T. S. Eliot was a morally, intellectually, and sartorially fastidious man. His manner was so correct that it sometimes seemed a few degrees too correct. He was known to friends as a connoisseur of cheese—there are several anecdotes about him in which the punch line is provided by a remark about cheese—and as a collector of umbrellas with custom handles. He came to hold political and religious views that were far to the right of most of his contemporaries’, and to believe that Western civilization had been in decline since the thirteenth century, the time of Dante. He claimed to consider Richard III, who died in 1485, the last legitimate English king.
The poems and plays that Eliot published in his lifetime fill a single volume; his prose works are collections of talks and occasional journalism. The project to which he committed most of the latter part of his career, the revival of verse drama, was a failure. He was dismissive of grand theories of poetry, or anything else, and he never held a regular academic appointment. During his most productive years as a writer, from 1917 to 1925, he worked in a bank. His place in the curriculum is established, but he is hardly popular as a subject of teaching or scholarship.
Yet he was a true avant-gardist, and he made a revolution. He changed the way poetry in English is written; he re-set the paradigm for literary criticism; and his work laid down the principles on which the modern English department is built. He is the most important figure in twentieth-century English-language literary culture, a position he achieved with a relatively small amount of writing produced in a relatively brief amount of time and in unpromising circumstances.
He was a foreigner in a society, literary London, that is almost as incestuous and xenophobic as intellectual Paris. The writers he counted as comrades were looked upon by most of the literary establishment with distaste: Ezra Pound, an American; Wyndham Lewis, whose father was an American; and an Irishman, James Joyce. (There was not much love lost on their parts, either.) He was cut off from his family by the war; he was married to an unhealthy, demanding, and unstable woman; and he had troubles all his own. At the height of his creative and critical output, he had a nervous breakdown and diagnosed his condition as aboulie—lack of will. While he was recovering, he wrote “The Waste Land.”
His success is an improbable and amazing story, and the publication, in two volumes, of his correspondence from 1898 to 1925, “The Letters of T. S. Eliot” (Yale; $45 each), lets us watch that story as it was unfolding, day by day, from the inside. The letters (some of which are by Eliot’s correspondents) have been compiled and edited, with generous annotation, by Hugh Haughton and Valerie Eliot, the poet’s second wife. They take up almost two thousand pages.
The inside view makes the success only a little easier to understand. Eliot was not just inscrutable; he performed inscrutability. He was pleased to adopt Pound’s nickname for him, the Possum, and the too-correctness was a way of suggesting that the umbrella fetish, the cheese-course rituals, the white flower (for York) that he wore on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard III was killed, and all the rest of the bowler-hatted persona might be a put-on. He came across as a man who had got trapped inside an elaborate, Chaplinesque joke of his own devising. He was enjoying the joke, but he couldn’t get out. Ivor Richards, a founder of modern literary studies and one of Eliot’s most powerful disciples, recalled “the ghostly flavor of irony which hung about his manner as though he were preparing a parody.”
But what was within? Richards’s wife, Dorothea, described Eliot, on a visit, as “very gaunt & grim—as if he had burnt himself out. His queer coloured, strangely piercing eyes in a pale face are the most striking thing about him. He is pale with special wrinkles which run horizontally across his forehead & his nose is delicately Jewish. He doesn’t understand all I say nor do we him. His questions are surprising—disconcerting because so simple, sometimes also inane.” This was in 1928, a low point in Eliot’s life: he had secretly converted to Anglicanism the year before, and he was preparing to leave his wife. But from the beginning of his time in England the same details turn up in people’s takes on him: the unusual eyes (tawny, like a lion’s), the enervated demeanor, the uninspired conversation.
“Dull, dull, dull,” complained the Bloomsbury-circle hostess Ottoline Morrell in 1916, after Eliot’s first visit to her estate. “He is obviously very ignorant of England and imagines that it is essential to be highly polite and conventional and decorous and meticulous.” Most of the Bloomsbury figures had the same response at first. “Altogether not quite gay enough for my taste,” Lytton Strachey reported. “In an envelope of frozen formality,” Leonard Woolf remembered him. Bertrand Russell thought that Eliot was “lacking in the crude insistent passion that one must have in order to achieve anything.” But Eliot made friends with them all. He also made friends with many of their rivals, like the Old Guard novelists Hugh Walpole and Arnold Bennett. He plugged himself in.
