Nancy Gish wrote: First, I agree with most of this, especially the point
about the problem of reading Eliot as Christian believer back into the
early poems. Eliot himself said he was not; I don't know why that is
constantly ignored, but presumably he would have known.
Carrol: Well, I'm not sure how much of it I agree with, since it's sort
of doodling rather than _a_ construal of the poem. I hoped it would
generate some responses focused on the actual poem,however, as it has
Nancy] I don't know what "take" of mine you mean, but I have written on
the poem several times. The most recent, however, is a paper I have not
reworked for publication; I gave it at Florence two years ago. My focus
was on the implications of Eliot's intention to use "Gerontion" as a
prelude to TWL. In any case, I have not offered any overall reading on
this list; I only tried to point out that the name is a noun and does
not work as a verb. That he is a "little old man" seems fundamental as
it is the point of view from which the whole is spoken. Eliot also has
a pattern of degraded old men who have much in common; Gerontion is one
of them, and he shares many of the characteristics and associated
imagery of others--earlier and later.
Carrol] I was combining those remarks with your scattered arguments of
Eliot's own frustrations -- as manifested in the degraded old men you
mention here. But primarily I had in mind that the poem was, on its
surface, a portrait of a person, and I wanted to then exploe what he
(Eliog) _did_ with that portrait: my assumption being that even in
drmatic monlogues (as in Browning) where the personality comes out s
trongly it is not apt to be there for its own sake, or at least only for
its own sake, but points to possible generalizations of its character
and his/her context. In this case, the latter being a retrospective over
a life by an old man, and the directions that did or couldpoint. And,
taking for granted that it was not a Christian poem, that imagery called
for particular attention.
Nancy] Your memory of the poem as about history--if it goes back quite a
while--probably comes from Harvey Gross, who was either the first or one
of the first who argued that. Vincent Sherry's reading a few years ago
focuses on the Treaty of Versailles, which it overtly addresses in the
mirrors and the image of "History." I also think this is right, though
it is more than that also. Steven Spender emphasized its sources in
Eliot's reading at the time of Elizabethen tragedy: Eliot, he claimed
"enters so thoroughly into the idea that the decadence, violence,
intrigue, villainy, and deviousness of the Jacobean world of corridors
and mirrors correspond< to the post-1918 Europe, that the parallel of
the post-Elizabethan disillusionment, with its haunting decayed poetry,
takes over the rest of the poem." The poem, as Lawrence Rainey notes,
was written in February 1919 just after Eliot's fall series of lectures
on Elizabethan literature.
Nancy] There has been a great mass of serious work on this line, and I
think to discuss it, one really needs to attend to some of the more
recent discussions. Making it another allegory of belief does not deal
with either Eliot's own descriptions of his views at the time or the
materials he was reading and thinking about.
Carrol] There is a further reason to stay away from allegory here - the
false assumption that if one can show in a text that X is an allegory
for Y, then one has gotten to the "meaning" of the text, which is
false. Because "allegorical meaning" is a technical device, like rhyme
scheemes or word order. Seen as meaning it reduces the poem to a problem
in cryptanalysis of no literary interest. For example in Dante, the
winds that blow Paola (sp?) and her lover about are at the historical
level are, at the allegorical level, the force of passion to move people
against their will. But that is not the meaning of the passage. The
meaning of the passage is a complex of elements of which that allegory
is meely one element. "Dost sometimes cunsel take and sometimes tea."
That "take changes its meaning on object is a technical device, not the
meaning of the couplet, just as "winds equal passion" is a technical
device, not a meaning. . The allegorical equation explains nothing but
rather is part of wha needs to be explained. Similarly (while I of
course agree to the silliness of seeing "the jew" as Jesus in
Gerontion), *even* if that were so, it would tell us nothing at all
about the poem's meaning (though it might suggest that Eliot didn't
know how to write). When (in my previous post) I say that Gerontion (the
character) _is_ Europe, I do not at all mean that he "stands for"
Europe or is an allegoricy of europe - but I will come back to that
Nancy] I do not think there is a reason to start from scratch as if we
did not now know so much about the context in which it was written,
Eliot's own claims about himself then, and materials not available when
much of what became until about 1965-70 "traditional" ways of reading
Eliot--though Gross (dissertation in 1955, not sure when published) and
Spender (1975) recognized these themes and sources much earlier. As I
have noted before, what became the established kinds of reading for a
few decades (and have not been for a long time though they are one of a
many ways) were really always part of a mix. If one goes back to the
early reviews, it is clear that Eliot was always read in many ways, and
there has never been--and certainly is not now--a single TRUE way to
understand his complex, magnificent, and ambiguous work. If there were,
of course, he would long ago have ceased to be even mildly interesting.
