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Ackroyd on Eliot

Am reading and enjoying Peter Ackroyd’s Frank Kermode-praised biography of T.S. Eliot. Intimate biography: he attributes the ‘physical failure’ of Eliot’s marriage to his new bride Vivian’s heavy, frequent menstrual cycle, and surmises that Bertrand Russell had an affair with her. And another thing: the cover of the paperback I own (Cardinal, Sphere Books, Penguin 1988) is decidedly sinister looking with Eliot resembling Boris Karloff…the background has a cracked earth look to it, topped, not to put too fine a point on it: with a swirling pile of what looks like dog diarrhea. (Searched all over for an image with alas, no success). Most strange. The hand from whence this came? Salt Spring Island resident Nick Bantock.

Moving right along, to higher ground: here’s an excerpt from what Ackroyd has to say about the poetry:

" The reviews [of Prufrock and other Observations] in the English press were characteristically short and dismissive, the major complaint being that this was verse rather than poetry because it had no conception of ‘the beautiful’.It was amusing but no more.

the little volume provoked such response in part because of its unappealing or at least ‘unpoetic’ subject matter, but also because the poetry had no identifiable single voice behind it. Even the dramatic or ‘prosy’ monologues of Meredith and Browning seemed to bear the weight of a powerful poetic personality; and in late nineteen-and early-twentieth-century English poetry the idea of a sustained ‘tone’ was still central. That is precisely the reason why the poetry of the years before Eliot seems so insubstantial or simply decorative: the steady attenuation of the romantic ‘personality had caused in turn an attenuation of the outward realityo which it clings.

The poems of Prufrock are examples of dramatic virtuosity, conceived in terms of monologue and dialogue, ‘scene’ and character…In this volume even when the poetry seems to be most personal, as in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ and ‘Preludes’, it is curiously objective and ‘pointed’ – manifesting a highly sensitive but also highly conscious deployment of cadence and image to produce the required effect…When the poet seems most himself, he is an actor watching his own performance. Because of this dramatic virtuosity, it would be unhelpful and indeed impossible to locate the true voice of Thomas Sterns Eliot except as a principle of literary organization. the longer poems are a number of heterogeneious fragments held together under enormous pressure, to which the insistent cadences and the consistent rhymes contribute – pressure like a headache, like a tight suit, bearing down upon a number of displays, retreats and evasions."

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