Once, at a moment in history when ships’ bridges were so new to language that they literally and non-metaphorically were bridges, light broke through clouds above a bridge and people were saved. For that we have the testimony of a picture with words.
From left to right, the fine-print captions under the image read Lockwoods, Pensylvania [sic], Life Boat, St. Andrew, Victoria, and Day & Haghe, Lithrs. to the Queen. Then, larger, comes this confident explication.
The barely legible words at the end appear to be “The Publishers,” perhaps originally in a different color.
But it’s the caption’s other words that are the hard ones to read. The reason is that their key verb, “rescuing,” belongs to a genre that is now extinct: the genre of religious adoration of the present time. In the moment of that genre, the Transcendentalist painter and poet Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892) could write a text called “The Spirit of the Age” which ended:
The mute machine is moved by a law
That knows no accident or flaw,
And the iron thrills to a different chime
Than that which rang in the dead old time.
For Heaven is taking the matter in hand,
And baffling the tricks of the tyrant band.
[. . .]
And some who from their windows mark
The unwonted lights that flood the dark,
Little by little, in slow surprise,
Lift into space their sleepy eyes;
Little by little are made aware
That a spirit of power is passing there,–
That a spirit is passing, strong and free,–
The soul of the nineteenth century.
But because one of your first emotional reactions to the lithograph probably included a distancing term like “museum piece,” you have a historiographic problem with seeing. A century and a half before your time, the soul of the nineteenth century passed into the scene of rescue, but then it continued on through and out, taking with it much of the word rescue’s emotional context. Now this image of rescue is just an item in a museum, but in its own time it was readable in the home as an allegory of salvation. Some happiness then followed. But the picture isn’t making you happy now. Its caption no longer teaches you to adore.
Because (for one reason among many) in the twentieth century, Cranch’s grandnephew T. S. Eliot was to turn the soul away from his ancestor’s poem’s olfactory regime of coal smoke in favor of French cigarettes and then of Anglo-Catholic incense. Before Eliot’s disdainful gaze the unwonted coal-gas light ebbed as well. Under redarkened heavens there no longer remained enough energy to read hope by.
Frances Dickey’s periodical reports from the newly unsealed archive of T. S. Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, now being blogged at
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Demonstrably, one thing about the life of the electrical engineer Mark Anthony remains in historical memory. His dates of birth and death don’t seem to be accessible online, but during the years of his floruit, 1909-1911, he is known to history to have been experimenting in New York with what we would now call a radio-controlled drone bomber. About that the online record yields two reprinted newspaper articles. Says Anthony in one of them, from 1909,
There are also two 1909 portraits in the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection, an archive of news agency photographs. One is captioned “Anthony at transformer,” and it shows a standing man, presumably Anthony, looking down at a table upon which rests a transformer. By analogy with “at bat” or “at the wheel,” the phrase “at transformer” is a dramatis persona in a scene of power and mastery.
The other portrait . . .
Dark but with a rubbery sheen, the rope-bound object in the background may be what the newspaper article calls “a balloon 22 feet long, with a capacity of 600 cubic feet of gas.” Anthony’s right hand rests on what looks like a compressed-gas cylinder’s hose connection, and it seems to be holding the inflation tube of another balloon, tied off with string. The system looks ready for arming and flight, and the artist who memorialized the event for history bent his name to the masterful arc of the inventor’s shoulder.
A later article about radio control extinguishes the expectation. From Germany in 1911, it reports: “A somewhat similar invention was recently reported from New York, where Mark Anthony, a well-known electrical engineer, offered his device to the United States Government for $125,000. The offer was declined. . . ” But in what Cavafy might have called the days of 1909, an image inflated itself with curves bulging into more curves and then went tense and still, in a waiting phase, at the brink of a moment when the curves might merge, then soar free enclosed in straining rubber, then explode and cause to explode. The balloon, the hat, the nose, and the double beacon of the eyes behind their collimators: all these awaited the unbuttoning of what a poem written in 1911 was to call “My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.”
The unbuttoning didn’t take place in 1909, but the readiness was all. In 1912 Vaslav Nijinsky would fuck the nymph’s veil. Two years after that, the term “blow sky-high” would explode into aeronautical meaning.