The letters show that he knew what he was doing. He was persistent, and he understood how the game was played. “Don’t think that I find it easy to live over here,” he wrote to his brother, Henry, in 1919, after he had been in England for five years:
It is like being always on dress parade—one can never relax. It is a great strain. And society is in a way much harder, not gentler. People are more aware of you, more critical, and they have no pity for one’s mistakes and stupidities. They are more spontaneous, and also more deliberate. They seek your company because they expect something particular from you, and if they don’t get it, they drop you. They are always intriguing and caballing; one must be very alert. They are sensitive, and easily become enemies. But it is never dull.
He saw that, among people so high-strung and self-centered, being an outsider, someone who appeared to have no personal stake in things, could be a source of authority. More important, he held all the English writers in contempt. It was a cool and disinterested contempt; it came from arrogance, not from pettiness or insecurity, and he gave just enough of a hint of it to make people nervous. The only contemporary writers he considered his peers were Pound and Lewis (though he knew their limitations extremely well). The only one he looked up to was Joyce.
That London was the square of the board Eliot landed on was something of an accident. If he had picked a city to expatriate to, it would probably have been Paris, where he spent a very happy year after graduating from Harvard College, in 1910. But he had not intended to emigrate at all. When he arrived in England, in August, 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War, he was on a fellowship from the Harvard philosophy department. He planned to spend a year at Oxford, reading Aristotle and writing his dissertation, and then return to the United States and become a professor.
He liked Aristotle. He disliked Oxford. “I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books, and hideous pictures on the walls,” he wrote to an American friend, the poet Conrad Aiken. “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.” He had met Pound soon after arriving in London—a meeting arranged by Aiken—and he had already written “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Pound, who had been in England since 1908 on a self-appointed mission to modernize the natives, read the poem and was stunned. “He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own” was his famous reaction, in a letter to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe. He encouraged Eliot to make more poems.
In the spring of 1915, at a party hosted by Scofield Thayer, a wealthy Harvard classmate who was also studying at Oxford, Eliot met Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a friend of Thayer’s sister. She was English, and working as a governess. Three months later, without informing their parents, they married. Eliot was twenty-six and, before they met, almost certainly a virgin. She was a party girl, unrefined, vivacious, and self-dramatizing—pretty much everything he was not.
People assumed that Eliot was sexually infatuated, but, considering the entirety of his romantic history (fairly barren), this doesn’t seem the most likely explanation. Eliot’s own version, in an unpublished memoir written near the end of his life, was:
I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or mild affair: I was too shy and unpracticed to achieve either with anybody. I believe that I came to persuade myself that I was in love with her simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. . . . To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came “The Waste Land.”
They did, in the end, have one thing in common. They were both tremendously ambitious for his career.
The month they were married, June, 1915, “Prufrock” appeared in Poetry. Apart from work in student publications, this was the first poem that Eliot ever published. It was as though “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” had been the first painting by Picasso ever exhibited, or “The Rite of Spring” the first piece by Stravinsky ever played. Pound was right: it was something new. It changed the rules. Eliot knew it, too. “I feel more alive then I ever have before,” he wrote to his brother in July. He told his parents that he was abandoning his academic plans and staying in England.
The euphoria didn’t last. As the story of the career in the “Letters” surges ahead, the story of the marriage is the dark cloud racing alongside. Some of the letters are by Vivienne, and they are spunky and uninhibited. “I am very popular with Tom’s friends,” she writes to Thayer a few months after the marriage, “and who do you think in particular? No less a person than Bertrand Russell!! He is all over me, is Bertie, and I simply love him. I am dining with him next week. I see a good deal of the Pounds, of course, and between ourselves, find them rather boring.”
It is the first sign of the dark cloud. Eliot had met Russell at Harvard, when Russell was lecturing there. Soon after Eliot arrived in England, they ran into each other on the street, went for tea, and began a friendship. Russell thought Eliot the brightest of the American philosophy students he had met. (Eliot did finish the dissertation. Josiah Royce, one of the most eminent members of the Harvard department, called it “the work of an expert,” and the chairman, James Woods, was still urging Eliot to return and accept an appointment as late as 1920.)
Russell was in the middle of an affair with Ottoline Morrell. (Russell had an unhappy marriage; the Morrells had an open one.) When Eliot and Vivienne married, he assumed the role of couples therapist. The three shared housing, and Bertie spent time with Vivienne when Tom was working or away. It’s believed that they had an affair, although proof is lacking, and Russell may simply have hoped to give that impression to Morrell, who he thought was neglecting him. In September, 1915, he reported to her that Vivienne had “a great deal of mental passion & no physical passion, a universal vanity, that makes her desire every man’s devotion, & a fastidiousness that makes any expression of their devotion disgusting to her”—which suggests that something did happen, or failed to happen, between them. In Eliot’s surviving letters to Russell, there is nothing indicating suspicion, only gratitude.
