Gopalkrishna Gandhi remembers the enigmatic TS Eliot on his birthday
“Fashions come and go.
Fashion itself stays unmoved.
Describing a fashion is easy, pleasant.
Defining fashion itself, not so.”
TS Eliot, whose birthday it is today, is fashion. He will always be.
One reason why he is fashion and not a fashion, is that he is not ‘this’ colour or ‘that’ cut. What ‘this’ and ‘that’ in Eliot are, no one has quite figured out.
‘Koyi kahe Shri Ram hai vo, koyi kahe Kali-i-mayya’ (Some say he is Shri Ram ; for others, Kali incarnate) says Mira seeking her Krishna. And then finds he is only the cowherd in the grove down the bend.
Some have said, likewise, Eliot is about Christ, Christianity. He is about Roman Catholicism. Others find him as easy to read as the poet next door.
They beguile themselves. Not Mira, but the many ‘koyi’.
As with the alpha-imagic Harappan script, Eliot’s verse is likely to stay un-deciphered. Ever, tantalisingly. The Indus Valley script will stay active in our minds everlastingly for the magic of its secret shapes, not its meaning.
Eliot’s poetry, un-deciphered, will last forever in the chambers of our sensibility, for the sound of his secret words, not their meaning. The sound of Eliot’s words in ‘The Waste Land’ is its message, just as the enigma of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is its statement.
What avails their decipherment?
Sound has music. It has pitch, tone, tenor.
Eliot’s poetry has pitch, tone, tenor. It has music.
Generations have read, like mine has, and those that follow ours will:
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant plots
They will imagine gnarled hands, chapped fingernails, dry twigs. Asian and African readers will conjure dung for ‘fuel’. They will scratch their heads over the vacancy of plots and picture paper flying about, litter – fuel of a kind – levitating on those plots, doing a jig, and being followed by very old women, abandoned perhaps, in futile mimicry of the equally futile revolution of the orbs. Death by entropy, they will say. Then they will think of village fires, gruel. Poverty, they will whisper, nodding. They will be neither right nor wrong, just mistaken.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo
Will never go home to eat and, tired, sleep. With the Florentine’s ‘David’, it is deathless.
Like a patient etherised upon a table
Will never die. And be never understood. Or never understood quite like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is understood, or George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ is.
Eliot will carry some meaning, or meaninglessness, as the reader’s light wills. He will never yield to ‘the’ meaning. For his words are poetry, they are music which are to be experienced, not a crossword to crack.
India’s last but one British Viceroy, Lord Wavell has no absolutely no admirers in India. Very unfair, I believe this to be for he did try to keep the nation undivided. Wavell, a decorated soldier wrote some verse (which he himself disparaged) but more significantly he memorised, recited, declaimed and then compiled poetry that he liked. The selection (Other Men’s Flowers’, Jonathan Cape 1944), is excellent. His frank little accompanying notes, are a delight. “I look on him”, Wavell says of Eliot, “ as one who has sinned against the light of poetry by wrapping his great talent in the napkin of obscurity”.
True words, brave words. Was Eliot offended by a soldier’s swipe ?
Ian Jack, one of Britain’s greatest-ever columnists, wrote in ‘The Guardian’ some years ago that in 1961, 11 years after Wavell’s death, Eliot said of his critic, “I do not pretend to be a judge of Wavell as a soldier . . . What I do know from personal acquaintance with the man, is that he was a great man. This is not a term I use easily ...”
Critic and painter Wyndham Lewis wrote of Eliot after his first meeting with him: “He was a very attractive fellow then ; a sort of looks unusual this side of the Atlantic. I liked him though... ‘I am growing old, I am growing old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’ – a feature apparently of the humiliations reserved for the superannuated – I was unable to make head or tail of.”
Eliot was to review Lewis’ ‘Tarr’, in terms that were incisive, sharp and unusual this side of the Atlantic.
Where is the praise that we have lost in flattery, the criticism that we have lost in slander, the integrity that we have lost in arrogance?
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University
The views expressed by the author are personal