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Grover Smith The practice of allusion, justified in "Burbank" by the need to characterize the tourist, performs in
"Gerontion" the function of condensing into decent compass a whole panorama of the past. If any notion remained that in the poems of 1919 Eliot was sentimentally contrasting a resplendent past with a dismal present, "Gerontion" should have helped to dispel it. What are contrasted in this poem are the secular history of Europe, which the life of Gerontion parallels, and the unregarded promise of salvation through Christ. Gerontion symbolizes civilization gone rotten. The mysterious foreign figures who rise shadow-like in his thoughts--Mr. Silvero, Hakagawa, Madame de Tornquist, Fräulein von Kulp--are the inheritors of desolation. Against them is set the "word within a word, unable to speak a word"--the innocent Redeemer, swaddled now in the darkness of the world. But Christ came not to send peace, but a sword; the Panther of the bestiaries, luring the gentler beasts with His sweet breath of doctrine, is also the Tiger of destruction. For the "juvescence of the year," in which He came, marked the beginning of our dispensation, the "depraved May" ever returning with the "flowering judas" of man's answer to the Incarnation. And so "The tiger springs in the new year," devouring us who have devoured Him. Furthermore, the tiger becomes now a symbol not only of divine wrath but of the power of life within man, the springs of sex which "murder and create." "Depraved May," the season of denial or crucifixion, returns whenever, in whatever age, apostolic or modern, the life of sense stirs without love. Eliot's The Family Reunion repeats the horror: "Is the spring not an evil time, that excites us with lying voices?" So now it returns and excites the memories of Gerontion. The source of his grief--the passionate Cross, the poison tree, "the wrath-bearing tree"--is both the crucifixion yew tree and the death tree of the hanged traitor, a token of Christ and Iscariot, redemption and the universal fall in Eden. The futility of a world where men blunder down the blind corridors of history, guided by vanity and gulled by success, asserting no power of choice between good and evil but forced into alternatives they cannot predict--this is the futility of a labyrinth without an end. Someone has remarked that Eliot's obsessive image is the abyss. It is not: it is the corridor, the blind street, the enclosure; the "circular desert" and "the stone passages / Of an immense and empty hospital," imprisoning the inconsolable heart. At the center is the physician, the Word, enveloped in obscurity. But without is the abyss also, yawning for those who in their twisted course have never found their center. "Gerontion" points no way inward; it shows the outward, the eccentric propulsion of the damned, who, as Chaucer says, echoing the Somnium Scipionis, "Shul whirle aboute th'erthe alwey in peyne." Alone in his corner, having rested, unlike Ulysses, from travel (and indeed having never taken the highways of the earth), the old man sits while the wind sweeps his world "Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear / In fractured atoms." The opposite movement, which discloses "a door that opens at the end of a corridor," opening, as one reads in "Burnt Norton," "Into the rose garden" and "Into our first world," leads to "the still point of the turning world," where, as Eliot put it in Ash Wednesday, "the unstilled world still whirled / About the centre of the silent Word." "Gerontion" describes only "the unstilled world," the turning wheel, the hollow passages--not "the Garden / Where all love ends," the ending of lust and the goal of love. The point at which time ends and eternity begins, at which history disappears in unity and the winding spiral vanished in the Word, is lost to the world of the poem. Yet the Word exists; it is only history which cannot find Him, history with a positivistic conception of the universe, a deterministic view of