The trouble with the marriage was not infidelity. It was the opposite, an asphyxiating mutual dependency. They were both anxious, brittle people. Her medical and psychological issues were serious and ultimately incapacitating (she ended up being committed to an asylum); his were merely chronic. He complained a lot during the marriage, in nearly every letter that is not purely professional and in many that should have been. He is overworked, he is ill and in bed, she is unable to get up or to eat, they don’t have enough money, their flat is too noisy, he can’t go on, she can’t go on, they can’t go on. It’s relentless, the misery. Every bump in the road is a trip through one of the circles in Dante’s Hell. In her diary, Virginia Woolf wished that “poor dear Tom had more spunk in him, less need to let drop by drop of his agonized perplexities fall ever so finely through pure cambric. One waits; one sympathizes, but it is dreary work.”
And all the time he was conquering the world of letters. “There is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England,” he wrote to his mother in 1919. “I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had, unless it be Henry James. I know a great many people, but there are many more who would like to know me, and I can remain isolated and detached.”
The literary scene in England was highly factionalized. Eliot’s strategy was to avoid taking sides by showing up on every side. He wrote for tiny modernist magazines, like The Egoist, which Pound had commandeered and turned into the flagship of free verse, and which had a circulation of a hundred and eighty-five. He reviewed for papers hostile to modernism, like The New Statesman, and for Bloomsbury-dominated journals, like The Athenaeum, edited by the critic John Middleton Murry. And he wrote lead articles for the Times Literary Supplement, where most of the pieces were unsigned—“the highest honour possible in the critical world of literature,” he informed his mother. He did it all at home after a day at the bank, and on weekends.
It’s one of the most remarkable runs in literary journalism. All of Eliot’s intellectual bristles are on display in these pieces. They are smart and showoffy, and seeded with dicta from which tall forests of academic criticism would one day grow:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. On Henry James:
He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.
A consistent theme is the sorry state of English letters. The English don’t know how to write criticism, and they don’t know how to write poetry. They use literature as a means of expressing ideas and personal feelings, or they confuse it with something else, with social commentary, or mysticism, or philosophy. As he wrote in 1922, “The present situation here has now become a scandal impossible to conceal from foreign nations: that literature is chiefly in the hands of persons who may be interested in almost anything else; that literature presents the appearance of a garden unmulched, untrimmed, unweeded, and choked by vegetation sprung only from the chance germination of the seed of last year’s plants.” This had been Pound’s position. It’s why they were comrades.
In less than three years, from the middle of 1919 to the end of 1921, Eliot wrote all the essays in his first two volumes of criticism, “The Sacred Wood” (1920) and “Homage to John Dryden” (1924); he published “Gerontion,” “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” “Sweeney Erect,” and “Song for the Opherion” (“The wind sprang up at four o’clock”); and (while having a nervous breakdown) he composed a complete draft of “The Waste Land.”
“Lack of will” is a peculiar diagnosis for a man producing an outburst like that. Reading the letters, we would conclude that Eliot was suffering from major depression, but you don’t write “The Waste Land” while you’re suffering from major depression. Eliot sought treatment in Lausanne, from a doctor, recommended by Morrell, named Roger Vittoz. Vittoz practiced a precursor of cognitive behavioral therapy, teaching his patients to redirect compulsive thoughts. It worked for Eliot. He finished his poem.
On the way home, he stopped in Paris, where Pound was now living, having given up on the English as a hopeless job, and—a canonical moment in modernist legend—Pound made his celebrated editorial intervention. “Complimenti, you bitch,” he wrote to Eliot after reading the near-final draft. “I am wracked by the seven jealousies.” He thought that Eliot had given their movement its monument. It was January 24, 1922. A little more than a week later, on February 2nd, Joyce’s “Ulysses” was published.
What was the revolution all about? Inner and lower were the directions modernist writers took literature, toward what goes on inside the head and below the waist. That is certainly how readers experienced modernism, at least, and why the books attracted the censors. For the writers themselves, it was largely about technique. To modernize is not to make a brand-new thing; it’s to bring an old thing up to date. “Prufrock” is a dramatic monologue, a standard nineteenth-century poetic genre. There is a tension built into the form, a tension between what the speaker “presents” and what we “see”—as in Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” to pick a hoary middle-school example. In “Prufrock,” tension is created by shifting tonal registers: the title itself; the unexpected Italian epigraph from the Inferno; the opening simile comparing the evening to someone in a coma; the couplet about the women and Michelangelo, which seems to belong to a different poem and gets played, for no apparent reason, twice, like a refrain, or a jingle.
