Andrew Lansdown

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T.S. Eliot

Four poems by T. S. Eliot:

1. “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” (Light/Children)

2. “Growltiger’s Last Stand” (Light/Children)

3. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

4. “The Journey Of The Magi” – with a critique by Geoff Page

 

 

Macavity: The Mystery Cat

 

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw—

For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.

He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:

For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!

 

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,

He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.

His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,

And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!

You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air—

But I tell you once and once again, Macavity’s not there!

 

Macavity’s a ginger cat, he’s very tall and thin;

You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.

His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;

His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.

He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;

And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake.

 

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,

For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.

You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square—

But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!

 

He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)

And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard’s

And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,

Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,

Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair

Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!

 

And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray,

Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,

There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair—

But it’s useless to investigate—Macavity’s not there!

And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:

It must have been Macavity!’—but he’s a mile away.

You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumb;

Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

 

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,

There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.

He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:

At whatever time the deed took place—MACAVITY WASN’T THERE!

And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known

(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)

Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time

Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

            T.S. Eliot

 

 

 

Growltiger’s Last Stand

 

Growltiger was a Bravo Cat, who travelled on a barge:

In fact he was the roughest cat that ever roamed at large.

From Gravesend up to Oxford he pursued his evil aims,

Rejoicing in his title of ‘The Terror of the Thames’.

 

His manners and appearance did not calculate to please;

His coat was torn and seedy, he was baggy at the knees;

One ear was somewhat missing, no need to tell you why,

And he scowled upon a hostile world from one forbidding eye.

 

The cottagers of Rotherhithe knew something of his fame;

At Hammersmith and Putney people shuddered at his name.

They would fortify the hen-house, lock up the silly goose,

When the rumour ran along the shore: GROWLTIGER’S ON THE LOOSE!

 

Woe to the weak canary, that fluttered from its cage;

Woe to the pampered Pekinese, that faced Growltiger’s rage;

Woe to the bristly Bandicoot, that lurks on foreign ships,

And woe to any Cat with whom Growltiger came to grips!

 

But most to Cats of foreign race his hatred had been vowed;

To Cats of foreign name and race no quarter was allowed.

The Persian and the Siamese regarded him with fear—

Because it was a Siamese had mauled his missing ear.

 

Now on a peaceful summer night, all nature seemed at play,

The tender moon was shining bright, the barge at Molesey lay.

All in the balmy moonlight it lay rocking on the tide—

And Growltiger was disposed to show his sentimental side.

 

His bucko mate, GRUMBUSKIN, long since had disappeared,

For to the Bell at Hampton he had gone to wet his beard;

And his bosun, TUMBLEBRUTUS, he too had stol’n away—

In the yard behind the Lion he was prowling for his prey.

 

In the forepeak of the vessel Growltiger sat alone,

Concentrating his attention on the Lady GRIDDLEBONE.

And his raffish crew were sleeping in their barrels and their bunks—

As the Siamese came creeping in their sampans and their junks.

 

Growltiger had no eye or ear for aught but Griddlebone,

And the Lady seemed enraptured by his manly baritone,

Disposed to relaxation, and awaiting no surprise—

But the moonlight shone reflected from a hundred bright blue eyes.

 

And closer still and closer the sampans circled ’round,

And yet from all the enemy there was not heard a sound.

The lovers sang their last duet, in danger of their lives—

For the foe was armed with toasting forks and cruel carving knives.

 

Then GENGHIS gave the signal to his fierce Mongolian horde;

With a frightful burst of fireworks the Chinks they swarmed aboard.

Abandoning their sampans, and their pullaways and junks,

They battened down the hatches on the crew within their bunks.

 

Then Griddlebone she gave a screech, for she was badly skeered;

I am sorry to admit it, but she quickly disappeared.

She probably escaped with ease, I’m sure she was not drowned—

But a serried ring of flashing steel Growltiger did surround.

