The power of T. S. Eliot
Seamus Heaney
Originally October 1989 issue of Boston Review


But more important of all, perhaps, was a definition of the faculty that he called "the auditory imagination." This was "the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to an origin and bringing something back . . . fusing the most ancient and civilized mentalities."

Eliot’s revelation of his susceptibility to poetry lines, the physicality of his ear as well as the fastidiousness of its discriminations, his example of a poet’s intelligence exercising itself in the activity of listening, all of this seemed to excuse my own temperamental incapacity for paraphrase and my disinclination to engage a poem’s argument and conceptual progress. Instead, it confirmed a natural inclination to make myself an echo chamber for the poem’s sounds. I was encouraged to seek for the contour of a meaning within the pattern of a rhythm. In the "Death by Water" section of The Waste Land, for example, I began to construe from its undulant cadences and dissolvings and reinings-in a mimetic principle which matched or perhaps even overwhelmed any possible meaning that might be derived from the story of Phlebas’s fate.