D.H. Lawrence, “Women in Love”


Originally of a set with The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love exerted a major influence over later British novelists and critics alike. Lawrence rewrote the novel throughout the war, and its setting is largely that of Europe in crisis, even if we only see it at the level of philosophical thought, rather than physical danger. The characters themselves are types of the war, but they were also all to personal for Lawrence’s contemporaries, and he was sued for libel by Ottoline Morrell (Hermione) and others.

Wikipedia plot summary:

Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen are two sisters living in the Midlands of England in the 1910s. Ursula is a teacher, Gudrun an artist. They meet two men who live nearby, school inspector Rupert Birkin and coal-mine heir Gerald Crich. The four become friends. Ursula and Birkin become involved, and Gudrun eventually begins a love affair with Gerald. All four are deeply concerned with questions of society, politics, and the relationship between men and women. At a party at Gerald’s estate, Gerald’s sister Diana drowns. Gudrun becomes the teacher and mentor of his youngest sister. Soon Gerald’s coal-mine-owning father dies as well, after a long illness. After the funeral, Gerald goes to Gudrun’s house and spends the night with her, while her parents are asleep in another room. Birkin asks Ursula to marry him, and she agrees. Gerald and Gudrun’s relationship, however, becomes stormy. The four vacation in the Alps. Gudrun begins an intense friendship with Loerke, a physically puny but emotionally commanding artist from Dresden. Gerald, enraged by Loerke and most of all by Gudrun’s verbal abuse and rejection of his manhood, and driven by the internal violence of his own self, tries to strangle Gudrun. Before he has killed her, however, he realizes that this is not what he wants—he leaves Gudrun and Loerke and on his skis climbs ever upward on the mountains, eventually slipping into a snow valley where he falls asleep, a frozen sleep from which he never awakens. The impact on Birkin of Gerald’s death is profound; the novel ends a few weeks after Gerald’s death, with Birkin trying to explain to Ursula that he needs Gerald as he needs her—her for the perfect relationship with a woman, and Gerald for the perfect relationship with a man.

Though Lawrence is sometimes read as antifeminist, I treasure his novels because they explore female desire and sexuality at a wonderfully bodily, rather than symbolic, level. They also call attention to the vitality of female friendship and sisterhood, which accords with Woolf’s projects and with Doris Lessing’s, who begins The Golden Notebook with a reworking of Women In Love’s opening scene.

Like Howards End, Women in Love is a novel of ideas. Gerald, often read as an Ezra Pound or high modernist, is an idealist, whereas Rupert Birkin is more of a phenomenologist (or more Burkian?), not indulging sensuality as a hedonist, materialist, or aesthete, but suspending judgment for the sake of experience.

What I most noticed rereading the novel this time was the preponderance of the figurative language “like,” but especially “as if” – sometimes eight or ten times in a single page! Here are some examples from just a page:

[Hermione sang] in her low, odd, singing fashion, that sounded almost as if she were poking fun… [Ursula laughed], because Hermione seemed to be compelling her, coming very close to her, as if intimate with her; and yet, how could she be intimate?… [Hermione] spoke all the while in a mocking, half teasing fashion, as if making game of the whole business” 31.

To be sure, these linguistic figurations are hesitant similes, rather than sure, embodied metaphors, but they are also a clearer laying bare of the imaginative acts of thinking and writing. They form a kind of treatise with the reader, inviting engagement with the idea of the suspension of belief itself. This is compounded by Lawrence’s compound words and kennings – “mystic-real,” etc., highlighting language as an imaginative act as well.

The language even seems to infect reviewers – Walter Kendrick of the New York Times writes that the novel ends “as if Lawrence were annoyed with himself for failing to settle it.” In fact, the ending repeats the phrase as part of its imaginative inconclusivity:

“You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!” “It seems as if I can’t,” [Birkin] said. “Yet I wanted it.” “You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said. “I don’t believe that,” he answered 473.

The mode of this figuration would stretch from metaphor (it is) to simile (it is like) to fictionality (as if), which seems to me one step away from the subjunctive storytelling of writers like Pynchon. In this way, they give on to a sort of utopian ideal, a fantasy of artistic hope, more than any actual belief that change will really occur. In this way, Women in Love exchanges one kind of idealism (Kantian or aesthetic, killed off in Gerald) for another (sociopolitical, still alive in Birkin).


T. S. Eliot: Poems

T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis Missouri. He moved to London in and became an Anglican and a British citizen.


“If I thought that my response were/ to a person that would ever return to the world/ This flame would never flicker more./ But because no one who leaves this depth/ has ever yet returned alive, if what I hear is true,/ Then without fear of infamy I answer you.”

