Why you should care

You’ll hear his voice and never read his words the same way again.

T.S. Eliot died 50 years ago, on Jan. 4, 1965, at the height of his fame. He had won the Nobel Prize in 1948 and, perhaps more astonishingly, delivered a lecture in 1956 entitled “The Frontiers of Criticism” to nearly 15,000 listeners packed into a basketball stadium at the University of Minnesota. His reputation has suffered since then, in part due to our contemporary unease with his views on race and women — which were decidedly retrograde — but also due to his conservative politics, unpopular with the largely liberal types who write, read and analyze poetry.

And yet when the young Kamau Brathwaite — one of the most celebrated poets of the Caribbean — first encountered Eliot reading his poetry on the radio in Barbados, he heard “the ‘riddims’ of St. Louis … stark and clear for those of us who at the same time were listening to the dislocations of Bird, Dizzy and Klook.” Eliot’s “conversational tone,” Brathwaite continues, gave Caribbean poets the permission to speak directly about their own world rather than imitate European models of poetry.

… more like a conversation with a melancholy priest or a disappointed undertaker than with Dizzy Gillespie.

The irony, of course, is that Eliot moved from the New World to the Old when he was 25 and became a British subject at the age of 39. In fact, when 21st century Americans listen to Eliot read “Burnt Norton” — the first section of his last major work, The Four Quartets — in the audio below, we are more likely to hear Laurence Olivier than Ella Fitzgerald. And though the tone might be conversational, it feels more like a conversation with a melancholy priest or a disappointed undertaker than with Dizzy Gillespie. Still there are moments of levity, as when Eliot speeds up his delivery to match the quickness of the bird, flying around the corner of the gate in the garden in the speaker’s memory.

“Burnt Norton” was written in 1935 and, like much work of that decade, it is written under the shadow of the impending war. Eliot’s meditation on the future, the past and the possibility of redemption in the world, has a kind of urgency for a Europe about to repeat its own worst catastrophe. More simply, Eliot is asking about the place of the individual in history — of how our everyday lives composed of birds in gardens connect to the largest events of our times. Eliot’s framework in asking these questions is religious, but he never mentions God — only the possibility that there might be something larger than our own individual desires. Importantly this something larger does not make our day-to-day existence irrelevant, but rather helps us see it as part of a greater pattern: “The dance along the artery … figured in the drift of stars.” The true religious attitude, Eliot would later argue in 1940, differs from that of secular reformers who find the evils of the world always in other people — it is instead defined by a humility that understands its own imperfections.

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