T.S. Eliot's "Different Voices"

Amy Clampitt
Illustration by Tyler Varsell / Adapted from "T.S. Eliot, 1947" by George Platt Lynes

On 15 November 1918, seventy years ago, T. S. Eliot paid a visit to the Hogarth Press, which later published The Waste Land. “A polished, cultivated, elaborate young American,” was the way Virginia Woolf described him in her diary for that day. They became and remained friends. Even so, there was a temperamental difference that kept them wary of one another’s work. And so we find her writing, “I taxed him with wilfully concealing his transitions. He said that explanation was unnecessary. If you put it in, you dilute the facts. You should feel these without explanation.” In that same entry she went on to note, “He can’t read Wordsworth when Wordsworth deals with nature.” Well, of course. A thirty-year-old expatriate dandy from St. Louis is not likely to have had much affinity with the great gray ruminant of Grasmere. By the 1930s he had amended this to some degree, admitting that he enjoyed Wordsworth’s poetry now “as I cannot enjoy Shelley’s”?..... enjoyed it more than when he’d first read it. He’s not alone in this. But for Virginia Woolf the affinity with the nineteenth century was always there. She complained, sometime after “The Hollow Men” came out, that “for our sins we have only a few pipers on hedges like Yeats and Tom Eliot, de la Mare—exquisite frail twittering voices one has to hollow one’s hand to hear, whereas old Wth fills the room.” She loved The Prelude, and in the diary entries for her later years the name of Wordsworth keeps recurring, until you realize how much they have in common: her “moments of being” are his “spots of time,” alike in their visionary aura and their intense particularity. Virginia Woolf’s later diaries are studded with entries such as this:

Cows feeding. The elm tree sprinkling its little leaves against the sky. Our pear tree swagged with pears .... Last night a great heavy plunge of bomb under the window. So near we both started.

And here is the young Wordsworth in Paris, under circumstances not dissimilar, the lumbering syntax similarly charged:

After the dark dove with the flickering tongue

Had passed below the horizon of his homing

While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin

Over the asphalt where no other sound was

Between three districts whence the smoke arose

I met one walking, loitering and hurried

As if blown towards me like the metal leaves

Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.

And here is Eliot’s account, in “Little Gidding;” of his own experience of wartime:

But that night

When on my bed I lay, I was most moved

And felt most deeply in what world I was;

My room was high and lonely, near the roof

Of a large Mansion or Hotel, a spot

That would have pleased me in more quiet times,

Nor was it wholly without pleasure then.

With unextinguished taper I kept watch,

Resting at intervals. The fear gone by

Pressed on me almost like a fear to come.

I thought of those September Massacres,

Divided from me by a little month. . . .

Concerning that gulf, that rent, nobody has been more eloquent than Virginia Woolf herself.

The lineage of those dead leaves on the asphalt, back through the Inferno to the sixth book of the Aeneid and the eleventh book of the Odyssey, is the region, I think one can say, in which Eliot was most at home. He gave memory its poetic due, but he never kept a diary, and when it came to autobiography he was, of course, devious in the extreme. I have no intention of getting into an argument over who’s right. What I’m leading up to is a difference that is more than one of individual temperament—the gulf, the rent that opened, between Wordsworth’s time and our own, in the texture of English poetry.

Concerning that gulf, that rent, nobody has been more eloquent than Virginia Woolf herself. At the beginning of A Room of One’s Own, she finds herself recalling some familiar lines of Tennyson and Christina Rossetti; wonders “if honestly one could name two living poets” to compare with them; and concludes that any such comparison is impossible. The living poets, she observes with the clearheaded sympathy that makes her prose so endlessly rewarding,

express a feeling that is actually being made and torn out of us at the moment. One does not recognize it in the first place; often for some reason one fears it; one watches it with keenness and compares it jealously and suspiciously with the old feeling that one knew. Hence the difficulty of modern poetry; and it is because of this difficulty that one cannot remember more than two consecutive lines of any good modern poet.

The essay I’ve quoted from dates from October 1928, a little more than sixty years ago. What Virginia Woolf described then as modern is still Modern, with a capital M, in the same way that the New Criticism goes on being New with a capital N. Eliot, as the chief instigator of the first (if not of both—and his objections to the second are at least strenuous enough to give one pause), stands for something. He casts a shadow. Perhaps his later eminence as a man of letters has something to do with this, but I’ve tended to forget all about him when it came to the naming of influences. And yet it may be that no single poem written in this century has had more influence than The Waste Land. It may or may not turn out to be his most enduring work; but in the sense of having occasioned a gulf, a rending, a before and after, I see it as Eliot’s masterpiece.

The late Richard Ellmann referred to The Waste Land as his ode to dejection. Whether Eliot would have been pleased by the comparison, one can’t be sure. Toward Coleridge the critic, he was respectful; toward Coleridge the poet, his judgments were more various. He found “Kubla Khan” deplorable, but he spoke of “Dejection: An Ode” as “one piece of [Coleridge’s] formal verse which in its passionate self-revelation rises almost to the height of great poetry.” What Eliot couldn’t have known at the time he said that, but what makes comparison unavoidable, once you’ve thought about it, is that an early draft of this same ode later turned up—a draft that Coleridge himself, as his own severest critic, had pruned down in much the same way Pound did the manuscript of The Waste Land. Coleridge’s original draft ran to something like 450 rambling and self-indulgent lines—just a bit longer than the scaled-down Waste Land but all of three times as long as the version Coleridge eventually published. As with The Waste Land, its occasion seems to have been the panic of experiencing (to use the glum clinical term) a loss of affect:

A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear,

A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief.