Nancy] Here, for example, is Conrad Aiken (a close friend of Eliot) in
1927: "The theme of "Gerontion," a good many years later, is the same
[as "Prufrock"]: it is again the paralyzing effect of consciousness, the
"After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" And The Waste Land is again a
recapitualization, reaching once more the same point of acute agony of
doubt, the same distrust of decision or action, with its "awful daring
of a moment's surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract."
(I add that Eliot described his own breakdown in 1921 as a form of
aboulia, or lack of will.)
Carrol] Very interesting. It seems to me in fact that Aiken's 'take,'
with some important quibbles about what we are saying when we speak of
"theme," points accurately to materials which, the explanation of which
needs to be part of any interpretation.
Nancy] No one, of course, is constrained to agree with Spender, Gross,
Rainey, or Aiken, but these are major intellects and major critics, and
it is simply silly to dismiss any similar kinds of readings as if, say,
Aiken or Spender especially had no access to understanding Eliot, whom
they knew and read and reviewed.
Carrol] Yes. And I ignore such trivia - though from a historical
perspective (historical perspective on the later 20th-c that is) the
existence of such (like the existence of conspiracy theories of Pearl
Harbor, Kennedy's assassingation, and 9/11, though idiotic as
explanation of those events of historical interest as materials
themselves to be explained.
Nancy] It was Eliot who said that we know so much more than earlier
generations, and they are what [we] <they> know. It applies here.
Nancy] I do not find any of the allegory readings convincing simply
because one can find the word "Christ" in them; and the identification
of "the Jew" with Jesus does not make any sense of the poem. Cheers,
Carrol: Indeed. But of course "the jew" does, _as_ "the jew," cry out
for construal of its place in the poem. Restating with a shift the point
aboaut history. The poem refeences it directly (Thermopylae, for
example, _was_ a battle; it wasn't a fictional battle that Gerontion was
not at, but a rather important event, christianed retrospectively a
victory of West over East (neither of which concepts would have made
sense to the participants). Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians, brings
us east & west in a modern setting, though looking back at an earlier
period when, one might say, "The West was Young," or so the modern
mythology of The Renaissance goes. Is this Gerontion's own perception
or Eliot's eurocentrism that sees Titian as polluted by being made
object of an "Eastern Gaze"? History, then, forms the very weather of
the poem; it is the atmopshjere within which Gerontiion's contemplationo
of his own story proceeds.
Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]> 03/03/10 11:05 PM >>> Interesting. What
follows is letting my fingers think for me to some extent, following up
on whatever any one clause suggests.
This is the Eliot poem I like best -- but I've never made much of an
effort to constue it; is I'm captured by the inevitability of the
phrasing, as each bit clicks into place. That of course is Eliot's not
-- i.e. the fictive spaker is not characterized by the firmness of his
words; nevertheless that marvelous phrasing does color
the whole, and while I like Nancy's take on it as a point of departure,
a sort of frame, the whole thrust of the text works against that being
the 'essence' of the poem. The decayed sexuality of the speaker both
poisons what he has to say and at the same time underlines its potential
content. Internal corruptions, decay does not necessarily 'untrue' the
old man's perceptions. And In so far as the poem is about something,it
abut HISTORY. Both the old man and the house he lives in are Europe, its
magnificent chronology ending in the horrors and meaninglessness of the
War. (I can't remember what initially suggested this to me decades ago,
but I tend to gloss the cunning passages of history with the Cleopatra
whose sexuality entwined Anthony -- and destroyed him. But however
glossed, those cunning and twisting passages are important, for they are
what the old man is trying, futilely, to trace, to go back to the
beginnings, to understand what the battles he was NOT part of might, in
And that gull against the wind has an almos t hypnotic effect on me,
reverberating back against the whole poem. (I son't know whether the
white feathers against the snow are the feathers of the bird in flight
or the scattered feathers of a dead bird, its flight aborted.) I don't
think, incidentally, that Eliot was ever really nihilistic, but I think
he was battling (internally) against what one might call the "arguments"
for nihilism. In this period, like many inhis circles, he 'plays' with
religion, but half seriusly. Thus his poems _do_ gesture in odd ways
towards his eventual embracment of orthodox xtianity, but they are not
Christian. To read the Christianity directly back into them spoils the
tensddion which runs through them and makes a mockery of his eventual
convrsion. (It is worthwhile thinking why so manyof that anglo-catholic
coterie in England in the '30s played around with blasphemy: they were
in part reacting against what Swift called (I forget the damn term --
see his argument against the abolition of Christianity). See Dayers
Peter Wimsey. Some of C.S. Lewis. The play with blasphemy showed that
they were real and not just nominal Christians. The anti-semitism comes
out of a different aspect of that whole British culture: it was casual,
taken-for-granted anti-semitism, not the purposeful anti-semtism tha we
think of since Hitler. It was real, and it was vicious, but distinctions
need to be made. Keynes has some really nasty anti-semitism scatterd
throguh his works.
