A summary of a curious Eliot poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
One of the most popular of the quatrain poems published in T. S. Eliot’s second volume of poetry, ‘Whispers of Immortality’ (1920) is actually more about mortality than immortality. The title immediately evokes William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ – but Eliot’s worldview is altogether more classical than romantic, and his poem is partly a counterblast to Wordsworth’s Romanticism. But even this neat analysis or summary of the meaning of Eliot’s poem may, for all that, be too glib. You can read ‘Whispers of Immortality’ here.
As opening lines go, ‘Webster was much possessed by death’ is up there with Eliot’s other memorable openers, such as the description of the evening sky being like ‘a patient etherised upon a table’ from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, or ‘April is the cruellest month’ (The Waste Land). Which of us hasn’t, as some point, seen through the vitality of human existence and been gripped by the sudden realisation that beneath it all, we are mere skeletons, and life is just a brief interlude in our longer period of inexistence? This is partly what ‘Whispers of Immortality’ addresses and analyses: life and death, Eros and Thanatos, lust and oblivion.
Sex and death. There’s a certain symmetry to the poem: there are four stanzas about death, and then four stanzas about eroticism. (And, of course, each of the stanzas has four lines, increasing the almost mathematical patterning of the poem.) These two halves of the poem are divided, in the Collected Poems 1909-62, by five dots, separating them but without marking them out as distinct sections (as is the case with each of the four mini-poems that make up ‘Preludes’). In summary, the first four stanzas are about how the Jacobean playwright John Webster (author of The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi) and the Metaphysical poet John Donne both saw through the external aspects of life and penetrated to the blood and bone beneath: Webster ‘saw the skull beneath the skin’ while Donne knew the ‘ague of the skeleton’. Webster’s world (George Bernard Shaw memorably branded Webster the ‘Tussaud Laureate’, partly because of the hollowness of Webster’s characters) is all skulls, ‘breastless creatures’ with ‘a lipless grin’, eye sockets containing daffodil bulbs instead of eyeballs. (Eliot’s lines about the daffodil bulbs is not just a summary of Webster’s own worldview; it’s a deft allusion to a line from Webster’s The White Devil: ‘A dead man’s skull beneath the roots of flowers!’) The human body is dehumanised and made horrific, all rotting corpses (‘under ground’), with our brains (with their ability to think) mere add-ons, clinging round our limbs which are already really ‘dead’.
Donne, too, seemed to see further than most people, and grasped the deadness that lies just under all we do. Indeed, nothing his living flesh could do (including the call of Eros, sex) could make him forget the fact that, to quote from a quite different text, ‘in the midst of life we are in death’.
Then, though, we get a sudden shift of focus, with ‘Grishkin is nice’. Grishkin – who, according to Ezra Pound, was modelled on a real Russian woman known to both him and Eliot – is a seductive Russian woman who has prominent eyes and a ‘friendly bust’ which promises ‘pneumatic bliss’ (a clever use of an unpoetic word: ‘pneumatic’ suggests pneumatic tyres, making her bust sound inviting and ample; but it also has a faint taint of ‘pneumonia’, from the Greek for ‘lungs’, those organs which are housed beneath the bust – like ‘the skull beneath the skin’, Grishkin’s lungs aren’t far beneath the surface of her alluring bosom). She also has a maisonette (a flat or apartment not part of a larger block of flats), suggesting that she is inviting men back to it for nights of ‘pneumatic bliss’.
Grishkin is animalistic: her feline qualities (‘couched Brazilian jaguar’) suggest the dreamlike, seductive movement of the catlike ‘yellow fog’ in ‘Prufrock’. (Eliot liked cats, but he had a phobia of big cats – such as jaguars.) Even ‘Abstract Entities’ (i.e. things with no physical existence) manage to surround (or ‘Circumambulate’) Grishkin’s ‘charm’. Our ‘lot’ (i.e. our kind, the human race) can take only vague comfort (‘warm’) in such a ‘metaphysical’ view of mankind, since we are aware that beneath beautiful breasts are ‘dry ribs’. We are too ‘much possessed by death’ to give ourselves entirely over to lust, and to enjoy the human body for what it is. Here the animal references in relation to Grishkin take on a deeper significance: animals, as W. B. Yeats said in a memorable short poem, have no awareness of their own mortality and so can succumb to the sexual impulse without being haunted by thoughts of death. Not so Webster, Donne, or Eliot himself.
And indeed, the way Eliot knits together the two halves of the poem is worthy of closer analysis. Grishkin’s ‘Russian eye’ looks back to the ‘sockets of the eyes’ in the second stanza, and her ‘friendly bust’ recalls the ‘breastless creatures’ of the first stanza. This brings us back to the title of Eliot’s poem. Is ‘Whispers of Immortality’, as well as a smack at Wordsworth, designed to put us in mind of the one way that humans and animals can achieve immortality and ward off extinction – namely, by having children? This brings lust for Grishkin’s body and a fear of death together once again, and is a preoccupation of several of Eliot’s poems, including The Waste Land and, perhaps, ‘The Hollow Men’. Maybe such a preoccupation lurks beneath the skin of this poem, too.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.