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TSE  January 2002

TSE January 2002

Subject:

Eliot, Tennyson and In Memoriam

From:

"Rickard A. Parker" <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 12 Jan 2002 08:01:38 -0500

Content-Type:

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Here, as promised in another recent posting, I present James Miller
discussing Eliot on Tennyson's "In Memoriam" and what this can tell us
about Eliot himself. Page numbers have been inserted here in a
different format. What was in italics is here presented in uppercase.

Miller, James E. Jr., "T.S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land:
Exorcism of the Demons," University Park and London,
The Pennsylvania State University Press (1977) pp. 1-6

ISBN 0-271-01237-4

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Prologue

A CURIOUS SHUDDER

I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I begin with, of all things, a poem from Alfred, Lord
Tennyson's IN MEMORIAM, the seventh of the sequence, in which the
author describes his melancholy visit to the empty house of his now
dead friend, Arthur Henry Hallam:

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more-
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

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Eliot quoted this Tennyson poem in his essay introducing an edition of
Tennyson's poems published in 1936, and reprinted the essay in Essays
Ancient and Modern and also in his 1950 edition of Selected Essays.

Not only did Eliot quote the Tennyson poem in its entirety,
but he made some extravagant comments on it that we should listen to
carefully--comments which I believe to be both surprising and
revealing: "This is great poetry, economical of words, a universal
emotion in what could only be an English town: and it gives me the
shudder that I fail to get from anything in MAUD [a poem just
previously commented on by Eliot]. But such a passage, by itself, is
not IN MEMORIAM: IN MEMORIAM is the whole poem. It is unique: it is a
long poem made by putting together lyrics, which have only the unity
and continuity of a diary, the concentrated diary of a man confessing
himself. It is a diary of which we have to read every word" (p. 291).1
There are so many things calling for commentary in this passage that
it is hard to know where to begin. It might be best to begin again
with the Tennyson poem, to have fresh in mind just what poem it is
that elicits such extravagant response, and linger over some of the
Tennysonian phrases: the speaker returns at night to the house of his
dead friend, located "Here in the long UNLOVELY street," where his
heart "was used to beat/ So quickly, waiting for a hand. . . . " But
realizing that the hand "can be clasp'd no more," the speaker seems to
be filled with self-pity, mixed with a compulsion for exposure
("Behold me," he says) and a compulsion for guilt: "Behold me, for I
cannot sleep,/ And like a guilty THING I creep/ At earliest morning to
the door." The last stanza begins with a revelation that by now we
might already know--"He [that is, the dead friend] is not here." And
then the poem turns from the empty house, turns away from deep emotion
to empty existence: "The noise of life begins again,/ And ghastly
thro' the drizzling rain! On the bald street breaks the blank day."

There are many surprises in Eliot's response to this
Tennysonian lyric. As readers who have been brought up on Eliot's
"impersonal theory" of poetry and trained in Eliot's theory that
poetry is never simply the expression of emotion but rather an "escape
from emotion" through some complicated formula like an "objective
correlative"--as such sophisticated readers we might well have read this

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Tennysonian lyric and shuddered at its violation of all the rules of
good impersonal poetry, at its indecent personal exposure of a heart
that "was used to beat! So quickly at the approach of a friend," at
its imprecision of diction in such blurred phrases as "UNLOVELY
street" and "guilty THING," at its slight absurdity in beginning with
a direct address to the "Dark house" and with its delayed command to
the "Dark house" to "Behold me" (an imperative that seems to supply
more needed syllables than genuine meaning for the poem).

The question arises: why did this poem give T .S. Eliot "the
shudder" of genuine response that he records in this essay, a shudder
that causes him to say, simply, "This is great poetry, economical of
words, a universal emotion . . . "? Eliot's extravagant claims for the
lines seem strangely remote from the passionate intensity of his
highly personal response. We might readily agree on the universality
of the emotion found in grief for a dead friend, but we might begin to
question the universality of the inconsolable sense of loss as it
becomes mixed with guilt ("like a guilty thing I creep"), and the
sense deepening to feelings of futility and meaninglessness, as the
,~" poet turns back to "the noise of life"--as on "the bald street
breaks Ithe blank day." However GREAT, ECONOMICAL, or UNIVERSAL
Tennyson's lines, the particular circumstances of his grief appear
unique: he and Arthur Hallam became close friends at Cambridge, where
both were undergraduates; later Hallam became engaged to Tennyson's
sister; Hallam's sudden death at the age of twenty-four (in 1833)
affected Tennyson profoundly, and he at once began the long elegy that
was published as IN MEMORIAM in 1850. Eliot's emphasis on the
universality of the emotion in Tennyson's lyric suggests his own deep
identification with it--and inspires wonder as to whether there is not
a similar structure of circumstances in Eliot's own life.

