As poetry is the highest speech of man, it can not only accept and contain, but in the end express best everything in the world, or in himself, that he discovers. It will absorb and transmute, as it always has done, and glorify, all that we can know. This has always been, and always will be, poetry’s office.
Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken (1889 – 1973)
Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.
Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.
For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.
I wonder what archivists and critics of the future will do with all the electronic communication a person creates over a life time compared to when people wrote physical letters? Will people take the time to collect a famous artists Instagram posts, emails, Face-book musings, texts and blog posts or will the electronic clutter of one’s life simply fade into obscurity? What happens when someone stops paying WordPress for the privilege of being on the web? I suppose Fourteen Lines gets taken down and goes into the ether from which it came is the answer. The reason I ponder this question is because for poets of the era of Aiken and Eliot, their personal correspondence became another subject matter for publication once they became established as literary icons. I doubt the young Aiken and Eliot gave much thought to it when they wrote letters to each other. Here’s a couple of examples from the book of published letters of Eliot’s on the occasion of his 100th birthday. The first quote is before Eliot’s success as a poet when his confidence was thin and the second a few year’s later. Pound is already living in London, where both Eliot and Aiken would spend considerable time in their careers. In 1914, Eliot has just arrived in London.
There is a possibility of dining at a Chinese restaurant Monday with Yeats, – and the Pounds. Pound has been on n’est pas plus aimable, and is going to print ”Prufrock” in Poetry and pay me for it. He wants me to bring out a Vol. after the War. The devil of it is that I have done nothing good since J. A [ lfred ] P [ rufrock ] and writhe in impotence. . . . I think now that all my good stuff was done before I had begun to worry – three years ago. . . .
T. S. Eliot to Conrad Aiken, September 30, 1914
Money was always a challenge for Eliot and so he went to work as a banker for Loyd’s Bank in London a few years later. The position offered financial stability, social status in dating, and an opportunity to remain somewhat aloof from the literary world or at least engage it when he chose to engage it.
They are decided now. I am staying in the bank. . . . The work gives opportunity for initiative and is work for which they wish men of higher education. It will give much more responsibility, and therefore more freedom. . . .
As it is, I occupy rather a privileged position. I am out of the intrigues and personal hatreds of journalism, and everyone respects me for working in a bank. My social position is quite as good as it would be as editor of a paper. I only write what I want to – now – and everyone knows that anything I do write is good. I can influence London opinion and English literature in a better way. I am known to be disinterested. Even through the Egoist I am getting to be looked up to by people who are far better known to the general public than I. There is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England. . . . I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had, unless it be Henry James. I know a great many people, but there are many more who would like to know me, and I can remain isolated and detached.
T. S. Eliot to his Mother March 29, 1919
I wonder what Eliot, Aiken, cummings and Pound would make of the current world of poetry? Would they flourish and push new boundaries or would they be adrift? As for the two poems today, they could not be more different, the contrast is stark. I think Eliot’s bleak depiction and misogynist tendencies would not get him published in Poetry today and I share it just because it is so strikingly odd a poem. Do you have favorite poets that you find there are poems you hate and poems you like? What’s your favorite Eliot poem(s)?
The Love Song of St. Sebastian
I would come with a lamp in the night
And sit at the foot of your stair;
I would flog myself until I bled,
And after hour on hour of prayer
And torture and delight
Until my blood should ring the lamp
And glisten in the light;
I should arise your neophyte
And then put out the light
To follow where you lead,
To follow where your feet are white
In the darkness toward your bed
And where your gown is white
And against your gown your braided hair.
Then you would take me in
Because I was hideous in your sight
You would take me in without shame
Because I should be dead
And when the morning came
Between your breasts should lie my head.
I would come with a towel in my hand
And bend your head beneath my knees;
Your ears curl back in a certain way
Like no one’s else in all the world.
When all the world shall melt in the sun,
Melt or freeze,
I shall remember how your ears were curled.
I should for a moment linger
And follow the curve with my finger
And your head beneath my knees—
I think that at last you would understand.
There would be nothing more to say.
You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I had mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me