Jan 6, 2013

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Gerontion by T.S. Eliot

Gerontion by T.S. Eliot
 
HERE I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,        5
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.        10
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
 
                    I an old man,        15
A dull head among windy spaces.
 
Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign”:
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger        20
 
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;        25
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fraulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,        30
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.
 
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,        35
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed,        40
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues        45
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
 
The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last        50
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devils
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom        55
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use it for your closer contact?        60
 
These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,        65
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 Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,        70
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a a sleepy corner.
 
                    Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.        75
 

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  1. Decadent post WWI desperation. Who needs it now? Not I. I’ll cast my lot with some band of new barbarians as long as they have a positive mental attitude and a willingness to fight.

  2. I never really understood this poem. A quarter of a century ago or today…

  3. I am always amused at the many within this movement who declare that we must transform the culture (a truly massive task) and that a change in political regime will follow.

    It would appear though that the only part of Western Culture these folks have truly spent much effort to understand would be Nietzsche and a few other German philosophers. The bias seems to be that they can make themselves into supermen by remaining in social isolation, concocting ever more rarified ideologies and slinging them out through the net.

    One is sure to catch on some day and solve all of our problems.

    So in truth it is no surprise that the publication of T. S. Eliot’s Gerontion only elicited two comments in a couple months, and the first, a rather typical condemnation of “pessimism” when we should be celebrating revolutionary fervor, from behind our keyboards of course.

    After all, involving ourselves with the voluntary associations of our people, gaining influence through direct face to face contact, and taking control is a messy and tiresome business.

    Better to forward the cause by “Bowling Alone.”

    Eliot wrote Gerontion sometime in 1919 and had it published in 1920. So at the time the poem was published Eliot was only 32 years old, and decidedly not the fictional old man narrating the poem.

    The title of the poem, “Gerontion” is a poetic adaptation of the greek stem geron meaning “old man” and the term coined in the year 1903 “gerontology.” You will see another example of Eliot’s inventive adaptation of a word again later in the poem.

    Eliot’s poetry communicates through verbal images. Here is my take on several of those remarkably powerful images. First the setting:

    “Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
    Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.”

    The poem is a reverie and the presence of an actual boy in the room would have disturbed that reverie. Rather, my take is that the narrator is listening to the radio, and the poetic image certainly has captured the essence of mass media even in its infancy, since all news readers are “boys” in the sense that the script they are reading from is controlled by people behind the scenes with an agenda. Eliot’s verbal image captures the reality beautifully. Here in the very first couplet we see the political perspective of T.S Eliot’s mentor Ezra Pound as well as a foreshadowing of themes we find in Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

    This first couplet also introduces a theme that will recur in various forms throughout the remainder of the poem in “waiting for rain,” which of course is symbolic of rejuvenation and spring, conveying a feeling of a mildly optimistic hope that something might change for the better.

    It is also appropriate to think of the old man as Western Civilization, again being read to by a boy – a series of irresponsible, and in the civilizational sense, youthful follies and delusions of human equality and progress, so horribly debunked in the First World War that had just ended when Eliot wrote this poem.

    However that interpretation is somewhat undercut by the next four lines, unless Western Civilization can be anthropomorphized into the first person “I” in the context which follows.

    “I was neither at the hot gates
    Nor fought in the warm rain
    Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
    Bitten by flies, fought.”

    Here that narrator is admitting that he did not serve during the World War (One) and is not a hero.

    Then in the next couplet we are presented with a poetic image of overarching power:

    “My house is a decayed house,
    And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner, ”

    The “decayed house” is of course, the Western or white world, and the phrase “the jew squats on the window sill, the owner” is the perfect image to capture the essence of the new owner of that world, an outsider squatting on the sill looking in, the parasitic rentier who is not about to squander its capital in advancing the cause of the West, but rather like a scavenger crow or vulture watching the slow death of its victim as it waits for a meal.

    Powerful stuff!

    And then we have the couplet:

    “Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
    Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.”

    Which refers directly to the “cheap cafe” cultural transmission belt of contempt for the host population that goes far beyond mere parasitism. He could as well be referring to the “yeasty” hostility of cafe culture on the lower East Side of Manhattan of that day. And of course the spawn of this hostile culture then inevitably produces blisters, patches and the peeling of decay in the Capitols of our once vibrant race. Again we see agreement with the views of Eliot’s mentor Ezra Pound.

    The next four lines artfully convey the sense of a timeless routine of daily life that goes on despite the decay and the devastation of war:

    “The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
    Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
    The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
    Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.”

    Then after a brief and isolated couplet that serves to shift the mood, comes now my favorite passage:

    “Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign!’
    The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
    Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
    Came Christ the tiger”

    In the first two and one half lines we see an allusion to the loss of faith and confusion of the modern era with its endless attempts to reconcile science with faith, but also with our self-imposed suffocating tolerance demanded by the emergence of civil society, in which everything that really matters must be compromised away or forgotten.

    Read: No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste, by John Murray Cuddihy (1978)

    And then comes the lighting bolt out of our vigorous past, introduced by Eliot with a contraction of the English word “juvenesence” meaning rebirth or spring, into the more economical, that thus more powerful three syllables of his own invention, “juvesence”

    Modern Day Christianity bears little resemblance to the Christianity I knew as a child in the 1950s and doubtless is vastly different from the Christianity of 1100 years ago.

    Indeed I have never understood how anyone who has read the king James version of Mathew 23 and John 2:13-16 could miss “Christ the tiger”. When I first read Gerontion as an undergraduate I was thrilled to see that the premier poet of the 20th Century could see what I clearly saw.

    Eliot’s image in the above verse also calls to mind the “Church Militant” of the 10th through 12th centuries along with the Noblesse d’ Epee that repelled the Moslem invaders from Europe, beginning with Charles Martel and ending with Saint Louis the Ninth, King of France.

    The poetic image of “Christ the Tiger” jolts us into recognition of how far we have fallen from the roots of our European race, fallen so far in fact that we are no longer able to embrace “Christ the Tiger” as our ancestors instinctively did over 1000 years ago. We are fascinated and yet repelled.

    To be continued

  4. avatar
    James Van Huesen said:

    Well done, Ygdrasil, on both the post and commentary.

  5. “the first, a rather typical condemnation of “pessimism” when we should be celebrating revolutionary fervor, from behind our keyboards of course.

    After all, involving ourselves with the voluntary associations of our people, gaining influence through direct face to face contact, and taking control is a messy and tiresome business.”

    Indeed it is and having spent over fifty years in “face to face” contact (aka: The Rat Race) fighting in an imperialist war, getting involved in grass roots politics, and being a technocratic cog in the machine I’m not only tired but I’m sick and tired of it.

    Having been forced to interpret Eliot by my 11th grade English teacher, an avid disciple of the “new criticism” (NB lower case), Eliot still bores with his post war ennui no matter how many esoteric allusions you seem to think somehow count towards profundity.

    As for modern philosophers I’ll stick with Hobbes and Hume.

  6. I just found this today and am so surprised. Yggdrasil, i hope that you will continue your commentary. It is very helpful.
    Thank you.

  7. Fantastic, appreciated the commentary.

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