Title: Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, chapter 4: “I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore I am deadly.” “Those people” are the police; “the means” is a bomb in the speaker’s breast pocket, with its detonator button in his hand. I visualize a hand looking like Mark Anthony’s.
The newspaper articles:
Cincinnati Enquirer 4 January 1909, page 6:
Literary Digest, vol. 43 (26 August 1911), pages 313-14:
The original image:
Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. “Photograph of T. S. Eliot” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1940 – 1965. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/669a00aa-c714-2715-e040-e00a180641bb
Are organized Decays –
— Fr1010, “Crumbling is not an instant’s act”
For the visual study of poetry in English, the most important manuscript publication of the last half-century must certainly be Valerie Eliot’s 1971 facsimile of the manuscripts of The Waste Land, with their annotations by Vivien Eliot and Ezra Pound. By clearing and opening the trace of Eliot’s inspiration, Mrs. Eliot institutionalized a permanent corpus of theses about the modernist canon. In that canon, the proper interpretive questions now come to us as mere obvious corollaries, not followed but preceded by their crushingly definitive textual answers. Question: what did Eliot mean when he called Ezra Pound il miglior fabbro? Answer: you’ve already passed through the life-originating darkness of Pound’s thick pencil strokes. Question: what did Eliot mean when he wrote, “Only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things”? Answer: you’ve already overheard, as from behind a hastily closed door, the muffled quaverings of Vivien Eliot’s marginalia to “A Game of Chess.”
Because those answers come to us fully saturated with immer schon, they don’t need the confirmation of beautiful detail. The facsimile publication comes to us as a set of low-resolution black-and-white photographs facing pages of diplomatic transcript in conventional letterpress, and for reading The Waste Land in a room furnished with a black- or whiteboard, the letterpress is to be preferred. Running in parallel but a few steps off the trail to institutional certainty, the facsimile pages represent a distraction, even a threat. We would rather consult them only as it may be necessary to verify Mrs. Eliot’s editorial accuracy. Canonical fences, the confinements of diplomatic transcript render the poem of the twentieth century safe for readers to look at.
But the wing-shaped, brilliantly colored creatures of Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings slip through the bars. These tiny manuscripts, each written on a scrap of an envelope, pre-fragmented yet complete, represent a lexicon arising out of antonyms to The Waste Land. They are not fragments shored against ruins; they are assemblages and rebuildings. In her introductory essay to the volume, “Studies in Scale,” Jen Bervin quotes the principle from a book that Dickinson’s mother owned, Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife: “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing is lost” (9). As Mrs. Dickinson and her daughter would have understood, Mrs. Child was alluding to the nourishing miracle of the loaves and the fishes: John 6.12, “When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” She added, “Preserve the backs of old letters to write upon.”
But The Gorgeous Nothings comes to us pleading the inadequacy of preservation. Of the two envelope manuscripts on the cover, one may be a display of prosodic purpose across the centuries: a found name in bold black ink, Mi∫s Emily Dickinson, past which flutter two tiny orthogonal lines in delicate pencil
to light, and
with the last two letters of “Dickinson” thrusting upward to force a pause after “then.” The other communication is visually bolder still: the entire inner front of an envelope covered with the pencil trace, and a brown chevron at the left margin. But of course this second boldness shows no trace of human agency. It’s only the mark left by the passage of entropy through the system marked down by the poet on her bit of paper — specifically, the oxidation of the glue on the envelope flap. Having failed of the touch of a tongue, the glue now darkens its way through a poet’s web of words.
The Gorgeous Nothings, then, arrives in read life to mark a brief pause in the poetics of browning and crumbling. Its date of publication was a memento mori of impending escape from the uniqueness of a manuscript touched by a poet’s hand to the impersonal memorandum of letterpress. As long as I can remember a poem and say it back without a piece of paper in my hand, I won’t regret the loss of the part of it that I once might have seen. But during this moment I am grateful, while I can be, for the visual testament of The Gorgeous Nothings.
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. Ed. Valerie Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Marta Werner and Jen Bervin, Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings. New York: New Directions, 2013.
The Eliot quotation is from “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
Photographs by Jonathan Morse, October 26, 2013.