T S Eliot

Posted on March 7th, 2011 by

T.S. Eliot – (Thomas Stearns (‘T.S.’) Eliot by Patrick Heron
oil on canvas, 1949
) NPG: Room 31

Eliot was perhaps the first great poet to take the challenge of Beethoven’s late chamber music and respond in kind. Eliot based his most musical of poems, the Four Quartets, on Beethoven’s genre-busting A minor Quartet Op 132. Four Quartets inspired Tippett’s 4th Quartet, which bears the subtitle Water out of Sunlight in homage to the poetic masterpiece. His was an explicit turning away from the Romantic notions of art, the very notion which Beethoven, whom he admired, admired:

 ‘Poetry is not the turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’. TSE

 The great St Ives artist, Patrick Heron, who made this visionary representation of Eliot in 1949, also believed in a complex interweave between an artist, the art and its audience:

 ‘The meaning which a work of art has for society is not the same as the meaning that the artist is conscious of putting into it. This is because a work of art is not just a telephone exchange which facilitates straightforward communication. The work of art is in some profound sense an independent, live entity. It has its own life. It draws nourishment from its creator that he was totally unaware of having put into it: and it redistributes nourishment to the spectator (including the artist himself, for he is also merely a spectator once the work is completed0 … that is why I say that to demand a certain result from art in advance is to utterly misconceive the central creative process itself. It is to suppress spontaneity: to batten down the subconscious.’ Patrick Heron Art is Autonomous 1955

Perhaps Heron’s work is an interloper in our exhibit, the only portrait to actively engage with the music revolution in painting initiated by Klee, Kandinsky, and Schoenberg. Perhaps that is why I have always been moved by its astonishing clarity. Wassily Kandinsky perhaps helped me understand why this might be so, although he might be words from Paul Klee’s mouth:                              

‘It is particularly interesting and significant that current musicographic representation, that is, standard musical notation, is nothing more than various combinations of point and lines. The length, however, is only discernible by the colour of the point (black and white only, which leads to a restriction of means), and the number of quaver lines. In the same way, the height of the sound is measured in lines, with the five horizontal lines of the stave serving as a base. It is enlightening to note that the conciseness and simplicity of the means of transcription enable the most complicated sonorities to be conveyed in clear language to the initiated eye, or directly to the ear. These two characteristics are a source of temptation for the other arts, and it is understandable that a proper form of notation is sought for painting and dance. Even here, there is only one road to follow, that of analysis of the basic elements in order to arrive ultimately at an adequate graphic expression.’

 T.S. Eliot was, in the composer’s words, Tippett’s ‘spiritual father’. Tippett initially approached him to write the libretto for A Child of Our Time, but the poet eventually demurred, insisting that Tippett should always write his own texts. At their last meeting, Tippett teased the poet for moving away from a poetic style for his play A Family Reunion. Tippett modelled all of his quartets in, one way or another on Beethoven. His penultimate, the 4th, was specifically cast in reflection of Eliot’s own ‘quartet cycle’.

 Eliot believed that all individual expression was, in part, the manifestation of a group-culture:

 ‘…the culture of the individual cannot be isolated from that of the group, and…the culture of the group cannot be abstracted from that of the whole society… our idea of ‘perfection’ must take all three senses of ‘culture’ into account at once.’

 However, he also believed that this was not for everyone. On Saturday 16th April 1921, he wrote to Wyndham Lewis:

 ‘Dear Lewis, Thankyou very much for the Tyro which has just arrived; I am writing at once before reading it as I should like to say some things in reference to the conversation last night. I think the Tyro has a very good appearance indeed this time. But my first thought on looking at the reproductions was that it is and has always been a pity that you have associated yourself with so many inferior artists. It seems to me that the idea of a group may have been alright once-but that now it is wrong for you-that you should dissociate yourself, in the public mind, from any group…. I think that you ought to emphasise your isolation.’

 Eliot is often perceived as an over serious figure. He was, however, capable of fun:

 Virginia Woolf to Elizabeth Bowen. Sunday Jan 29th 1939: ‘…I’m bemused with acting the part of Cleopatra in a mask last night in Regents Park. The gloves (blue, yours, wool) saved my life. I told you this, I hope, but am as you gather, no mistress of my thoughts; things bob up disorderly, if one’s been up, with Tom Eliot as Crippin [sic], till – well, it was only 1230: but it seemed somehow very very deep in a very long night.


The Spirit of Britain, Roy Strong, Hutchinson, P.615

 Patrick Heron, Michael McNay, Tate Publishing, 2002, Pp.51-2

 Point, Line Plane (exerpt), W. Kandinsky, 1926 Quoted in; Art in the 20th Century, a year by year Chronicle, Jean Louis Ferrier, Chêne-Hachette, Paris, 1999, P.259

Those Twentieth Century Blues, M. Tippett

Quoted in: Culture and Society-Coleridge to Orwell, Raymond Williams, The Hogarth Press, London, 1987, Pp.234-5

Letters, TS Eliot, Volume 1, Pp.445-6

The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 6 1936-1941, Ed. Nicholson and Trautman, HBJ, NYC, 1980, P.313