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He thinks of history as a system of corridors ingeniously contrived to confuse and finally to corrupt the human race. history leads nowhere but to corruption." as do Gerontion's fellow boarders. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. also like Fräulein von Kulp (for culpa?) who turned seductively in the hallway. Eloise Knapp Hay From his draughty windows Gerontion looks up a barren hill: once again the eye ascends in order to descend into an abyss. Eliot’s Negative Way. and she leaves her lover not only ill-at-ease but frightened. unable to speak a word. immutable point within." "After such knowledge.htm causation. She "gives too late or too soon. To them the ritual meal is no "communion" but a cannibal "dividing. Heroic efforts to satisfy the unclear demands of history have led to nothing but cruelty and hate." Eliot's symbol of the mazelike passages. or the whirlwind of death. 2 of 6 01/06/2011 20:42 . however. Fräulein von Kulp." Part of the reason for the extraordinary difficulty of "Gerontion" is its conspicuous lack of the concrete visual images that illuminate even the most obscure passages of The Waste Land. poking a clogged drain.edu/MAPS/poets/a_f/eliot/gerontion. first as a useless infant and then as a hunted tiger. the gaping whirlpool. or the mystical Madame de Tornquist (a tourniquet. reversing the motion of Dante and the Christian saints who followed St. the answer to the Philistines' cry for a "sign" was disappointingly a speechless child. then forward through a series of wars that Gerontion feels would have compensated him if he had been there to fight. is the antithesis of the single. when he was transformed into a ravening tiger--a sacrificial beast which in contemporary life is hunted and eaten by bloodless transients like the boarders Silvero. or pun. and the word has no further reality behind it. Hakagawa. 1956. History is the whirlwind.S. unable to speak a word. Like these women. And into this history "Came Christ the tiger." In John 6:52-58. 1982. for history is of the world. James Longenbach Hugh Kenner has noticed that Eliot's characterization of Senecan drama provides a fair description of "Gerontion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. "What we all dread most ." like a frustrating woman. Augustine's "Descend that ye may ascend. That is why atheism is only a nightmare. "The tiger springs in the new year" makes "springs" a syllepsis.. who passed from winter darkness and swaddling clothes into a "depraved" spring." while in the plays of Seneca "the drama is all in the word. is a maze with no centre. From T. History is a "she"--like his old housekeeper. As Chesterton's Father Brown remarks.On "Gerontion" http://www. Jesus says that those who take his body and blood to become one with him in communion will live eternally." Eliot knew what he was about when he restored the capital in "A Song for Simeon" and "Ash-Wednesday" (1930): "The Word within [the biblical] word.. while those who reject him will die. "what forgiveness?" From T. not upward—as far back as 480 B. or screw for stopping blood?). a pragmatic notion of morals.english.C. says Eliot. or the clocklike wheel of time. and the battle of Thermopylae (which translates as "hot gates")." indeed." In the Greek drama. unmoving. and history like the world destroys all that dares the test of matter and time.S. Harvard University Press. Thus in "Gerontion" we read only of "The word within a word.illinois." Gerontion thinks of the coming of Christ in two ways. "we are always conscious of a concrete visual actuality. meaning both "arises like a rejuvenating spring" and "pounces like a murderous animal. This part of the poem is usually misread because no one notes that Eliot pointedly left the phrase borrowed from Lancelot Andrewes with "the Word" uncapitalized. and Madame de Tornquist." As Gerontion reflects. "Gerontion" is all talk." Gerontion's mind wanders backward. Gerontion concludes that this death-dealing doctrine came to devour those who do not devour "the tiger.