It’s an exercise in syncopation, like a Cubist portrait. It perpetually wrong-foots you. Eliot thought that Stravinsky, in “The Rite of Spring,” had transformed “the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life.” He had taken something primitive and recast it in a contemporary idiom—the way Picasso used African masks for his portrait of the prostitutes in “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” or Joyce put the whole of the Odyssey underneath “Ulysses.” What was important for Pound and Eliot was that the bones of the old are legible (or visible or audible) under the contemporary skin. That’s what produces the modernist dissonance. Behind the wan and squeamish flâneur is the defiant shade of Guido da Montefeltro, burning in the eighth circle of Hell.
“It is a battle cry of freedom,” Eliot said about free verse, in 1917, “and there is no freedom in art.” He meant that when people pick up a poem they expect that it will read like a poem, and this expectation defines the formal field of play. The modernist poem puts pressure on the form, distorts it in places, grows impenetrable in places. But it never abandons it. The form is the electric current that the writer taps into.
Eliot’s word for this current was “the tradition,” and his classic statement about it is the essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published in 1919 in The Egoist, where he was an assistant editor. The term is unfortunate, since it connotes some kind of capital “C” canon. (Eliot used it because he was tacitly responding to a book called “Tradition and Change,” by Arthur Waugh, in which he and Pound were attacked.) There is no doubt that Eliot believed in a capital “C” canon, but that is not the point of his essay.
The point is philosophical. I know that what I am looking at is a house because I am already familiar with things that look more or less like it and are houses. This is what enables me to say that the particular house I am looking at is a big house, an ugly house, a modern house, and so on. The same thing happens when I read a poem: I relate it to all the other poems I have read—in the head of an ideal reader, to all the poems that have ever been written. Past poems condition my response to any new poem. And the really new poem conditions my response to all the poems that preceded it. After “Prufrock,” the Inferno is, ever so slightly, a different poem. After I see a house by Marcel Breuer, my own house looks, ever so slightly, different.
Eliot argued that, since this is the case whether a poet is conscious of the tradition or not, he or she might as well be conscious of it. The more complete the poet’s saturation in the whole of literature, the more genuinely new that poet’s work is likely to be—that is, the more powerfully it is likely to affect the old.
Still, this doesn’t quite explain Eliot’s own practice. Eliot didn’t just write with the literature of the past “in his bones,” as he put it. He made poems out of the poems of other people. “Burbank,” a poem of thirty-two lines plus epigraph, borrows from or alludes to a dozen other texts. Most of those texts have something to do with Venice, where “Burbank” takes place. But where any poem referring to Venice also “takes place” is within the set of all things that have been written about Venice—“The Merchant of Venice,” “The Aspern Papers,” “The Stones of Venice,” and every other representation of that city. Eliot simply flipped over the tapestry. He put the textual background in the foreground. He wrote a poem about Venice that is also a poem about poems about Venice.
Eliot was regularly accused of plagiarism, and it tickled him. “I should be glad to participate with a few quotations which the critic would perhaps not identify,” he wrote to Monroe after she had reported a complaint. With “The Waste Land,” he approached the scandalous limits of the technique. The poem is a collage of allusion, quotation, echo, appropriation, pastiche, imitation, and ventriloquism. It uses seven languages, including Sanskrit, and ends with several pages of notes, written in a sendup of academic citation: “The fable of the meaning of the Thunder is found in the Brihadaranyaka—Upanishad, 5, 1. A translation is found in Deussen’s Sechzig Upanishads des Veda, p. 489.” Good to know the next time you are in a German library.
It’s astonishing how readily these notes have been taken at face value—as useful annotations, or keys to interpretation. In “The Norton Anthology of English Literature,” Eliot’s notes are printed not at the end of the poem, which is where he put them, but at the bottom of the page, as footnotes, interspersed with the Norton editors’ own annotations. On what authority? The notes are not a reader’s guide to the poem. They are part of the poem. They don’t interpret the riddle; they are one more riddle to be interpreted. If Joyce had written them, no one would imagine they were merely what they appear to be.
