Lifesaving Poems: T.S. Eliot’s ‘Hysteria’



As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her
laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only acci-
dental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by
short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally
in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of
unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands
was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over
the rusty green iron table, saying: ‘If the lady and gentleman
wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentle-
man wish to take their tea in the garden. . .’ I decided that
if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the
fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I con-
centrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

T.S. Eliot

The first book of poems I borrowed from the school library was T.S. Eliot’s Poems —1920. We had been shown ‘Preludes’ in English. I loved the descriptions in it of city life, especially the ‘smell of steaks in passageways’, with all those sizzling ‘s’ sounds.

For some reason it reminded me of Baker Street tube station.

Up to that point, if memory serves, we had looked at Ted Hughes, some Roger McGough, a bit of Thom Gunn, and some Yevtushenko. There was a fantastic poem by the latter, all about the break up of a relationship on the Moscow metro, which spoke about being ‘spun in drafts’ (‘Damp white imprints dog the feet’). I began to develop a theory that all poems were about urban life or love affairs, or both. Unless they were about foxes.

Eliot was different. Now I was choosing him, sneaking off with the book whenever I could escape the clamour of family life. I was 14-15 at the time. The excitement of reading Eliot continued through my teens with Four Quartets in particular, but nothing seemed to match the tingle of discovery of reading ‘Prufrock’, ‘Preludes’ and later ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘Ash Wednesday’.

I nearly lost Eliot altogether doing English at university. My first year included a compulsory module on all of Eliot, and while I am grateful for it now, I remember thinking at the time I would rather be studying History. And I hated History.

For our first essay we had to write about the ‘tension between the urbane and the primitive’ in Eliot’s poems, with special reference to The Waste Land. My copy of Collected Poems 1909-1962  is still dotted with pencil annotations of ‘prim’ and ‘urb’. We were taught by a PhD student with a beard, who clearly hated us and wanted to be elsewhere, both of which I now see as the correct responses.

I got a C-minus for my essay, which was generous.

To this day, to read and enjoy Eliot I need to rewind my memory back to the excitement of discovering him for myself, in the days before he became compulsory and therefore ‘difficult’.

Bracketed around the lines in my copy of ‘Hysteria’ are arrow-marks, denoting large amounts of the presence of ‘urb’ and ‘prim’. Reading it again now it is hard not to see it through my adolescent eyes and the task I was given at university. The poem conveys a barely repressed sexual energy, with its fascination with body parts both seen and ‘unseen’ and explicitly ‘drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery’, which mimics the cries of climax and release without those actually occurring.

The setting is civilized, a ‘lady’ and  ‘gentleman’ in a public space with chairs and checked table cloth. These offer nothing to alleviate the strain of trying to collect something from a wasted afternoon. The ‘Hysteria’ is not only observed, it is deeply felt. No amount of subtle concentration can prevent it.

Lifesaving Poems

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