So moved is Eliot by this lyric that he goes on to praise IN
MEMORIAM for its uniqueness--its quality of a "concentrated diary of a
man confessing himself." Diary? Confessing? Here Eliot seems to be
responding to Tennyson's poem for all the wrong reasons--wrong reasons
that the younger Eliot had spelled out so carefully in "Tradition and
the Individual Talent" back in 1917, his earliest essay preserved in
his SELECTED ESSAYS. The young Eliot wrote (in only one of several
similar sentences arguing with Wordsworth's phrase "emotion
recollected in tranquility"): "It is not in his personal emotions,

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the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet
is in any way remarkable or interesting" (p.l0). This young Eliot
stands almost repudiated by the older Eliot's effusive enthusiasm for
a highly personal Tennysonian lyric plucked from a "unique. . . long
poem" that was "made by putting together lyrics, which have only the
unity of a diary." We are confronted with a remarkable
transfiguration, from a young critic who called for an "emotion which
has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet" (p. 11)
to the older (or mature) critic who can work up genuine enthusiasm for
a confessional diary consisting of lyrics containing emotions which
have a life in both the poetry and the poet. (We should note in
passing the implications here for what has come to be called in our
time "confessional poetry.")

There is, I believe, a solution to the puzzle which I pose,
but it is best revealed after a brief examination of Eliot's
continuing comments in his Tennyson essay, comments which immediately
follow those quoted above: "Apparently Tennyson's contemporaries, once
they had accepted IN MEMORIAM, regarded it as a message of hope and
reassurance to their rather fading Christian faith. IT HAPPENS NOW AND
THEN THAT A POET BY SOME STRANGE ACCIDENT EXPRESSES THE MOOD OF HIS
GENERATION, AT THE SAME TIME THAT HE IS EXPRESSING A MOOD OF HIS OWN
WHICH IS QUITE REMOTE FROM THAT OF HIS GENERATION. This is not a
question of insincerity: there is an amalgam of yielding and
opposition below the level of consciousness" (p. 291; italics added.)
This passage, especially when placed in the context of a number of
other of Eliot's comments (cited later), clearly reveals that Eliot
has reference to himself and his own poem, THE WASTE LAND--which over
and over again was described by critics as expressing the "mood" of a
generation, and which Eliot over and over again insisted was really
only expressing a "mood of his own." Because Eliot seems to be talking
somewhat obliquely about himself here, it is of great interest to
observe how HE read Tennyson's IN MEMORIAM--for hints from him as to
how WE might read THE WASTE LAND.

Eliot felt free with IN MEMORIAM (as we shall feel free later
with THE WASTE LAND) to explore Tennyson's meanings on two levels, the
conscious level and "below the level of consciousness." He wrote:
"Tennyson himself, on the conscious level of the man who talks to
reporters and poses for photographers, to judge from remarks made

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in conversation and recorded in his son's memoir, consistently
asserted a convinced, if somewhat sketchy, Christian
belief. . . . Nevertheless, I get a very different impression from IN
MEMORIAM from that which Tennyson's contemporaries seem to have
got. It is of a very much more interesting and tragic Tennyson." Eliot
goes on to stress that, although Tennyson repeatedly expressed, on the
conscious level, the faith of a believer, on the unconscious level he
expressed something else: "Tennyson is distressed by the idea of a
mechanical universe; he is naturally, in lamenting his friend, teased
by the hope of immortality and reunion beyond death. Yet the renewal
craved for seems at best but a continuance, or a substitute for the
joys of friendship upon earth" (p. 292).

It does not require, I believe, a very bold imagination to
perceive that in talking about Tennyson, Eliot is talking indirectly
about himself; indeed, it is almost as if he is inviting some future
critic to deal with him and THE WASTE LAND as he has dealt with IN
MEMORIAM. In short, he seems to be saying something like this--THE
WASTE LAND has been accepted as expressing the mood of my generation,
but in fact it expresses a quite personal mood, a mood that may be
detected beneath the surface of the poem, in labyrinths of
consciousness or unconsciousness that are awaiting penetration. If
this were all that Eliot is saying, perhaps it would not be enough to
justify the space here allotted to his essay on Tennyson. But I
believe that he is revealing more--indeed, I think he is pointing to
the substance of that personal content of THE WASTE LAND to be found
on the lower levels. This revelation comes, I believe, in Eliot's
deeply felt response-- "shudder"--to Tennyson's slight lyric
expressing his grief for his dead friend as he approaches the dark
house in the long "unlovely street" and then, filled with "memory and
desire," turns from the empty house in the "drizzling rain" and looks
on in despair as the "blank day" breaks on the "bald street." It is
significant to note the associations in Eliot's mind as he writes his
essay on Tennyson: he moves almost immediately from the lyric
expressing intense grief for the loss of a dead friend to memory of
his own THE WASTE LAND-- another poem that, on the lower levels,
grieves the loss of a dead friend, but which, like IN MEMORIAM, has
been read primarily as a public poem expressing the mood of a
generation: in both poems, the view of the world has been generated by
the highly personalized

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state of consciousness--the sense of loss-of the "speaker" (or
"meditator"), and not, as so often affirmed, the other way around. I
want to explore those lower levels, but next I must present some
biographical data, first on myself, and then on Eliot.

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