Two passages from Peter Ackroyd's 'T.S. Eliot: A Life' :
The only advantage of illness, as far as Eliot was concerned, was that
it released him from the general round
of works and days -- it was, he
used to say, his body's way of telling him to stop -- and during periods
of ill health such as this one he seemed better able to write. The
relationship between illness and creativity interested him, and he often
emphasized it in his prose writings. In the conclusion to The Use of
Poetry and the Use of Criticism, he had suggested that some forms of
'debility', ill health and anaemia may produce an efflux of poetry', and
referred to the same phenomenon in his introduction to Pascal's
PENSÉES, in which he declared that certain kinds of ill health may
favour not only 'religious illumination' but also 'artistic and literary
composition'. This was part of his belief that poetic composition was
not an activity that could be consciously controlled, that it had its
roots far down in
the unconscious. The metaphors which he employs
to describe this process are curiously disagreeable, however. He talks
of the 'dark embryo' which gradually takes on the form of a poem, of
'dark psychic material' with which the poet struggles; it is a 'burden'
to be relieved or a 'demon' to be exorcised. This suggestion of a
compulsive activity with which he wants as little to do as possible is
confirmed by his description of poetry as a 'secretion' (he quotes
Houseman favourably on this), an 'evacuation' and even a 'defecation'.
The impression given is of some sticky, viscous, unpleasant material
which has to do with the satisfaction of obscure and uncontrollable
personal needs. Perhaps Eliot's attitude is an aspect of his puritanism:
the pleasure involved in the 'sudden relief' of producing the poem is
itself considered by
him to be suspect. Disgust with the body may be
formulated as a disgust with the sheer materiality of words
(the 'secretion'): hence the need to economize with them, to formalize
them, to cut them down.
But it was not until August 1942, after a year's delay, that he set
to work on the poem ('Little Gidding') again. It was by far the most
laboriously produced of the sequence: there are some five drafts,
and thirteen separate typescripts, extant. Some of it had come
quickly; Eliot knew the verse was right, and left it alone. But the rest
needed more attention. He composed a short preliminary scheme for
the entire poem, as well as prose drafts for certain difficult passages.
(For 'The Dry Salvages' he had even written out lists of rhyming words
him.) Like his pleasure in reading dictionaries or solving
crosswords, this seemed to be the kind of soothing conscious activity
which allowed the unconscious faculties an easier passage forward.
Having constructed a working model, as it were, he left his conscious
mind to one side and relied upon his ear -- what he described as the
interdependence of rhythm and diction, or the recognition of meaning
when it is embodied in cadence. In fact what he called the 'auditory
imagination' was always his most powerful faculty, the most subtle
and complex instrument at his disposal which he deserted at his peril.
When in Four Quartets he was concerned to state or develop a theme,
he frequently relapsed into flatness or banality. But in almost all
instances he recovered himself in the process of revision, took out
the passages which were rhythmically inert or altered words and
images which did not sustain the underlying cadence and structure.
This was material just randomly come by. But it suggests how one
could go along and study Eliot's creative process as a complex mix of
the operations of the conscious and the unconscious faculties.
What intrigued me, however, was how poetry came to Eliot --
sometimes as a collocation of images, as in The Waste Land,
which connected in terms of their symbolic/metaphoric meanings --
at other times as biblical invocations as in Ash-Wednesday --
and much later, as in the Quartets, as direct philosophic utterances.
Of course, I'm only
touching the tip of the poetic iceberg :)
Well, I must hasten to acquaint myself with what Donoghue has to
say on this.