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On "Gerontion"

Grover Smith

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.

Eloise Knapp Hay

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 (for culpa?) 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.

James Longenbach

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 UP, 1987.

John Paul Riquelme

Many lines of "Gerontion,", including the opening ones, are conversational in character: "Here I am, an old man in a dry month, / Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain" (CPP 21). But the poem provides no continuing determinate scene or narrative within which such lines can confidently be placed, though there are sporadic indications of possible scenes and narratives. The relatively disjointed quality of both "Prufrock" and "Gerontion," especially the lack of good continuity between the verse paragraphs, makes it hard to ascribe the language to a speaker, even one who is in the kind of extreme situation mentally or physically that is sometimes portrayed in dramatic monologues. Instead of being located, grounded in a referential way, the language, which is full of dislocations, tends to float; it refuses to be tied to a limiting scene or to a limited meaning. The conversational language is not sustained, for instance, in the lines that follow the opening ones in "Gerontion":

I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.

(CPP 21)

We find out where this "I" was not and what it did not do, not where or what it is in any positive sense. The passage gives rise to questions that it does not answer and that are not answered elsewhere in "Gerontion." Stylistically, both the sequence of negatives and the repetition of "fought" at the end of the sentence indicate the composed, written character of the lines rather than the spontaneous utterance of an "I" with a personal voice.

The difficulty of maintaining the illusion of an "I" who speaks becomes greater as "Gerontion" proceeds, for example, in the fifth stanza with its sequence of sentences beginning with the verb "Think," which continues into the next stanza. The sentences may be in the imperative mood. Or the subject of an indicative verb may have been omitted. The grammatical indeterminacy disturbs the statements' coherence in ways that resist resolution. The language pertains not to a character whose name indicates that he is a person but to one who is named artificially. Like a figure in a medieval allegory whose name points to a concept that is abstract and general rather than personal and individual, Gerontion is not a person but one among many possible incarnations of the meaning of his name in Greek, "little old man."

From Harmony of Dissonances: T.S. Eliot, Romanticism, and Imagination. Copyright © 1991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jewel Spears Brooker

The psychological coherence of the first verse paragraph, instrumental in clarifying both the main structural principle of superimposed contexts and the main image of the house within the house, is abandoned as Eliot moves to his second stanza. The tenuous psychological connections that critics have pointed to as transitions between these two stanzas are inventions, not discoveries. They are fabrications compelled by a desire for order. The fact is that the second stanza "follows" the first only in its arrangement on the page; logically and psychologically, the second does not follow at all. It does not properly begin, and it does not end; it simply starts, and then, without a period or even a comma, in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a line, it stops.

[. . . .]

This stanza relocates readers, giving them a far more inclusive vantage point. All of those ruined houses in windy spaces--from Gerontion's withered brain to Europe's war-shattered civilization--are suddenly placed in the context of the rejection of Christ. Although the second stanza lacks the internal coherence of the first, it is unified by the fact that all these fragments are related to the Christian religion and, as will become evident, to a special relation between knowledge and unbelief. As far as the overall structure of the poem is concerned, this stanza takes the most teratical image of the previous stanza--the Jew lying in wait for his prey--and superimposes one of history's greatest houses, the house of David. The principal tenants in this vision of the house of Israel are the Pharisees, Christ, and pulling together nineteen hundred years of history, the landlord squatting on the window sill of Europe. But these sons of David are not the only tenants of this antique house. Joining the natural brothers are many half brothers, audacious upstarts who irreversibly alter Abraham's line. The rejection of Christ by his brothers in blood led to an expansion of the house of Israel. Anyone of any race whatsoever who would accept Christ in faith was adopted into what the Bible calls the new Israel, the Christian Church. The tenants in Jacob's greater house include, then, Christ's adopted brothers and joint heirs, including in this stanza the seventeenth-century preacher, Lancelot Andrewes. The house of Israel, like the house of Gerontion, is decayed, dry, wind-sieged.

Eliot's main allusion in this second verse paragraph is to a sermon preached by Lancelot Andrewes before King James I on Christmas Day, 1618:

Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal
Word not able to speak a word; a wonder sure and . . .
swaddled; and that a wonder too. He that takes the sea
"and rolls it about the swaddled bands of darkness," to
come thus into clouts, Himself.