This epigraph, from Dante’s Inferno, is a conversation between Guido de Montefeltro and Dante in the 8th circle of hell – the penultimate one. It is interesting that although the first stanza invites the reader to consider the speaker as Virgil, giving the reader a tour of hell, here we consider Prufrock instead as near the bottom of hell, trapped there, believing even if he tells his tale that it will never escape the bounds of his delimited world – perhaps even the limits of his lonely self.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                               10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The rambling, long, slow, and sapping first stanza of this poem reflects the mood of exhaustion, resignation, and uncertainty. The speaker leads us through a neighborhood of cheap restaurants and brothels which mimic the linguistic inefficacy of argument and conversation (reinforced by the first refrain of the women’s superficial conversation). Though we are led to “an overwhelming question,” Prufrock begs that we not ask it, but go and see for ourselves in “our visit.”

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,                               20
And seeing that it was a soft October night
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

The repetition of the catlike, material body of the oppressive smog of London is both sluggish and quick here, both fearful and tranquilizing.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;                                30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The speaker feels that time is almost endless, that it is layered into phases of preparation and performance – the time “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” The insignificance of the repetition of his decisions makes time seem endless, almost painfully so, even as we know that time is of course not endless at all, but limited.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—                               40
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Here we see Prufrock angsting about how others will see him – worrying whether he dares to effect any real interaction, or whether his endless concatenations of decisions and revisions will reverse his will.

For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,                       50
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?                    60
And how should I presume?

Here we have the exhausted tone of “having known them all,” touching in its ability to capture the repetition of routine, but also patently ironic, coming from a man who has “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons,” and who is so anxious in each interaction that he cannot have “known” much of anything, or anyone, nor does he feel himself understood.

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Here Prufrock disassembles the women into synecdoche – the braceleted arms, the swish of a dress – he looks at them alienated and seems to long for touch, but has no idea where to begin.
 .     .     .     .     .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets              70
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Prufrock can only think of things to say that would alienate him further. He transforms himself into synecdoche here – claws rather than arms – making of himself an alien being, “scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” He imagines the sea as a peaceful, redemptive place – the imagery of water here seems connected to the strong suicidal/peaceful/lonely ideas of water for Clarissa and Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway. 
 .     .     .     .     .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?                  80
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet–and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

Prufrock envies time itself for its peaceful slumbering, even as he recognizes Death laughing and showing him that life is passing him by.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,                                             90
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say, “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,                                           100
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”                                          110

Prufrock wonders if it would have been worth the effort to love, given that it would inevitably end in some kind of miscommunication; nevertheless, he likens his imagined attempt to throwing “the nerves in patterns on a screen” – here language is a poor copy of meaning, like the Platonic shadows on the wall in a cave, but updated technologically for the modern moment.
 .     .     .     .     .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Prufrock recognizes himself as a Shakespearean character – a Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, a small player who might serve the drama of another’s life, but never truly his own. Sometimes his language breaks the bounds of such tact and sounds more like “the Fool,” an injunction to us, perhaps, to read the more hysterical portions of the poem (about the sea, etc.) as some kind of sensical prophecy in the line of Shakespeare’s “mad” but truth-uttering Fools.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .                                              120
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think they will sing to me.

Prufrock considers that there is not actually as much time as one might think. He imagines himself as an old man, adjusting his appearance again in the eyes of others. The line “Do I dare to eat a peach?” is often interpreted as his hesitation to seize the opportunity to love and sensually experience women.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown               130
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

In the penultimate stanza, we see the image of the ragged claws connect to a larger vision of the world of the sea, in which the mermaid-sirens, though they may not sing to Prufrock himself, represent a kind of wild freedom and abandon, a separate watery world of redemption from the banality of his life. He shifts to “we” in the final stanza, insisting that somehow our dream-world is one in which we “linger” in “the chambers” of the sea, reminiscent of the chambers of the heart, bringing us back to the etherized patient on the surgery table, perhaps. The poem also “surfaces” at the end, when it “submerges” us at the start.  It is when human voices wake us that we drown – thus, Prufrock is a sort of amphibious creature (like the crab), moving between water and land, but more ‘drowned’ by waking life than by his visions of death and water. These images are interesting in comparison with the drowned Phoenician sailor of The Waste Land. Unlike the Victorian dramatic monologue on which it is based, the siren call to suicide seems almost a viable option here – to be able to survive or handle the modern world unscathed is perhaps already to condemn oneself in a way.


