Hugh Kenner

Hugh Kenner: On "The Waste Land"

So it would have been about mid-January 1922, in London, that The Waste Land received its final form, and likely its title too . The state of the manuscripts Eliot had unpacked after his return from the continent may be readily summarized. "The Burial of the Dead" had lost its Cambridge opening but was otherwise lightly annotated. "A Game of Chess" had had its opening heavily worked over by Pound, to tighten the meter, and Vivien Eliot had supplied a few suggestions for improving the pub dialogue. "The Fire Sermon" was a shambles; it needed much work. "Death by Water" had been cut back to ten lines. "What the Thunder Said" was "OK."

Pondering these materials, Eliot perceived where the poem's center of gravity now lay. Its center was no longer the urban panorama refracted through Augustan styles. That had gone with the dismemberment of Part III. Its center had become the urban apocalypse, the great City dissolved into a desert where voices sang from exhausted wells, and the Journey that had been implicit from the moment he opened the poem in Cambridge and made its course swing via Munich to London had become journev through the Waste Land. Reworking Part III, and retyping the other parts with revisions of detail, he achieved the visionary unity that has fascinated two generations of readers. He then went to bed with the flu, "excessively depressed." (Pound Letters, appendix to No. 181.)

He was anxious. He thought of deleting Phlebas, and was told that the poem needed Phlebas "ABsolootly." "The card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen. sailor." He thought of using "Gerontion" as a prelude, and was told not to. "One don't miss it at all as the thing now stands." (Pound Letters, No. 182.) What seems to have bothered him was the loss of a schema. "Gerontion" would have made up for that lack by turning the whole thing into "thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season." Later the long note about Tiresias attempted the same strategy: "What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem." The lost schema, if we have guessed about it correctly, had originated in a preoccupation with Dryden as the poem grew outward from "The Fire Sermon." If Vergil had once sponsored the protagonist's journey as Homer sponsors the wanderings of Leopold Bloom, Vergil was pertinent to a poem prompted by Vergil's major English translator, John Dryden. Ovid, who supplied Tiresias and Philomel, and told the story of the Sibyl’s terribly longevity which may underlie the line about fear in a handful of dust, was a favorite of Dryden's, and (on Mark Van Doren's showing) pertinent to Dryden's London and Eliot's. Wren's churches, notably Magnus martyr, were built after the fire Annus Mirabilis celebrates, which is one reason Eliot works Magnus Martyr into his Fire Sermon. And in disposing ornate diction across the grid of a very tame pentameter, Eliot's original draft of the opening of Part II had rewritten in the manner of French decadence a Shakespearean passage (" . . . like a burnished throne") that Dryden had rewritten before him in a diction schooled by his own time's French decorum. No classroom exercise is more ritualized than the comparison of Antony and Cleopatra and All for Love.

But the center from which such details radiate had been removed from the poem. What survived was a form with no form, and a genre with no name. Years later, on the principle that a form is anything done twice, Eliot reproduced the structural contours of The Waste Land exactly, though more briefly, in Burnt Norton, and later still three more times, to make the Quartets, the title of which points to a decision that such a form might have analogies with music. That was post facto. In 1922, deciding somewhat reluctantly that the poem called The Waste Land was finished, he was assenting to a critical judgment, Pound's and his own, concerning which parts were alive in a sheaf of pages he had written. Two years afterward, in "The Function of Criticism," he averted to "the capital importance of criticism in the work of creation itself," and suggested that "the larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour; the labour of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing." He called it "this frightful toil," and distinguished it from obedience to the Inner Voice. "The critical activity finds its highest, its true fulfilment in a kind of union with creation in the labour of the artist." (Selected Essays, "The Function of Criticism," IV.)

For it does no discredit to The Waste Land to learn that it was not striving from the first to become the poem it became: that it was not conceived as we have it before it was written, but reconceived from the wreckage of a different conception. Eliot saw its possibilities in London, in January 1922, with the mangled drafts before him: that was a great feat of creative insight.

In Paris he and Pound had worked on the poem page by page, piecemeal, not trying to salvage a structure but to reclaim the authentic lines and passages from the contrived. Contrivance had been guided by various neoclassic formalities, which tended to dispose the verse in single lines whose sense could survive the deletion of their neighbors.

When they had finished, and Eliot had rewritten the central section, the poem ran, in Pound's words, "from 'April . . .' to 'shantih' without a break." This is true if your criterion for absence of breaks is Symbolist, not neoclassical. Working over the text as they did, shaking out ashes from amid the glowing coals, leaving the luminous bits to discover their own unexpected affinities, they nearly recapitulated the history of Symbolism, a poetic that systematized the mutual affinities of details neoclassic canons had guided.

