This post is about T. S. Eliot, not about killing helpless marsupials. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.
On a recent night-time walk in the Bloomsbury district of London, my wife and I came across the original location of Faber & Faber, the publishing outfit where T. S. Eliot worked for 40 years. Outside the building is a brown historical plaque attesting to this fact. That’s the thing about London—almost anywhere you go, you come across one of these historic sites. George Orwell lived here for five years; this is the pub where Boswell met Johnson; and so on. But stumbling upon Eliot’s workplace was a special bit of kismet for me because I wrote my master’s thesis on the poet. Even worse, most of the poetry I wrote for a decade was a poorly executed homage to the Eliot of Prufrock and “The Waste Land.”
It turned out that I bumped into Eliot’s ghost a couple of times on my London trip. Wandering around the British Library one afternoon, I found myself in an exhibit of books having to do with cats. Yes, cats. I had no idea so many books had been written about cats, and certainly not by the British. Even so, it was a big exhibit, and sitting in a place of great honor were several editions of Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Of particular note was a first edition with a cover illustration by the poet himself. One could even listen to a recording of Eliot reading “Macavity the Mystery Cat.” Intrigued, I picked up the headphones and listened in.
That was a mistake.
You have to understand that Eliot was the center of my intellectual universe during graduate school. He was the creator of Prufrock, Gerontion, and Sweeney. His poetry was an unintelligible mosaic of exotic literary references, his erudition so intimidating I could only admire it from a distance, like a hiker squinting up at the peak of Kilimanjaro. His images were seedy and disturbing: yellow fog, patients etherized on tables, sleazy hotels, and questionable clairvoyants. It was all so lusciously decadent and forbidden. When Prufrock asked whether he dared to eat a peach, I screamed, “Yes, dammit!” When Eliot’s publican declared, “Hurry up, please, it’s time,” I finished my pint and left the premises. For me, as a 22-year-old graduate student looking for a darkly intellectual world in which my imagined self could smoke Gauloises cigarettes and quote lines from Les Fleur du Mal, Eliot had my number.
Tradition and the Individual Talent, Revised
For these reasons, I wasn’t prepared for what I heard in that headset at the British Library. The voice on the recording sounded like something out of a BBC World War II newsreel—all fusty and adenoidal. “Macavity’s a Mystery Cat,” the poet begins with the verve of a nonagenarian monk, “he’s called the Hidden Paw.” Listening, I recalled my grandfather reading Peter Rabbit and trying to make Mr. McGregor’s garden patch sound like an MI2 operation. On and on the reedy voice droned: “He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair / And when you reach the scene of crime Macavity’s not there!” Oh, the suspense!
My heart sank. Nowhere was the poet of Oed’ und leer das Meer. Gone were the references to Hindu texts and French symbolistes.
All I heard was a creepy old guy reading a poem about a cat.
Recoiling as if I’d witnessed a crime, I put the headset down and moved on to the next exhibit. As I walked, it occurred to me that poets don’t all die young and leave a legacy of youthful decadence. For every Burns or Shelley there’s a poet who grows old and wears an overcoat with a woolen muffler. At the same time, I realized that, as the omnipotent reader—hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère—I determine who dies young and who grows old. By merely disregarding a poet’s later oeuvre, I could alter his career and change literary history, at least for myself—such is the awesome power of the visitor to the British Library. With that realization, I closed my eyes, located Eliot just after he finished Four Quartets and, for the sake of the younger poet and my graduate-student self, muffled the breath out of Old Possum with a pillow.