T.S. Eliot’s innate lyricism: “A Lyric” (or “A Song”)

T.S. Eliot at 13 reading Shakespeare. Oil on canvas by sister Charlotte Eliot {later Smith} c 1900-01.

Before looking at any of his more mature works, it’s worth noting that T.S. Eliot showed signs of lyrical talent from relatively early on.

This entry should therefore be considered an addendum to the earlier post on Eliot so that no one concludes that Eliot’s poetry solely derived from a neurotic maladjustments and rather tawdry prejudices.

Eliot’s mother, of course, spent much of her own time writing religious verse. She had been educated in and later taught at private schools. She even taught for a while at Antioch College. Her life-long aspiration to be a serious writer were never fulfilled, even though some of her poems were published in the Christian Register. She proved to be a very powerful influence on Eliot for good and ill. He adopted her preferred medium for creative outlet, but rejected her pat, bloodless Midwestern Episcopal outlook. For a while he would replace it with medieval Catholicism. He would eventually settle on the Anglican Church, which combined the very form of his Protestant upbringing with a connection to monarchism, which appealed to his ultra conservative world view.

Eliot also rejected the beliefs in civic duty and social progress that his minister grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, stood for. (Eliot’s feelings in this regard were complicated by his mother’s. Charlotte C. Eliot so revered her father-in-law that she wrote his biography, which Houghton, Mifflin, published in 1904. Eliot never met his grandfather.) Eliot’s grandfather must have cast a large shadow; Dickens, who met him during his American tour, describes him in his American Notes (1842) as “a gentleman of great worth and excellence.” Eliot would spend his secondary school days in the boys school that his grandfather founded in St. Louis, Smith Academy. It was here, during his senior year, that he wrote his oldest surviving poem.

It was written as a school exercise and graded by his teacher, English master Roger Conant Hatch. The poem earned an “A.” Eliot later wrote J.H. August that Hatch had “conceived great hopes of a literary career for me” (August 19, 1943 in John Hayward (ed.), Poems Written in Early Youth by T.S. Eliot (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux: c1967).

Eliot told his second wife, Valerie Eliot (who like his first wife was devoted to his writing but was self-effacing but unlike Valerie merged her identity into his), that he wrote certain verses when he was “nine or ten” about his sadness on returning to school each Monday. When he was fourteen, in the thrall of the Rubáiyátid, he wrote “some very gloomy quatrains” (id. at v). None of these have been found.

The untitled piece for Master Hatch imitated a form used by Ben Jonson. It also reflected his sensibilities and wit (particularly in the rhyme scheme). In a talk he gave on June 9, 1953, at Washington University in St. Louis (a school co-founded by his grandfather, who was also its chancellor for the 17 years before his death), Eliot remembered fondly his teachers at Smith Academy, which he then claimed was the “most important part” of his education. As for his poem, he said that Mr. Hatch “commended [it] warmly” while “at the same time asking me suspiciously if I had any help in writing it.” (This undoubtedly produced the kind of warm, knowing chuckle that a worshipful audience always gives a great man). T.S. Eliot, To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings (Univ. Nebraska Press: 1991), p 45.

He didn’t show his parents a copy of the published poem. Nevertheless his mother obtained a copy of the Smith Academy Record. She told Eliot (as related to Valerie) “that she thought it better than anything in verse she had ever written. I knew what her verse meant to her. We did not discuss the matter further.” Valerie Eliot (ed), The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume One 1898-1922 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: c1988), p 5 n.1.

Eliot would arrange for the publication of his mother’s dramatic poem “Savonarola” with his own introduction in 1926 (by R. Cobden-Sanderson, London). This act undoubtedly liquidated many debts.

The manuscript of the poem, in the handwriting of Eliot on ruled paper, is at King’s College, Cambridge and bears the unflattering record number “Doggerel License No. 3,271,574.” It is untitled but dated January 24, 1905. When it was published by the school in April, it was titled “A Lyric.”

Eliot recycled the poem for his college literary magazine, revising it sightly. The revision shows his attention to lyrical quality (and the maturing of his ear). It was published in 1907 under the title “Song.”

I set forth both versions below.

A Lyric

from the Smith Academy Record (April 4, 1905)

by T.S. Eliot

If Time and Space, as Sages say,
Are things which cannot be,
The sun which does not feel decay
No greater is than we.
So why, Love, should we ever pray
To live a century?
The butterfly that lives a day
Has lived eternity.

The flowers I gave thee when the dew
Was trembling on the vine,
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
To suck the eglantine.
So let us haste to pluck anew
Nor mourn to see them pine,
And though our days of love be few
Yet let them be divine.


from the Harvard Advocate (June 3, 1907)

by T.S. Eliot

If time and space, as sages say,
Are things which cannot be,
The fly that lives a single day
Has lived as long as we.
But let us live while yet we may,
While love and life are free,
For time is time, and runs away,
Though sages disagree.

The flowers I sent thee when the dew
Was trembling on the vine
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
To suck the eglantine.
But let us haste to pluck anew
Nor mourn to see them pine,
And though the flowers of life be few
Yet let them be divine.

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