T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams: So Much Depends upon the Image
Essay by PQ Contributor Brian Fanelli
William Carlos Williams’ autobiography makes clear that the New Jersey poet had a drastically different upbringing than St. Louis-born T.S. Eliot. Williams describes growing up in a household of multiple languages and spending time overseas at a young age. Coming from a multi-culture background, Williams was determined to absorb the new world, to capture the American vernacular in his verse, and to create a poetry distinctly American, while Eliot, eager to absorb the old world, eventually became a British citizen. Yet, despite their separation from each other and each other’s work, Eliot and Williams successfully carved out space for the modern world in verse, using techniques rooted in Ezra Pound’s Imagist theory.
Before addressing Williams and Eliot’s poetry and their Imagist techniques, it is important to understand the poets’ backgrounds and how those shaped their writing. Unlike Williams’ family, Eliot’s had deep American roots, and because of his family’s wealth and success, he had access to the best schools, spending time in posh dormitories and eventually graduating with a B.A. and M.A. from Harvard. Shortly after graduation, Eliot made various trips oversees, including to Paris, London, and Germany, and by the summer of 1914, had penned some of his most famous poems, including “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Portrait of a Lady,” and “Preludes;” this manuscript was eventually seen by Ezra Pound, who called on Eliot that September and told Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine, that Eliot had “actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.”
Like Eliot, Williams had the chance to attend elite schools and travel overseas as a boy, before he attended college at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met some of the most influential modernist poets, including Pound and H.D. Unlike Eliot, however, Williams had a more diverse background, and his family did not have deep American roots. In his autobiography, Williams writes, “Spanish and French were the languages I heard habitually while I was growing up. Mother could talk very little English when I was born, and Pop spoke Spanish better, in fact, than most Spaniards.” Williams did not feel the need to give up his American citizenship and absorb the old world like Eliot did. Instead, he stayed in New Jersey and continued working as a baby doctor, while continually working in experimental forms rooted in Imagist theory.
Pound, in his essays “A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts,” urged contemporary poets to break from past traditions, especially English Romanticism, to establish a more unique and modern poetry. He called for:
1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.
Pound further illustrates his theory by stating an image is “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” adding that “it is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous work.” His views were a reaction to previous forms and poetic movements, especially the sentimentality and emotion of English Romanticism. Imagist poets got rid of the omnipresent voice of the poet, the Wordsworthian “I,” and instead of simply telling the reader how they felt, they used impersonal images to capture a moment in time or a feeling. Regarding rhythm, Pound said it should correspond to “exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.”
As different as Eliot and Williams’ lives were and as different as their poetry may seem, it does have underpinnings rooted in Pound’s Imagist theory. One of Eliot’s early poems and also one of the most anthologized, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” is steeped in Imagist techniques. Instead of using the “Wordsworthian I,” Eliot developed a persona, Prufrock, who spends most of the poem bumbling around. He is an inarticulate character who is worried about his age, his place in the strange, new modern world, and his relationship with women. Professor and scholar Ian Johnston defines the poem as a series of dramatic utterances, spoken by an invented persona, so that the images, as disjointed as they may appear, are all linked because they come from a single personality. By inventing the persona, Eliot was able to escape from the omnipresence of the poet’s personality.
Eliot uses the images to lead the reader through different rooms and to manifest modern life as he saw it. He begins the poem in romantic fashion with the lines “Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky.” However, he soon breaks from the rhymed couplet with the jolting simile and ugly image “like a patient etherized upon a table” in the third line. Eliot uses the technique throughout the rest of the poem, stacking symbol after symbol, including fog that “rubs its back upon the windowpanes,” one-night cheap hotels, women who come and go, talking of Michelangelo, and sea-girls. Though these images may not make sense at first, they reveal something about the consciousness of the speaker, that in this strange, new modern world, the beginning of the 20th Century, he is deeply troubled, insecure, inarticulate, and to quote Johnston again, the speaker represents the “loss of the integrated personality.” The images and the riffs come and go, without any definite conclusion.
Eliot uses the rhythm of the poem to reflect the speaker’s broken consciousness, which reflects Pound’s view that rhythm should correspond to “the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” Several times, Eliot breaks the meter and rhyme scheme, and he does this most when Prufrock falters, when he questions his age and his intellect, or when he is unable to act and express his emotions in words.
In another poem, “Morning at the Window,” from the same collection as “Prufrock,” Eliot again uses image after image to reflect the experience of the modern world and urban life. Unlike the other poems, however, Eliot employs no fixed rhyme schemes that he then breaks to show the fractured world. For the most part, the poem is written in iambic pentameter and adheres to the meter, without any true rhymes. Like the beginning of “Preludes,” Eliot opens “Morning at the Window” with a lot of sensory detail reflecting the hustle and loudness of urban life. The noise of breakfast plates rattle in basement kitchens, before shifting a few lines later to the image of housemaids “sprouting despondently at area gates.” Eliot gives an image per line, before moving to the next one. Each image reflects the speaker’s discomfort and troubling experience.
The second stanza draws some resemblance to the personified fog found in “Prufrock” that “rubs its back upon the windowpanes.” In “Morning at the Window,” the fog is also a fog of movement, which tosses up to the unnamed speaker “twisted faces from the bottom of the street” and also an “aimless smile” that hovers in the air, torn from a passer-by with muddy skirts.