From "The Urban Apocalypse" in Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of The Waste Land." Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1973.

Hugh Kenner: On "Burnt Norton"

The third section of 'Burnt Norton' provides a second experience, located not in the Garden but in the City, or rather beneath the City, on an underground platform, no doubt of the Circle Line. The Underground's 'flicker' is a mechanical reconciliation of light and darkness, the two alternately exhibited very rapidly. The traveller's emptiness is 'neither plenitude nor vacancy'. In this 'dim light' we have

                                neither daylight

Investing form with lucid stillness

Turning shadow into transient beauty

With slow rotation suggesting permanence

Nor darkness to purify the soul

Emptying the sensual with deprivation 

Cleansing affection from the temporal.

There is rotation, but it does not suggest permanence; there is darkness, purifying nothing; there is light, but it invests nothing with lucid stillness; there is a systematic parody of the wheel's movement and the point's fixity --

Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind 

That blows before and after time,

not like the souls of Paolo and Francesca, who were somewhere in particular throughout eternity for a particular reason known to them, nor even like de Bailhache, Fresca, and Mrs Cammel, who were disintegrated; but simply

    The strained time-ridden faces 

Distracted from distraction by distraction 

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning 

Tumid apathy with no concentration.

Light and darkness are opposites, apparently united by this flicker. Their actual reconciliation is to be achieved by 'descending lower', into an emptier darkness:

    Descend lower, descend only,

Into the world of perpetual solitude,

World not world, but that which is not world, 

Internal darkness, deprivation

And destitution of all property,

Desiccation of the world of sense,

Evacuation of the world of fancy,

Inoperancy of the world of spirit;

This is the one way ...

Opposites falsely reconciled, then truly reconciled: in the central section of the poem its central structural principle is displayed. The false reconciliation parodies the true one, as the Hollow Men parody the saints, as Gerontion parodies Simeon, as Becket suicide would have parodied Becket martyr, as the leader's eyes in which there is no interrogation parody that certainty which inheres 'at the still point of the turning world'.

In this Underground scene curiously enough, the instructed reader may catch a glimpse of the author, sauntering through the crowd as Alfred Hitchcock does in each of his films. For its locale, Eliot noted, sharing a private joke with his brother in Massachusetts, is specifically the Gloucester Road Station, near the poet's South Kensington headquarters, the point of intersection of the Circle Line with the Piccadilly tube to Russell Square. Whoever would leave the endless circle and entrain for the offices of Faber & Faber must 'descend lower', and by spiral stairs if he chooses to walk. 'This is the one way, and the other is the same'; the other, adjacent to the stairs, is a lift, which he negotiates 'not in movement, but abstention from movement'. As Julia Shuttlethwaite observes in The Cocktail Party, 'In a lift I can meditate'.

After this whiff of the Possum's whimsy, section IV displays the flash of the kingfisher's wing, to offset an instance of the Light which rests. The sun is the still point around which the earth turns, and light is concentrated there; it subtly becomes (for Eliot does not name it) a type of the still point where every variety of light inheres, which transient phenomena reflect. And section V presents language itself as a transience on which sufficient form may confer endurance. The poem ends with a reassertion of the possibility, and the significance, of timeless moments:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight

Even while the dust moves

There rises the hidden laughter

Of children in the foliage

Quick now, here, now, always --

Ridiculous the waste sad time

Stretching before and after.

In this elusive vision the moving dust in sunlight suggests the conditions of human existence, dust sustained and made visible by whatever power emanates from the still point; 'quick' means both instantaneous and alive; here and now acquire momentarily the significance of 'always'; and the 'before and after' which for Shelley contained those distracting glimpses of 'what might have been', cease to tantalize: they are merely aspects of 'the waste sad time' which the timeless moment has power to render irrelevant.

This remarkable poem, which no one, however well acquainted with Eliot's earlier work, could have foreseen, brings the generalizing style of the author of 'Prufrock' and the austere intuitions of the disciple of Bradley for the first time into intimate harmony. Suggestion does not outrun thought, nor design impose itself on what word and cadence are capable of suggesting. It was a precarious unobtrusive masterpiece, which had for some years no successor. . . .

The five-parted dialectic of 'Burnt Norton' is exactly paralleled three times over, and so raised by iteration to the dignity of a form.