 

The ruthless foe pressed forward, in stubborn rank on rank;

Growltiger to his vast surprise was forced to walk the plank.

He who a hundred victims had driven to that drop,

At the end of all his crimes was forced to go ker-flip, ker-flop.

 

Oh there was joy in Wapping when the news flew through the land;

At Maidenhead and Henley there was dancing on the strand.

Rats were roasted whole at Brentford, and at Victoria Dock,

And a day of celebration was commanded in Bangkok.

            T.S. Eliot

 

 

 

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

 

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,

Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.1

 

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question …

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

 

    In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

 

    The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

 

    And indeed there will be time

For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,

Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

 

    In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

 

    And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—

(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

 

    For I have known them all already, known them all—

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music from a farther room.

    So how should I presume?

 

    And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

    And how should I presume?

 

    And I have known the arms already, known them all—

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare

(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

Is it perfume from a dress

That makes me so digress?

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.

    And should I then presume?

    And how should I begin?

 

           *         *         *         *

 

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

 

    I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

 

           *         *         *         *

 

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!

Smoothed by long fingers,

Asleep … tired … or it malingers,

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,

Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,

I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

 

    And would it have been worth it, after all,

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

    Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;

    That is not it, at all.”

 

    And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:

Would it have been worth while

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,

And turning toward the window, should say:

    “That is not it at all,

    That is not what I meant, at all.”

 

           *         *         *         *

 

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

 

    I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

 

    Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

 

    I do not think that they will sing to me.

 

    I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

 

    We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

 

T.S. Eliot

 

 

1 Translation:

If I believed that my reply were made
To one who to the world would e’er return,
This flame without more flickering would stand still;
But inasmuch as never from this depth
Did any one return, if I hear true,
Without the fear of infamy I answer …

From Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXVII, lines 61-66

 

 

 

 

 

Journey of the Magi

 

            ‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

 

            Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation,

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky.

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

 

            All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

 

                                    T.S. Eliot

 

 

A Critique of “Journey of the Magi” by Geoff Page

T.S. Eliot is most famous for his 1922 classic, ‘The Waste Land’, but it is in some of his shorter poems that his personality can be felt most strongly. Eliot, of course, thought that the concept of ‘personality’ was much over-rated and invented the term ‘Objective Correlative’ to emphasise how a successful work of art should be embodied in a ‘set of objects, a situation, a chain of events’ quite separate from the personality of its creator. Thus we have the paradox of ‘Journey of the Magi’ where Eliot, in the voice of a distant biblical character, voices (we must suspect) the complex feelings he experienced prior to his conversion to Christianity in 1927.

Of course, such biographical surmise would be of no interest at all, if ‘Journey of the Magi’ were not already a major poem to start with. Some of Eliot’s earlier work was certainly wittier and/or more innovative in its imagery but this 1927 dramatic monologue is a triumph of plain language, appositely used.

Eliot begins, characteristically, with a quotation (somewhat re-organised) from another writer, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes. Andrewes’ sermon, preached on Christmas Day 1622, also emphasises the difficulties of the magi’s journey to witness Christ’s birth and how, although they find ‘nothing worth their travel … they will take Him as they find Him, worship Him for all that’.

These difficulties, partly based on Andrewes’ account, are vividly presented by Eliot: ‘the camels … / Lying down in the snow’, the ‘camel men … running away’, the ‘hostile’ cities, the ‘unfriendly’ towns etc. Knowing what we do of the poet’s evolving beliefs at the time — and his ideas about the ‘Objective Correlative’ — it is hard not to see these details as symbolic of the doubts and reservations he must have had on his way to conversion. Interestingly, in a statement to a friend at the time about the convictions of Marxists, Eliot said: ‘My own beliefs are held with a scepticism which I never even hope to be rid of.’ The tone of Eliot’s narrator in the poem’s final stanza has much of this feeling. Though the magus is ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation’, what he has seen (i.e. the birth of the saviour) elicits only the comment: ‘It was (you may say) satisfactory.’

