It has been a while (to say the least) since my last post. I have been intending to update for ages but somehow haven’t quite managed to find the time. Anyway, I am back (albeit in a new guise as English teacher) and I promise to post with amazing new-found regularity from this point onwards. Although, my ramblings are more likely to be literary than political, I hope they are of some interest and potentially of help to any students who stumble upon this. So starting as I mean to go on…
…in teaching the ‘Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot’ to two year groups concurrently I have found myself, of late, especially preoccupied by the truly grotesque ‘Sweeney Erect’. The poet offers the gruesome image of a man standing tall, the picture of callous indifference, ‘waiting for the shrieks to subside’, as the prostitute he has just dispensed with is gripped by an epileptic fit. The woman herself is dismembered and figured in horribly graphic images of ‘gashes’ and ‘slits’; it is only a few stanzas from the end that she is even referred to as ‘she’ let alone granted a name.
The poem is disturbing in the presentation of human indifference so intense that it morphs into the most extraordinary cruel. Initially, this cruelty appears to be masculine in character, embodied by Sweeney (a recurrent figure in Eliot’s poetry); and yet the other residents of the house offer no aid only gathering to ‘deprecate a lack of taste’. Hope is offered tentatively by the kindly Doris who seems in herself as ineffective as the sal volatile and brandy she brings.
In class, we examined this poem as a useful example of a broader absence of love in Eliot’s poetry. Others that proved helpful to the discussion were The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, Sweeney Among the Nightingales and various sections of The Waste Land (there are of course others but time runs short). ‘The Fire Sermon’ in particular offers a striking comparison in the presentation of ‘the young man carbuncular’ who ‘assaults’ his ‘lover’ who neither encourages, nor accepts his advances. ‘Exploring hands encounter no defence’ and yet the military language suggests both violence and violation in his actions. Yet to me, the most affecting line is that which follows: ‘His vanity requires no response.’ It is always dangerous to make generalisations but, it is fair to say that throughout Eliot’s earlier poetry in particular we repeatedly encounter women as victims of sexual violence, women damaged by sexuality. Whether it be Philomel (who was raped and had her tongue cut out to prevent her speaking of her crime) or the poor Lil in ‘A Game of Chess’ for whom even the ultimately creative act of motherhood has become destructive as she ‘nearly died of young George’ or even Cleopatra; again and again Eliot depicts a debasing and desolating sexuality that if it is not precisely violent is nevertheless damaging.
The depth and breadth of Eliot’s famously allusive style, the kaleidoscopic presentation of human spiritual experience offered throughout his oeuvre and specifically (at times, almost bafflingly) within The Waste Land combine here to crystallize and clarify the position that women have occupied for thousands of years. It is a position that Eliot assimilates into his poetry from history, myth, literature, religion and indeed society itself. As such, when reading Eliot it becomes impossible to forget that so much of the oppression women suffered is powerfully linked to sexuality. It throws into sharp relief that sex, and certainly pleasure from sex, was the preserve of men and men alone.
Eliot is frequently accused of misogyny (among other things); perhaps surprising of a man who once claimed to be ‘very dependent on women’ and one no doubt supported by his treatment of his wife Vivienne who was sent away from him on health grounds for long periods of time. Whatever your view of Thomas Stearns Eliot the man, however disturbing you find the images he offers, it is undeniable that his poetry is deeply poignant in its portrayal of women and indeed, in its distillation of historical female suffering as powerfully rooted in sexuality.
Any comments, thoughts, insights on other poems or passages that elucidate or relate to this idea on a postcard, or perhaps more appropriately in the comments section below…