Grover Smith: On "Gerontion"
The practice of allusion, justified in "Burbank" by the need to characterize the tourist, performs in "Gerontion" the function of condensing into decent compass a whole panorama of the past. If any notion remained that in the poems of 1919 Eliot was sentimentally contrasting a resplendent past with a dismal present, "Gerontion" should have helped to dispel it. What are contrasted in this poem are the secular history of Europe, which the life of Gerontion parallels, and the unregarded promise of salvation through Christ. Gerontion symbolizes civilization gone rotten. The mysterious foreign figures who rise shadow-like in his thoughts--Mr. Silvero, Hakagawa, Madame de Tornquist, Fräulein von Kulp--are the inheritors of desolation. Against them is set the "word within a word, unable to speak a word"--the innocent Redeemer, swaddled now in the darkness of the world. But Christ came not to send peace, but a sword; the Panther of the bestiaries, luring the gentler beasts with His sweet breath of doctrine, is also the Tiger of destruction. For the "juvescence of the year," in which He came, marked the beginning of our dispensation, the "depraved May" ever returning with the "flowering judas" of man's answer to the Incarnation. And so "The tiger springs in the new year," devouring us who have devoured Him. Furthermore, the tiger becomes now a symbol not only of divine wrath but of the power of life within man, the springs of sex which "murder and create." "Depraved May," the season of denial or crucifixion, returns whenever, in whatever age, apostolic or modern, the life of sense stirs without love. Eliot's The Family Reunion repeats the horror: "Is the spring not an evil time, that excites us with lying voices?" So now it returns and excites the memories of Gerontion. The source of his grief--the passionate Cross, the poison tree, "the wrath-bearing tree"--is both the crucifixion yew tree and the death tree of the hanged traitor, a token of Christ and Iscariot, redemption and the universal fall in Eden.
The futility of a world where men blunder down the blind corridors of history, guided by vanity and gulled by success, asserting no power of choice between good and evil but forced into alternatives they cannot predict--this is the futility of a labyrinth without an end. Someone has remarked that Eliot's obsessive image is the abyss. It is not: it is the corridor, the blind street, the enclosure; the "circular desert" and "the stone passages / Of an immense and empty hospital," imprisoning the inconsolable heart. At the center is the physician, the Word, enveloped in obscurity. But without is the abyss also, yawning for those who in their twisted course have never found their center. "Gerontion" points no way inward; it shows the outward, the eccentric propulsion of the damned, who, as Chaucer says, echoing the Somnium Scipionis, "Shul whirle aboute th'erthe alwey in peyne." Alone in his corner, having rested, unlike Ulysses, from travel (and indeed having never taken the highways of the earth), the old man sits while the wind sweeps his world "Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear / In fractured atoms." The opposite movement, which discloses "a door that opens at the end of a corridor," opening, as one reads in "Burnt Norton," "Into the rose garden" and "Into our first world," leads to "the still point of the turning world," where, as Eliot put it in Ash Wednesday, "the unstilled world still whirled / About the centre of the silent Word." "Gerontion" describes only "the unstilled world," the turning wheel, the hollow passages--not "the Garden / Where all love ends," the ending of lust and the goal of love. The point at which time ends and eternity begins, at which history disappears in unity and the winding spiral vanished in the Word, is lost to the world of the poem. Yet the Word exists; it is only history which cannot find Him, history with a positivistic conception of the universe, a deterministic view of causation, a pragmatic notion of morals. As Chesterton's Father Brown remarks, "What we all dread most ... is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is only a nightmare." Eliot's symbol of the mazelike passages, or the clocklike wheel of time, or the whirlwind of death, the gaping whirlpool, is the antithesis of the single, unmoving, immutable point within. History is the whirlwind, for history is of the world, and history like the world destroys all that dares the test of matter and time.
From T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.