Before this, however, we have the premonitory second stanza with its optimistic beginnings and its foreshadowing of Christ’s mission and death. It’s a ‘temperate’ valley. There is ‘vegetation’ at last and a ‘running stream’. To some commentators the ‘white horse’ prefigures the white horse on which Christ rides in Revelations. The connection between the ‘three trees on the low sky’, the ‘pieces of silver’ and the crucifixion story is, of course, clear. The magi have a sense of what is to come but no knowledge of the ultimate details or any sense of their cosmic significance. By the end of the stanza, however, the mood is less cheerful. The magi do manage to witness Christ’s birth but, from their necessarily limited viewpoint, it is merely ‘satisfactory’ and hardly the revelation they had been travelling for.

In the final stanza, however, the thrust of the poem becomes clear via Eliot’s serious but paradoxical games with the antonyms ‘birth’ and ‘death’. The magi have no doubt they witnessed a birth but they also realise something in them died at the same time. They are ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation’. They have to see their people now as mere idolaters, desperately ‘clutching their gods’. If Eliot’s poem had ended here it would have been a good deal less moving, leaving us with only a sense of the magi’s frustration. In the last line, however, the narrator takes a further leap and says ‘I should be glad of another death’ i.e. glad to experience the full meaning of what they sensed only dimly around the manger.

In terms of Eliot’s own religious progress we may take the last line to refer to the fact that he had committed himself to Christianity (Anglo-Catholicism, in particular) without a full understanding of what would be involved — but with a trust that, even so, all would be revealed over time. The experience ‘was (you may say) satisfactory’ but Eliot is hoping, like the magus, for something more. Anything less like the standard Billy Graham-style conversion is hard to imagine. The dryness of Eliot’s personality has remained unchanged even though it has endured the long journey and been given ‘a wink of heaven’ — as he would have Thomas Becket say later in his  play, Murder in the Cathedral.

Some critics have seen Eliot’s poetry after ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) and ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927) as a decline from his earlier work (which was, incidentally, more religious than they often noticed). In ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), admittedly, the language does become excessively liturgical and of interest more to high Anglicans than to, say, the average agnostic. In ‘Journey of the Magi’, however, Eliot still has plenty of descriptive vividness, as in the first two stanzas. We see the camels in the snow: we hear the camel men ‘wanting their liquor and women’. We see, too, the ‘three trees on the low sky’ both literally and symbolically. The ‘empty wine-skins’ are just that — though some might imbue them with further meaning. In the final stanza, certainly, the language becomes more abstract but there is still the compensating intellectual energy of the poet’s ‘death’/’birth’ word play. We are in the mind of the magus but we are also in the poet’s mind as they both wrestle with the implications of what they have seen (and what they are now somehow committed to).

It is hardly necessary to go into what makes ‘Journey of the Magi’ a great poem rather than a coded diary entry. Certainly the poet’s sense of syntactical balance has something to do with it — as seen in phrases such as ‘The ways deep and the weather sharp’ (which, admittedly, is stolen from Bishop Andrewes). It’s also in the sense of release we feel in the triple rhythms of ‘Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley’ or the free verse adjacent stresses of ‘three trees on the low sky’. Eliot said (in the language of his time), ‘No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job’. The discipline of Eliot’s freedom is felt in every line. Even his strange lineation in ‘set down / This set down / This’ has a disconcerting psychological purpose.

‘Journey of the Magi’ (along with Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and Eliot’s own ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’) shows what subtle uses the dramatic monologue can be put to. ‘Journey of the Magi’ may not necessarily be Eliot’s ‘best’ poem but it remains one of the triumphs of the form in English.

 

This essay by Geoff Page is from his book 80 Great Poems from Chaucer to Now (University of New South Wales Press, 2006) and is reproduced on andrewlansdown.com by kind permission of the author.

 

 

Listen to T.S. Eliot read “The Journey of the Magi” here: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070

 

 

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