The poem in Ara vos Prec which most directly relates to Eliot's writings on classicism is 'Whispers of Immortality' (1918): it anticipates the argument of 'The Metaphysical Poets' published a year later. In the first half of the poem Eliot describes the sensibility of John Webster and John Donne, whom he thought achieved a union of thought and feeling in their writings. Of Webster, best known for his macabre tragedies, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, Eliot writes that he 'knew that thought clings round dead limbs / Tightening its lusts and luxuries', and Donne 'was such another / Who found no substitute for sense, / To seize and clutch and penetrate'. The second half of the poem provides a contrast with the first, suggesting that in modern life sensuality (represented by the curvaceous Russian Grishkin, unconstrained by corset) is proximate to, but has no contact with, the shaping power of the intellect ('Abstract Entities / Circumambulate her charm') (1969a: 52-53). Eliot adds a further classicist twist in the title, which alludes to Wordsworth's famous 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality'. Wordsworth's poem, a classic of romantic literature, addresses a six-year-old child as 'Mighty prophet! Seer blest! / On whom those truths do rest, / Which we are toiling all our lives to find' (1977: 527), because he does not have knowledge, specifically knowledge of death. Wordsworth, the romantic, celebrates and envies the child's innocence; Eliot, the classicist, admires Webster's and Donne's knowledge.
Just as important as the content, however, is the form; indeed, Eliot later said of these poems that 'the form gave the impetus to the content' (Hall 1959: 55). The use of quatrains (stanzas of four lines each) and the (mostly) eight-syllable lines follow the structure of
Gautier's verse in Émaux et Camées. But what does this strict style do to the verse? If we compare the first few lines of 'Prufrock' with this poem, we immediately become aware of the impact of the regular metre and rhyme scheme. Despite the predominantly conversational vocabulary, the regular metre forces the voice out of its normal speech patterns so that it emphasizes certain syllables more heavily than it would in conversation: 'Wébster was much possessed by déath / And saw the skull benéath the skin' (1969a: 52). The effect on the poem's tone is striking: the intimacy of 'Prufrock' is replaced by formality. 'Whispers of Immortality' expresses not the exploratory private thoughts of a particular mind, but the succinct public declarations of an aloof, invisible speaker.
This volume, like its predecessor, is an exercise in satire, but the change from free verse to regular quatrains sharpens the attack by facilitating hard contrasts and making the reader aware of an authorial presence outside the poem. So in 'Whispers of Immortality', the thematic contrast between Webster and Donne, on the one hand, and Grishkin on the other, is emphasized by the formal break between the two halves of the poem; in 'The Hippopotamus', stanzas two to six are split in half by rhyme and punctuation, with the first and second lines referring to the hippopotamus and the third and fourth to the 'True Church' with which it is contrasted; and in 'A Cooking Egg' the first and last two stanzas represent the everyday companionship of Pipit, contrasted in the central four stanzas with the ideal companionship of a series of figures from history (1969a: 44-45, 49-50, 52-53). Again and again, the target of the satire is revealed as the division between the world of the intellect and the world of the senses, the latter represented in three poems by 'apeneck Sweeney', the selfish, lascivious natural man who is Eliot's satire on the romantic faith in man's natural virtue.
Was this article helpful?