, , , , , , ,

Having come through the door we meet the “them” promised by the thrush. Here is what was lurking in the poet’s “first world”

There they were, dignified, invisible,

Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,

In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,

And the bird called, in response to

The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.

The inhabitants are described as follows:

Dignified. That is a curious word to begin. We could just dismiss this as Eliot being proper. But something more seems here. Something which is unreal could easily be ridiculous: but there is an honor here of sorts.

Invisible: How then are known? Imagination. They cannot be remembered, because this is the world which has never been. And so we enter into the imaginary world somehow shared (whether Eliot with someone else, or perhaps with us the reader is unclear). 

Moving: The idea of moving is coupled with the “unheard music” compels me to think of a dance. These phantoms (I don’t think “ghost” or “spirit” is right) are dancing over “dead leaves” but they break nothing. They “mov[e] without pressure.” 

I’m not sure what to do with the “autumn heat” beyond notice that the whole has the feel of being stifling. There are phantoms, but nothing is stirring. It is hot, but there is no breeze. When this is coupled with the language from earlier about unstirred dust on rose leaves, there is a feeling of an utterly closed-up world. 

This was a choice Eliot has made: while this old, closed up world is one way to imagine the never-has-been past, it is also the case that he could have produced a chaotic and vibrant never-have-been. This was a choice. 

Notice the environment: the air is “vibrant” but like the dancers without pressure, the vibration is of a music which is not heard. Everything is it seems potential: this is what could have been: dancing, music. But not there.

The bird is here: it is the guide into this imaginary space. The bird calls to the unheard music: it is in the shrubbery, it is off-camera, coming from some place ou cannot see. 

The eyebeam crossed: This is an idea as far back as Plato in Timeaus who explained that the fire made within us can cross through the eye and shine upon things to give sight:

“And of the organs they first contrived the eyes to give light, and the principle according to which they were inserted was as follows: So much of fire as would not burn, but gave a gentle light, they formed into a substance akin to the light of every-day life; and the pure fire which is within us and related thereto they made to flow through the eyes in a stream smooth and dense, compressing the whole eye, and especially the centre part, so that it kept out everything of a coarser nature, and allowed to pass only this pure element. When the light of day surrounds the stream of vision, then like falls upon like, and they coalesce, and one body is formed by natural affinity in the line of vision, wherever the light that falls from within meets with an external object. And the whole stream of vision, being similarly affected in virtue of similarity, diffuses the motions of what it touches or what touches it over the whole body, until they reach the soul, causing that perception which we call sight.”

The idea had various uses in science and art thereafter. Eliot certainly was not proposing this as a real effect (no one believed such in the 20th century). So why then this reference here?

Eliot was influenced by the metaphysical poet John Donne (if you are interested, here is a paper on the topic, https://www.academia.edu/38522764/The_Poetry_of_John_Donne_T_S_Eliot_as_Critic_and_Poet) and perhaps these lines from Donne’s poem the Extasie were alluded to by Eliot

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thred

Our eyes, upon one double string;

If there is allusion to regret and love in the poem, then the reference to Donne would be appropriate and ironic.

Next comes a line which has always delighted me:

                                                for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at

This speculative space of what has never been is inhabited and it effects and affects. The eyebeams of the phantoms (?) have seen the roses – which calls back to rose leaves above. The roses disclose the presence of the lovers seeing one-another. The roses evidence the crossed gazed. The reality of this love played out in the unseen world.

And finally:

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.

This raises a question: Is this imaginary space the poet’s own life? Are these true third parties. Or is this some alternative to himself: this is me if the world had been different?

And how then are they here as guests? They are not recriminating: accepted and accepting. 

He never quite defines these phantoms. I think they must be poet and someone else (again a lover, the reader, is this written to a particular person and we are overhearing?) are the ones at issue. The “they” is not someone else but rather a who Eliot could have been.

The reference to the “eyebeams crossed” makes this intimacy a moment of lovers. And the prove of their presence is shown in the roses. 

And for a moment, there is peace. We are permitted in; and we are at peace with this other self.

In the next movement, this equipoise will be dissolved.