This sermon deals with the particular theme of Christmas--the Incarnation. The mystery of the Incarnation, of course, is the mystery of God being immured in a house of flesh. The ancient image of the body as a house, central in the previous stanza of this poem, has a special meaning here. In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the tenant of the body is a god; the house, therefore, is much more than a house--it is a temple. The Bible frequently describes the body of Christ as a temple. The book of Hebrews, for example, contains a detailed analogy between the Jewish house of God, the tabernacle, and the incarnate Christ, "a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands" (Hebrews 9: 11). And Christ referred to his own body in just these terms in a text alluded to by both Andrewes and Eliot (John 2:18-21). The temple of the Christ, then, is superimposed upon the Jewish temple which it transformed. The greater temple was swaddled in darkness, the darkness of infancy's powerlessness, the darkness of corrupted Judaism, the darkness of history. The body of Christ is a house apart in "Gerontion"; it also stood in a dry and windy land, but instead of decaying in the general aridity, it was arrested in full strength and destroyed. The ruin in all of the houses in in the poem is related to the destruction of this temple.

The text for Andrewes's sermon (and for Eliot's poem) is the demand by the Pharisees that Christ give them proof of his divinity--"We would see a sign!" This text focuses attention on another house within the house of Israel. The mind of the Pharisees is this new house, and it is in certain ways analogous to the mind of Gerontion.

Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. (Matthew 12:38-39)

This passage is crucial to understand "Gerontion," for it identifies the curse that has brought all these houses (Greek, Jewish, Christian) to ruin; this curse is a mentality that isolates intelligence from passion and from belief. Separated from its context, the above passage seems to say that Christ refused to give the Pharisees a sign, demanding that they accept him by faith alone. In context, the passage says almost the opposite. Most of Christ's career was devoted to giving signs to these professors of law and religion; but whenever a sign was given, the proud but unperceiving scholars took it for a wonder and, ironically, resumed their campaign for a sign. In the incident quoted above, Christ gave two signs of his divinity. First, he restored a paralyzed hand, and then he cast out a demon which was making its victim blind. The Pharisees witnessing these signs responded with their usual request, "We would see a sign!" They accepted the authenticity of the miracles, but they refused to accept their validity as signs. They would soon see the supreme sign, but their unbelief, inseparable from their learning, would prevent them from recognizing it.

This rejection by the Pharisees, quoted by Andrewes and by Eliot, was a turning point in the life of Christ and in history, because it led to an expansion of the house of Jacob. In his immediate response to these Pharisees, Christ oversteps the racial definition of Israel by asking "Who is my mother? And who are my brethren?" and by answering "Whosoever shall do the will of my Father, who is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Matthew 12:48-50). In the second stanza of "Gerontion," Eliot's use of Andrewes's sermon superimposes this more inclusive house of Israel, the Christian Church. It may be supposed that Eliot, who became an admirer of Andrewes's theology, is contrasting the rejection of Christ by the Jews to the acceptance of Christ by the Church, or that he is contrasting the Pharisees' blindness to Andrewes's insight. But Eliot's opening fragment, "Signs are taken for wonders," is as applicable to Andrewes as it is to the Pharisees, as applicable to the Christian Church as to Israel. In the specific part of the sermon to which Eliot alludes in his poem, Andrewes repeatedly declares that the Incarnation is a "wonder too," a "wonder sure." The seventeenth-century divines loved to preach about the supreme wonder of infinity incarcerated in a finite prison, of the one who swaddled the sea being swaddled in baby clouts. Seduced by paradox, they were enthralled by the wonder of omnipotence dependent upon a young woman for diaper changes, of omnipresence locked up in infant flesh. By transforming the Incarnation into an abstraction, by treating it as an occasion for rhetorical play, the Church had also taken the sign for a wonder. The Church is another of this poem's decaying, crumbling houses in dry and windy lands. The Church, furthermore, is occupied by desiccated and dying tenants housing dull and shriveled thoughts; the churchyard is parched and, literally as well as figuratively, packed with dry bones, dry stones, dry excreta.

The third stanza, which describes a corrupt eucharist ceremony, elaborates and complicates the houses already introduced in the poem. Attention is focused on the house of the twentieth-century Church as contemporary participants in the Mass are superimposed upon the Pharisees and upon the seventeenth-century Church as accomplices in the ongoing rejection of Christ. The motif of the body as a house is extended in this stanza. In the Church Age, i.e., after Pentecost, the bodies of Christians constitute the house of God. "Ye are the temple of the living god," Paul tells the weak Christians in Corinth (II Corinthians 6:16). Mr. Silvero, Hakagawa, Madame de Tornquist, and Fraulein von Kulp, then, are decayed temples, windswept, wind-sieged, wind-abandoned, wind-destroyed.

From Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

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