Or so one would say, were not 'Burnt Norton', surprisingly enough, the exact structural counterpart of The Waste Land. That form, originally an accident produced by Pound's cutting, Eliot would seem by tenacious determination to have analyzed, mastered, and made into an organic thing. 'Burnt Norton', terminating the 1935 Collected Poems, appears meant to bear the same relation to The Waste Land as Simeon to Gerontion. Its rose-garden, for instance, with the passing cloud and the empty pool, corresponds to the Hyacinth garden and the despondent 'Oed' und leer das Meer', while 'the heart of light, the silence' that was glimpsed in the presence of the hyacinth girl is the tainted simulacrum of that light which 'is still at the still point of the turning world'.

Each Quartet carries on this structural parallel. The first movement, like 'The Burial of the Dead', introduces a diversity of themes; the second, like 'A Game of Chess', presents first ‘poetically' and then with less traditional circumscription the same area of experience; the third, like 'The Fire Sermon', gathers up the central vision of the poem while meditating dispersedly on themes of death: the fourth is a brief lyric; the fifth, a didactic and lyric culmination, concerning itself partly with language, in emulation of the Indo-European roots exploited in 'What the Thunder said'.

From The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot. W.H. Allen & Co., 1959.

Hugh Kenner: On "The Young Sycamore"

. . .each phrase reaches forward. From line 3 to line 7 we are drawn past unit after unit of attention by the promise of a verb to fulfill "whose trunk"; then granted that verb but still waiting for the structure initiated by "this young tree" to declare itself, we press on, alerted (by "into the air with") that the dependent clause continues. "And then," a major structural node, undertakes yet a further dependent verb; the poem rushes on--

[Finally there is] No full stop, because no termination for the tree's energies; but the poem, an eye's upward scan, is over. We have been carried through it by essentially narrative devices: from "I must tell you" through suspensions and delays to "and then," past vignettes and episodes ("hung with cocoons") to "till nothing is left of it but"; and the terminal episode still secretes hidden force: "bending forward hornlike at the top." The poem's system is that of a short story.

But the system contains energies left unaccounted, for the main clause it undertook with the words "this young tree" was never completed. Though the whole poem has explicated this young tree, this young tree's syntactic circuit remains open. We may associate this unequilibrated energy with the poet's headlong generosity ("I must tell you . . ."), as though something had nevertheless escaped the telling. Or we may rhyme it with the failure of the trunk's gesture ("dividing and waning," after the integrated thrust that rose "bodily"). For to rise bodily is to levitate. This levitation was an illusion, the trunk's vigor abetted by the poet's enthusiasm. The tree remains, we discover, tied to earth, toward which it bends back divided. The sentence arches, unarticulated, into ideal space.

From The Pound Era. Copyright © 1971 by Hugh Kenner.

Hugh Kenner: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

Not what the poets says, insisted Williams; what he makes; and if ever we seem to catch him saying ("So much depends upon. . ."), well, he has cunningly not said what depends. He has levered that red wheelbarrow into a special zone of attention by sheer torque of insistence.

Attention first encounters the word "upon," sitting all alone as though to remind us that "depends upon," come to think of it, is a rather queer phrase. Instead of tracing, as usage normally does, the contour of a forgotten Latin root, "depends upon" ignores the etymology of "depend" (de + pendere = to hang from). In the substantial world "upon" goes nicely with "wheelbarrow": so much, as it were, piled upon. In the idiomatic world, inexplicably, "upon" goes with "depends." In the poem, since we're paying unaccustomed attention, these two worlds are sutured, and "depends" lends its physical force, an incumbency as though felt by the muscles, to what must be a psychic depending. . . .

[A]fter "upon," there's what looks like a stanza break. What are these stanzas? Small change symmetrically counted, always three words and then one word, the one word, morover, always of two syllables, but the three-word line having four syllables the first time and the last, but only three syllables on its two middle occurrences. These are stanzas you can't quite hear, especially as one very simple sentence runs through all four of them. They are stanzas to see, and the sight of them, as so often in Williams, inflects the speaking voice, the listening ear, with obligations difficult to specify. "Upon," "barrow," "water," "chickens," these words we puncuate with as it were a contraction of the shoulders, by way of doing the stanzas' presence some justice. And as we give "barrow" and "water" the emphasis their isolation requests, two other words, "wheel" and "rain," isolate likewise. . . .

"Wheelbarrow" and "rainwater," dissociated into their molecules, seem nearly kennings: not adjective plus noun but yoked nouns, as though new-linked. And "red" goes with "white," in a simple bright scheme, and "chickens' with "barrow" for an ideogram of the barnyard, comporting with the simplicities of rain; and the rain glazes a painted surface but (we are left to imagine) does not glaze the chickens, merely soaks them if they are chickens enough to stand in it. (And yet they need it, and may not be wise enough to know how much depends, for them, on the rain.) So much depends on all that pastoral order: food, and the opportunity to touch actualities (while trundling a wheelbarrow), and the Sabine diastole to counter the urban systole.

