Wow, what a treasure trove, Tom!  THIS IS IT, INDEED -- a  most genuine and masterly insight of which I had only a very vague apprehension. I find it exceedingly illuminating. Hope the list finds it so too.

--- On Fri, 2/26/10, Tom Colket <[log in to unmask]> wrote:


I have not studied Gerontion enough to make my own comments on it. However, I thought you might find interesting some comments made by late William Arrowsmith, an Eliot scholar from Boston University who died in the 1990s while working on an Eliot book.

Professor Arrowsmith has an interesting section about Gerontion as part of an article he wrote that was posthumously published in 2000. In his reading, the end of Gerontion is an allusion to John Ruskin's account of Tintoretto's painting, _Last Judgment_, and the reference to 'dryness' is "the sensation persistently associated by the great mystics with the 'dark night of the soul' that precedes all vision."

I scanned in the relevant pages and am posting it in this email. I believe I have posted this before, but I can't find when so I'm reposting it here. I hope you find it interesting.

-- Tom --


From "Eliot's Learning" by William Arrowsmith, Literary Imagination, Spring 2000, volume 2, number 2, pages 162-166.


Consider Eliot's allusive practice as it appears in the famous concluding period of "Gerontion":

              What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay? De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
Of Be11e Isle, or running on the Horn.
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a sleepy corner.

          Tenants of the house,
          Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season. ["Gerontion" lines. 67-77]

Of these lines George Bornstein remarks:
"Only toward the end does his imagination erupt .... These lines do not depend on the finite, disparate links of the other sections but rather on direct assertion of imaginative power. But the poem does not demand this sudden transformation of its creeping corruption into the nearly apocalyptic image of the fractured atoms of De Bailhache, Fresca, and Mrs. Cammel. Nor does it demand the lovely image of the gull against the wind. . .  The poem does not demand these ... because Gerontion's mental processes do not: he has progressed by chance associational links, rather than by ordered preparation for vision ... the very end ... ["Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season"] undercuts the imaginative vision .... Gerontion ends where he began. The vision makes no difference to him."

Bornstein admittedly follows Kenner's reading:
"["Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season"] has a look of exegetic universality ... restoring us to daylight. Actually it is an index of the speaker's failed imagination, at the furthest extreme from his earlier polysemous intensity. He [Gerontion] begins to talk what we are accustomed to regard as sense only at the instant when he is too fatigued to hang onto the rich vision any longer."

The fatal flaw in these readings is that both critics have missed the allusion that governs the apocalyptic closing passage. No less important, neither seems to recognize what is meant by _dryness_, the key term in the poem, a poem that ends with the line quoted above. The allusion in question is indeed apocalyptic-a paraphrase of Ruskin's stupendous and famous account of Tintoretto's _Last Judgment_ in Santa Maria del'Orto in Venice. Nowhere is Ruskin's genius for creating the verbal equivalents of painting more apparent than in the single, non-stop Miltonic depiction of the great Apocalypse. I can cite only the phrases most pertinent to Eliot's poem:

The oceans of the earth and the waters of the firmament gathered into one white, ghastly cataract; the river of the wrath of God, roaring down into the gulf where the world has melted with its fervent heat, choked with the ruin of nations, and the limbs of its corpses tossed out of its whirling, like water-wheels. Bat-like, out of the holes and caverns and shadows of the earth, the bones gather and the clay heaps heave, rattling and adhering into half-kneaded anatomies, that crawl, and startle, and struggle up among the putrid weeds, with the clay clinging to their clotted hair, and their heavy eyes sealed by the earth darkness yet, like his of old who went his way unseeing to the Siloam Pool; shaking off one by one the dreams of the prison-house, hardly hearing the clangour of the trumpets of the armies of God, blinded yet more, as they awake, by the white light of the new Heaven, until the great vortex of the four winds bears up their bodies to the judgment-seat: the Firmament is all full of them, a very dust of human souls, that drifts, and floats, and falls in the interminable, inevitable light; the bright clouds are darkened with them as with thick snow, currents of atom life in the arteries of heaven, now soaring up slowly, and higher, and higher still, till the eye and the thought can follow no farther, borne up, wingless, by their inward faith and by the angel powers invisible, now hurled in countless drifts of horror before the breath of their condemnation.

