- Eliot’s Magic
Poetry, at its best, is magic. Using the word “magic,” I do not intend to be glib, nor to suggest legerdemain or deception or diablerie, exactly; rather, I intend something closer to the word’s ultimately Persian etymological origin, which it shares with other of our words, such as “Magi” and “magisterial,” and with the Latin magister, “master” or “teacher.” In the final line of the Ars Amatoria, Ovid hopes that future love-poets will proclaim, Naso magister erat, “The Nose [Ovid’s nickname] was our magister,” our master, our magus, our magician. With its rapid shifts in scene and its glissando movements up and down registers, the Ars Amatoria adumbrates that most magical poem, The Metamorphoses, as well as most of the erotic poetry of the Renaissance, particularly that period’s Metaphysical poetry, in which, as Dr. Johnson grumbled, “the most heterogeneous materials are yoked by violence together.” In the Metaphysicals’ erotic poetry, as in Ovid’s, yoking these “heterogeneous materials” together enacts on the page the movement of Eros itself, which brings discrete, and often seemingly opposite, individuals together into a union. Indeed, the power to effect such a metamorphosis, uniting the separate in a discordia concors, is at the core of poetry’s magic.
While in recent years, biographers and scholars have insisted upon showing us the magician at home, bereft of his wand and his mantle, dismantling the mysterious figure who speaks to us from the poems’ stage, the recent publication of The Poems of T. S. Eliot, edited by Sir Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, offers readers a monumental reminder that Eliot was something like the Houdini of American poets, a poet as elusive as he was allusive. Just when we think we have him, [End Page 46] he vanishes, only to reappear in some unexpected location—something like an opossum. What’s more, Eliot can make the world around us vanish, and he can restore it, though the cities and the sky and the light coming through the trees never look quite the same as they did before he waved his caduceus or batted us about the head with The Golden Bough as if he were knighting us. He can conjure the heart-breakingly inarticulate interiors of lost worlds; he can make silence speak. He can make presence absence, absence presence, and summon ghosts. Wiser far than his own Madame Sosostris, he can tell us things about ourselves we are too frightened to confess, even to ourselves. Of course, I do not intend to attribute cryptesthetic powers to Eliot; in a Puritanically literal sense, he could not perform any of the feats mentioned above any more than the best magicians and fortune-tellers can perform such feats. On the page, however, Eliot seems either to have known or to have invented just about every trick in the grimoire. And, like all magicians, Eliot’s supreme value is his ability to entertain, to fascinate, to fill us with wonder, whether we believe, when the curtain closes, that he was a charlatan, or not.
The efficacy of Eliot’s magic is well-known, or used to be, or ought to be, or to have been. When, in a 2003 essay for Literary Imagination, Anthony Hecht described his first encounter with Eliot’s poetry, he might have been describing my own, or the experience of any number of young persons inclined to suffer bouts of mysterious barythymia across the past century or so:
It was with something like astonishment that I first encountered the poems. . . . The effect was stunning, and not easy to describe. There was much, of course, I didn’t understand—a fact I freely admitted. At the start I focused my attention almost entirely on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” But for all my bewilderment, it seemed clear to me that for the first time I was being presented with a poetry entirely new to me: rueful, measured, unecstatic, a poetry of calculated understatement. . . . Here, I felt, was a poet I could instinctively trust. And I trusted him the more because he was so widely distrusted by the “authorities.” [End Page 47]
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