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A Closer Look on Live and Death in "Whispers of Immortality"
T.S. Eliot’s “Whispers of Immortality” is a close examination of life and death. Penned throughout the war-torn years among 1915 and 1918, Eliot’s quatrain poem cites the writers John Donne and John Webster as examples of metaphysical poets whose work depicts an understanding of mortality and spirituality. Juxtaposed against the function of Donne and Webster is the portrait of Grishkin, a seductive Russian temptress who exists purely in a globe of momentary pleasure. In “Whispers of Immortality,” Eliot contrasts the macabre interests of these seventeenth century writers with present-day sensual imagery to illustrate how metaphysical poetry’s intellect upsets contemporary poetry’s hedonistic ends.
Eliot’s piece is divided into two sections, every split into 4 quatrains with the last word in the second line assonant with the final word in the fourth line of every single stanza. The very first four stanzas are penned in the previous tense and focus on describing themes inside Donne and Webster’s person function and thought processes. He starts: “Webster was a lot possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin / And breastless creatures beneath ground / leaned backward with a lipless grin” (L1-L4). Webster’s described fascination with death and the occult (“possessed by death”) is emblematic of his genre’s interest in the morbid and spiritual worlds. In seeing “the skull beneath the skin,” the poet is shown as a clairvoyant who perceives a specific reality underneath the human form, a depiction that is furthered when Eliot writes that “He knew that believed clings round dead limbs / Tightening its lusts and luxuries” (L7-L8). The “lusts and luxuries” of the mind (“thought”) are merely fleeting and are negated by the onset of death, and the bones remain even right after the flesh has lengthy disintegrated.
In his 1921 essay, “The Metaphysical Poets,” Eliot notes that the seventeenth century authors “…feel their thought as instantly as the odour of a rose. A believed to Donne was an knowledge it modified his sensibility.” In the poem, he corroborates this assertion (“Donne, I suppose, was such another / Who discovered no substitute for sense / To seize and clutch and penetrate, / Professional beyond experience,” L9-L12) with a description of Donne’s intellectual curiosity and philosophical study. In the same essay, he writes: “A philosophical theory which has entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in 1 sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved.” Donne is regarded as by many to be the exemplification of the metaphysical poetic aesthetic, and shares Webster’s interest in the seemingly impenetrable concepts of life and death (“who found no substitute for sense”). The overtly sexual description, “To seize and clutch and penetrate / Professional beyond expertise,” portrays the thoughts versus physique tension that Donne and his contemporaries sought to clarify by means of poetic exploration. The writer rejects fleeting carnal pleasures in favor of the contemplation of mortality and human decay (“anguish of the marrow / The ague of the skeleton” L13-L14).
The second section of “Whispers of Immortality” is told in the present tense and marks a shift not only from formal to colloquial tone, but also from times of antiquity to the contemporary day. The poem’s subsequent half opens: “Grishkin is good: her Russian eye / is underlined for emphasis / Uncorseted, her friendly bust / Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.” (L17-L20). Eliot’s purposeful use of “nice” drips of sarcasm, and leads into a description of a woman whose existence is defined in terms of her fleshy and exaggerated physique. In contrast to Webster’s sexless, “breastless creatures,” and Donne’s feverish “skeleton,” Grishkin’s “friendly bust” invites the human touch with the ephemeral “promise of pneumatic bliss,” a sexual tryst. The Russian lady masks and glorifies her correct look, her eyes “underlined for emphasis” manufactured to seduce, she represents the “dissociation of sensibility…from which we have by no means recovered,” the post-seventeenth century crudeness described in “The physical Poets” that Eliot blames for the disorientation of modern day poetry.
Eliot equates the seductress to a predatory feline enticing a hapless primate with her pheromone-saturated scent (“The couched Brazilian jaguar / Compels the scampering marmoset / With subtle effluence of cat / Grishkin has a maisonette” (L21-L24). Even when lying “couched” in her apartment (“maisonette”), Grishkin’s gratuitous sensuality incites a visceral response from her unwitting prey. The poet elaborates, stating that even his metaphor of the cat and monkey pales in comparison to the supposed influence of the temptress (“The sleek Brazilian jaguar / Does not in its arboreal gloom / Distil so rank a feline smell / As Grishkin in a drawing area,” L25-L28). The metaphysical poets, as the name suggests, were captivated with theories and suggestions that existed outside of the palpable realm in contrast, and even in metaphor, the jezebel occupies a purely physical space fraught with primal desires.
The poem’s final stanza concludes: “And even the Abstract Entities / Circumambulate her charm / But our lot crawls amongst dry ribs / To maintain our metaphysics warm.” (L29-3L2). Grishkin’s unconcealed sexuality lends her a particular magnetic desirability, even to deeper-considering souls (“Abstract Entities”). These drawn into her deceptive net “circumambulate her charm,” orbiting helplessly around her gravitational pull. Nevertheless, the poem’s unnamed narrator is immune to the vamp’s “promise of pneumatic bliss,” rather seeking refuge amongst “dry ribs / To preserve our metaphysics warm” with other like-minded souls (“our lot”) who eschew the lure of sensualist pastimes. These extended-dead (“dry”) bones, Donne and Webster’s symbolic skeletal remains, are a rejection of Grishkin’s sensual physicality in favor of intellectual satisfaction.
Webster and Donne delighted in the contemplation of the seemingly inconceivable and generated meditative and expository poetic operates that sought to make sense of the irrational planet. In his prose, Eliot writes that, in metaphysical poetry, “…there is a direct sensuous apprehension of thought.” This “sensuous apprehension” is the alchemy of suggestions into palpable cerebral pleasure, the “skull beneath the skin” and the knowledge “beyond experience” that characterizes these poetic works. In “Whispers of Immortality,” death is everlasting and is related to the thoughts, while sex is ephemeral and purely confined to the physique. By way of comparing metaphysical and modern day poetry, Eliot asserts that the ecstasy derived from Donne and Webster’s texts lies in the coalescence of intangible concepts and emotions into a digestible whole. In contrast, the self-pleasuring nature of modern day poetry lacks the substance with which to relate intellectually outdoors of the physical self.
Eliot, T.S. “The Metaphysical Poets.” Centenary College, 2007. Internet. 10 Mar. 2013.
Lancashire, Ian. “Whispers of Immortality.” Representative Poetry On the web. Common Editor: Ian Lancashire. 1998. Net. 9 Mar. 2013.
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