Gerontion

Original Text: 
T. S. Eliot, Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920): 13-16. E546 A753 1920a Fisher Rare Book Library. Donald Gallup, T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (London: Faber and Faber, 1969): A4b. In England published in an almost identical book, Ara Vos Prec (London: Ovid Press, [1920]).
Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both.
4Nor fought in the warm rain
5Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
6Bitten by flies, fought.
7My house is a decayed house,
8And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
10Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
11The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
14Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
15                         I an old man,
16A dull head among windy spaces.
18The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
22To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
23Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
24With caressing hands, at Limoges
27By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
29Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. Vacant shuttles
31An old man in a draughty house
33After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
35And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
36Guides us by vanities. Think now
37She gives when our attention is distracted
38And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
39That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
40What's not believed in, or if still believed,
41In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
43Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
44Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
45Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
46Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
48The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
49We have not reached conclusion, when I
50Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last
54I would meet you upon this honestly.
56To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
57I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
58Since what is kept must be adulterated?
59I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
60How should I use it for your closer contact?
61These with a thousand small deliberations
62Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
63Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
64With pungent sauces, multiply variety
66Suspend its operations, will the weevil
69In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
71White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
73To a sleepy corner.
74                    Tenants of the house,
75Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.

Notes

1] The title means "little old man" and comes from the Greek geron "old man." The epigraph is from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure III.1.32-34). The scene is a Vienna prison, the speaker is the state's disguised ruler, Duke Vincentio, and the listener a young man, Claudio, who has been condemned to death by Vincentio's temporary stand-in, Angelo, for bedding and getting with child Juliet, Claudio's betrothed, before marriage. Eventually Vincentio convicts Angelo himself of violating this law, and the death penalty is revoked in both cases so that the marriages can be made to flourish happily and fruitfully. The Duke's speech is as follows:
Be absolute for death. Either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life.
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep. A breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences
That dost this habitation where thou keep'st
Hourly afflict. Merely thou art death's fool,
For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shun,
And yet runn'st toward him still. Thou art not noble,
For all th' accommodations that thou bear'st
Are nursed by baseness. Thou'rt by no means valiant,
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provok'st, yet grossly fear'st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself,
For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not,
For what thou hast not, still thou striv'st to get,
And what thou hast, forget'st. Thou art not certain,
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou'rt poor,
For like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear'st thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none,
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But as it were an after-dinner's sleep
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessèd youth
Becomes as agèd, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What's in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid more thousand deaths; yet death we fear
That makes these odds all even.
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2] Compare A. C. Benson's biography, Edward Fitzgerald (New York, 1905):
Here he sits, in a dry month, old and blind, being read to by a country boy, longing for rain: -- `Last night ... we heard a Splash of Rain, and I had the book shut up, and sat listening to the Shower by myself -- till it blew over, I am sorry to say, and no more of the sort all night. But we are thankful for that small mercy!' (p. 142)
Fitzgerald wrote The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859), a pagan's thoughts on the mysteries of life and on the importance of drinking, eating, and celebrating while life lasts. Back to Line
3] hot gates: an Englishing of "Thermopylae," the narrow pass between mountain and sea leading from Thessaly into Locris and Phocis, celebrated for the battle fought there in 480 B.C., when 6,000 Greeks, including 300 Spartans under Leonidas, died after resisting for three successive days the vast army of the Persians under Xerxes. Back to Line
9] estaminet: café, "dive" (a French term). Back to Line
12] stonecrop: leafy, yellow-flowered plants growing in masses on rocks. merds: faeces, excrement. Back to Line
13] Edward Fitzgerald wrote to Frederick Tennyson:
I really do like to sit in this doleful place with a good fire, a cat and dog on the rug, and an old woman in the kitchen. This is all my live-stock. The house is yet damp as last year ... (Benson, p. 29)
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17] Lancelot Andrewes, a contemporary of Shakespeare and the favourite preacher of the court of James I, wrote as follows in one of his many (Christmas) sermons on the Nativity:
Signs are taken for wonders.`Master, we would fain see a sign,' that is, a miracle. And, in this sense, it is a sign, to wonder at. Indeed, every word here is a wonder: ... an Infant, Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal word not able to speak a word; a wonder sure. And ... swaddled; ... that a wonder too. He that (as in the 38th of Job he saith) taketh the vast body of the main sea, turns it to and fro, as a little child, and rolls it about with the swaddling bands of darkness ...
