Saturday, January 2, 2010

T. S. Eliot, a Heideggerian Poet?

Shall we seek to be discreet poets much like other discreet poets?  What would Heidegger have us be.  Let us go see:
            “Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods’ tracks, and so trace for their kindred morals the way toward the turning.  The ether, however, in which alone the gods are gods, is their godhead.  The element of this ether, that within which even the godhead itself is still present, is the holy.  The element of the ether for the coming of the fugitive gods, the holy, is the tack of the fugitive gods.  But who has the power to sense , to trace such a track?  Traces are often inconspicuous, and are always the legacy of a directive that is barely divined.  To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods.  This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.  This is why, in Holderlin’s language, the world’s night is the holy night.
            “It is a necessary part of the poet’s nature that, before he can be truly a poet in such an age, the time’s destitution must have made the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question for him.  Hence ‘poets in a destitute time’ must especially gather in poetry the nature of poetry.  Where that happens we may assume poets to exist who are on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.  We others must learn to listen to what these poets say – assuming that, in regard to the time that conceals Being because it shelters it, we do not deceive ourselves through reckoning time merely in terms of that which is by dissecting that which is.
            “The closer world’s night draws toward midnight, the more exclusively does the destitute prevail, in such a way that it withdraws its very nature and presence.  Not only is the holy lost as the track toward the godhead; even the traces leading to that lost track are well-night obliterated.  The more obscure the traces become the less can a single mortal, reaching into the abyss, attend there to intimations and signs.  It is then all the more strictly true that each man gets farthest if he goes only as far as he can go along the way allotted to him. . . .”  [Poetry, Language, Thought, pp. 94-95)
COMMENT:  This is a poetic description of what the poet should be in a destitute time.  We might ask, what about those of us who don’t live in a destitute time?  If Heidegger could be brought back to life so that he could look about him in 2010, he would pronounce it as destitute an age as the one in which he wrote his essay.  So those of us who don’t feel we are living in a destitute age would be denied the possibility of tracing the track of the fugitive gods or reaching down into the abyss.  But let’s go to an assuredly desolate age, the age in which the British were so horrified by World War One that they hindered their nation from acting prudently in the face of the imminent threat of a second world war.  Here is the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot writing in 1922, The Waste Land: .   Consider the first section:
   April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,   
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

   What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,                                 
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.                             
        Frisch weht der Wind
     Der Heimat zu
      Mein Irisch Kind,
      Wo weilest du?
"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
"They called me the hyacinth girl."
––Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,                                   
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed' und leer das Meer.

   Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.                                                
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

   Unreal City,                                                           
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying "Stetson!
"You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!                           
"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
"Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
"Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
"Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
"You! hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable, - mon frere!"