[Ruskin, _Modem Painters_ in _The Works of John Ruskin, 4:277]

The _gulf_, the _atoms_ in the arteries of heaven, the _snow_, the great vortex that scatters them, _whirled_ like water-wheels-the points of contact seem, to my eye, too numerous to be coincidental, all the more if we bear in mind that the texts circulating through Gerontion's revery are not only biblical, classical, and Jacobean, but above all Victorian -- Newman, Bradley, Arnold's _Empedocles on Etna_, etc. -- and that Eliot's debt to Ruskin is, in both the poetry and the criticism, as pervasive as it is unacknowledged. The revery, then, culminates, as it should, in the awful vision of a Last Judgment awaiting the dispersed and aimless tenants of the Christian "house," an annihilation into a new life struggling, under all the fragments, to emerge. The Word (with a capital W) is gestating, stirring beneath the rhetorical word (lowercase) of the texts supplied by the boy who is reading to Gerontion, all apparently dream-jumbled, but constantly, in the way of revery, gathering momentum; apparently random associations secretly linking, piling up, as they grope with subliminal purposiveness toward the supervening vision of the Last Judgment, as aweful in its promise of birth through death as the coming of "Christ the tiger" must have been to the citizens of the Old Dispensation. Bornstein claims an "ordered preparation for vision," a claim that does not stand up for the simple reason that spiritual vision is not born of consciously ordered preparation; but there is, in fact, both preparation and, beneath the textual jumble, an _emerging_ order -- the infant Word, gathering the strength to speak -- order caught in the-act-of-becoming order. To see it this way is to see the labyrinthine texts as they percolate through the dreaming mind as a spiritual experience, an exercise in _askesis_ unaware of its own purposiveness. Hence the relapse into fatigue at the close is only apparent relapse; what in any case can be affirmed after one _sees_ the Last Judgment? What is left to say? This emphatically does not mean that "we end where we began:' [Bornstein of "Gerontion": "Unlike the speakers of early and late Greater Romantic Lyrics, Gerontion ends where he began"]. We began with "dry month"; we close with "thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season." This "dryness" is the sensation persistently associated by the great mystics with the "dark night of the soul" that precedes all vision. In the words of a book always dear to Eliot, even in his college days, Evelyn Underhill's _Mysticism_, the mystic's depression is "due to the double fact of the exhaustion of an old state, and the growth towards a new state of consciousness." The self feels "a complete emotional lassitude ... now replaced by a callousness, a boredom which the self detests but cannot overcome. It is the dismal condition of _ennui_ which ascetic writers know so well under the name of 'aridity." [Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: _A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness_ (New York, 1955), pp. 386, 391]. Saint Teresa describes the symptoms in minute detail, always a "condition of dryness" marked by doubt, restlessness, mental dispersion, torpor, irascibility, boredom, fear, anxiety, "the dispossessed soul in the act of dispossessing itself," as Professor Schuchard puts it in another context. [Ronald Schuchard, Eliot's Dark Angel: Intersections if Life and Art (Oxford, 1999), pp. 119-30].  _Aridita, secheresse du coeur, siccitas_ - wherever one turns among the mystics, one finds the experience and the term. And it was precisely these mystics, as Lyndall Gordon has shown, whom Eliot was assiduously reading during his Harvard years [Lyndall Gordon, Eliot's Early Years (Oxford, 1977), p. 60, and, more recently, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (New York, 1998), p. 89].  Whatever else Eliot may be doing, he is clearly giving us an account - an interior dramatic monologue - based firmly upon the experience of mystical "dryness"; the imagination, far from being cowed by the experience, is gropingly shaping the texts to which allusion is made into a unified _poem_ - a poem that aims at delineating the spiritual crisis of contemporary Europe in the _historical_ terms by which that crisis came to be. We are being given, in an extremely ambitious poem of great allusive complexity, an account of the continuing European mind, and the fact that that mind is "a mind which changes." Here, in short, is precisely the poem - allusive, complex, indirect, difficult, and historically _ordered_ - predicated by Eliot's critical pronouncements at the time. It could not be as successful as it is unless the erudition had been imaginatively engaged. It should not be read as the defeat of imaginative vision, or as "ventriloquial passtiche," but rather as a record of an _incipient_ vision, a coming-to-consciousness of a vision to which the conscious mind of the dreamer is blind, which it can perceive only by that subliminal organization of what, only later, the mind realizes what it previously felt and even thought - an order that can be detected only after it has been achieved.

-- end of section on Gerontion --