The resolution is much the same. Both poems give the last word, so to speak, to the forces of nature. For Coleridge, it’s the howling of a Lake Country gale; for Eliot, it’s

a damp gust

Bringing rain

The jungle crouched, humped in silence.

Then spoke the thunder


Where the two of them do part company is in the resources of language they draw upon. Coleridge, however up-to-date his neurosis, speaks throughout in the ranting vocatives of a diction nobody can now go back to—cannot go back, if Virginia Woolf is correct, because the way we perceive what we feel has been altered.

Walk along the corridor of any hospital, or along almost any city thoroughfare, and you overhear people talking—not to themselves, as one might once have put it, but to a succession of unseen interlocutors. It is of such interior exchanges, we now discover, that our mental life is all too frequently composed. Far from functioning as autonomous units, we are more like the scrambled segments of an enormous psychic jigsaw puzzle. Pound put it more elegantly in his “Portrait d’une Femme”:

No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,

Nothing that’s quite your own.

Yet this is you.

It was T. S. Eliot more than any other, if I’m not mistaken, who showed us the means of rendering this altered texture—who, one might say, first mapped the territory, if a map could be envisioned that combined the edginess of a chessboard with the random shifts of a kaleidoscope and the awful precision of a seismograph.

There were always rebel upstarts, of course. Think of Allen Ginsberg.

The title of the poem I’m making all these claims for was—as the facsimile edition revealed—originally to have been “He Do the Police in Different Voices:” In a lecture given as late as 1953, entitled “The Three Voices of Poetry,” Eliot said, or seemed to be saying, that it wasn’t until 1938 that overheard voices began to urge themselves upon him. I don’t believe that’s so at all; but in any event he then cited Mrs. Cluppins, in the case of Bardell v. Pickwick, testifying that “the voices was very loud, sir, and forced themselves upon my ears.” Back in 1921, when he typed the manuscript we now have in facsimile, Eliot likewise drew on the work of Dickens for the title he later crossed out. Midway through Our Mutual Friend, Mrs. Betty Higden describes the “very long boy” she has given employment: “You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.” So, displacing the bard’s single, self-revealing voice, in The Waste Land we have the ventriloqual Sloppy of an entire culture: its long-winded nattering, its frozen standoffs and suppressed rejoinders, its dredged-up snatches of remembered diction with the connectives worn away; the voices seeping in, unidentified, random, expressive of—well, of precisely what, a generation of interpreters has been trying to spell out, and we still don’t know. New items do keep coming to one’s notice. I’ve just lately found something M. L. Rosenthal wrote about the lines near the end of “The Burial of the Dead”:

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

That corpse, he says, “is the great corpse of all the war dead.” Thinking of this gives an added pathos to one more pawn in an excruciatingly sprawled-out game of chess: Albert, the husband who’s just been demobilized, back after four years in the army and wanting a good time. What is he but one of the uncountable number of lesser casualties that go to make up our altered consciousness of the world we live in? Reading how, at his job with Lloyd’s bank, Eliot had found himself busy “trying to elucidate knotty points in that appalling document the Peace Treaty,” I couldn’t help seeing that experience as one more interwoven component. But if it’s there in fact, it isn’t insisted on. Nothing is, in this strangely muted collage—this bricolage, as some critics have called it—of hitherto unconnected voices, which has exerted such power over us. As a result of that lack of insistence—or so it seems to me—an entire generation of poetic arbiters took it as their function to insist on our not insisting. Their descendants and disciples are still far from outnumbered, which makes it the more bemusing to find Eliot himself, in one of his periodic reconsiderations, attesting to “a certain merit in melodious raving, which can be a genuine contribution to literature, when it responds effectually to that permanent appetite of humanity for an occasional feast of drums and cymbals.”

There were always rebel upstarts, of course. Think of Allen Ginsberg. He’s in the anthologies now, but for a good while one had the impression that he was, well, audible, but somehow, and possibly for that very reason, not quite a poet. I mean, all that raving, that self-revelation. Hadn’t those gone out with Coleridge and his vocatives:

O Lady! in this wan and heartless mood,

To other thoughts by yonder throstle woo’d,

and so on? Only there was Eliot himself addressing a Lady—he even addressed the Deity, and appeared to mean it personally. There he was—according to his own words, a few years after the fact—not simply addressing but haranguing an audience. Was he entitled? Certain arbiters thought not: such was the force of the notion of poetic decorum that had taken hold, and that was (if I am correct) preeminently his doing, however unintended. From the diffidence of J. Alfred Prufrock he had come around unmistakably to wanting, like Wordsworth, to fill a room. Could he do it? Could it be done? Or are we all condemned to go on twittering in the hedges, hoping somebody will be kind enough to pause and listen? I think we still don’t know.

Amy Clampitt was an American author and poet. She has received the MacArthur Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts.
Originally published:
December 1, 1989


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