Can lyric poetry save us from our Hobbesian selves?
When one thinks of poets most associated with home, T.S. Eliot isn’t the first to come to mind. More often, the British-adopted, American-born poet is known for his sensitivity to the modern (and still, unfortunately, relevant) condition of homelessness, both metaphysical and literal. He’s generally thought of as less a bard of place than of displacement. Particularly in his early poetry, concrete locations phase in and out of reality. Internal moods and external settings shed distinction and fade into one another. Worlds never quite seem to have the strength to survive themselves. “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / out of this stony rubbish,” he writes in the first section of The Waste Land, suggesting that our current state of denuded culture lacks the fundamental conditions necessary for life to flourish. What sort of home is possible in a wasteland?
It isn’t just the content of his poetry which speaks to this dislocation, but the manner in which it’s written. His entire method, which is the essence of modernism, is to create a montage of different voices that seem to emerge out of nowhere and, lacking context, become depersonalized. Sharon Cameron writes in her book Impersonality that Eliot’s poetry unsettles us “because of the impression that propositions evolve which cannot be assigned to individual speakers, as if voiced propositions were emerging independently of the speakers.” The result is a poetry which “represents experience and affect as independent of any person or entity to whom experience and affect could be referred.” It is a cri de coeur, then, of disembodied and displaced utterances formed into a collage which, in its fragmentation, yearns for wholeness—or at least performs that yearning. As Eliot writes in The Hollow Men:
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
And yet, in a time of pandemic and social distancing, could there be a poet more useful to our understanding of the importance of home? Is there a poet more concerned with the subtle and oftentimes enigmatic ways in which our beginnings shape us? Despite his reputation as the cold and stuffy esthete who coined the term “objective correlative,” it’s fascinating to note all of the ways in which Eliot’s formative years nourished his later work and provided a vocabulary for his poetic insights. There are always unmistakable echoes of home in Eliot’s poems of homelessness.
It’s important that Eliot was born and raised in St. Louis. His work would have been different if he had come from anywhere else because he himself would have been different. As the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset wrote, “I am I plus my circumstances.” Or as Eliot himself would describe his boyhood in his 1930 introduction to Huckleberry Finn, Missouri was the place of “the long dark river, the ailanthus trees, the flaming cardinal birds, the high limestone bluffs where we searched for fossil shellfish.”
Having grown up there myself, I can say that it feels like everything in St. Louis flows into the Mississippi. Not just streams and runoff from smaller tributaries, but language, dreams, and time itself. The vast river looms and carries everything away in its relentless current. “I feel,” wrote Eliot in the same introduction, “that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river which is incommunicable to those who have not. Of course my people were Northerners and New Englanders, and of course I have spent many years out of America altogether; but Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any other part of the world.” The Mississippi was his Ganges.
The St. Louis that Eliot was born into in 1888 was unique in its time. By the turn of the century, it was the fourth largest city in America. It was also the juncture of the expanding nation, where regional cultures collided and mixed. Harry Wandall, in The Story of a Great City, characterized St. Louis as “too far north to be a Southern city, and too southern in its social characteristics to be a Northern city; with all the polish and finish of an Eastern center, and yet toned by all the warmth and spirited verve of a Western metropolis.” Still retaining something of its French origins, the St. Louis in which Eliot grew up was also a vibrant mélange of African American, Jewish, and German culture. It was truly a melting pot. As Robert Crawford describes it in his excellent book, Young Eliot:
Growing up in the soundscape of St. Louis meant inhabiting a city where the highbrow European music of Wagner was performed not far from sophisticated ragtime. Scott Joplin, who lived for some years less than a mile from the Eliots’ house, published his ragtime tune “The Entertainer” in St. Louis in 1902…To live at the confluence of all these musics was part of St. Louis’s gift to Tom; it helped shape the lilt of his poetry, and contributed to his love of dancing.
And not simply the lilt or musicality of his verse, but the wild juxtapositions between high- and lowbrow seem to have some origins in Eliot’s early St. Louis upbringing. Only blocks away from the city’s magnificent art museum (built in 1904) was the actual setting for the gory folk blues ballad “Stacker Lee.” Public lectures on German Idealism and modern poetry were held adjacent to grand boulevards where Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show staged shoot outs. The city itself was built on the mound ruins of a long-vanished Mississippian civilization. “[Eliot’s] lifelong interest,” writes Crawford, “in comings together of the supposedly ‘primitive’ and the modern urban has its origins in his St. Louis boyhood…”
If the St. Louis of Eliot’s youth was a junction point for the mixture of cultural extremes, it was also (as it remains today) a locus of extreme weather. In 1896 a cyclone devastated the city. The damage it caused is difficult to exaggerate. More than 8,000 buildings were destroyed. Boats, some quite large, were blown off the river and into the city. A newspaper described East St. Louis as “one vast charnel house” where crowds of injured and dazed homeless wandered the ruined streets like “a living graveyard.” For months, newspapers wrote about children buried alive and corpses being strewn about the street. Surely this had some kind of effect on young Eliot. As Crawford writes:
A quarter of a century later, however, nourished by the advanced study of Sanskrit texts and Classical learning, he would produce in the astonishing soundscape of “What the Thunder Said” the most famous thunderstorm in world poetry, part of a work, The Waste Land, which envisages urban destruction, with the dead walking modern city streets, rain, a great river and scenes of horror. He was by no means writing the story of the 1896 St. Louis cyclone, but he knew perhaps better than any other English-language poet what an apocalyptic thunderstorm sounded like.
Eliot’s work can, of course, be appreciated without knowing the details of his life. Any reduction of his poetry to mere biography would undermine the autonomy of the art itself. Art can never be exhausted by biography. But Eliot’s lived experience, his origins, are what give his work emotional resonance and keep it from being just an intellectual puzzle. Crawford writes that Eliot’s poems work because “they are the products of an intense emotional life fused with a preternatural mastery of the pliancy of language.” And the form which shaped this work was his St. Louis home.
Recognizing this, we can better appreciate the sense of nostalgia and homecoming which runs through Eliot’s work like a powerful electrical charge. If much of his work is written in a way that expresses a tragic sense of cosmic homelessness, just as much anticipates a reconciliation with our origins, particularly in his later work. As he writes in the “East Coker” section of Four Quartets, “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living.” We know that where we start from is important, but the strange world and our own human vanity blind us to perfect knowledge of how we’re influenced by home. But, as Eliot elaborates in the poem, we long for a final home in eternity where all things and all times are reconciled. And in that reconciliation maybe we can finally know ourselves and our context:
We shall not cease from exploration
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Some moments are worse than others, of course. And it might sound a little glib to suggest that being self-quarantined during a pandemic might be taken as an opportunity to ruminate on the meaning of our origins, but as we learn from Eliot, each of these moments shares a unified life, a “pattern” of timelessness. We wander our houses and yards during our self-quarantines, reacquainting ourselves with the anodyne and ruminating on all the ways in which home forms us. But not only us. A lifetime burns within each of these fleeting moments, “And not the lifetime of one man only / But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.”
Our origins are something unique to us, but they are also part of a motif that is shared among us in communion, the living and the dead alike. This, really, is the sense of home which Eliot longed for in his earlier poems: Not simply the specific details of the St. Louis of his youth, or a depersonalized universal, but some sort of paradoxical resolution of the two into each other. Our final home is where “the fire and the rose are one.”