Sam Krieg for September 8

     This blog might be a bit crazy, but I press on with the reassuring image of Jim Groom in my mind. As I came to the close of Song of Myself about a week ago, I was struck by something completely unexpected: I was recognizing another free verse-loving American in Whitman’s words. I was seeing T.S. Eliot! I make no claims to be an Eliot expert but, after studying him in a few classes, I’m definitely a fan. It was this pair of Song lines that brought the thought up:

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.”

When I read those words, I was reminded of a passage from Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday:

“And I who am here dissembled

Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love

To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.”

     Initially, this connection is a bit surprising since Whitman isn’t exactly mentioned in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” He doesn’t fit the mold of Eliot’s typical role model (too straightforward for the metaphysicals, too concrete for the symbolists, etc) and Eliot does not fit the profile of the American that we find in Whitman (not very rugged and lacking a beard). In these two passages, the poets are speaking about their legacies: what do they have to say about what they will leave to posterity?

     Whitman does not break character in the least in this discussion of his death. Through his physical burial, he will become a part of the nature cycle that he extols over and over in Song of Myself. His body will be equal to the grass, which is no better or no worse than the horses eating it that give rides to wicked and divine men. Death is a return to the earth that Whitman worships, in contrast to the Christian tradition that had dominated in America until that point. However, while the Christian afterlife has no place in Whitman’s scheme, his spirit will still linger on. Through the grass, Whitman is accessible to all people. That accessibility is perhaps the crux of the differences between Whitman and Eliot: as he attempts to create a new “American scripture,” Whitman must become all things to all men, while Eliot intentionally steeps his verse in an erudite tradition only accessible to the learned.

     By fleeing to Europe and embedding allusions to complex writers of the past in his poetry, Eliot essentially did the opposite of what Whitman proposed that American poets after him would do. The “posterity of the desert” that Eliot offers himself to does more than separate him geographically from Whitman’s grass: it marks him as a part of the religious tradition that Whitman would have America abandon. Within the larger context of the poem, it’s seen that Eliot refers here to Israel, and more particularly to the Christian tradition that sprang from Israel. Eliot’s biography fits with this, as Ash Wednesday was written after he joined the Anglican Church, again putting him on the path that Whitman stepped off.

     In short, the differences between these two men might be best illustrated through their radically different views of themselves and their abilities. Whitman’s very title, Song of Myself, sets him as the beginning and the end of things, as being capable of bestowing meaning. Eliot, however, is not capable of such an accomplishment; in this poem, he generally does not directly speak to God, the giver of purpose. Instead, he speaks to a female intermediary that he hopes will petition God on his behalf. In the end, Eliot might reach the divine, but it’s more a prayer than a barbaric yawp: “Suffer me not to be separated / And let my cry come unto Thee.”

“Ash Wednesday.” The Highland Shepherd. 6 September 2009.>.

September 06 2009 10:44 pm | Uncategorized

2 Responses to “Sam Krieg for September 8”

  1. mns Says:

    Strange that I too felt drawn to compare WW and TSE this week, Sam (see “double standard?”)– in much less depth, but something is in the air (or I guess maybe something is on Ben’s shirt).

  2. wordbreaker Says:

    Well I guess that I have to wear that shirt again sometime soon. It might end up just being saved for a Tuesday shirt. What strikes me as interesting in this comparison is how much it sets up Whitman as a proto-modernist, in that both he and Eliot, and most of the rest of the Modernists are searching for a capital ‘T’ Truth. In light of this search, though, it becomes even more fascinating that Whitman and Eliot are seeming to come to many of the same places, just from completely different routes. At some level, it gives a rather large justification to Whitman’s statements about priests soon not being necessary.


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