An Anatomy of Melancholy

Conrad Aiken

Winter 1966

The review of The Waste Land, with the above title, came out in The New Republic on February 7, 1923, in other words, four months after the poem’s appearance in The Criterion of October, 1922; and I suspect it was the first full-length favorable review the poem had then received—at any rate, I do not remember any predecessors.   To be sure, I had the advantage of having known Eliot intimately for fifteen years—since my freshman year at Harvard and had already, in 1917 and 1921, apropos of Prufrock and The Sacred Wood, heralded him as the fugleman of many things to come.   Of Prufrock I said that in its wonderfully varied use of rhymed free verse there was a probable solution of the quarrel, at that time as violent as it is now, about the usefulness of rhyme or verse at all; the Imagists, and Others, including of course Williams and his eternal Object, were already hard at it.   I think Prufrock still has its way.

As to The Waste Land and my review, it might be helpful for the general picture if I record here two episodes with Eliot, one before he had written the poem, and one after.

In the winter of 1921-22 I was in London, living in Bayswater, and Eliot and myself lunched together two or three times a week in the City, near his bank:  thus resuming a habit we had formed many years before, in Cambridge. He always had with him his pocket edition of Dante. And of course we discussed the literary scene, with some acerbity and hilarity, and with the immense advantage of being outsiders (though both of us were already contributing to the English reviews); discussing also the then-just-beginning possibility of The  Criterion, through  the generosity of Lady Rothermere.  And it was at one of these meetings, in midwinter, that he told me one day, and with visible concern, that although every evening he went home to his flat hoping that he could start writing again, and with every confidence that the material was there and waiting, night after night the hope proved illusory: the sharpened pencil lay unused by the untouched sheet of paper.  What could be the matter? He didn’t know.  He asked me if I had ever experienced any such thing.   And of course my reply that I hadn’t wasn’t calculated to make him feel any happier.

But it worried me, as it worried him.   And so, not unnaturally, I mentioned it to a very good friend of mine, Dilston·Radcliffe, who was at that time being analyzed by the remarkable American lay analyst, Homer Lane.   Radcliffe, himself something of a poet, was at once very much interested, and volunteered, at his next meeting with Lane, to ask him what he thought of it.   And a few days later came the somewhat startling answer from Lane: “Tell your friend Aiken to tell his friend Eliot that all that’s stopping him is his fear of putting anything down that is short of perfection.   He thinks he’s God.”

The result was, I suppose, foreseeable, though I didn’t foresee it.   For when I told Eliot of Lane’s opinion, he was literally speechless with rage, both at Lane and myself.   The intrusion, quite simply, was one that was intolerable.   But ever since I have been entirely convinced that it did the trick, it broke the log-jam.   A month or two later he went to Switzerland, and there wrote The Waste Land.

Which in due course appeared in the first issue of The Criterion, by that time endowed by Lady Rothermere, and again in due course came to me from The New Republic, for review.   And once more, it was as we proceeded from Lloyd’s bank to our favorite pub, by the Cannon Street Station, for grilled rump steak and a pint of Bass, that another explosion occurred.

For I said, “You know, I’ve called my long review of your poem ‘An Anatomy of Melancholy’.”

He turned on me with that icy fury of which he alone was capable, and said fiercely: “There is nothing melancholy about it!”

To which I in turn replied:  “The reference, Tom, was to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy,and the quite extraordinary amount of quotation it contains!”

The joke was acceptable, and we both roared with laughter.   To all of which I think I need add one small regret about that review.  How could I mention that I had long been familiar with such passages as “A woman drew her long black hair out tight,” which I had seen as poems, or part-poems, in themselves? And now saw inserted into The Waste Land as into a mosaic.   This would be to make use of private knowledge, a betrayal.   Just the same, it should perhaps have been done, and the conclusion drawn:  that they were not organically a part of the total measuring.

