"T.S. Eliot, the stink-bombing Nobel prizewinner"
January 12, 2015 10:14 AM   Subscribe

[T.S. Eliot] both recognised and skewered in Four Quartets the routines of "eminent men of letters" who became "chairmen of many committees". As a banker, then as a publisher, he worked at jobs where committees were de rigueur and he accomplished his work with aplomb. Yet part of him always sought an escape hatch, a way to elude his official self. His nephew Graham Bruce Fletcher remembers Uncle Tom taking him as a boy to a London joke shop in the 1960s. They bought stink bombs and let them off at the entrance of the Bedford Hotel, not far from Eliot's workplace in Bloomsbury's Russell Square. With a fit of giggles, Eliot put on a marked turn of speed as, Macavity-like, he and his nephew sped from the scene of the crime, Eliot twirling his walking stick "in the manner of Charlie Chaplin".
TS Eliot: the poet who conquered the world, 50 years on by Robert Crawford, poet and biographer of Eliot. You can listen to a lecture by him entitled T. S. Eliot's daughter on the poem Marina. You can hear it, and other poems, read in between classical music as part of an episode of Words and Music. And if you want to get to know the poet, the T. S. Eliot Society keeps tabs on what works are freely available online.
posted by Kattullus (19 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I can no longer think of T.S. Eliot without thinking of Wendy Cope:
Waste Land Limericks


In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me--
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.


She sat on a mighty fine chair,
Sparks flew as she tidied her hair;
She asks many questions,
I make few suggestions--
Bad as Albert and Lil--what a pair!


The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
Tiresias fancies a peep--
A typist is laid,
A record is played--
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.


A Phoenician named Phlebas forgot
About birds and his business--the lot,
Which is no surprise,
Since he'd met his demise
And been left in the ocean to rot.


No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes
From the Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.
I hope you'll make sense of the notes.
posted by maryr at 10:21 AM on January 12, 2015 [31 favorites]

Reading the sentences taht make up this FPP were a pleasure, thank you for writing it, Katullus.
posted by infini at 10:35 AM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Helping make undergraduate poetry worse since 1925!

"Well, I haven't written much poetry yet. I'd better try to make this sound more like The Wasteland, so people can tell I'm serious!"
posted by thelonius at 10:39 AM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thelonius - see also Cope's Strugnell works.

Sorry, I love Cope so much. I'll stop derailing thread now. I should probably just FPP her.
posted by maryr at 10:45 AM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you have an iPad, I strongly recommend The Waste Land, which is an amazing interactive book that takes you through the poem. It also includes readings of the text (some with video) by T. S. Eliot himself (twice, once when older) as well as Ted Hughes, Alec Guinness(!), Viggo Mortensen and Jeremy Irons(!!). Review in the Guardian.

posted by blahblahblah at 10:46 AM on January 12, 2015

Reading "Prufrock" at 14 got me interested in poetry in a way I never had been before, so I am thankful to Eliot for that.

But yeah, Eliot's oeuvre is a mixed bag, once you go beyond the masterpieces (Prufrock, The Waste Land, and Four Quartets). Every poet has minor works, of course, but it's hard to read some of Eliot's lesser known stuff, like the Sweeney poems, which are redolent of anti-Semitism and rank snobbery. Similarly, his criticism often feels encased in amber, despite his modernist demeanor. When you see the wealth of poetry over the 20th century that came from women and people of color, and that incorporated non-Western elements, Eliot comes off as almost a fuddy-duddy, or more accurately a louche aristocrat lamenting the decline of "the culture." (Or even, perhaps, a hipster.) You can't tell the story of modern poetry without Eliot, but it is a shame that, as ~thelonius alludes to, he dominates so much of it, compared to, say, Wallace Stevens. I would probably give my 14-year-old self a copy of "The Man with the Blue Guitar" before "Prufrock" to give him an idea of what makes poetry so great.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:11 AM on January 12, 2015

Eliot's oeuvre is a mixed bag

Mostly it's a notably tiny bag — he's notoriously the Great Poet who wrote the least poetry. Partly this is because he secured a fair chunk of his mid-century reputation with his criticism, partly it's (as you suggest) that he's great on account of a small handful of truly century-defining poems, rather than on account of an "oeuvre" at all.
posted by RogerB at 11:32 AM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Sometimes I think something and I stop myself & go: "jesus, maybe you should start writing stuff down" and I then remember it is something TSE once wrote and it's lodged itself so hard in my brain that I am not sure where my own phrases end and his begin. The river is a strong, brown god.

In short: I identified with Roland Mitchell in Byatt's Possession way too hard.
posted by kariebookish at 12:39 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

posted by juv3nal at 1:17 PM on January 12, 2015

The masterpieces are some of the most masterful of pieces, though.
posted by atoxyl at 2:37 PM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

posted by clavdivs at 2:42 PM on January 12, 2015

Lovely anecdote, and certainly adds another dimension to my mental image of Eliot!

And I can't resist, because I am such a big fan of Four Quartets, linking to the full text of the poem and Eliot reading Four Quartets aloud. Neither link appears on the Eliot Society page.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:10 PM on January 12, 2015

I recommend Hall's: 'Eliot At One Hundred'. He tells of a letter (first vol. of TSE letters released that same year) from 1922 to Ezra Pound which did not fit the persona of a "rolled up umbrella" as he signed it: "good fucking, brother"

Imo, nothing surpasses 'Little Gidding'
posted by clavdivs at 11:11 PM on January 12, 2015

1921 letter rather.
The satial aspects to Stevens 'No Possum, No
posted by clavdivs at 1:21 AM on January 13, 2015

Is Cats not to be mentioned?

It's interesting that for someone I assumed was such a quintessentially English aristocrat he was born in Missouri and didn't end up in England until his mid-20s.
posted by clawsoon at 10:38 AM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

For those of you who like Eliot's poems, might I suggest a peek at the work of another poet and writer who had a strong influence on his work -- Hope Mirrlees (pdf).
posted by kyrademon at 11:53 AM on January 13, 2015

clawsoon: Is Cats not to be mentioned?

It's there in the first link, though it's but a mention.
posted by Kattullus at 2:13 PM on January 13, 2015

It's interesting that for someone I assumed was such a quintessentially English aristocrat he was born in Missouri and didn't end up in England until his mid-20s.

Oh yes--- Eliot was consumed by a need to not be himself, and his phony Englishman persona was part of that.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:41 PM on January 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

I blame the Missouri patois
posted by clavdivs at 5:52 PM on January 13, 2015

« Older NO NO NO NO NO! AAAAAAHHHHHH!   |   The future was then Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments