As a poet, Eliot consorted with ghosts—the illustrious dead who formed a constellation within which his own individual talent could find its place. In his literary practice, with its intensive use of echoes from dead writers, he is constantly calling up ghosts. Dante and Donne were living spirits for him, whereas he seeks to exorcize other figures from the past as a dead weight. There are good ghosts and bad, and such a figure as Milton, whose influence insidiously infiltrates English poetic diction, played the role of bad ghost for the early Eliot, though he allows himself to be haunted by him in his later verse.
Eliot was also the composer of poetic rituals meant to induce encounter with the spiritual realm, often embodied in ghostly figures. The rituals are sometimes close to standard Christian, Anglican ones, as in “Ash Wednesday”, The Rock, and the Christian lyrics in Four Quartets. Dante offers a panoply of suggestions for independent ritual compositions, such as those in the ghost scenes in “Burnt Norton” and “Little Gidding”. As a Christian, Eliot strongly believed in the Communion of Saints, but the presence of actual ghosts in his work has little to do with this doctrine. The good ghosts are guides for the spiritual quester, comparable to the “bright angels” (ex-Furies) of The Family Reunion or the officious, human “Guardians” of The Cocktail Party. To communicate with a secular society, Eliot developed a quasi-pagan spirituality, not far from spiritualism, expressed in the ritual scenes of these two plays, a kind of mumbo-jumbo that has much more room for ghosts than any orthodox Christian ritual would. When Eliot wants to get in touch with the world of ghosts, he does so by means of ritual dance.The suggestions of occultism, of a cultic secret society in the behaviour and speech of the Guardians in The Cocktail Party might recall The Magic Flute, where there is a distinction between lofty and mundane vocations, Tamino and Papageno, comparable to the distinction between the saints (Celia) and the common lot (Edward, Lavinia) in Eliot’s play. The combination of farce and spiritual striving in both Mozart and Eliot, and the resemblance between the actions of Zarastro and Reilly, might even suggest a direct influence of The Magic Flute.
The ritualization of life, the imposition of pattern, is a technique for bringing out this depth-dimension. Gerontion and the characters in The Waste Land are bereft of this “ritualist sensibility” as Stephen Spender calls it. But the poet imposes ritual forms, for instance in making the fragmentary recollections of three prostitutes into a Song of the Thames-Maidens, with the stately progress of Elizabeth and Leicester on a barge in the background. All the evocations of modern chaos in Four Quartets are cast as ritual movements, a series of danses macabres.
The Ghostly Realm of What Might Have Been
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation. (“Burnt Norton” I)
These words sound like dry-as-dust logic chopping; but if one reads the opening lines of Four Quartets as dramatic monologue or interior monologue they take on a precise and poignant human meaning. The entire opening section was originally intended for Murder in the Cathedral, where it rejects the temptation to go back to the past and take up a worldly career one had broken off. Bad ghosts from the past keep up a frenetic dance with ludicrously unreal effect, notably in the “what might have been” presented by the first three Tempters in this play.
Eliot was an admirer of Browning and several of his poems belong to the genre of dramatic monologue (“The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, “Portrait of a Lady”, “Gerontion”, “Journey of the Magi”, “A Song for Simeon”). A dramatic monologue allows its speaker to express his personality fully and to review his life, usually in discussion with a hearer. The last aspect is retained in Eliot in the “you and I” of the first line of “Prufrock,” and in the troubled questions of the speakers: “And would it have been worth it after all…?”; “And should I have the right to smile?”; “were we led all that way for/Birth or Death?”. However, these monologues are more accurately christened “interior monologues” since the speaker is predominantly addressing himself: the “you” is a spectral figure—often associated with the reader, especially in the case of the “you” who is lectured at in Four Quartets. At one point in “Gerontion” the “you” could even be Christ: “I that was near your heart was removed therefrom”. Four Quartets contains passages of standard dramatic monologue in which the poet presents his persona to the readers, beginning with the frame-breaking “That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory” in “East Coker” II, and continuing in the third and fifth sections and in “The Dry Salvages” II, III and V and “Little Gidding” III.
The speaker in “Burnt Norton” I is a lonely middle-aged man, brooding, like the protagonist of Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle”, on a person he might have loved, and like the protagonist of another ghostly Jamesian tale, “The Jolly Corner”, brooding on the self he might have become. That the present is full of possibilities is a thought that offers only limited encouragement to an aged man. What preys on his mind is the thought of lost possibilities—the path not taken; the person not loved. James’s ghostly tales turn on this theme. Spencer Brydon in “The Jolly Corner” by dint of brooding on the life he might have lived had he remained in America comes face to face with his own ghost. In “The Beast in the Jungle” the mourner who gazes at John Marcher embodies what Marcher might have been had he chosen to love May Bartram. Eliot, as a faux Englishman, must have felt the twinges that James is said to have expressed in 1906, toward the close of his prodigious career. “I would steep myself in America. I would know no other land. I would study its beautiful side. The mixture of Europe and America which you see in me has proved disastrous”. Gomez in The Elder Statesman expresses the acute nature of expatriate loneliness: “It is only when you come to see that you have lost yourself/ That you are quite alone”.
We may even give the regrets a biographical anchorage, seeing them as addressed to Emily Hale, with whom he visited Burnt Norton and its strange garden in 1934. She, certainly, brooded much on what might have been if the poet had married her, instead of putting up a barrier against her five times: by his exile, his first marriage, his refusal to divorce, his refusal to marry after his wife’s death, and—unkindest cut of all—his second marriage. But Eliot had firmly placed Emily in the register of “what might have been”. Agatha says in The Family Reunion: “We do not pass twice through the same door/Or return to the door through which we did not pass”, as if Eliot were putting firmly to rest any false expectations raised by the rapturous lines in “Burnt Norton”. Eliot cast Emily in the role of Muse and spiritual friend; to add to it that of wife would be to imprison himself in the world of his own loftiest verse.
“What might have been” or “the road not taken” is a great literary theme. Milton’s Samson broods on it, and it takes up the first half of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, in which Anne Elliot rues her rejection of Captain Wentworth. This is set right in the second half, when like Samson she has a second chance, better late than never. Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale is steeped in regret for what might have been, as is Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Poets brood on what might have been in the spirit of nostalgia, ungratefully failing to celebrate their good fortune in escaping what might have been had they been born in poverty, injured in an accident, incapacitated by illness. Rilke thought that a poet can create his own childhood, in a kind of self-therapy, providing himself in verse with the happy childhood he did not have in reality. The artist seeks to make his life right, by creating another self. Proust’s Le temps retrouvé reinvents the unlived life in art. His “involuntary memory” of paradisal Combray probably has little to do with the real experiences of the child in drab, poky Illiers. Poetry is born out of the ache of unfulfilment, not as a celebration of happy childhoods or marriages. The childhood evoked in “Burnt Norton” is thus a ghostly one, composed of bookish recollections, a touch of Lewis Carroll, and of Kipling’s “They”, a tale of ghost-children. The rose-garden that Eliot constructed as a kind of shrine in his imagination can degenerate into a tired emblem, the ghost of a ghost. The tyranny of linear time mocks at impossible recreations of what might have been and leaves at best the hope of using well the brief days remaining. But the poet aims to give a different value to the accumulated past, so that it becomes a treasure: “History may be servitude. History may be liberation” Not just “all will be well” but “all will have been well”.
“Success is relative:/It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things” declares Agatha in The Family Reunion (II, 3). That is a prosaic version of how to “redeem the time, redeem the dream” (“Ash Wednesday” IV). More sublime is the thought that both what we have been and what we might have been – the buried, ghostly possibilities that are the objects of regret and longing go up to make that essence of our destiny that opens in eschatological expectation.
Handling “what might have been” can also be a matter of facing up to the past, its ghosts, and exorcizing them, as Harry does at Wishwood and as Lord Claverton does in Eliot’s last play, The Elder Statesman, his version of Oedipus at Colonus. The antics of Federico Gomez and Mrs Carghill, formerly a comedienne called Maisie Montjoy, show them trapped in their dance-act, but to the spiritual hero Lord Claverton they represent only the unreal world of what might have been:
Because they are not real, Charles. They are merely ghosts:
Spectres from my past. They’ve always been with me
Though it was not till lately that I found the living persons
Whose ghosts tormented me, to be only human beings,
Malicious, petty, and I see myself emerging
From my spectral existence into something like reality.
…she knows that the ghost of the man I was
Still clings to the ghost of the woman who was Maisie.
We should have been poor, we should certainly have quarreled,
We should have been unhappy, might have come to divorce.