Mr.   T.   S.   Eliot is one of the most individual of contemporary poets, and at the same time, anomalously, one of the most “traditional.” By individual I mean that he can be, and often is (distressingly, to some), aware in his own way; as when he observes of a woman (in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”) that the door “opens on her like a grin” and that the corner of her eye “Twists like a crooked pin.”   Everywhere, in the very small body of his work, is similar evidence of a delicate sensibility, somewhat shrinking, somewhat injured, and always sharply itself.   But also, with this capacity or necessity for being aware in his own way, Mr.   Eliot has a haunting, a tyrannous awareness that there have been many other awarenesses before; and that the extent of his own awareness, and perhaps even the nature of it, is a consequence of these.   He is, more than most poets, conscious of his roots.   If this consciousness had not become acute in “Prufrock” or the “Portrait of a Lady,” it was nevertheless probably there:  and the roots were quite conspicuously French, and dated, say, 1870-1900.   A little later, as his sense of the past had become more pressing, it seemed that he was positively redirecting his roots-urging them to draw a morbid dramatic sharpness from Webster and Donne, a faded dry gilt of cynicism and formality from the Restoration.   This search of the tomb produced “Sweeney” and “Whispers of Immortality.”   And finally, in The Waste Land, Mr.   Eliot’s sense of the literary past has become so overmastering as almost to constitute the motive of the work.   It is as if, in conjunction with the Mr.   Pound of the Cantos, he wanted to make a “literature of literature”—a poetry actuated not more by life itself than by poetry; as if he had concluded that the characteristic awareness of a poet of the twentieth century must inevitably, or ideally, be a very complex and very literary awareness, able to speak only, or best, in terms of the literary past, the terms which had molded its tongue.   This involves a kind of idolatry of literature with which it is a little difficult to sympathize.   In positing, as it seems to, that there is nothing left for literature to do but become a kind of parasitic growth on literature, a sort of mistletoe, it involves, I think, a definite astigmatism-a distortion.   But the theory is interesting if only because it has colored an important and brilliant piece of work.

The Waste Land is unquestionably important, unquestionably brilliant.   It is important partly because its 433 lines summarize Mr.   Eliot, for the moment, and demonstrate that he is an even better poet than most had thought; and partly because it embodies the theory just touched upon, the theory of the “allusive” method in poetry.   The Waste Land is, indeed, a poem of allusion all compact.   It purports to be symbolical; most of its symbols are drawn from literature or legend; and Mr.   Eliot has thought it necessary to supply, in notes, a list of the many quotations, references, and translations with which it bristles.   He observes candidly that the poem presents “difficulties,” and requires “elucidation.”   This serves to raise, at once, the question whether these difficulties, in which perhaps Mr. Eliot takes a little pride, are so much the result of complexity, a fine elaborateness, as of confusion.  The poem has been compared, by one reviewer, to a “full-rigged ship built in a bottle,” the suggestion being that it is a perfect piece of construction.   But is it a perfect piece of construction? Is the complex material mastered, and made coherent? Or, if the poem is not successful in that way, in what way is it successful? Has it the formal and intellectual complex unity of a microscopic Divine Comedy; or is its unity-supposing it to have one-of another sort?

If we leave aside for the moment all other consideration, and read the poem solely with the intention of understanding, with the aid of notes, the symbolism; of making out what it is that is symbolized, and how these symbolized feelings are brought into relation with each other and with other matters in the poem; I think we must, with reservations, and with no invidiousness, conclude that the poem is not, in any formal sense, coherent.   We cannot feel that all the symbolisms belong quite inevitably where they have been put; that the order of the parts is an inevitable order; that there is anything more than a rudimentary progress from one theme to another; nor that the relation between the more symbolic parts and the less is always as definite as it should be.   What we feel is that Mr.   Eliot has not wholly annealed the allusive matter, has left it unabsorbed, lodged in gleaming fragments amid material alien to it.   Again, there is a distinct weak­ ness consequent on the use of allusions which may have both intellectual and emotional value for Mr.   Eliot, but (even with the notes) none for us.   The “Waste Land” of the Grail Legend might be a good symbol, if it were something with which we were sufficiently familiar.   But it can never, even when explained, be a good symbol, simply because it has no immediate associations for us.   It might, of course, be a good· theme.   In that case it would be given us.   But Mr.   Eliot uses it for purposes of overtone; he refers to it; and as overtone it quite clearly fails.

