You're welcome to accept or not accept whatever you want
The simple matter of fact is that the student found the
poem full of slum type imagery (whether you happen to
like it or not), but found the image of steak inconsistent
with the rest of the atmospherics. My best guess/suggestion
was that steak might have meant something different at the
time. It also allowed me to point out that poems do have
a shelf life in terms of what their imagery &c might mean.
This happens to be an important learning moment for the
student. She is willing to risk formulating a concept
based on her observations of the poem. I encourage students
to discover their own perceptions first before they are
influenced by my or the critics or biographers. That, I hope,
encourages real thinking as opposed to accurate regurgitation.
Given Eliot's influence by Le Flaneur (open to correction on
that usage), I have no trouble thinking that he did go slumming,
and did so to get new experiences. So here's your undergrad lesson for
It is an advantage to mankind in general to live in a beautiful world; that
no one can doubt. But for the poet is it so important? We mean all sorts of
things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not, to
have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath
both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.
Eliot, T.S. "Matthew Arnold." THE Use OF POETRY AND THE USE OF CRITICISM.
London: Faber, 1933: 126.
I think that from Baudelaire I learned first a precedent for the poetical
possibilities, never developed by any poet writing in my own language, of
the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis, of the possibility of
fusion between the sordidly realistic and the phangtasmagoric, the
possibility of the juxtaposition of the matter of fact and the fantastic.
From him, as from Laforgue, I learned that the sort of material that I had,
the sort of experience that an adolescent had had, in an industrial city in
America, could be the material for poetry; and that the source of new poetry
might be found in what had been regarded hitherto as the impossible, the
sterile, the intractably unpoetic. That, in fact, the business of the poet
was to make poetry out of the unexplored resources of the unpoetical; that
the poet, in fact, was committed by his profession to turn the unpoetical
into poetry. A great poet can give a younger poet everything that he has to
give him, in a very few lines. It may be that I am indebted to Baudelaire
chiefly for half a dozen lines out of the whole of Fleurs du Mal; and that
his significance for me is summed up in the lines:
Fourmillante Cite, cite pleine de reves,
Ou le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant...
[Swarming, pullulating city, city full of dreams
Where the spectre in broad daylight bumps into passersby
Mysteries everywhere flow like sap
In the blocked veins of the mighty giant...]
I knew what that meant, because I had lived it before I knew that I wanted
to turn it into verse on my own account.
Eliot, T.S. "What Dante Means to Me." TO Criticize THE CRITIC. London:
From: Richard Seddon
To: [log in to unmask]
Sent: 2/8/04 7:35 AM
Subject: Re: steak
I don't accept that the "Preludes" are wholly about TSE's experiences in
poor neighborhood but since I am probably in the minority on this and
assuming that it is the case, I would ask the following.
Why question the steak and not the women gathering "fuel"? Was Eliot an
accurate protrayer of one image and not the other? Did Eliot during one
his safaris into the jungle of a poorer neighborhood from the Brahmin
heights of Harvard happen to see an old woman pick up several scraps of
wood? Just as on another of those safaris he smelled the hard won and
earned steak that a working man and woman were preparing to eat with the
pride of self accomplishment and reward.
If your student's point is that TSE was a spoiled and privileged member
an elite society, guess what, he/she hit the nail on the head. That is
precisely what Eliot was. He was also a gifted observer of life who
carefully and was not prone to careless mistakes. The woman gathering
and the presence of the steak in scenes of a poor neighborhood says
about the courage and determination of my grandfather and his friends
lived and worked in the cotton mills of Fall River, Ma without the
of welfare and proudly grew families that are immensely proud of the