The rare essence
This year is the centennial of the publication of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” And the long view is that Eliot was the greatest, most influential poet of the 20th century, at least, in the English language.
But oddly, he seems to have written only seven poems.
Along with “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland,” there are the “Four Quartets” and “The Hollow Men” — the last surely one of his weakest poems, whose popularity appeals to the shallow cynicism of pimpled adolescence. Beyond that — and not counting the ubiquity of the “Old Pussum” poems, for which the posthumous Eliot must be sorely embarrassed — the rest of his oeuvre is something read by graduate students. How many, after all, have actually read “Ash Wednesday” or the Choruses from “The Rock?”
It isn’t that these poems aren’t good, or aren’t worth studying or reading, but they haven’t stuck with us, while everyone can quote or misquote, “not with a bang but a whimper” and “April is the cruelest month.”
This isn’t to denigrate Eliot or his importance. I love reading through “Burnt Norton” over and over, or “The Dry Salvages.” But rather to illustrate a common point of art and culture.
After all, we hold William Wordsworth up to be one of English literature’s most exulted poets, maybe the greatest since Milton, yet, beyond the “Intimations Ode” and “Tintern Abbey,” and a few sonnets and Lucy poems, and maybe some notable passages from the interminable “Prelude,” how much of the vast output of that poet ever gets read outside of class?
I have a special place in my heart for Coleridge. I read and reread with intense pleasure a handful of his poems. “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” “Kubla Khan,” “Frost at Midnight,” “Tale of the Ancient Mariner” — but beyond that, how much of his work comes off as fustian.
Even Shakespeare, who wrote some 40 plays, is known to most of us through the “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” we studied in high school, and the “Hamlet,” “Lear,” or “Henry IV, Part I” we read in college. And perhaps there was that “Twelfth Night” put on by the college drama department. The bulk of his output languisheth in obscurity.
It’s not just in poetry. How many of us have read Melville’s “White Jacket” or “Israel Potter?” Or Thoreau’s “Week on the Concord and Merrimac?”
And not just in literature. Leonardo drew and painted many things, but the “Mona Lisa” and the Vitruvian Man outweigh all the ladies in Ermine or Madonnas of the rock.
Beethoven has his Fifth Symphony and his “Ode to Joy.” Warhol has his soup cans and his Marilyns. Even Springsteen has his “Born to Run” and “Born in the USA.”
The life and work of almost everyone gets boiled down to a few most characteristic and often the few best works. The rest, like the Latin poems of John Milton, are left to specialists.
In the preface to his “Collected Poems,” Wystan Auden makes this point with some clarity and poignancy.
The work of every author falls into four classes, he wrote. In the first is “pure rubbish,” which he regrets ever having conceived. (Although, I would say from experience, he doesn’t always recognize this at the time).
Second, Auden says, are the good ideas that come to naught through incompetence or impatience.
Third, are “those pieces he has nothing against except their lack of importance: these must inevitably form the bulk of any collection.”
This is the journeyman work, competent, even pleasing, and certainly better than lesser talents could accomplish, but still, it is the “filler” portion of a life’s work.
Finally, there are “those poems for which he is honestly grateful,” which, if he were to limit his publication to these alone, “his volume would be too depressingly slim.”
And, I would add, an impoverishment to doctoral students everywhere.
There are higher and lower batting averages among artists and writers, but, even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 tries. It is humbling.
More to the point, it isn’t just the author who feels gratitude for the home runs of his or her production, but we readers, listeners, seers and participants. We are those who feel our inner lives buoyed by the “Intimations Ode” or Chaucer’s prologue, or Van Gogh’s wheatfields.