Living, the poet is carrying on that struggle for the maintenance of a living language, […] which must be kept up in every generation; dead, he provides standards for those who take up the struggle after him’ (T. S. ELIOT).
23 March 1921 – Virginia Woolf made an entry in her diary describing a taxi ride she shared that evening with T.S. Eliot in which she told him that neither of them were as good as Keats. He agreed noting that neither of them wrote ‘classics straight off’ because ‘we’re trying something harder’.
I am not even tempted to suggest that by a ‘living language’ Eliot was referring to that used by everyday people in their everyday lives. It takes only one look at his landmark poem, The Waste Land, and its collage of disjointed imagery, references to classical myth (by his own admission in his notes to the poem, he says that Tiresias, punished for affronting the Greek goddess Hera, is the ‘most important personage’ in the poem), and German, Greek, French, and Italian passages to realise that Eliot was not the least interested in making his mark on the common folk. What interest could he possibly have in maintaining a ‘living language’ for use by the likes of the ‘bored and tired typist’ and her ‘young man carbuncular’ that he so sardonically depicts in that poem’s section entitled The Fire Sermon?
By ‘living language’ he must be referring to something else – something perhaps related to that comment he made in the taxi to Woolf – something that would impress not only (1) his contemporaries like Woolf (he read The Waste Land out loud in her parlour and the Woolf’s publishing company, The Hogarth Press, printed the UK version of his poem) but also (2) those poets who (as he notes) will take up the struggle after him.
Unfortunately for purposes of that ‘living language’, these later poets are inextricably linked with those who have come before. In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot suggests that (at least in the eyes of a critic) a poet always walks a thin line between being innovative and following in the footsteps of those before him – get the mix wrong and the poet will either be regurgitating the past or completely out in the (present) left field. Eliot also suggests that an aspiring poet should aways be aware of the ‘main current’ (which does not always flow from those with the most distinguished reputations) whilst at the same time being aware that art never improves (albeit the subject matter changes).
Quite what all this means for the struggle of maintaining a ‘living language’, we can only conjecture – not only can maintaining this ‘living language’ not have to much do with innovation which usually strives to improve art, but it also can not have much to do with the poet’s personal experience because in that same essay, Eliot advises that the ‘emotion of art is impersonal’. If the ‘living language’ is neither about living, nor about how the folks in the street communicate, nor about taking a innovative approach to poetry, then about what can it be?
The only sensible answer remaining is in regards to subject matter (which admittedly according to Eliot does change); here the horrors of the Great War of 1915-18 come to the fore – for it is without argument that for many people (including poets) this war quite literally changed their world. Now we return to The Waste Land on more solid ground – for it more than adequately incorporates the destructive element of this war. Now the disjointed imagery makes more sense – how could anyone who had lived through such unprecedented devastation feel anything but disconnected? Now the sad reminiscences of the speaker in The Burial of the Dead about drinking coffee in the ‘sunlight’ in the ‘Hofgarten’ before going ‘down’ – ‘hold on tight’ – can be seen as both contemporary and timeless – that and ‘weren’t you with me at ‘Mylae’? serves to remind us that sadly war and its devastating are enduring through the generations – now the connections drawn between that ancient Battle of Mylae in 260 BC and the ‘corpses’ that have ‘begun to sprout’ in 1918 make perfect sense.
In summary, if in Eliot’s estimation any living poet is to carry on that struggle for the maintenance of a ‘living language’, he must look not to his personal experience nor to his innovative techniques, but instead to his subject matter else when dead and judged by those who will struggle after him, he will be judged to have simply regurgitated that which has come before or relegated to the ranks of poets deemed to have been out in left field. Quite how such judgement squares with Eliot’s comment to Virginia Woolf that he and she were not writing ‘classics’ as did Keats but ‘trying something harder’, I am afraid that I still cannot quite say except perhaps in the extent that Eliot hopes it shall place him in the ranks of those of his contemporaries who will someday have the most distinguished reputations.