A frisson for Mr. Eliot

Frances Dickey’s periodical reports from the newly unsealed archive of T. S. Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, now being blogged at

https://tseliotsociety.wildapricot.org/news

are a continuing revelation. Letters filled with passionate avowal from a man to a woman would ordinarily be called love letters, but these letters were written by T.S. Eliot, and history has opened the trunk of the machina just in time to make delivery during the Trump era. There, the marvel of the letters turns out to be their dreadful familiarity, in ways that would have been hard to credit just five years earlier. From them we now learn, for instance, that Eliot was capable of explaining to the woman he said he loved that if he were to divorce his estranged wife, the Church of England would suffer its most grievous loss since the conversion of John Henry Newman (Dickey’s posts “Temptation and Duty,” 5 February 2020, and “Establishing Patterns,” 17 February 2020).

We read such texts this year as we read Twitter this year: in hope that there may be a world outside the text.

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Even if the text does seem for the moment to be all that there is, we yearn for a counterbulletin. For the author of the texts to Hale, then, perhaps as if from the beings that he classed as Grishkin and Sweeney, this tentative counter-hope from the gutter.

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The gutter creatures

are two cattle egrets and a mongoose. The mongoose has been dining on food that people leave on the ground in his Honolulu park for feral cats. Like the birds who would be his prey if it weren’t for that gutter kindness, he is beautiful directly, without what Eliot might have called dissociation. When he opens his mouth to bite, he is obeying only one law: a law whose pure text originated before speech and now reveals itself in indifference to anything said in speech afterward. The spring to the kill or the flapping ascent into air are, poem or no poem.

In terms of the poetry of air,

the last poet who might have gotten away with using the phrase “sin and error” about the Battle of Britain was probably Emily Dickinson (d. 1886), she who successfully wrote a poem (Fr479, “Because I could not stop for death”) containing the word “immortality.” By the time of T. S. Eliot (b. 1888), that era in the possibilities of language had passed. The Wright Brothers, sons of a bishop, had vouchsafed to Eliot’s time a descriptive lexicon that made obsolete some key words of the Book of Common Prayer, but Eliot didn’t journey to the airfield to pick up the mixed parcel of words and mathematics that held his new heritage. Instead, sheltering from bombs, the great modernist poet regressed to black letter. Throughout the Quartets he is articulate about what can’t be easily read through that ornamented face (East Coker II: “A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion”), but he is a man of letters, articulate only in letters.

The dove descending breaks the air

Yet the light and air through which another dove is descending as you look are text-free. In the text above, the word “dove” stands in ways not related logically or representationally for both an icon in stained glass and a night-gray Heinkel 111, but the feathered luminance in the image below is merely and wholly a body. It is not an allegory of body; it is body as such. Words wear out, says a T. S. Eliot poem written in words, but the whistling, flapping sounds of descent aren’t words. They subsist in the audible as they have never stopped subsisting: audible only; immortally un-paraphrasable in mortal language. To hear them under that aspect, holding in conscious abeyance the idea of a meaning beyond nature, is a joyous fear. A text in black letter tells us that fear before the supernatural is the beginning of wisdom, but joy is in the understanding that light comes to us by laws of nature as a continuation without an end. What it communicates is not a predication but a melody.

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