Monday, 9 February 2015

A Sniper's Bullet

According to Seamus Perry, T.S. Eliot wasn't a fan of biographies:
He was an intensely private man and his greatest works revolve with a sometimes appalled fascination around the impenetrable secrecy that shrouds the innermost self, both others' and one's own. But his opposition to biographical speculation was down to more than the desire not to have his privacy violated. Eliot repeatedly expressed scepticism towards the view that knowing about a life brought anything important to an understanding of the poetry that emerged from it. True, an author might have insider information about the raw material of his poems, the stuff that, as he once put it, 'has gone in and come out in an unrecognisable form', but the meaning of the poem lies somewhere other than an informed theory of its genesis: 'what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author'. He was unmoved by F W Bateson's interpretation of Wordsworth, a minor academic scandal in its day, which attributed unacknowledged incestuous feelings in the poet towards his sister. 'Well, he may be right', was Eliot's response. 'But the real question, which every reader of Wordsworth must answer for himself, is: does it matter?'
It might not. But Robert Crawford—whose biography Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land is published this month—reminds us that Eliot's breakthrough will keep readers curious about his life:
So why does his work still matter? The reasons are hidden in plain sight—or, more accurately, in plain sound. Prufrock’s opening words say it all: “Let us go then, you and I … ” People often say that the poem begins with a buttonholing, vernacular tone: its voice sounds as if it has just sidled up to you. This is only half true. If the poem started by saying “Let’s go”, it would sound more vernacular: “Let us go” is slower, more stagey. If you say not “Let’s go”, but “Let us go”, you’ll sound less urgent, more mannered, more self-conscious. What “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” introduces into English poetry more intensely than ever before is an acute fusion of modernity and self-consciousness. The modernity hits you like a sniper’s bullet when you encounter that mention of “a patient etherised upon a table” in the poem’s third line. From childhood, Eliot knew the Boston Public Gardens that contained—and still contain—the weird and wonderful-sounding Ether Monument (late 19th-century Boston was a pioneering centre for anaesthetic surgery); but nobody until Eliot had put such modern surgery into a love song. The wording of “Let us go” is subtler, yet perhaps more profoundly impressive. Those three words initiate the acute self-consciousness of modernist poetry in English. Every poet who writes in English inherits that self-consciousness that has insinuated itself into the language.

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