As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden …” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

In this short prose poem, Eliot becomes obsessed with the absorptive (yonic) power of the hysterical woman, who makes the speaker “involved,” “drawn in,” “inhaled,” “lost,” and “bruised.” The social awkwardness of the waiter recall the Edwardian manners of Prufrock, and the fragments to be collected somehow foreshadow the “fragments I have shored against my ruin” in The Waste Land. 


O quam te memorem virgo

“O how should I call/remember you, virgin?” – Virgil

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—	
Lean on a garden urn—	
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—	
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—	
Fling them to the ground and turn	     
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:	
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.	

So I would have had him leave,	
So I would have had her stand and grieve,	
So he would have left	        
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,	
As the mind deserts the body it has used.	
I should find	
Some way incomparably light and deft,	
Some way we both should understand,	        
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.	

She turned away, but with the autumn weather	
Compelled my imagination many days,	
Many days and many hours:	
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!	
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.	
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze	
The troubled midnight and the noon's repose.

This poem demonstrates a slow turning inwards to the self. It begins with the speaker commanding the girl to “stand, ” “lean,” “weave,” “clasp,” “fling,” and again “weave.” It moves to his own acknowledgment of the subjunctive fantasy of what he “would have had her” do – the woman as an aesthetic object gives way to the idea of her as a former lover. The poet then determines he would find a form of communication with her somehow – a parallel, perhaps, to aesthetic communion. In the final stanza, the girl becomes what the daffodils become for Wordsworth – memories that “still amaze/ The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.” It also suggests a split within the speaker’s self.

POEMS (1920)


Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both. (Measure for Measure)

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
                                              I an old man,
A dull head among windy spaces.
Signs are taken for wonders.  ‘We would see a sign!’
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness.  In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fräulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door.
      Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind.  I have no ghosts,
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.  Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.  Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion.  Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear.  Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us.  Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism.  Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
The tiger springs in the new year.  Us he devours.  Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house.  Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devils.
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use it for your closer contact?
These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors.  What will the spider do
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay?  De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a sleepy corner.
                            Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
The speaker of the poem is an old man describing the new century and WWI – his eyes are those of a Victorian estranged from the modern world.  Eliot considered using it as a prologue to The Waste Land (note the reference to the “dry month… waiting for rain”), but kept it separate instead. He was not in the war, his house is “decayed” (presumably metaphorically/aristocratically speaking as well), he does not recognize the foreign Jews inhabiting England. “The word within a word, unable to speak a word,” reminds me of both Yeats and Thomas in its play of the double meaning but also meaninglessness of linguistic signs, another commonality with The Waste Land. The man himself sees signs everywhere – Christ the tiger, flowering judas. As opposed to the haunted Victorian monologue, the eerie thing here is “I have no ghosts,” as if to suggest no history, no sacred connection with the dead. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” seems relevant to “The Second Coming,” published just one year earlier. The tiger who devours us and who is time reminds me of James’ “Beast in the Jungle,” too – the fear of something all along that was the loss of life and time itself. Like Prufrock (some think this is an older version), “These with a thousand small deliberations/ Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,/ Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled… in a wilderness of mirrors… fractured atoms.” The poem ends with the slow fading of the mind: “Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.”



Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy

The first epigraph is a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The second is the phrase English children call out when asking for money for fireworks on November 5, Guy Fawkes day. The fireworks are used in part to burn the straw effigies of the traitor (this is how the word “guy” entered English parlance – as something in disguise, or a fright…)


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer-

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Most famous for its last section – and in fact, last stanza – this poem stages action as but a “shadow” intervening between an idea and an outcome. It seems to sap the world of motion and change, enacting a fatidic tone. It reminds me a lot of Hughes “Crow” at the beginning (so much for Hughes not raising dead voices), and of Yeats in its repetition and prophetic tone. The genius of the last stanza is to sound a development from childhood nursery rhyme to mad death knell. Kurtz is also called “hollow sham” and “hollow at the core” in Heart of Darkness. 


“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

A dramatic monologue that once again thwarts Victorian traditions of the genre, “Journey of the Magi” saps the Nativitiy story of collectivity and joy and makes it a journey of one perspective. Like Yeats, Eliot’s vision of history  marks Christ’s birth (unsurprisingly) as a new era, but here the end of an era of magic and pure symbolism is also tellingly lost. The first stanza tells of the cold and difficult journey, and gives visceral details to the world that gives way to the Christian one – a life they “regretted” as they left it. They see a scope of Christ’s life foreshadowed in reverse: “three trees on the low sky” signify the crucifixion, the “hands at the door dicing for pieces of silver” the Roman soldiers casting lots for his clothes, and the “feet kicking the empty wine-skins” the Marriage at Cana. The illegibility of these signs to the men – “but there was no information” – details the impossible task of imagining backwards into history for Eliot – we cannot but see it from where we are now. The speaker says he “would do it again,” but wants to “set down” that the Birth was like a Death – not only in the moment of agony, but the way it returned him to his former world – “an alien people clutching their gods.” The last line, “I should be glad of another death,” is ambiguous in meaning. Does the speaker hold to pagan reincarnation here? Does he look already to the next spiritual age?


