half recalling how I was then and half interpreting them through a better trained critical eye and of course a much longer life; it is a moving experience. I can see that Eliot helped me to see poetry as cerebral as well as sensual expression; it led into Donne and Pope, for example. And many years later to Kendrick Smithyman and Allen Curnow with whom I worked closely and whose poetry I got to know well.
The poem in Prufrock and Other Observations I loved the best was the last one, “La Figlia Che Piange”. I read it then as a beautiful lyric on disappointed love, full of haunting melodic lines and evoking the romantic setting of an Italian garden in early autumn. Now I can see it as a deliberate and ironic counterpart to the opening “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, contrasting in tone and structure but like “Prufrock” a contrived and artificial invention, a small drama which the poet has enjoyed setting up. The voice moves in and out of the scene with slipping pronouns and tenses, as the pathos of the moment is manufactured and examined but also suffered. In a way this is a poem about poetry and the illusion it can create; and it remains one of my favourites.