illinois. reconsidered passion. and his language is studded with puns. Gerontion shifts the blame for his own situation from himself onto history: Gives too soon Into weak hands. this is merely self-deception. unable to speak a word. words within words." a product of his own mind. It is to his advantage to be what Bradley calls an "uncritical historian" or what Eliot calls an "imperfect critic. the real world outside us. the speaker of "Gerontion" does not understand that his knowledge of history is his own "ideal construction. I want to point out that Eliot's substitution of "history" for "nature" confirms the fact that the word "history" is to be understood in "Gerontion" not as a sequence of events in the "real" past but as an "ideal construction" of those events: history is not the same thing as nature. history cannot possibly be an "other." Unlike Eliot." and that a vision of historical chaos is a product of the mind that cannot unify the present and the past." Gerontion's history is also a woman: She gives when our attention is distracted And what she gives." separated from the self who conceives it. Given the idealist historicism that Eliot inherited from Bradley. perverting our heroic intentions. Unnatural vices Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes. In his last revision. contrived corridors And issues. says Gerontion. From Eliot's point of view. Swaddled with darkness. Gerontion's understanding of history is a rationalization of his own inability to act or feel. Think Neither fear nor courage saves us. unable to speak a word"). Andrewes is talking about the logos. By presenting history as something other than an "ideal construction. our sense of the entire poem would be drastically different." Had the change not been made. Gives too late What's not believed in.htm Signs are taken for wonders. gives with such supple confusions That the giving famishes the craving. In memory only. "We would see a sign!" The word within a word. Guides us by vanities. Here Gerontion has quoted St. what's thought can be dispensed with Till the refusal propagates a fear.On "Gerontion" http://www. because history has duped us. Neither passive fear not active courage will save us.english. Gerontion has already described himself as "an old man in a draughty house. In his 1926 essay on Andrewes. Eliot's drafts for "Gerontion" show that the passage on history was finished in all but one crucial point before other sections of the poem were given their final forms. Eliot altered only one word: he substituted "history" for "nature. That is precisely what Gerontion cannot do. Eliot remarks that Andrewes is "extracting all the spiritual meaning of a text" in this passage. Written histories also have "cunning passages. the Word within the word.edu/MAPS/poets/a_f/eliot/gerontion. Even nature is an "ideal construction" for 3 of 6 01/06/2011 20:42 . Gerontion's words have no metaphysical buttressing." and his "house" of history has its corridors and passages and issues. The passage on history is a series of metaphors that dissolve into incomprehensibility: History has many cunning passages. As I mentioned in the introduction. on a much smaller scale. Matthew's report of the pharisees' challenge to Christ ("We would see a sign!") and has followed it with a line from Lancelot Andrewes's Nativity Sermon on that text ("The word within a word. deceives with whispering ambitions. or if still believed." and historians write about "Issues.
". (CPP 21) We find out where this "I" was not and what it did not do. Bitten by flies. tends to float. 'Nature. and Imagination. The relatively disjointed quality of both "Prufrock" and "Gerontion. The conversational language is not sustained. including the opening ones." which continues into the next stanza. for example. though there are sporadic indications of possible scenes and narratives. and the Sense of the Past. a fabrication of the mind: in his essay on Tennyson's In Memoriam (1936) he writes of "that strange abstraction. the language. both the sequence of negatives and the repetition of "fought" at the end of the sentence indicate the composed. "little old man. Princeton: Princeton UP. The grammatical indeterminacy disturbs the statements' coherence in ways that resist resolution. 1987. makes it hard to ascribe the language to a speaker. for instance. John Paul Riquelme Many lines of "Gerontion.On "Gerontion" http://www. are conversational in character: "Here I am. The difficulty of maintaining the illusion of an "I" who speaks becomes greater as "Gerontion" proceeds. But the poem provides no continuing determinate scene or narrative within which such lines can confidently be placed." From Harmony of Dissonances: T. grounded in a referential way. From Modernist Poetics of History: Pound. Copyright © 1991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press." especially the lack of good continuity between the verse paragraphs. Instead of being located. Romanticism. not where or what it is in any positive sense. fought. heaving a cutlass. / Being read to by a boy. waiting for rain" (CPP 21). which is full of dislocations." Stylistically. in the fifth stanza with its sequence of sentences beginning with the verb "Think. Eliot. Eliot.illinois.htm Eliot. instrumental in clarifying both the main structural principle of superimposed contexts and the main image of the house within the house.edu/MAPS/poets/a_f/eliot/gerontion. written character of the lines rather than the spontaneous utterance of an "I" with a personal voice. Like a figure in a medieval allegory whose name points to a concept that is abstract and general rather than personal and individual. in the lines that follow the opening ones in "Gerontion": I was neither at the hot gates Nor fought in the warm rain Nor knee deep in the salt marsh.S. it refuses to be tied to a limiting scene or to a limited meaning. is abandoned as Eliot 4 of 6 01/06/2011 20:42 .english.'" Eliot's substitution of the word "history" emphasizes what his persona in "Gerontion" does not understand: that history is not something separate from the life of the individual in the present. Gerontion is not a person but one among many possible incarnations of the meaning of his name in Greek. The passage gives rise to questions that it does not answer and that are not answered elsewhere in "Gerontion. The sentences may be in the imperative mood. The language pertains not to a character whose name indicates that he is a person but to one who is named artificially. Or the subject of an indicative verb may have been omitted. even one who is in the kind of extreme situation mentally or physically that is sometimes portrayed in dramatic monologues. Jewel Spears Brooker The psychological coherence of the first verse paragraph. an old man in a dry month.