So Gerontion (the poem and the persona) in his casual anti-semitism and
casual references to Christianity is a reflection of secularism mixed
with antipaghy to merely nominal Christianity, and that is the seedbed
of his later serious Christianity. Christ the tiger is mockery of those
Christians who mouth it but don't believe it, but it is not an
expression ov believ.
The gull struggling against the wind; struggle, which the old man has
given up on, which europe (the decayed house) has given up on. Cunning
passages: sexual depravity and history that leads nowhere, and the old
man's life which has led nowhere. Christ the tiger: a fearful and
wonderful religon which once gave energy to Europe but is now a mockery.
Scattered observations. If useful, use them, otherwise ignore them.
"Rickard A. Parker" wrote:
Take no offense. I'm working on a serious post with this but, although
it will be better, it will still lack some consistency as I'm still
trying to figure out this poem.
CR got me looking the hardest I ever have at Gerontion.
To get a handle on Gerontion I took this approach: I tried to put myself
back to 1920 when handed a typewritten copy of the poem, the poem only,
no title, no epigraph, no poet's name and no knowledge of Eliot or the
way he wrote. I couldn't even be sure of the punctuation or spelling.
Biblical and Dante allusions would be familiar but not many of the other
allusions. The challenge was to make sense of the poem. (I note that
since I took up this challenge some poster has written that this might
not be the way to read the poem, that you need to know that it was
written by Eliot.)
After a few readings I noticed a nihilistic tone, that life was
I noted several religious symbols: the jew, the stanza about signs,
flowering judas and an allusion to the ritual of communion, the
wrath-bearing tree and Christ the tiger again. I'll hold off discussing
these right now.
The symbol of the house as the body housing our souls was fairly
Then there was the wind and draughts (also showing up as ghosts.) The
symbolism of the wind as spirit came to mind but didn't quite feel right
to me. Changing it to symbolise life seemed a bit better.
I got the feeling that the gist (ghost/spirit again) of the stanza
starting "After such knowledge" was that we act to no avail. We are
heroic and go to vice, we act bad and good comes about. I'm not doing
well explaining here but I'm getting the feeling of a nihilistic
At this point I can go back to the symbolism of the wind and the house
and see if some sense can be made of the poet's words.
My house is a decayed house, And the jew squats on the window sill, the
owner, My body is decrepit and god, its owner, is watching, waiting,
[like a vulture?]
I an old man, A dull head among windy spaces. I'm an old man, not wise,
but still among the living.
Vacant shuttles Weave the wind. I have no ghosts Something weaves the
fabric of our lives but it isn't us. I have no spirit driving me
An old man in a draughty house Under a windy knob. An old man in a body
with a little life in a world of life.
We have not reached conclusion, when I Stiffen in a rented house.
*You* shall remain when I die within my borrowed body.
... Gull against the wind, in the windy straits Of Belle Isle, or
running on the Horn, White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
Whether you fight against your life or go with its flow your body fails;
death is its home. [Belle Isle is located in the northern-most of the
straits where the Gulf of Saint Lawrence empties into the Atlantic.]
And an old man driven by the Trades To a sleepy corner. Life has driven
me to a place where there is little life.
Tenants of the house, Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season. You
people (who will also be evicted from your bodies) here you've heard the
spiritless thoughts of a man who has lost his will.
Although the reading isn't perfect the house and wind symbolism seem to
fit a nihilistic outlook on life. Now my job is look at that some more
and expand the reading from that. There is more in the poem to look at
later. I hope to get to that later.
Regards, Rick Parker
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