Ghosts as Gracious Guests
After the austere opening of “Burnt Norton”, which produces the effect of empty fifths in a Beethoven quartet, comes a transitional passage of seductive lyrical warmth:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
The hearer of the dramatic monologue (“in your mind”) is the rose-garden companion but also the reader. If Eliot’s rose garden sometimes seems an abstract emblem, it is because it is a garden he never entered, a figure of wishful regret rather than fulfilled love.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush?
The “deception” could mean scepticism about the possibility of finding paradise, or a consciousness that the imagination to which the poet yields takes him to the world of ideals rather than actually lived reality.
The poem now turns to ritual, as if this was necessary to conjure up the ghostly presences:
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery…
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern…
The ghosts are guests in Eliot, they are “there” only for the spiritually sensitive person who opens himself to their presence, or who is opened to them by shattering experiences of guilt or anxiety. Gerontion’s plaint “I have no ghosts” perhaps confesses the lack of such sensitivity; it may mean: “I am only the sum of what has happened to me, the sordid data of my past and present. There is no penumbra of memory and imagination to awaken me to a sense of the significance of my life.” The statement might also mean, “I have no tradition”—no gracious community of ancestors who sustain my individual life and make of it a meaningful quest. In The Family Reunion Agatha conducts Harry through a ritual of acceptance of the family ghosts, an acceptance that brings reconciliation with the traumas of childhood and unhappy marriage.
The ritual culminates in a vision that brings not just the happiness of “time regained” but a religious vision of reality, expressed in the conjunction of the Buddhist lotus and the Christian rose:
And the lotos rose quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
The repetition of
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
carries a new, positive sense. As in the posthumous triangulation effected in Virginia Woolf’s elegiac novel, To the Lighthouse, the dead come into perspective at a distance in time, the picture is completed, and its shape is made up not only of what has been but of the shadows added by what might have been.
The stately “they” in this ghost scene represent parental figures from the past; the “children in the foliage” (“Burnt Norton” V) represent the future; thus we are “Where past and future are gathered” (“Burnt Norton” II), and where the patterning of both allows access to a moment out of time:
Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness… (“Burnt Norton” V)
We have another ritual dance in the first section of the second Quartet, “East Coker”, a poem in which ethereal considerations on time and eternity are replaced by the earthly world of generational time. It begins with ghostly old houses exposed to change and destruction that “shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto”. Then in the “open field” the poet indulges a ghostly vision:
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire…
Again the scene is one of ritual dance. The ghostly effect is deepened as the language harks back to the sixteenth century:
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde.
What is the significance of this rustic dance and the “Mirth of those long since under earth”? It is hardly celebrated, and ends in “Dung and death”. “It seems to me unmistakable—yet many readers want to have it otherwise—that Eliot’s treatment of living and of generation, of both the human and the primordial energies of nature, orders them into a dance of death” (Moody, 208-9). The ghostly elements here are far less impressive than in the first and fourth of the Quartets, the personal involvement far less intense. It is almost as if the dead villagers are putting on a folk-dancing performance for the American tourist.
Although Eliot could not stand Yeats’s conversation, which turned on spiritualism, he must have appreciated the power of the ghostly scenes in Yeats’s poems and plays, the latter strongly influenced by Noh. In “Little Gidding”, the encounter with a ghost who resembles Yeats more than any other of its models is one of the most convincing scenes of this kind in literature. Eliot uses a verse form that evokes Dante’s terza rima but without trying to imitate it strictly, as Shelley attempted in his ghostly poem “The Triumph of Life”. One might call it a ghost of terza rima, giving the section the air of a lost canto from the Purgatorio. Shakespeare joins Dante as another patron of this ghostly performance, thanks to two allusions. The closing line, “It faded on the blowing of the horn” echoes Hamlet I, i: “It faded on the crowing of the cock”. The phrase “familiar compound ghost” recalls the account of the “rival poet” in Sonnet 86, who is “by spirits taught to write/Above a mortal pitch”, by “that affable familiar ghost/Which nightly gulls him with intelligence”. It is the spirits of Dante and Shakespeare who teach Eliot to write above mortal pitch in this passage.