He gives us, superbly, a waste land-not the waste land.  Why, then, refer to the latter at all-if he is not, in the poem, really going to use it? Hyacinth fails in the same way.   So does the Fisher King.   So does the Hanged Man, which Mr.   Eliot tells us he associates with Frazer’s Hanged God-we take his word for it.   But if the precise association is worth anything, it is worth putting into the poem; otherwise there can be no purpose in mentioning it.  Why, again, Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata? Or Shantih? Do they not say a good deal less for us than “Give:  sympathize:  control” or “Peace”? Of course; but Mr.   Eliot replies that he wants them not merely to mean those particular things, but also to mean them in a particular way—that is, to be remembered in connection with a· Upanishad.  Unfortunately, we have none of us this memory, nor can he give it to us; and in the upshot he gives us only a series of agreeable sounds which might as well have been nonsense.   What we get at, and I think it is important, is that in none of these particular cases does the reference, the allusion, justify itself intrinsically, make itself felt.  When we are aware of these references at all (sometimes they are unidentifiable) we are aware of them simply as something unintelligible but suggestive.      When they have been explained, we are aware of the material referred to, the fact (for instance, a vegetation ceremony), as something useless for our enjoyment or understanding of the poem, something distinctly “dragged in,” and only, per haps, of interest as having suggested a pleasantly ambiguous line.   For unless an allusion is made to live identifiably, to flower where transplanted, it is otiose.  We admit the beauty of the implicational or allusive method; but the key to an implication should be in the implication itself, not outside of it.   We admit the value of the esoteric pattern; but the pattern should disclose its secret, should not be dependent on a cypher.              Mr.   Eliot assumes for his allusions, and for the fact that they actually allude to something, an importance which the allusions themselves do not, as expressed, aesthetically command, nor, as explained, logically command; which is pretentious.   He is a little pretentious, too, in his “plan”—pourtant n’existe pas.   If it is a plan, then its principle is oddly akin to planlessness.   Here and there, in the wilderness, a broken finger-post.

I enumerate these objections not, I must emphasize, in derogation of the poem, but to dispel, if possible, an allusion as to its nature.   It is perhaps important to note that Mr.   Eliot, with his comment on the “plan,” and several critics, with their admiration of the poem’s woven complexity, minister to the idea that The Waste Land is, precisely, a kind of epic in a walnut shell:  elaborate, ordered, unfolded with a logic at every joint discernible; but it is also important to note that this idea is false.   With or with­ out the notes the poem belongs rather to that symbolical order in which one may justly say that the “meaning” is not explicitly, or exactly, worked out.   Mr.   Eliot’s net is wide, its meshes are small; and he catches a good deal more-thank heaven-than he pretends to.   If space permitted one could pick out many lines and passages and parodies and quotations which do not demonstrably, in any “logical” sense, carry forward the theme, passages which unjustifiably, but happily, “expand” beyond its purpose.   Thus the poem has an emotional value far clearer and richer than its arbitrary and rather unworkable logical value.   One might assume that it originally consisted of a number of separate poems which have been telescoped-given a kind of forced unity.   The Waste Land conception offered itself as a generous net which would, if not unify, at any rate contain these varied elements.   We are aware of this superficial “binding”—we observe the anticipation and repetition of themes, motifs; “Fear death by water” anticipates the episode of Phlebas, the cry of the nightingale is repeated; but these are pretty flimsy links, and do not genuinely bind because they do not reappear naturally, but arbitrarily.   This suggests, indeed, that Mr.   Eliot is perhaps attempting a kind of program music in words, endeavoring to rule out “emotional accidents” by supplying his readers, in notes, with only those associations which are correct.   He himself hints at the musical analogy when he observes that “In the first part of Part V three themes are employed.”