Typically, commentators get caught up in the details of the symbols and references in this poem, but take in the sweep of it, as some of us are inclined to do, and we may recall how “The Burial of the Dead,” was something that went on year after year in England, Germany, Austria, France and elsewhere in Europe.  Not all of the dead died in battle.  Some came home and died of their wounds later on.  Commentators tend to trivialize Eliot by removing him from his time.  Here is a typical commentary on this section: “The first section of The Waste Land takes its title from a line in the Anglican burial service. It is made up of four vignettes, each seemingly from the perspective of a different speaker. The first is an autobiographical snippet from the childhood of an aristocratic woman, in which she recalls sledding and claims that she is German, not Russian (this would be important if the woman is meant to be a member of the recently defeated Austrian imperial family). The woman mixes a meditation on the seasons with remarks on the barren state of her current existence (“I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter”). The second section is a prophetic, apocalyptic invitation to journey into a desert waste, where the speaker will show the reader “something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / [He] will show you fear in a handful of dust” (Evelyn Waugh took the title for one of his best-known novels from these lines). The almost threatening prophetic tone is mixed with childhood reminiscences about a “hyacinth girl” and a nihilistic epiphany the speaker has after an encounter with her. These recollections are filtered through quotations from Wagner’s operatic version of Tristan und Isolde, an Arthurian tale of adultery and loss. The third episode in this section describes an imaginative tarot reading, in which some of the cards Eliot includes in the reading are not part of an actual tarot deck. The final episode of the section is the most surreal. The speaker walks through a London populated by ghosts of the dead. He confronts a figure with whom he once fought in a battle that seems to conflate the clashes of World War I with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (both futile and excessively destructive wars). The speaker asks the ghostly figure, Stetson, about the fate of a corpse planted in his garden. The episode concludes with a famous line from the preface to Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (an important collection of Symbolist poetry), accusing the reader of sharing in the poet’s sins.”
Here is part of another commentary: In conclusion, everything in this poem is sad and dead. The people miss things that have passed or ended. They are also indifferent to what happens to them. The images and seasons are dark, cruel, and desolate. This is a hard poem to read because of the imagery and the dead things. But it is clear that Marie, Lil, and the unnamed woman in it are sad. Different things make them so, but they have that sadness in common. Because of this, they all seem to be cast from the same mold.”
Very well, but where is the perspective in this commentary.  Someone familiar with the history of the time will find this poem replete with references to the recent war and its terrible wastage.  This was a war that went on making much of Europe a Waste Land.  Surely Eliot was a poet for that destitute time.   Things in the poem are “sad and dead” not because Eliot is having personal problems but because he lived in a Destitute Time.  It is indeed a waste to read this poem if we are seeking escape, but if we are willing to watch a poet of Heideggerian stature reach down into the abyss, we can do no better than read this poem.


John Taratuta said...

My reading of Heidegger tells me poetry is of the same high order as thinking (philosophy) except in in the area of spirit (geist, gr., or spirit-mind) or spiritual Dasein, and here the poet cannot be further parsed.

That which is most obvious is what is most concealed, paraphrasing Aristotle.

Poetry serves to point out those things found under our noses when thinking cannot.

Anonymous said...

Eliot may have been making references to "wastes" of war, and then again, he may not. We have to take the poem, I think, as it can be interpreted "on its face." It says what it says, nothing more, nothing less.

An astute reader will orient themselves in the period of its creation, but won't be a slave to such period. After all, some poems, though from times distant past, still ring true today. In the poems of the masters, there are, of course, literal references which often date poems to linear time and place, but there are also spiritual and non linear time and place references that are impervious to the historical milieu in which the poem was created.

Malcolm P. MacPherson

Lawrence Helm said...

See response to MacPherson's comments at


Duart Maclean said...

Reading Heidegger much later than T.S. Eliot, I immediately begin to think of Eliot -- reading either writer creates a similar sensation for me. I greatly admire the empiricism and logic of Russell and Hume, but Heidegger and Eliot reveal another dimension to existence which must be understood and integrated if humanity is not to destroy itself.

In Burnt Norton, Eliot seems to be struggling in a twilight zone in which 'representational thinking' is discarded and yet the deeper meaning of Be-ing is yet unrevealed:

Burnt Norton III

Here is a place of disaffection

Time before and time after

In a dim light: neither daylight

Investing form with lucid stillness

Turning shadow into transient beauty

With slow rotation suggesting permanence

Nor darkness to purify the soul

Emptying the sensual with deprivation

Cleansing affection from the temporal.

Neither plentitude nor vacancy.
Only a flicker

Over the strained time-ridden faces

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

Tumid apathy with no concentration

Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,

Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs

Time before and time after.

Eructation of unhealthy souls

Into the faded air, the torpid

Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell,
Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate.

Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,

World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,

Dessication of the world of sense,

Evacuation of the world of fancy,

Inoperancy of the world of spirit;

This is the one way, and the other

Is the same, not in movement

But abstention from movement; while the world moves

In appetency, on its metalled ways

Of time past and time future.