Today is my birthday. I feel like an old woman, despite my mere 22 years. So much is happening this year that is forcing me into adulthood, though my spirit will stubbornly remain playful and curious. However, I can’t say for that I am not thankful. Do you ever feel older than you are? While many of my classmates crave the glitter and glory of success and money in this time of our life, I yearn for a cup of coffee and lightning bugs on a summer night. I want simplicity. At my age, I am constantly asked “what are your plans for life?” by well-meaning people, but many times I think my answer is not what they want to hear. “To be happy, and content. To love God, and see Him,” is often my response. While I enjoy success and work to be successful, work is still just work, and it’s not what I live for.
So given the backdrop of aging and maturing, and to remain in our common thread of the good things in life, today’s poem is one of the great, T.S. Eliot. I have always heard so much about this poet, but until recently I had never seriously read any of his works. I cannot get enough of this piece from his collection of poems (around 1920), titled “Gerontion”. Every time I read it I see a layer get peeled off and more depth underneath each line. I also felt my vocabulary stretch a bit, which is always a healthy exercise. I have included the entire poem, but will not be discussing every single line today to keep this post at a relatively reasonable length. I will be talking about the first stanza today, and will be finishing the others in the weeks to come. 🙂
Thou has nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both.
HERE I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt march, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
I an old man,
A dull head among windy spaces.
Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign”:
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fraulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
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. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s though 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
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devils
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use it for your closer contact?
These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay? De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured, atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a sleepy corner.
Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
-T.S. Eliot, 1920-
This piece has SO much going on, so many elements to it. I get nervous writing about poems like this because I’m afraid my ignorance really shows when I try and explain what words and phrases translate to me. So this is me, asking you all who have more experience and knowledge in poetry like this to bear with me.
When this poem starts out, I feel like I’m zooming into the future, and I see myself gray haired and fragile, staring out the window. I can smell and taste the weather in the fourth line of “warm rain.” The man is thinking back on the life he has lived and the life he has not lived. I think his house means his own body, with evidence of the wear his life has had on his body characterized by the places he has gone “Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London….”. The surroundings are quiet, enough so to hear a goat nearby, to feel the nature around “Rocks, moss, stonecrop…..” His woman makes tea as she always does, and he seems to feel like an average face “among windy spaces.”. There is then a space to the next stanza, which to me helps to set this setting of “windy spaces.”.
This poem is able to take me to a place that I often times feel like I am in, but don’t have the words to describe it (This is another reason I adore poetry- often times it speaks the words you can’t find). This gives me much to think about today regarding growing older. I don’t think it’s in a negative or pessimistic sense, it is real. I think it could be easily seen with a shadow of sadness over it, but I don’t feel that way.
Next week Part II will continue with our geron-talk. I’d love to hear any feedback you all have or thoughts this piece provokes.
Until next time,