Eliot conceived of this poem as being structured similarly to The Waste Land and wrote it in four parts (The Waste Land has 5 parts) between 1935 and 1942. The poem’s epigraphs are from Heraclitus: “Though wisdom is common, the many live as if they have wisdom of their own”; “the way upward and the way downward is one and the same.” Each of the four sections has 5 sections within it, which may correspond to the parts of The Waste Land. According to C.K. Stead, these 5 parts are:

1.The movement of time, catching brief moments of eternity.
2. Worldly experience, leading to dissatisfaction.
3. Purgation in the world, divesting the soul of the love of created things.
4. A lyric prayer for, or affirmation of the need of, Intercession.
5. The problems of attaining artistic wholeness  – this becomes analogue for (and merges into) the problems of achieving spiritual health.

By this point, Eliot was an avowed Anglican, and many take issue with the far more religious tone of the poem than his earlier work. As in “Tradition & the Individual Talent,” we see Eliot here as the poet who looks back and forward at the same time, and as in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” we see him “rendering” or “alchemizing,” boiling down and removing the self out of the ideas, as through a crucible. The poem seems to attempt to re-mystify Christianity and to restore its incantatory language. Eliot expresses the inconceivable state of grace or oneness with God through a series of paradoxes and double negatives. It is possible to think about each part as corresponding to an element, a region of England, and to a gospel (the first three are synoptic):

1. BURNT NORTON: Matthew (drawn from Mark, focused on law and history) = air (speculation, poetry, imagination, connections between life and death). All times are the same (past, present, future – like the Trinity.) “The still point of the turning world” is repeated. “To be conscious is not to be in time.” “Only by the form, the pattern/ Can words or music reach/ The stillness.” “The Word in the desert/ Is most attacked by voices of temptation,/ The crying shadow in the funeral dance,/ The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.” (This seems Yeatsian – recall “the dancer from the dance” and the “lion body with the head of a man.”) “The detail of the pattern is movement.”

2. EAST COKER: Mark (plain-spoken, earliest source, heroism and death ) = Earth (wonder of creation, body, science and technology should be forsaken for faith). “In my beginning is my end” is repeated. “There is a time for building/ and a time for living and for generation/… and to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.” “The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,/ For the pattern is enw in every moment.” “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost/ And found and lost again and again.”

3. THE DRY SALVAGES: Luke (longest, evangelical, lyrical, poetic) = Water (redemption, how we sail vs drift – the straight and narrow path, etc.). “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable.” “The sea has many voices,/ Many gods and many voices.” “I have said before/ That the past experience revived in the meaning/ Is not the experience of one life only/ But of many generations – not forgetting/ Something that is probably quite ineffable:/ The backward half-look/ Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.” (This makes the speaker both Lott’s wife and Eurydice – a feminizing gesture.) “O voyagers, O seamen,/ You who come to port, and you whose bodies/ Will suffer the trial and judgment of the sea,/ Or whatever event, this is your real destination.” Eliot dismisses “fiddling” with cards, tea leaves, science, the press – “These are only hings and guesses,/… the rest/ Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.”

4. LITTLE GIDDING: John (purgation, vision) = Fire  (the holy spirit incarnate as dove, Pentecostal, redeemed from the fires of hell by the fires of purgation, unification of Western history & culture). “Midwinter spring is its own season” (vs. “April is the cruellest month”). “The brief sun flames the ice… in windless cold that is the heart’s heat,/ Reflecting in a watery mirror/ A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.” “You are not here to verify,/ Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity… You are here to kneel/ Where prayer has been valid.” “Prayer is more/ Than an order of words” – is poetry? “This is the death of air… This is the death of earth… This is the death of water and fire.” “There are three conditions which often look alike/ Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:/ Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment/ From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference/ Which resembles the others as death resembles life,/ Being between two lives… This is the use of memory:/ For liberation… expanding/ Of love beyond desire.” “We only live, only suspire/ Consumed by either fire or fire.” “What we call the beginning is often the end/ And to make an end is to make a beginning./ The end is where we start from.” “Every poem an epitaph.”  “All manner of thing shall be well. When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one.”