First, he was not then an "ex-believer"; one might call him then a "pre-believer." Second the attribution of Christianity to Eliot is--later--accurate but not in 1920, and it is not I who made it. Whatever is the point here? The general Christian history and tradition of Europe and within the literature Eliot affirmed is both obvious and not at issue.

>>> Peter Montgomery 03/04/10 7:53 AM >>>
It might be helpful to distinguish Eliot as a very knowledgeable ex-believer,
well trained in Biblical matters, and very conscious of
the permeation of European culture by an apparently moribund
Christianity. Christianity is everywhere in Europe, even if it
is the bones of the beast.

Just because one looks at the Christian dimensions of the poem,
does not mean one is attributing belief in Christianity to Eliot.

----- Original Message ----- 
From: Nancy Gish 
To: [log in to unmask] 
Sent: Wednesday, March 03, 2010 9:01 PM
Subject: Re: 'Gerontion' -- the dramatic arc

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.)

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.

It was Eliot who said that we know so much more than earlier generations, and they are what they know. It applies here.

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.

>>> Carrol Cox 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 
Gerontion's -- 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 
retrospect, mean. 

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 
> senseless. 
> 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 
> obvious. 
> 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 
> Gerontion here. 
> 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