A summary of a surprisingly comic poem
‘Mr Apollinax’ is one of the twelve poems included in Prufrock and Other Observations, T. S. Eliot’s debut collection of poems from 1917. The collection is highly sought after now in a first edition, but the initial print run of 500 copies wouldn’t sell out for five years. Nevertheless, the poems contained in this volume are among the first great modernist poems written in English. ‘Mr Apollinax’ displays the arresting imagery and serio-comic vein that run through the whole of the collection, as we’ll try to demonstrate in our analysis and discussion of it. You can read ‘Mr Apollinax’ here.
Why ‘Mr Apollinax’? The title suggests the Greek god Apollo, but more specifically, ‘Apollinax’ might suggest Apollonis arx, which Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, in their recent co-edited 2-volume edition of Eliot’s poems, point out was, in Greek mythology, ‘a place at the entrance of the Sibyl’s cave where the Sibyl left her prophecies, written on leaves’. Eliot’s name ‘Apollinax’, then, may suggest that the titular subject of the poem is both godlike (as in the mighty Apollo) but also prophetic or vatic, someone whom people view as a sage.
In summary, ‘Mr Apollinax’ describes the titular professor’s visit to the United States, where he is hosted by an audience of preposterously named Americans: Mrs Phlaccus and Professor Channing-Cheetah. The speaker of the poem, who is also present for Mr Apollinax’s conversation, is reminded of Fragilion, a shy feminine figure among the birch-trees in classical mythology, but also of the hyper-masculine Priapus hiding in the shrubbery and ogling a lady sitting in a swing (Priapus is often depicted with a massive phallus). Mr Apollinax’s ‘laughter’, which is referred to several times throughout the short poem, sounds like ‘an irresponsible foetus’ (probably a nod to Russell’s oversize head, which was large in proportion to his body, much like a foetus’). Yet somehow the speaker also analyses Mr Apollinax’s laughter as sounding ‘profound’ and ‘submarine’ – as though he is underwater while he is chuckling away. The imagery is bordering on the surreal here, putting the speaker in mind of ‘coral islands’ and ‘drowned men’.
In the poem’s second stanza, the speaker’s imagery becomes even closer to caricature, as he imagines Mr Apollinax laughing so much that his head falls off and rolls under a chair, or is glimpsed grinning over a screen – either way, of becoming disembodied (with the seaweed in the hair recalling the oceanic imagery from the previous stanza). The speaker then hears the hooves of centaur – half-man, half-horse – with the ‘turf’ at the end of this line recalling the ‘surf’ which concluded the first stanza. It’s as if Mr Apollinax is not wholly human, as if there is something animalistic about him. The speaker then recalls, and quotes, some of the things which Mr Apollinax’s American guests said after the visiting professor had left. The reference to his ‘pointed ears’, as with the centaur earlier in the stanza, gesture towards, while also skirting away from, the suggestion of the satyr, the lustful creatures from myth who were half-man, half-goat. The speaker concludes by saying he can recall nothing of the professor’s guests except what they had on their plates while they listened to Mr Apollinax: for good or ill, Mr Apollinax had dominated the tea-party at which he was present.
The real-life inspiration for ‘Mr Apollinax’ was the English philosopher Bertrand Russell, as Russell himself readily acknowledged. Eliot had met Russell when the young poet was a student at Harvard, and Russell visited the university from Oxford, where he taught. Russell would get Eliot a place at Oxford to study under him for his doctorate, a decision which caused Eliot to move from America to England in 1914 (and the rest is history, we might say). The Greek epigraph, a line from the satirist Lucian, can be translated as: ‘What novelty! What marvellous paradoxes! How inventive he is!’ This establishes the view of Mr Apollinax (i.e. Russell), that he is admired by many for his cleverness and wit, but it also primes us for a satirical poem, given Lucian’s pre-eminence as a satirist. Eliot’s feelings towards Russell were mixed: he seems to have been wary of Russell’s reputation as something of a ladies’ man, and indeed Russell may have had designs on Eliot’s wife, Vivienne, whom Eliot met and married in 1914-15, shortly before he wrote ‘Mr Apollinax’ about Russell.
Christopher Ricks, the co-editor of the marvellous T. S. Eliot The Poems Volume One and T. S. Eliot The Poems Volume Two (a towering achievement in poetry editing), gave a fascinating talk on ‘Mr Apollinax’, in which he analysed its language and imagery – you can watch the talk in full here. In his analysis of the poem, Ricks points out all of the subtle ways in which the First World War enter in its imagery – such as the ‘worried bodies of drowned men’ recalling those, like Eliot’s friend Jean Verdenal, who died at sea during the war, but also those who perished in the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. (The dating of ‘Mr Apollinax’ is uncertain, but the most likely time of composition is the second half of 1915, so not long after the sinking of the Lusitania.) The opening line of ‘Mr Apollinax’, about the titular professor visiting the United States, implicitly reminds us of transatlantic ships, such as the very one that the Germans had bombed. It was the threat of submarine warfare (remember that Mr Apollinax’s laughter is ‘submarine and profound’) which prevented Eliot from returning to America to take the viva examination that would have earned him his doctorate. As Ricks brilliantly demonstrates, these features make ‘Mr Apollinax’ a ‘war poem’ though not one that is obviously a war poem (in the way that, say, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ unmistakably is). Unlike many of the earlier poems from Prufrock and Other Observations, such as the title poem and ‘Portrait of a Lady’, ‘Mr Apollinax’ was written when the war was underway and our reading of it needs to take this context into consideration.
So, although ‘Mr Apollinax’ appears to be a reasonably ‘light’ poem on one level, about social niceties and less-than-niceness, it is also about transatlantic relations at a specific moment during twentieth-century history, and the shadow of the First World War, barely a year underway when Eliot wrote the poem, can be glimpsed in its language and imagery.
Image: Bertrand Russell in 1916 (photographer unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.