Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic,
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on ponds and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow. A bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
When TS Eliot died fifty years ago this month, as his biographer Robert Crawford writes in The Guardian (January 10th), “[h]e was not just the most famous poet alive, but regarded (as many still regard him) as the finest poet of the twentieth century. Internationally lauded, he had been awarded the Nobel prize, the Dante Gold Medal, the Goethe prize, the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit. Adults knew him as the poet not just of “Prufrock”, but also of The Waste Land and Four Quartets; theatre audiences had flocked to his plays such as Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party at the Edinburgh Festival, in London and on Broadway; at home and at school, children relished “Macavity”, one of the poems from his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, just as eagerly as later audiences have delighted in Cats, the musical based on those poems …
“Fifty years later, “difficult” remains the word most people attach to his verse. Yet we quote him: “Not with a bang but whimper”, the last line of Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”, is among the best-known lines of modern poetry. “April is the cruellest month” begins The Waste Land with unsettling memorability; no reader forgets the strangeness of the “patient etherised upon a table” at the start of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”. Eliot’s mastery of the pliancy of language gives his poetry an insistency of sound and image that seems ineradicable.”
If Eliot is then to be regarded as the greatest English-language poet of the twentieth century (his only rival, one assumes, is still Yeats) it is appropriate that the major British award for poetry is named after him. Sinead Morrissey was the winner of the TS Eliot Prize last year, for her collection Parallax. This year, as announced this evening, the £20,000 prize went to David Harsent, for Fire Songs, which The Guardian described as delivering “a stream of feverish, oneiric visions, of apocalypse brought about through war or environmental catastrophe or the boundless human capacity for self‑deception and bedevilment”. Fiona Sampson, in The Independent, described it as “a compelling, not a depressing, read”.
The other nominated volumes were: Bright Travellers by Fiona Benson, All One Breath by John Burnside, Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück, The Stairwell by Michael Longley, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth by Ruth Padel, Fauverie by Pascale Petit, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers, When God is a Traveller by Arundhathi Subramaniam and I Knew the Bride by Hugo Williams.
Fire Songs is published by Faber. Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land will be published by Cape on February 5th.