A reading of a short Eliot poem
‘Cousin Nancy’ appeared in T. S. Eliot’s first volume of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917. It is one of a series of poems included in the volume which satirise and analyse the stuffiness of New England society – in this case, by contrasting the thoroughly ‘modern’ Cousin Nancy with the more traditional attitudes of those around her. You can read ‘Cousin Nancy’ here.
‘Cousin Nancy’ describes the young woman of the title. There we come to our first problem. What evidence is there that she is young? Well, she is ‘Miss Nancy Ellicott’, but middle-aged and elderly women can be unmarried, too. Or is it the fact that her aunts are mentioned, thus making her seem younger? Or the fact that she is described doing very active things – striding across the New England hills, riding a horse across the hills, dancing the ‘modern dances’? A combination of these things, it would seem. But somehow we assume she is a young lady, and that the poem is describing her rebellion against the stuffy and slightly puritanical society in which she has grown up, probably in Boston. (Eliot knew this society well: although he’d spent the first 16 years of his life in St. Louis, Missouri, he then went to school and university in Massachusetts, completing a BA and MA at Harvard. He understood the religiously inspired starchiness and primness of that part of the US at this time.)
In a sense, then, ‘Cousin Nancy’ might be analysed as a poem about the new ‘modern’ generation breaking away from this more conservative environment, scandalising and surprising the older generation with their ‘modern’ behaviour. (One wonders, too, whether there’s a little bit of self-reference going on here: Cousin Nancy’s surname, Ellicott, is rather close to ‘Eliot’, and Eliot was very pointedly setting out, with these early poems, to do something new and modern which departed from mainstream conceptions of ‘poetry’ and the ‘poetic’. Cousin Nancy may be an artistic ‘cousin’ or comrade to the poet rather than a fictional blood-relative.)
But note that Eliot’s poem does not show the older generation criticising the new. Instead, they are either baffled by it (Cousin Nancy’s aunts don’t know how to feel about Nancy’s behaviour, but they can identify it as ‘modern’) or merely keeping watch from the mantelpiece – in the form of busts, photographs, or copies of their books – as dead men from the previous century, whose ideas are now being superseded by newer fashions and attitudes.
This is one of the most intriguing aspects of the poem: the final stanza. ‘Matthew and Waldo’ refers to two giants in the nineteenth-century history of ideas. ‘Matthew’ is Matthew Arnold (1822-88), the Victorian poet and critic whose writings on religion, culture, and education were hugely influential in the nineteenth century, but who had come to be viewed as outdated by the early twentieth century. In 1930, Eliot wrote an essay on Matthew Arnold (treating him alongside Walter Pater), and had little time for Arnold’s ideas. ‘Nothing in his prose work,’ he remarked, ‘will stand very close analysis.’ He was speaking for many of his fellow modernists here: when Arnold does turn up in modernist writing, he tends to be doing weird things like mowing the lawn (as he is in James Joyce’s Ulysses). That image along should be enough to send anyone off to read Ulysses.
‘Waldo’ refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), the American poet and essayist whose thinking was particularly influential in New England, the stomping-ground of cousin Nancy in Eliot’s poem. Although he seems less outdated a figure than Arnold in some respects – championing self-reliance as he did as part of the New England Transcendentalists – there is a sense that, when placed next to Arnold on the shelf, he is being offered, in Russell E. Murphy’s phrase from his Critical Companion to T. S. Eliot: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work (Critical Companion Series), as ‘a bulwark against the catastrophe that Nancy’s aimless energy betokens’. The final line of ‘Cousin Nancy’ is taken from another Victorian figure, this time the novelist and poet George Meredith, and his poem ‘Lucifer in Starlight’:
On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
A critic would take Eliot to task over ‘plagiarising’ Meredith’s line, but Eliot defended himself by making a crucial distinction. Plagiarism is stealing from somebody else but hoping you won’t get caught. What Eliot is doing is taking somebody else’s words but relying on the reader to spot the theft, and note the difference between Meredith’s use in the original poem and Eliot’s recycling of it in ‘Cousin Nancy’. By taking Meredith’s line and altering its meaning – suggesting that nineteenth-century culture and ideas are now being overtaken by more ‘modern’ fashions – Eliot renders the reference to ‘unalterable law’ ironic.
If you enjoyed this analysis of ‘Cousin Nancy’, you can discover more about Eliot’s poetry with our discussion of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, our thoughts on his ‘The Hollow Men’, and our detailed commentary on The Waste Land.