On the other hand, poetry as certainly has something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what. If I ask myself (to take a comparison on a higher plane) why I prefer the poetry of Dante to that of Shakespeare, I should have to say, because it seems to me to illustrate a saner attitude towards the mystery of life. -T.S. Eliot, 1928 Introduction to The Sacred Wood
Whether Dante or Eliot came first, I can never quite remember. I found Eliot when I borrowed my sister's copy of his Selected Poems; the first distinct memory of him I have is reading the book during one of the dead periods in exam week, 10th grade. At the beginning, I liked "Prufrock" and "Portrait of a Lady" and, a little later, the first part of "Ash-Wednesday" (the rest never meant much to me, except "under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining"). Not long after this, I discovered his literary criticism, especially The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, which for a very long time was the frame for every aesthetic experience I had. He was the master of the essay, the person I would read before writing on my own in order to have the proper cadence in my ear.
(Dante was either the beginning of 10th or 11th grade; I can never quite remember)
He had mis-steps, to be sure. The first moment was his essay on Machiavelli, in which he interprets that figure as a Christian-Italian patriot, which is almost certainly wrong. (My thesis, which I offer free to anyone who wishes to borrow it, is that all Machiavelli knows about Christianity he learned from Dante). Some of his I found too boring and topical; but these were occasional essays and lectures--the standards should be lower. The next doubt came several months ago from his essay on Pascal, which was faintly ridiculous. One should never expect to march lock-step with any of one's heroes, but this was not just a point of difference: it was a fundamental disagreement about what counted as right and good. The final nail in the coffin was Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Back in my leftist days, we would have called Eliot's politics there "reactionary" in the least complimentary sense: the mid-20th century was a confusing time, politically, and one should be merciful in one's judgments, but Eliot's politics are close to nonsense, a very explicit attempt to do the thing in politics he thought unforgivable in art: to establish the behavior of the previous generation as normative (he might not have considered it in those terms).
Auden I came to earlier this year, from a review of his prose essays in Books and Culture written by Alan Jacobs. I've read the essays, many of which are quite good, Forewords and Afterwords, The Enchafed Flood, and many of his poems. As he progresses, Auden sets himself more and more against Eliot, though always with love and affection.
At this point I see two big differences, one of subject and one of sensibility. Eliot, as I've come to understand him, is all intellect and no body (and little emotion, too, unless turned into something higher and more sublime). The passage I quoted below, from "East Coker," is typical: when the body appears at all, it appears in a medical metaphor. The body, in the end, is a thing: to be plied apart, turned hot or cold, certainly refined into something else. The glorious exception is "The Journey of the Magi," though even that is more sensuousness than physicality. The same lack is there in his plays, as well: all conversations--the action takes place elsewhere.
(Parenthetically, I enjoyed this story about Faber & Faber for what it reveals about him: taking his wife-to-be to hotel rooms every night, eloping without anyone knowing--it's just a shame this didn't translate into his work)
There's nothing, though, to compare with this:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
All worlds and lives and bodies and, in this sense, very real.
On tradition, too, he has sensible things to say. From "Horae Canonicae: Sext:"
without these judicial mouths
(which belong for the most part
to very great scoundrels)
how squalid existence would be,
tethered for life to some hut village,
afraid of the local snake
or the local ford demon
speaking the local patois
of some three hundred words
(think of the family squabbles and the
poison-pens, think of the inbreeding)
People who like tradition have a way of imagining that we can strip out all the nasty things about the modern world and return to a purified, simpler time where folk were decent and everyone had a place where they stayed. Auden points to the flip-side of that desire. Calvin has a section of the Institutes where he points out that patron saints are really just an extension of the idea of local gods. Auden, earlier in the poem, actually says the same thing:
To ignore the appetitive goddesses,
to desert the formidable shrines
of Rhea, Aphrodite, Demeter, Diana,
to pray instead to St. Phocas,
St Barbara, San Saturnino,
or whoever one's patron is,
that one may be worthy of their mystery,
what a prodigious step to have taken.
It's hard not to picture his tongue ever-so-slightly in cheek. This is the great difference of sensibility. After many years (more astute readers will catch my mistake, if I've made one) I can't think of any moment where Eliot makes a joke, or anything more than allusive to humor. How much of what it means to be human he ends up missing! (A comparison of Eliot's tone in the Notes and Auden in his review of it ("Port and Nuts with the Eliots") makes the point emphatically).
And this, I think, is where I must part ways with Eliot and continue on with Auden.
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth
I read this a number of times trying to figure out what the myth was (I knew the poet was Eliot). There are three things: the statues are "made for pleasure," as Auden says later--the pleasure we take in our own body and the bodies of others is natural, and not against nature. The statues are beautiful, not just a thing to be pried apart, defeated, brought into subjection--and their beauty is objective. And the body is the site of comedy: so many of the things it does are ridiculous: it defeats any attempt to create a myth about itself. In the end, it's my body, it's me; I can only think about myself and the world around me in those terms.
Auden ends "In Praise of Limestone:"
Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
It may be a failing, but it's the only way I can make sense of things.