the tenant of the body is a god. Christ. He that takes the sea "and rolls it about the swaddled bands of darkness. without a period or even a comma. . Lancelot Andrewes. logically and psychologically. the Word without a word. 1618: Verbum infans. of course. the tabernacle. then. The ancient image of the body as a house. The house of Israel. . the landlord squatting on the window sill of Europe. As far as the overall structure of the poem is concerned. The book of Hebrews. the second does not follow at all. And Christ referred to his own body in just these terms in a text alluded to by both Andrewes and Eliot (John 2:18-21). it was arrested in full strength and destroyed. and the incarnate Christ. and it is in certain ways analogous to the mind of Gerontion. Although the second stanza lacks the internal coherence of the first. has a special meaning here. The fact is that the second stanza "follows" the first only in its arrangement on the page. therefore. The tenuous psychological connections that critics have pointed to as transitions between these two stanzas are inventions. to a special relation between knowledge and unbelief. then. The mystery of the Incarnation. swaddled. But these sons of David are not the only tenants of this antique house. The Bible frequently describes the body of Christ as a temple. Joining the natural brothers are many half brothers. The rejection of Christ by his brothers in blood led to an expansion of the house of Israel. contains a detailed analogy between the Jewish house of God. as will become evident. and it does not end. is decayed. The body of Christ is a house apart in "Gerontion". It does not properly begin. the darkness of history. dry. this stanza takes the most teratical image of the previous stanza--the Jew lying in wait for his prey--and superimposes one of history's greatest houses. the house of David. wind-sieged. audacious upstarts who irreversibly alter Abraham's line.On "Gerontion" http://www. the house. The mind of the Pharisees is this new house. and pulling together nineteen hundred years of history. but instead of decaying in the general aridity." to come thus into clouts.edu/MAPS/poets/a_f/eliot/gerontion. The ruin in all of the houses in in the poem is related to the destruction of this temple. the eternal Word not able to speak a word. it is unified by the fact that all these fragments are related to the Christian religion and. it stops. and then.htm moves to his second stanza. central in the previous stanza of this poem. the darkness of corrupted Judaism. is the mystery of God being immured in a house of flesh. The text for Andrewes's sermon (and for Eliot's poem) is the demand by the Pharisees that Christ give them proof of his divinity--"We would see a sign!" This text focuses attention on another house within the house of Israel. not made with hands" (Hebrews 9: 11). a wonder sure and . in the middle of a line. "a greater and more perfect tabernacle. Anyone of any race whatsoever who would accept Christ in faith was adopted into what the Bible calls the new Israel.illinois. including in this stanza the seventeenth-century preacher. it also stood in a dry and windy land. is much more than a house--it is a temple. giving them a far more inclusive vantage point. They are fabrications compelled by a desire for order. .english. [.] This stanza relocates readers. This sermon deals with the particular theme of Christmas--the Incarnation. in the middle of a sentence. is superimposed upon the Jewish temple which it transformed. The tenants in Jacob's greater house include. The temple of the Christ. Eliot's main allusion in this second verse paragraph is to a sermon preached by Lancelot Andrewes before King James I on Christmas Day. The principal tenants in this vision of the house of Israel are the Pharisees. . the Christian Church. and that a wonder too. . Christ's adopted brothers and joint heirs. The greater temple was swaddled in darkness. not discoveries. the darkness of infancy's powerlessness. 5 of 6 01/06/2011 20:42 . for example. it simply starts. like the house of Gerontion. All of those ruined houses in windy spaces--from Gerontion's withered brain to Europe's war-shattered civilization--are suddenly placed in the context of the rejection of Christ. In the case of Jesus of Nazareth. Himself.