In fact, the notes, and much else in the poem, were almost certainly inspired by Joyce. Eliot finished “The Waste Land” before “Ulysses” was published, but he had already read nearly the entire novel, first in The Egoist, where some of the early chapters were serialized, and then in a manuscript loaned to him by Joyce himself. (Pound had put them in touch.) In April, 1921, Joyce sent Eliot the late chapters known as “Oxen of the Sun” (the tour-de-force imitative history of the language, from Anglo-Saxon to pidgin), “Circe,” and “Eumaeus.” A month later, Eliot returned the manuscript. “I have nothing but admiration,” he wrote Joyce. “I wish, for my own sake, that I had not read it.” Years later, he told an interviewer that he stopped working on “The Waste Land,” believing that Joyce had already done what he was attempting, but that Pound persuaded him that, even if Joyce had done it in prose, it still needed to be done in verse.
“The Waste Land” is a report on the condition of postwar Europe; “Ulysses” is the story of a day in the life of three Dubliners. But they are simultaneously fantastic pieces of verbal artifice, Rubik’s Cubes of possible meanings, recursive devices that appropriate so many styles and traditions that they have no style of their own. “Ulysses,” Eliot told Virginia Woolf, “destroyed the whole of the nineteenth century. It left Joyce himself with nothing to write another book on. It showed up the futility of all the English styles.” It seemed to have exhausted all of literature. It was the end of something. He wanted his poem to be the same.
For him, it was. “The Waste Land” was published in October, 1922—in the United States in The Dial, edited by Eliot’s friend Thayer, and in Britain in the first issue of Eliot’s own journal, The Criterion. Eliot now told everyone that he was finished with that sort of thing. He began speaking of the poem as a kind of psychic reflux, “a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” He did not disown it, exactly, but he rarely discussed it again, except as the by-product of a bad marriage. He had been through a compositional experience that, whatever it was, he did not wish to go through again.
Eliot’s first books sold poorly in England. The book edition of “The Waste Land,” published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, sold three hundred and thirty copies in the first six months. In April, 1923, the British publisher of “The Sacred Wood” reported that only about twenty copies had been sold that year. But Eliot was almost immediately taken up by young British academics, particularly at Cambridge. His route to influence and renown passed through an institution he had pointedly scorned.
Cambridge is where Richards taught. He sought Eliot out at the bank to entice him to teach a course. Eliot demurred (he liked his job at the bank), but Richards and other Cambridge academics, including Richards’s student William Empson, and even Richards’s rival F. R. Leavis, found in Eliot’s books the template for a new method of teaching English. Their American counterparts, the New Critics, were also Eliot’s devoted exegetes (and almost all of them cited Richards as a model and inspiration). Together, they created the modern English department.
The English department is founded on the belief that people need to be taught how to read literature. This is not a self-evident proposition. Before there were English departments, people read stories, poems, and plays without assuming that special training was required. But most English professors think that people don’t intuitively get the way that literary writing works. Readers think that stories and poems are filled with symbols that “stand for” something, or that the beliefs expressed in them are the author’s own, or that there is a hidden meaning they are supposed to find. They are unable to make sense of statements that are not simple assertions of fact. People read literature too literally.
Almost everything in Eliot’s early criticism, except his aversion to methods and theories (“There is no method except to be very intelligent,” as he disarmingly put it), met the situation of literary academics. Eliot attacked the confusion of literature with other kinds of writing. He formulated terms, like “objective correlative,” that looked like precision tools for critical analysis. (Eliot himself never used the term again.) He insisted that works of literature be judged on literary grounds, and he separated literature from biography and intellectual history. He argued for the principle that the most important thing you need to know in order to read a poem is other poems—a principle that Leonard Woolf, in a review of “The Sacred Wood,” identified as “back to Aristotle.” Eliot helped to reëstablish the autonomy of literature. That was modernism’s other great project, and it is also what literature professors needed in order to make English an academic discipline.
Within a few months of his return from Lausanne, Eliot had a relapse. “Am very tired and depressed,” he wrote to Lewis in March, 1922. “Vivien has been in bed with fever, and life has been horrible generally.” The drip of complaints becomes a downpour. “I am feeling pretty well worn out at present and I am convinced that I cannot keep at this kind of life for very long” (February, 1923). “I have been hopelessly tired out and run down for a long time” (January, 1924). “I have gone through some terrible agony myself which I do not understand yet, and which has left me utterly bewildered and dazed” (April, 1924). To Virginia Woolf: “I have been boiled in a hell-broth” (August, 1924).
