SIXTEEN Tom, Virginia and Susan

We are back on the ocean. The Heraclitus has survived the long lay up and she looks fine on the grey sea today. We sail westwards – we would have been aiming for the Makah Reservation but it remains closed from covid. We did want to see the Makah Cultural & Research Center which houses the extraordinary artefacts recovered from Ozette, a Makah village frozen in time by a landslip some 500 years ago – more on this in a later post.

So for the first stage of our sail, as we head to the mouth of the Salish Sea, passing under the lee of Vancouver Island, I will be locked below decks, working on materials for my exhibition about T S Eliot that will open in the fall. Three years ago, I gave an exhibition inspired by Virginia Woolf’s life and writings and one of the abiding memories of that project was Virginia setting by hand the text of The Waste Land for her publishing company, the Hogarth Press.

Very few people in England then reached the intellectual heights of Virginia Woolf – but one was T S Eliot. (Even the philosophy department at Harvard thought he was very clever). Eliot met Virginia Woolf first on Friday 15th November 1918. After their supper together at Hogarth House, she wrote her impressions – “a polished, cultivated, elaborate American” …. “very intellectual, intolerant, with strong views of his own and a poetic creed”. This last comment is a key to Eliot: she described this ‘creed’ as believing in “living phrases” drawn from the generations of poets and writers before him. Using them (while “writing with extreme care, in observing all syntax and grammar”) Eliot made a “new poetry flower on the stem of the oldest”.

Given the depth and breadth of his reading (and retention), his montages of allusion, emotion and experience make the average reader of his poems wonder at his meaning. We (certainly I) simply miss many of his references. But we all can take comfort from one of his peers: at the time her press published Eliot’s Poems, Virginia Woolf wrote to Violet Dickinson – “Mr Eliot is an American of the highest culture, so that his writing is almost unintelligible”.

But then if you are a disciple of Susan Sontag, unintelligibility is not even an issue. For Sontag, interpretation “amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art …. interpretation makes art manageable, conformable”.

Interpretation apart, mine or others, I am nevertheless intrigued by Eliot and in particular have read The Waste Land many times over the years – in fact, since we wrote The War Artists, a book that catalogues the visual response to war in the twentieth century by a wide range of artists – Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Henry Moore, John Piper. Commentators say that The Waste Land is not, in fact, a war poem. Licenced by Susan Sontag – “the effusion of interpretations in art today poisons our sensibilities” – I don’t accept a disconnect between the First World War and the aftermath.

For me, The Waste Land presents a continuum of horror – subconsciously perhaps so because we wrote The War Artists in the art department of the Imperial War Museum sitting under Paul Nash’s 1917 painting We Are Building a New World which depicts the devastated wasteland of the Ypres Salient. And also because Eliot knew from the accounts of his brother in law just what the Western Front was really like. He lived in London during the war and saw some of the consequences of the carnage. Such was the impact on him that he bravely sent to the Nation under his own name the text of a letter from his brother in law:

“A leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackened corpses of hundreds of young men …. Men with bowels dropping out, lungs shot away, with blinded, smashed faces, or limbs blown into space …. Mud like porridge, trenches like shallow and sloping cracks in the porridge – porridge that stinks in the sun”

Or as The Waste Land transmutes it:

“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.”

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. /…I think we are in rats’alley / Where the dead men lost their bones”.

So my exhibition in November will be the product of a quest to formulate a visual response to “Tom” Eliot based on personal sensibility – and the next few blogs will present findings from that on-going quest that may be generative of images. I hope so, because as Eliot argued in a lecture in 1949, “If you cease to be able to express feelings you cease to be able to have them, and sensibility is replaced by sentiment”. And who would come to an exhibition powered by “exaggerated and self-indulgent feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia”.

Links and References

If you would like to see the images from the Virginia Woolf exhibition – please click here

Makah Cultural & Research Center – information here

Young Eliot by Robert Crawford – wonderfully insightful.

T S Eliot and the Mother by Matthew Geary – a very modern reinterpretation of Eliot.

Susan Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation – not to be taken as prescriptive.

Virginia Woolf’s Letters

The War Artists by Meirion and Susie Harries (published by the Tate and Imperial War Museum)

The Poems of T S Eliot – Collected and Uncollected – Volume One edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue

T S Eliot reading The Waste Landclick here

Google’s English Dictionary provided by Oxford Languages

T S Eliot – a bridge from mimesis (c)2022 Meirion Harries

1 reply »