Are these reflections penumbral to the poem? Probably. Probably even external to it. This poem tends to ignore what it doesn't state. But let them serve to remind us that a farmer would know every one of the words in this little poem, but would be incapable of framing the poem, or even uttering its sentence. We need to be at a picturesque distance from such elements to think of how much depends (for us) on them.

"Mobile-like arrangement," said Wallace Stevens. Yes. The lines, the words, dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system. This was one thing Williams meant by "making," not "saying." Yet you do say, you do go through the motions of saying. But art lifts the saying out of the zone of things said. For try an experiment. Try to imagine an occasion for this sentence to be said:

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.

Try it over, in any voice you like: it is impossible. It could nonly be the gush of an arty female on a tour of Farmer Brown's barnyard. And to go on with the dialogue? To whom might the sentence be spoken, for what purpose? Why, to elicit agreement, and a silent compliment for the speaker's "sensitivity." Not only is what the sentence says banal, if you heard someone say it you'd wince. But hammered on the typewriter into a thing made, and this without displacing a single word except typographically, the sixteen words exist in a different zone altogether, a zone remote from the world of sayers and sayings.

That zone is what Williams in the 1920's started calling "the Imagination."

From A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. Copyright 1975 by Hugh Kenner

Hugh Kenner: On "In a Station of the Metro"

He tells us that he first satisfied his mind when he hit on a wholly abstract vision of colors, splotches on darkness like some canvas of Kandinsky’s (whose work he had not then seen). This is a most important fact. Satisfaction lay not in preserving the vision, but in devising with mental effort an abstract equivalent for it, reduced, intensified. He wrote a 30-line poem and destroyed it; after six months he wrote a shorter poem, also destroyed; and afer another year, with, as he tells us, the Japanese hokku in mind, he arrived at a poem which needs every one of its 20 words, including the six words of its title. . . .

We need the title so that we can savor that vegetal contrast with the world of machines: this is not any crowd, moreover, but a crowd seen underground, as Odysseus and Orpheus and Korè saw crowds in Hades. And carrying forward the suggestion of wraiths, the word "apparition" detaches these faces from all the crowded faces, and presides over the image that conveys the quality of their separation:

Petals on a wet, black bough

Flowers, underground; flowers, out of the sun; flowers seen as if against a natural gleam, the bough’s wetness gleaming on its darkness, in this place where wheels turn and nothing grows. . .

What is achieved, though it works by the way of the visible, is no picture of the things glimpsed, in the manner of

The light of our cigarettes

Went and came in the gloom.

It is a simile with "like" suppressed: Pound called it an equation, meaning not a redundancy, a equals a, but a generalization of unexpected exactness. The statements of analytical geometry, he said, "are ‘lords’ over fact. They are the thrones and denominations that rule over form and recurrence. And in like manner are great works of art lords over fact, over race-long recurrent moods, and over tomorrow." So this tiny poem, drawing on Gauguin and on Japan, on ghosts and on Persephone, on the Underworld and one the Underground, the Metro of Mallarmè’s capital and a phrase that names a station of the Metro as it might a station of the Cross, concentrates far more than it ever need specify, and indicates the means of delivering post-Symbolist poetry from its pictorialist impasse. "An "Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time": and that is the elusive Doctrine of the Image. And, just 20 months later, "The image . . . is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." And: "An image . . . is real because we know it directly."

That is pure Pound. It is validated by the fact that he wrote numerous poems to which it applies before he had formulated it. . . .

All the confusion about Imagism stems from the fact that its specifications for technical hygiene are one thing, and Pound’s Doctrine of the Image is another. The former, which can be followed by any talented person, help you to write what may be a trivial poem. The latter is not applicable to triviality.

. . . .

This setting-in-relation is apt to be paratactic. "In a Station of the Metro" is not formally a sentence; its structure is typographic and metric. Words, similarly, without loss of precision, have ceased to specify in the manner of words that deliver one by one those concepts we call "meanings." "Apparition" reaches two ways, toward ghosts and toward visible revealings. ‘Petals," the pivotal word, relies for energy on the sharp cut of its syllables, a consonantal vigor recapitulated in the trisyllabic "wet, black bough" (try changing "petals" to "blossoms"). The words so raised by prosody to attention assert themselves as words, and make a numinous claim on our attention, from which visual, tactile and mythic associations radiate. Words set free in new structures, that was the Symbolist formula. And as we move through the poem, word by word, we participate as the new structure achieves itself.

From The Pound Era. Copyright © 1971 by Hugh Kenner.