I think, therefore, that the poem must be taken—most invitingly offers itself—as a brilliant and kaleidoscopic confusion; as a series of sharp, discrete, slightly related perceptions and feelings, dramatically and lyrically presented, and violently juxtaposed (for effect of dissonance), so as to give us an impression of an intensely modern, intensely literary consciousness which perceives itself to be not a unit but a chance correlation or conglomerate of mutually discolorative fragments.  We are invited into a mind, a world, which is a “broken bundle of mirrors,” a “heap of broken images.”   Isn’t it that Mr.   Eliot, finding it “impossible to say just what he means”—to recapitulate, to enumerate all the events and discoveries and memories that make a consciousness—has emulated the “magic lantern” that throws “the nerves in pattern on a screen”? If we perceive the poem in this light, as a series of brilliant, brief, unrelated or dimly related pictures by which a consciousness empties itself of its characteristic contents, then we also perceive that, anomalously, though the dropping out of any one picture would not in the least affect the logic or ”meaning” of the whole, it would seriously detract from the value of the portrait.   The “plan” of the poem would not greatly suffer, one makes bold to assert, by the elimination of “April is the cruellest month” or Phlebas, or the Thames daughters, or Sosostris or “You gave me hyacinths” or “A woman drew her long black hair out tight”; nor would it matter if it did.   These things are not important parts of an important or careful intellectual pattern; but they are important parts of an important emotional ensemble.   The relations between Tiresias (who is said to unify the poem, in a sense, as spectator) and the Waste Land, or Mr.   Eugenides, or Hyacinth, or any other fragment, is a dim and tonal one, not exact.   It will not bear analysis, it is not always operating, nor can one say with assurance, at any given point, how much it is operating.         In this sense The Waste Land· is a series of separate poems ot passages, not perhaps all written at one time or with one aim, to which a spurious but happy sequence has been given.  This spurious sequence has a value-it creates the necessary superficial formal unity; but it need not be stressed, as the Notes stress it.  Could one not wholly rely for one’s unity-as Mr.   Eliot has largely relied-simply on the dim unity of “personality” which would underlie the retailed contents of a single consciousness? Unless one is going to carry unification very far, weave and interweave very closely, it would perhaps be as well not to unify it at all; to dispense, for example, with arbitrary repetitions.

We reach thus the conclusion that the poem succeeds-as it brilliantly does-by virtue of its incoherence, not of its plan; by virtue of its ambiguities, not of its explanations.   Its incoherence is a virtue because its donnee is incoherence.   Its rich, vivid, crowded use of implication is a virtue, as implication is always a virtue—it shimmers, it suggests, it gives the desired strangeness.   But when, as often, Mr.   Eliot uses an implication beautifully—conveys by means of a picture-symbol or action-symbol a feeling—we do not require to be told that he had in mind a passage in the Encyclopedia, or the color of his nursery wall; the information is disquieting, has a sour air of pedantry.   We accept the poem as we would accept a powerful, melancholy· tone-poem.   We do not want to be told what occurs; nor is it more than mildly amusing to know what passages are, in the Straussian manner, echoes or parodies.   We cannot believe that every syllable has an algebraic inevitability, nor would we wish it so. We could dispense with the French, Italian, Latin, and Hindu phrases—they are irritating.   But when our reservations have all been made we accept The Waste Land as one of the most moving and original poems of our time.   It captures us.   And we sigh, with a dubious eye on the notes and “plan,” our bewilderment that after so fine a performance Mr. Eliot should have thought it an occasion for calling “Tullia’s ape a marmosyte.”   Tullia’s ape is good enough.

Read More

Web Design and Development by Riverworks Marketing