Monday, May 4, 2009
There was someone , in one of those long ago forum rants somewhere on the Internet, who argued that the bulk of the T.S.Eliot's poetry was comprised of lies because he reached erring conclusions about the fate of human kind as it hurtled further into the twentieth century. My friend, of course, was ten years older than I and was an eternal optimist in the ongoing progress of humanity toward a magnificent perfection--history had a glorious end for him, and he rejected and attacked any cynicism he perceived that was contrary to his preferred end game. I offered that he was reading Eliot wrong--Eliot's conclusions might have been incorrect, if one insists, but his writing certainly wasn't false. He wasn't writing to please no one, but only scratch that itch he otherwise could get to.
Eliot, again, was not lying in any sense of the word--lying is a willful act, done so with the intent of trying to make someone believe something that is demonstrably untrue. As the point of The Quartets and his plays have to do with an artful outlaying of Eliot's seasoned ambivalence to his time, the suggestion that "beauty lies" is specious. One has license to argue with the conclusions, or to critique the skill of the writer, but the vision here is not faked dystopia Eliot contrived to a good amount of trendy despair--that comes later, with artless confessional poets who lost any sense of beauty to their own addiction to their ultimately trivial self-esteem issues.
Eliot, however one views him, sought transcendence of what he regarded as an inanely short-sighted world, and sought to address the human condition in a lyric language that has, indeed, found an audience that continues to argue with his work: the work contains a truth the readership recognizes. Eliot was following suit on the only prerogative an artist, really , has open to them: to be an honest witness to the evidence of their senses, and to marshall every resource in their grasps to articulate the fleeting sensations, the ideas within the experience.
This is the highest standard you can hold an artist to; any other criteria, any other discursive filter one wants to run the work through is secondary, truth be told, because the truth within the work is the source of that work's power. One need to recognize what it is in the lines, in the assemblage and drift of the lyric, in the contrasted tones and delicate construction of vernaculars, what is that one recognizes and responds to in the work, and then mount their response.
There is more to the Quartets or the plays than what you regard as defeat--there is hope that his work inspires future imagining greater than even his own-- but I cannot regard the poems as failures in any sense, even with the admission that there is great beauty in them. Eliot renders his consciousness , his contradictory and ambivalent response to the world he's grown old in with perfect pitch, and it's my sense that his intention to provoke the imagination is a sublime accomplishment. As craft and agenda, the later pieces work.