In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
The run-on character of these lines, which move us along just as the dawn wind sweeps the dead leaves, the smoke and the ghostly figure, matches in a way the propulsive effect of Dante’s rhyme-scheme. But Eliot seems to be aiming for an effect of movement that is stalled or erased; the ghost is both “loitering” and “hurried”. The passage is in the same key as the Dantean line in The Waste Land: “I had not thought death had undone so many”. Eliot is conjuring up the realm of the ghostly by deliberately writing a dead kind of verse that moves forward evenly using alternating vowel lengths rather than accents. To deliberately make his lines bloodless was a dangerous strategy, for the evocation of emptiness can become merely empty, in lines such as “Over the asphalt where no other sound was”. It is only when the ghost launches into a Yeatsian tirade about old age that the verse comes to life. The lines could be taken as another form of ritual dance, its rhythms stilling the mind to prepare it for perception of the supernatural.
The hallucination known as autoscopie provides a psychological base for tales of encounter with one’s “double”. Shelley saw his own image on one or two occasions, and wrote beautiful lines on the subject in Prometheus Unbound:
Ere Babylon was dust,
The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
For know there are two worlds of life and death:
One that which thou beholdest; but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live
Till death unite them and they part no more.
These lines are discussed five times in Charles William’s novel Descent into Hell, published (in 1937) and republished (in 1965) by Eliot’s firm, Faber and Faber, and they are quoted in Act III of The Cocktail Party. They lie in the background of lines such as “Between two worlds become much like each other” here.
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another’s voice cry: “What! are you here?”
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other—
And he a face still forming…
Their encounter has elements of ritual dance: “We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.” Is the scene another instance of autoscopie? Is Eliot communing with his projected ideal self as Poet? Poets may form a creative brotherhood across the ages, but there is rivalry between them as well, even fear, or what Harold Bloom dubbed “the anxiety of influence”. The greeting, “What, are you here?” is brittle, uneasy, recalling a similar encounter in a Dantean London gloom (this time of fog not twilight) in The Waste Land: “There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: ‘Stetson!/You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!/That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout?’”Both scenes are modelled on Dante’s encounter with Brunetto Latini (his guardian and mentor, but also a rival poet) in Inferno XV. To hear Dante’s “Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?” behind “What, are you here?” clarifies the respectful tone of the latter question (since Dante calls his old master voi not tu) and produces the ghostly effect of intertextuality of which Eliot, like Joyce and Beckett, is a past master.
The ghost does not want to be a dead weight, he kicks the pail of past theory away, very much in the spirit of Yeats, leaving the younger poet to find his uncharted way:
Last season’s fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
He lectures instead on what Eliot saw as the quintessential Yeatsian theme, “old age”, echoing Yeats’s idea that the soul “dreams back” over its life after death, but transferring that notion to the this-worldly realm of old age, which the younger poet, his creative task accomplished, must now face:
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense…
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactmet
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed...
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
Yeats, whose body, at the time Eliot was writing, lay in Roquebrune, France, buried there in January 1939. Eliot paid glowing tribute to him in the first annual Yeats lecture at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in June 1940. The body was brought back to Ireland only in September 1948, long after “Little Gidding”.
Unlike Gerontion, Eliot has found a guiding ghost who provides his mind with “aftersight and foresight” as he faces into old age. He poet has already declared that “Old men ought to be explorers” (“East Coker V”), taking up a dictum of Beethoven, the patron saint of all writers of Quartets. Old age, for all its disillusion and debility, will be a further stage in the lifelong quest. Old age is evoked just as chillingly here as in “Gerontion” (“I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch”) but its agonies are a “gift” in more than an ironic sense. The triple agony of physical decay, impotent “rage at human folly” and “shame at motives late revealed”, can itself become the “refining fire” in which the “exasperated spirit” learns to move graciously, “like a dancer”. The ghost’s message transforms the worst aspects of old age into gifts. This is good news, not sour disillusionment. The phrase “refining fire” translates Dante’s “Poi s’ascose nel foco che li affina” (Purgatorio XXVI), quoted at the end of The Waste Land and in the accompanying note. Fire is the dominant motif of “Little Gidding”, the word occurring fifteen times—physical fire or sunlight (six references), Pentecostal tongues of fire (two), purgatorial fire (three) that releases us from the fire of passions (two) and that becomes the heavenly fire of charity (two).
Adapted from Renaissance Bulletin 38 (2012):27-45. (The Renaissance Institute, Tokyo.)