Hearing T.S. Eliot’s poems read brings us back to the haunting beauty of the words themselves, and hearing the words unlocks Eliot’s powerful imagery, just as he would have wanted. Jeremy Irons’ classic rendition empowers this strange transaction, and through the words we are taken beyond the words to the realm of the Word.
Those of us who are bookish tend to forget that the written word was spoken first, and the spoken word is the primary form of language. Stories were told. Drama was acted and poetry was recited by the bards.
The printing press not only made books cheap and plentiful, but it gradually changed the way words were written and read. This move from speaking aloud to reading alone registers not only a shift in how language was used, but also a shift in how both writers and readers think. The process of reading alone moved language into the mind. The imagination flourished but the use of language became more abstract, less concrete. A direct, individualistic communication from writer to reader became possible without the mediation of the storyteller, the bard, the preacher or the teacher.
T.S. Eliot’s poetry is often perceived as abstract, cerebral and obscurantist. As an English and Speech major in college, I can remember fellow students struggling with Eliot’s work while it did not seem so difficult to me. Looking back, I believe this is because I was approaching it as an actor and speech major. I recited the poetry aloud, let it drip through my brain to my lips, mouth, teeth, and tongue. The machinery of speech made Eliot’s imagery more real and helped the poetry live.
It is sometimes forgotten that Eliot was also a dramatist. Although his drawing-room comedies now seem impossibly dated, I believe there is time for a review and for them to be re-staged. As Shakespeare is translated into modern dress or foreign contexts, so Eliot’s plays, with a creative director, could be re-shaped, abridged, and produced to good effect.
Eliot’s dramatic gift echoes through most of his poetry. Vignettes from the early poems are highly dramatic as are the mini-dialogues, scraps of conversation, monologues, and snippets of comment that litter the poems. The inner monologue of J. Alfred Prufrock, the voices of the Magi, Saint Simeon, and the echoed conversations in The Four Quartets all reveal Eliot the thespian—with a keen memory for patterns of speech and the observation and mimicry of an actor. His quotations from a wide range of sources appear and disappear like quotes from the ghosts of distant masters.
At an informal gathering during his Harvard years he had played Mr. Woodhouse in Austen’s Emma. The elderly hypochondriac would seem to be a part made for the perennial gerontion. In England, the young American seemed intent to be more buttoned-up than the English themselves. Virginia Woolf teased, “Tom will be here in his six piece suit.” He seemed always to be assuming a role, and it was remarked that he would sometimes appear at their Bloomsbury soirees wearing pale green makeup to give himself a cadaverous visage. The liturgical appearance of Mr. Eliot helped him play the role of the bank clerk, a scholarly schoolteacher, and the professional publisher—all of which seemed somewhat of a meticulous charade. The real Eliot was a mystery—his truly intense and sensitive soul hid carefully behind a series of facades. Even Wyndham Lewis’ famous portrait makes his visage solid and mask-like.
Eliot’s dramatic sense is an overlooked dimension which helps to illuminate his most dense and eclectic work, The Waste Land. One of the best critical studies of the work and the poet is Calvin Bedient’s He Do the Police in Different Voices. Mr. Bedient takes as his starting point Eliot’s gift for drama and shows how the different scenes, conversations, dialogues, and inner monologues explain the poem. The title of his study is a quote from Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, “Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the police in different voices.”
This brings me to an astonishing new way to enjoy Eliot’s work. The BBC has produced a boxed CD with the magnificent actor Jeremy Irons reading Eliot’s complete poems. Mr. Irons’ sonorous and somewhat languid voice brings the perfect tone to Eliot’s wryly observant poetry. Each poem is read with precise beauty, restraint and the dignity you would expect.
The centerpiece of the early poems is, of course, The Wasteland, and the producers have brilliantly added the classic actress Eileen Atkins to the cast. She and Mr. Irons together pick through the wreckage of the wasteland taking the different voices as one scene fades up into focus, then drifts out and away like smoke across a bomb site.
The opening scene with the German girl, the frightening encounter with Madame Sosostris, the terrifying bondage to the hysterical madwoman…. “My nerves are bad tonight, yes bad. Stay with me,” the typist and “the young man carbuncular,” and the low Eastenders in the pub:
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
All the gruesome cast members are there, and Mr. Irons and Ms. Atkins portray them with cunning accuracy. One reviewer has said, “Jeremy Irons was born to read these poems… just the right slightly sour, repressed, ironic. smarter than the rest of humankind, tone.”
Hearing the poems read brings us back to the haunting beauty of the words themselves, and hearing the words unlocks Eliot’s powerful imagery just as he would have wanted. His theory was that the words evoke images and the images spark the imagination, and the imagination opens the heart and mind to realms beyond the words. Mr. Irons’ classic rendition empowers this strange transaction, and through the words we are taken beyond the words to the realm of the Word.
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