T S Eliot used to live not far from us in London. Senior members of our family who visited his flat remember the wonderful collection of modern art , built up since his early days: as a young man in Paris, he had been friends with Roger Fry – who had taken him to meet Matisse. When he moved to London, he came to know many of the modernist artists – including Wyndham Lewis. Lewis was founder and editor of Blast, the Vorticist magazine: friendship notwithstanding, Lewis turned down a poem sent in by Eliot because, as he explained to Eliot’s champion, Ezra Pound, he was going to “stick to my naif determination to have no words ending in -Uck, -Unt, and -Ugger”. He did later accept from Eliot Rhapsody on a Windy Night and also Preludes. (And if you are wondering about a civilised intellectual like Eliot using words ending in uck, unt or ugger – try the truely obscene rhymes concerning Columbo and King Bolo that he wrote to ingratiate himself with the jocks at Harvard and later, in letters, to entertain his friends).
I can’t help thinking that Eliot’s active interest in modern art influenced his poetry. The work of one artist in particular – Paul Nash. In the previous blog, I mentioned that we had worked for several years on our book about the war artists sitting under one of his huge oil paintings – We Are Making A New World:
Nash was sent to the trenches in the First World War to make images to incentivise the middle classes to support the war effort. The government’s propagandists had this idea that fine art could get through to the intelligentsia in a way that photography and the cruder forms of written propaganda could not. But there was risk in sending artists because one could not be sure how they would react. Someone like Muirhead Bone, a dull stick but a master draughtsman, sent back extraordinary line drawings of shell damage that entertained – but Paul Nash was different. He was an artist schooled in the beauty of the English countryside and poetically sensitive to gentle landscapes. His reaction to the tortured earth of the Western Front was a pacifist resolve to end the war – not, as his masters wished, uplifting canvases supporting a fight to a catastrophic stalemate.
In a previous post, I give the text of the letter written by Eliot’s brother-in-law about the trenches (“a leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackened corpses of hundreds of young men …) that moved Eliot such that he sent under his own name for publication in the national press. Nash wrote, in words reminiscent of that letter, that:
“I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakable, utterly indescribable …. Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave, and cast up on it the poor dead.
It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”
It is interesting that Nash referenced Dante (a favourite of Eliot) and Poe and not visual artists – in fact, Nash had started out as a poet and playwright before going to Slade School of Art. But the images he produced stand alongside Eliot’s The Waste Land as expressions of the horror. And I think more than this – Eliot would have known Nash’s work and surely paintings such as Nash’s We Are Making A New World (1918) or The Menin Road (1919), would have reinforced Eliot’s understanding of the war – an understanding that he had gained partly from his brother-in-law and overwhelmingly from direct observation of the maimed on the streets of London.
The lines from The Waste Land –
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”
– surely could have evolved from this painting.
I don’t know if Nash and Eliot ever met – I would be interested to know. Both had emotional and physical collapses after the war and went to recuperate in sea towns that were close to each other – Nash to Dymchurch and Eliot to Margate.
Poor Margate, it has since forever been saddled with Eliot’s lines:
On Margate sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
Links and References
The Young Eliot by Robert Crawford
The War Artists by Meirion and Susie Harries
The Collected Poems of T S Eliot edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue
A lovely documentary film about Paul Nash by David Boyd Haycock that puts Nash’s war work in context – click here