Vivienne had nearly died, apparently because of some quack medical treatments. She also had periods of derangement, and tormented her husband. Eliot told Russell that “everything has turned out as you predicted ten years ago.” He went for succor to, surprisingly, John Middleton Murry, who had been his editor at The Athenaeum, where he had published some of his best early pieces. There were few literary people Eliot held in lower esteem. An “apostle of suburban free thought,” he called him. (He also despised Murry’s first wife, Katherine Mansfield: “one of the most persistent and thickskinned toadies.”)
Murry either didn’t sense this or didn’t care. He was a loyal friend, and, when Eliot turned to him in his post-“Waste Land” desperation, Murry responded with a simple piece of advice. “Live, and let come what may,” he said—meaning, do something for yourself, even if it might hurt Vivienne. Eliot seems to have found this liberating. Or, since it was Eliot, he seems to have felt authorized by it to fabricate for himself a new and more damage-proof carapace.
This crisis coincided with a dramatic turn to the right. Eliot had become interested in right-wing French thought during his postgraduate year in Paris, but his early letters, as far as they touch on political issues, are not illiberal. After “The Waste Land,” it is as though a curtain had been raised. “My political and social views,” he writes to his mother in 1924, are “reactionary and ultra-conservative.” It is nearly an understatement. In his capacity of editor of The Criterion, he writes to Charles Maurras, the leader of the anti-Semitic, proto-fascist Action Française_,_ assuring him, “I am certain that the Criterion group represents the body of opinion nearest to l’Action Française.” To one contributor, he suggests that “an essay by you vindicating either Charles the Second or George the Third would be truly appreciated.” To another, he confides, “I am all for empires, especially the Austro-Hungarian empire.”
“I wish you would look about at Fashismo,” he asks an associate. “Find out whether it has any general philosophy and if so whether its general ideas can in any way be attached to our own.” (He concluded that fascism, as a secular ideology, was uncongenial.) In 1928, he announces, in the preface to a book of essays, that he is a classicist, a royalist, and an Anglo-Catholic. “The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality,” he writes in 1931. “The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us.”
The sheer extremity of the positions Eliot embraced after 1922—George III?—is hard to explain. They seem intentionally perverse, flying way over the head of any serious conservative movement in England. Some sort of self-laceration may have been at the bottom of it. In his criticism, he began attacking writers he had once promoted to great effect, such as Donne and Jules Laforgue, the late-nineteenth-century French poet who had been an enormous influence on “Prufrock.” Eliot now saw these poets as literary magpies, piecing together bits of ideas and images and infusing them with essentially unrelated emotions. This kind of poetry seemed to him an inadequate attempt to make meaning in a world without faith, and his own early poems must have appeared to be symptoms of the same futility. So he tried to shut the door on modern life. It was too late, of course. He was the author of “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land.” He was already inside. ♦
Step one in understanding "Cat!" is to find out what "atter" means! According to Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary available at Dictionary.com, the word "atter" refers to poison or venom other corrupt biological matter. If you combine this information with the last five lines of the poem,
things begin to make a bit of sense. Instead of a human speaker, the poetic voice is that of what is accustomed to...
Step one in understanding "Cat!" is to find out what "atter" means! According to Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary available at Dictionary.com, the word "atter" refers to poison or venom other corrupt biological matter. If you combine this information with the last five lines of the poem,
things begin to make a bit of sense. Instead of a human speaker, the poetic voice is that of what is accustomed to articulating "Wuff! Wuff!"--a dog. So "Cat!" is the reaction and experience of a dog encountering a cat.
The first stanza describes the dog's opinion of the cat, which is that it is poisonous venom--not a good opinion, at all. Line 4 clearly states what the dog wishes to accomplish in this encounter: "Scatter her! Scatter her!" Again, not good for the cat. The next 6 lines describe the dog's efforts in the chase culminating in "Catch her, catch her!"
What follows is the dog's reaction to their encounter. He defines the cat in terms of its green-eyed scratching, pfft-ing, escaping, and running. With "Pfft! Pfft!" the dog has the cat cornered again, which deserves another comment from the dog on its scratching: "Can't she scratch!"
The cat then claws its way to safety up a sycamore tree,
Scritching the bark
Of the sycamore-tree,
She's reached her ark
And's hissing at me
This, the dog is willing to accept as a victory and ends with a "Wuff! Wuff!" and a "Scat cat!" then leaves with a triumphal "That's that!" It's lovely the way that Farjeon reinvented English words to come out of the dog's consciousness, like scritiching, spitch, hithery and thithery.