Eloise Knapp Hay: On "Gerontion"

From his draughty windows Gerontion looks up a barren hill: once again the eye ascends in order to descend into an abyss, reversing the motion of Dante and the Christian saints who followed St. Augustine's "Descend that ye may ascend." Gerontion's mind wanders backward, however, not upward—as far back as 480 B.C. and the battle of Thermopylae (which translates as "hot gates"), then forward through a series of wars that Gerontion feels would have compensated him if he had been there to fight. He thinks of history as a system of corridors ingeniously contrived to confuse and finally to corrupt the human race. History is a "she"--like his old housekeeper, poking a clogged drain; also like Fräulein von Kulp (forculpa?) who turned seductively in the hallway; or the mystical Madame de Tornquist (a tourniquet, or screw for stopping blood?). Like these women, history leads nowhere but to corruption. She "gives too late or too soon," like a frustrating woman, and she leaves her lover not only ill-at-ease but frightened. Heroic efforts to satisfy the unclear demands of history have led to nothing but cruelty and hate. And into this history "Came Christ the tiger."

Gerontion thinks of the coming of Christ in two ways, first as a useless infant and then as a hunted tiger. This part of the poem is usually misread because no one notes that Eliot pointedly left the phrase borrowed from Lancelot Andrewes with "the Word" uncapitalized. Thus in "Gerontion" we read only of "The word within a word, unable to speak a word." Eliot knew what he was about when he restored the capital in "A Song for Simeon" and "Ash-Wednesday" (1930): "The Word within [the biblical] word, unable to speak a word." As Gerontion reflects, the answer to the Philistines' cry for a "sign" was disappointingly a speechless child, who passed from winter darkness and swaddling clothes into a "depraved" spring, when he was transformed into a ravening tiger--a sacrificial beast which in contemporary life is hunted and eaten by bloodless transients like the boarders Silvero, Hakagawa, Fräulein von Kulp, and Madame de Tornquist. "The tiger springs in the new year" makes "springs" a syllepsis, or pun, meaning both "arises like a rejuvenating spring" and "pounces like a murderous animal." In John 6:52-58, Jesus says that those who take his body and blood to become one with him in communion will live eternally, while those who reject him will die. Gerontion concludes that this death-dealing doctrine came to devour those who do not devour "the tiger," as do Gerontion's fellow boarders. To them the ritual meal is no "communion" but a cannibal "dividing." "After such knowledge," indeed, "what forgiveness?"

From T.S. Eliot’s Negative Way. Harvard University Press, 1982.


Title Eloise Knapp Hay: On "Gerontion" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Eloise Knapp Hay Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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