In Eliot’s most famous poem, “The Waste Land,” the poet uses similar techniques found in his first book of poems, but enhances them, creating a poem of shifting forms, images, and multiple references to literature. The poem, edited and drastically cut down by Pound, features a multiplicity of voices, young and old, male and female. The shifts are often so sudden that sometimes it’s difficult to tell who is speaking. However, these voices do ultimately merge into what Johnston calls “a single personality,” “something we might call the voice of modern consciousness.” Johnston draws some parallels between “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” by stating that in both poems this modern consciousness cannot settle into a “fixed perception of things,” which conveys the strain of modern living, and the inability to find a single authoritative way to express how one feels.
After reading “The Waste Land,” Williams had an intense reaction to the poem. In his autobiography, he states:
To me especially it struck like a sardonic bullet. I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which would give it fruit. I knew at once that in certain ways I was defeated.
Earlier in the autobiography, Williams says, “The Waste Land” “gave the poem back to the academics” and was a “great catastrophe to our letters.” What frustrated Williams about the poem is Eliot’s insistence on so many references to classical literature, especially Shakespeare and Dante, and Eliot’s use of traditional forms, though he does shift and break them from section to section. Williams, however, felt that American poetry should sound distinctly American and use colloquial speech; therefore, he had no use for the old forms. Yet, despite his criticism of Eliot, Williams’ work does have some similarities, similarities rooted in Pound’s Imagist theory.
One of Williams’ early poems, “The Great Figure,” from the collection Sour Grapes, has a lot of similarities to Eliot’s early poems in its depiction of the modern world. Williams employs tight, clipped lines and gives one image at a time, first rain and light, before shifting to the specific image of a firetruck and the figure 5. Williams even isolates the poem’s two main colors, gold and red, to separate lines, one after the other. By doing so, he draws the reader’s attention to one image and detail at a time, a technique Eliot also used in his early poems. The figure 5 is especially important because as critic Peter Halter notes the figure 5 is “the focal point in a dynamic contemporary environment and embodies the technological nature of the things that make up this world.” Halter also adds, “As the 5 flashes by, large and prominent against the red background of the racing firetruck, it produces and intense moment of revelation. The golden figure is suddenly much more than a member number; it becomes one of the few heraldic signs that are part of the specific beauty of the modern age.”
This epiphany and revelation Halter addresses is similar to some of the epiphanies about the modern world found in Eliot’s poem, especially the smile that floats into the air but is erased by the buildings in “Morning Out the Window,” or the juxtaposed image of the horse and carriage and the streetlights at the end of the first stanza of “Preludes.” Furthermore, like Eliot’s early poems, “The Great Figure” depicts the modern world as noisy and chaotic, with “gong clangs,” “siren howls,” and “wheels rumbling/through the dark city.”
Williams’ use of color and symbols in several of his poems is certainly is an extension of Pound’s influence, but also an extension of his friendship with artists. Unlike Eliot and Pound, who frequently fled the states by traveling overseas, Williams was proud to hang around the American scene, especially in New York City, where he attended art shows and befriended Charles Demuth and other artists. In the article “William Carlos Williams in a World of Painters,” published in Boston Review, the writer Bonnie Costello quips, “While T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were reading the classics, William Carlos Williams was looking at pictures. He was first a modernist, second a poet.”
Williams’ friendship with painters, especially Demuth, inspired some of his most Imagistic poems, including the poem “Pot of Flowers” from Spring and All, a collection that weaves experimental prose with poetry. Based on the Demuth’s watercolor Tuberoses, Williams’ images and symbols are as distinct and vivid as the roses in the painting. The poet plays with colors and textures, contrasting them, setting colors against each other, even in the first line, which reads, “Pink confused with white.” Williams also contrasts light and dark. The flowers are given bright colors, such as pink, white, red, and green. The light and brightness associated with the petals is contrasted against a strange darkness associated with the flowerpot, which is described as “wholly dark” and “gay with rough moss.” It is as though the flowers are separate, floating above the pot in the transparent light that Williams describes. This contrast creates a fine energy in the poem, much like the contrast of colors in the poem “The Lonely Street.”
Another poem from Spring and All, “The Rose,” is based on the work of artist Juan Gris. Unlike “Pot of Flowers,” however, “The Rose” is a bit more experimental because the image representation is more fragmented. Costello states that “The Rose” “superimposes many planes of representation.” She goes on to say that the poem reflects Williams’ attention to cubist technique because the representation is so fragmented and different kinds of words and statements are “juxtaposed without connectives.” Using this technique, Williams is able to remove the image from conventional associations and give the imagination freedom to reconstruct the image.
During their careers, Eliot and Williams reached different levels of success. Several times throughout his autobiography Williams acknowledges that many of his early books, including In the American Grain, Spring and All, and Sour Grapes, did not sell well. Eliot, meanwhile, had astonishing success. He was featured on the cover of Time in March 1950, and on April 30, 1956, he lectured to 14,000 people at a baseball stadium in Minneapolis. Yet, Williams’ influence would be seen during later literary movements and future generations of poets, including Robert Lowell, who often praised Williams in his letters to Elizabeth Bishop, especially his book-length poem Patterson. In a letter to Bishop from November 1947, Lowell describes Book II of Patterson as “the best poetry by an American.” Williams’ use of the vernacular and colloquial language is evident in several modes of contemporary American poetry, and yet despite his separation from Eliot and Eliot’s poetry, similarities can be found between the poets’ work. Such underpinnings prove the far reaching influence of Pound.