James Longenbach: On "Gerontion"

Hugh Kenner has noticed that Eliot's characterization of Senecan drama provides a fair description of "Gerontion." In the Greek drama, says Eliot, "we are always conscious of a concrete visual actuality," while in the plays of Seneca "the drama is all in the word, and the word has no further reality behind it." Part of the reason for the extraordinary difficulty of "Gerontion" is its conspicuous lack of the concrete visual images that illuminate even the most obscure passages of The Waste Land. "Gerontion" is all talk.

    Signs are taken for wonders. "We would see a sign!" 

The word within a word, unable to speak a word, 

Swaddled with darkness.

Here Gerontion has quoted St. Matthew's report of the pharisees' challenge to Christ ("We would see a sign!") and has followed it with a line from Lancelot Andrewes's Nativity Sermon on that text ("The word within a word, unable to speak a word"). In his 1926 essay on Andrewes, Eliot remarks that Andrewes is "extracting all the spiritual meaning of a text" in this passage. That is precisely what Gerontion cannot do. Andrewes is talking about the logos, the Word within the word. Gerontion's words have no metaphysical buttressing, and his language is studded with puns, words within words. The passage on history is a series of metaphors that dissolve into incomprehensibility:

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors

And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,

Guides us by vanities.

Gerontion has already described himself as "an old man in a draughty house," and his "house" of history has its corridors and passages and issues. Written histories also have "cunning passages," and historians write about "Issues." Gerontion's history is also a woman:

She gives when our attention is distracted

And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions

That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late

What's not believed in, or if still believed,

In memory only, reconsidered passion.

From Eliot's point of view, this is merely self-deception. Given the idealist historicism that Eliot inherited from Bradley, history cannot possibly be an "other," separated from the self who conceives it. By presenting history as something other than an "ideal construction," a product of his own mind, Gerontion shifts the blame for his own situation from himself onto history:

                                                Gives too soon

Into weak hands, what's thought can be dispensed with 

Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think

Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices 

Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues

Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.

Neither passive fear not active courage will save us, says Gerontion, because history has duped us, perverting our heroic intentions. Gerontion's understanding of history is a rationalization of his own inability to act or feel. It is to his advantage to be what Bradley calls an "uncritical historian" or what Eliot calls an "imperfect critic."

Unlike Eliot, the speaker of "Gerontion" does not understand that his knowledge of history is his own "ideal construction," and that a vision of historical chaos is a product of the mind that cannot unify the present and the past. As I mentioned in the introduction, Eliot's drafts for "Gerontion" show that the passage on history was finished in all but one crucial point before other sections of the poem were given their final forms. In his last revision, Eliot altered only one word: he substituted "history" for "nature." Had the change not been made, our sense of the entire poem would be drastically different; on a much smaller scale, I want to point out that Eliot's substitution of "history" for "nature" confirms the fact that the word "history" is to be understood in "Gerontion" not as a sequence of events in the "real" past but as an "ideal construction" of those events: history is not the same thing as nature, the real world outside us. Even nature is an "ideal construction" for Eliot, a fabrication of the mind: in his essay on Tennyson's In Memoriam (1936) he writes of "that strange abstraction, 'Nature.'" Eliot's substitution of the word "history" emphasizes what his persona in "Gerontion" does not understand: that history is not something separate from the life of the individual in the present.

From Modernist Poetics of History: Pound, Eliot, and the Sense of the Past. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.


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