A Post-Modern Tribute to T.S. Eliot

On the Threshold of his Greatness,
The Poet Comes Down with a Sore Throat

from The Next Room of the Dream
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962)

by Howard Nemerov

Enthusiasm is not the state of a writer’s soul.—Valéry.1

For years I explored the pharmacopoeia
After a new vision. I lay upon nails
While memorizing the Seven Least Nostalgias.2
And I lived naked in a filthy cave,
Sneering at skiers, all one awful winter;
Then condescended, and appeared in tails
At the Waldorf-Astoria,where I excelled
In the dancing of the Dialecticians’ Waltz
Before admiring matrons and their patrons.

Those days, I burned with a hard, gemlike phlegm,
And went up like Excelsior4 in a huff
Of seven-veiled symbols and colored vowels.
Flying from the alone to the Alone,5
My name appeared on every manifest
Everything, Bhikkhus, was on fire.6
Things are so different now. My reformation,
Glittering, o’er my fault.7 . . . Anyhow,
It’s very quiet here at Monsalvat.8
The kids are singing in the cupola.9
But quietly. The good old psychopomp
Who comes to give my shots is terribly kind.
Procurasin at night in massive doses,
Repentisol next morning when I wake.
An unpretntious life, with late quartets
Among the early frescoes, a few friars
Asleep in their coffins10 off to one side,

Angles adoring11 where the jet planes wailed.
Evenings, we all eat from the same Grail.

Gin a body meet a body12
Under boo13
Under the bo
Under the bodhi tree
All is illusion,14 all is vanity15
Nobodhi there but me and me16

Metaphysics at mealtime gets in my hair.17

1 “Variety,” tr. by Malcom Cowley, in “An Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci.”
2 Ancient druidical chants of immense length. Also referred to in some early writers, as “The Small End of the Egg Wisdom.”
3 An hotel in New York City.
4 A poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
5 Plotinus, in Stephen Mackenna’s translation.
6 In the present tense in Buddha’s Fire Sermon addressed to a thousand monks at Gays Head in Magadha. See Henry Clarke Warren, “Buddhism in Translation” (Harvard, 1922), Ch. IV, Sec. 73. See also William Empson, “Poems” (London, 1935) and T.S. Eliot, “The Wast Land” (1922), Part II, “The Fire Sermon,” ad fin. Bhikkus = monks, or priests.
7 Shakespeare, “Henry IV Part One,” 1.2.236.
8 The Grail Castle. Richard Wagner, “Parsifal,” “Lohengrin,” See also Nemerov, “The Melodramatists” (1949), pp. 155 & ff.
9 T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” line 202: “Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!” Mr. Eliot’s note attributes the line to Verlaine, “Parsifal,” but probably the sentiment, in one form or another, goes back to antiquity. Cf. Kafka, “The Castle,” where K., telephoning for permission to enter the Castle, hears in the receiver “the hum of countless children’s voices—but yet not a hum, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance.”
10 See James Joyce’s celebrated story “The Dead,” in “Dubliners.”
11 Painting by Fra Angelico in the National Gallery, London.
12 Note the increased profundity of the Burns song in the new context.
13 Cf. T.S. Eliot, “Fragment of an Agon”: “Under bam / Under the boo / Under the bamboo tree.”
14 The Buddha.
15 Ecclesiastes. The collocation of these two representatives of Eastern and Western tradition, here at the collapse of the poem, may not be an accident.
16 The Buddha achieved illumination and Buddhahood under the bo tree from the perception that all the forces of evil threatening him arose from within himself.
17 Wallace Stevens, “Les Plus Belles Pages”: “Theology after breakfast sticks in the eye.”


Note on Notes. These notes have not the intention of offering a complete elucidation of the poem. Naturally, interpretations will differ from one reader to another, and even, perhaps, from one minute to the next. But because Modern Poetry is generally agreed to be a matter of the Intellect, and not the Feelings, because it is meant to be studied, and not merely read; and because it is valued, in the classroom, to the precise degree of its difficulty, poet and critic have agreed that these Notes will not merely adorn the Poem, but possibly supersede it altogether.

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