Andrewes and Eliot rely on two Biblical passages here. First, Matthew 12:33-40 (Jesus here replies to certain Pharisees cavilling at his miracles):
Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit.
O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.
But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.
Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.
But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Second, John 1.1:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
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19] juvescence: "youth". Back to Line
20] In a sermon preached before James I at Whitehall on December 25, 1622, Lancelot Andrewes argued that one need not fret about celebrating Christ's birthday on time but rather wait until spring, when the weather was more convenient:
We love to make no very great haste. To other things perhaps; not to adorare, the place of the worship of God. Why should we? Christ is no wild-cat.
Also relevant is William Blake's "The Tyger."
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
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21] Eliot reviewed Henry Adams' The Education of Henry Adams in 1919. Adams (1838-1918) was a Harvard-educated diplomat, a man of letters, a European traveller (for a time he was an American in England), and a professional historian who, having descended from several American Presidents, wrote a nine-volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. The reviewed and the reviewer had more than passing similarities. Adams' autobiography has the following passage on spring in Washington, D.C.:
The Potomac and its tributaries squandered beauty ... Here and there a Negro log cabin alone disturbed the dogwood and the judas-tree ...The tulip and the chestnut tree gave no sense of struggle against a stingy nature ... The brooding heat of the profligate vegetation; the cool charm of the thundergust in the deep and solitary woods, were all sensual, animal, elemental. No European spring had shown him the same intermixture of delicate grace and passionate depravity that marked the Maryland May. He loved it too much as if it were Greek and half human.
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25] Limoges: a city in central France known for its fine china and porcelain. Back to Line
26] Paintings by Titian, otherwise known as Tiziano Vecelli (1477-1576), a Venetian master of portraits and sacred or mythological subjects. Back to Line
28] Fraulein von Kulp: the Latin root "culpa" (`guilty') comes to mind. Back to Line
30] Compare Job 7:6-7:
My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hope. O remember that my life is wind: mine eye shall no more see good.
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32] knob: rounded hill. Back to Line
34] Describing History as a confusing and tempting woman, Eliot again seems influenced by Adams' autobiography:
Symbol or energy, the Virgin had acted as the greatest force the Western world had ever felt, and had drawn man's activities to herself more strongly than any other power, natural or supernatural, had ever done; the historian's business was to follow the track of the energy; to find where it came from and where it went to; its complex source and shifting channels; its values, equivalents, conversions. It could scarcely be more complex than radium; it could hardly be deflected, diverted, polarized, absorbed more perplexingly than other radiant matter.
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42] Cf. Shelley's Adonais, on the death of John Keats: "Too soon, and with weak hands." Back to Line
47] wrath-bearing tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for eating fruit from which God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden into a world of death and pain. Back to Line
51] Lines adapted from Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy (written about 1606), in which the revenger Vindice, to kill the lecherous Duke who murdered Vindice's mistress, dressed up a dummy woman out of clothes and a skull (which actually was his mistress's own skull) and smeared its "lips" with poison. Vindice says:
Now to my tragic business; look you, brother,
I have not fashion'd this only for show
And useless property; no, it shall bear a part
E'en in it own revenge.
Kissing the poisoned skull, the Duke dies in an agony very satisfying to Vindice. Back to Line
52] concitation: stirring up, arousing. Back to Line
53] backward devils: Dante placed foretellers of the future in the Inferno and punished them by forcing them to walk backwards. Back to Line
55] These lines are adapted from Thomas Middleton's and William Rowley's The Changeling (about 1622). Beatrice-Joanna, mortally wounded by De Flores, her self-confessedly ugly and treacherous partner in adultery, confesses to her husband, Vermandero:
Oh come not near me, sir, I shall defile you:
I am that of your blood was taken from you
For your better health; look no more upon't,
But cast it to the ground regardlessly:
Let the common sewer take it from distinction.
(V.3.149-52)
Eliot also quotes these lines in his critical essay on Middleton. Back to Line
65] Lines perhaps adapted from Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist (1610), where Sir Epicure Mammon tells his dupers about his plans for the playboy bedroom he will build for his sexual adventures:
Then, my glasses [mirrors],
Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse
And multiply the figures, as I walk
Naked between my succubae.
(II.2.45-48)
Eliot also quotes these lines in one of his critical essays. Back to Line
67] Fresca: a character in a deleted part of "The Fire Sermon" in The Waste Land -- Eliot describes her waking in the morning and writes in a pastiche of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock:
Admonished by the sun's inclining ray,
The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes ...
Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done.
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68] Indebted to George Chapman's play Bussy D'Ambois (about 1604), where the dying Bussy D'Ambois speaks to a Friar's ghost:
... fly where men feel
The burning axletree, and those that suffer
Beneath the chariot of the Snowy Bear:
And tell them all that D'Ambois now is hasting
To the eternal dwellers ...
(V.3.151-55)
See Eliot's The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933): 146-47. Bear: the Great Bear, a constellation. Back to Line
70] Belle Isle: an island between Labrador and Newfoundland. Horn: Tierra del Fuego, Chile, the southernmost point of South America, and a land depicted by Charles Darwin in his Voyage of the Beagle as a place of death. Back to Line
72] the Trades: the trade winds (blowing constantly from the north or the south towards the equator), and the world of business. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1920
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1998.
Rhyme: 
Special Copyright: 

© T.S. Eliot and Faber and Faber Ltd 1974