Friday, May 01, 2009

Measuring out life in coffee spoons

Can Gordon Brown's stint at Number 10 be explained entirely through the medium of the poetry of TS Eliot? The Macavity jibe has long been a popular way of describing his habit of vanishing from view when there's rough work to be done and, of course, for many hacks the poems about cats are about the extent of their knowledge of Eliot's work.

But Andrew Grice in the Indie today makes a manful extent at extending this modernist approach to political commentary with a piece on the theme of April as Brown's cruellest month; albeit he - or his editors - resist the obvious and crass course of directly comparing the economy with the waste land itself. Still, it is something of the nature of that poem and its endlessly allusive nature which ensures there is no shortage of passages one could apply to the present day. However, since Eliot's source material itself is so rich, rather than re-echoing Dante, Baudelaire or Petronius, say, I should prefer to quote them directly.

I confess that nothing in the first two strike me as immediately apposite (except perhaps the section in Purgatorio where failed rulers are sent to do penance); but the epigram taken from the Satyricon has some resonance. In political terms Brown is the withered, shrivelled Sybil suspended in a bottle longing for death.

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.

But as for Brown and his diminishing band of "loyal" followers (caveat: I would not be surprised were Ed Balls to deliver the final blow to his old mentor - "et tu fatty?"), there is a much more obvious choice of poem: The Hollow Men.
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
...

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Bonus random and entirely irrelevant fact: as part of his final exams at Oxford WH Auden was asked to write about one contemporary poet. He chose TS Eliot. Unfortunately for Auden none of the dons were familiar with Eliot's work; and when one of them spotted that his name was an anagram of "toilets" they concluded it was some undergraduate prank. Auden received a third.

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