An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism. and Fraulein von Kulp. the bodies of Christians constitute the house of God. windswept. quoted by Andrewes and by Eliot. Most of Christ's career was devoted to giving signs to these professors of law and religion. From Mastery and Escape: T. the churchyard is parched and.htm Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered. of omnipresence locked up in infant flesh. who became an admirer of Andrewes's theology. the above passage seems to say that Christ refused to give the Pharisees a sign. wind-destroyed. Silvero. because it led to an expansion of the house of Jacob. crumbling houses in dry and windy lands. "We would see a sign!" They accepted the authenticity of the miracles. then. Jewish. he restored a paralyzed hand. who is in heaven. 1994. the proud but unperceiving scholars took it for a wonder and. In the incident quoted above. S. the Church had also taken the sign for a wonder. by treating it as an occasion for rhetorical play. but whenever a sign was given. Christ oversteps the racial definition of Israel by asking "Who is my mother? And who are my brethren?" and by answering "Whosoever shall do the will of my Father.english. Separated from its context. Madame de Tornquist. and there shall no sign be given to it. ironically. wind-sieged. this curse is a mentality that isolates intelligence from passion and from belief. Christian) to ruin. is contrasting the rejection of Christ by the Jews to the acceptance of Christ by the Church. saying. would prevent them from recognizing it. we would see a sign from thee. Eliot 6 of 6 01/06/2011 20:42 . Mr. Return to T.edu/MAPS/poets/a_f/eliot/gerontion. In the Church Age. inseparable from their learning. furthermore.. This rejection by the Pharisees. In context. The Church is another of this poem's decaying. i. wind-abandoned. and sister." The seventeenth-century divines loved to preach about the supreme wonder of infinity incarcerated in a finite prison. dry excreta. The motif of the body as a house is extended in this stanza. of the one who swaddled the sea being swaddled in baby clouts. dry stones. Andrewes repeatedly declares that the Incarnation is a "wonder too. In his immediate response to these Pharisees. the passage says almost the opposite. (Matthew 12:38-39) This passage is crucial to understand "Gerontion. the same is my brother. which describes a corrupt eucharist ceremony. The Church. They would soon see the supreme sign. was a turning point in the life of Christ and in history. The Pharisees witnessing these signs responded with their usual request. are decayed temples. In the specific part of the sermon to which Eliot alludes in his poem.On "Gerontion" http://www." Eliot's use of Andrewes's sermon superimposes this more inclusive house of Israel. But he answered and said unto them. But Eliot's opening fragment." a "wonder sure. First. literally as well as figuratively. "Signs are taken for wonders. is occupied by desiccated and dying tenants housing dull and shriveled thoughts.illinois. "Ye are the temple of the living god.S. Seduced by paradox. the Christian Church." Paul tells the weak Christians in Corinth (II Corinthians 6:16). resumed their campaign for a sign. elaborates and complicates the houses already introduced in the poem. Attention is focused on the house of the twentieth-century Church as contemporary participants in the Mass are superimposed upon the Pharisees and upon the seventeenthcentury Church as accomplices in the ongoing rejection of Christ. packed with dry bones. The third stanza. By transforming the Incarnation into an abstraction. demanding that they accept him by faith alone. In the second stanza of "Gerontion. as applicable to the Christian Church as to Israel. Hakagawa. but their unbelief. and then he cast out a demon which was making its victim blind. Master. It may be supposed that Eliot." is as applicable to Andrewes as it is to the Pharisees. and mother" (Matthew 12:48-50). Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press." for it identifies the curse that has brought all these houses (Greek. they were enthralled by the wonder of omnipotence dependent upon a young woman for diaper changes. after Pentecost. but they refused to accept their validity as signs. Christ gave two signs of his divinity. but the sign of the prophet Jonas.e. or that he is contrasting the Pharisees' blindness to Andrewes's insight.
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