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Short poem

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965)

Whispers of Immortality

              1Webster was much possessed by death
              2And saw the skull beneath the skin;
              3And breastless creatures under ground
              4Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

              5Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
              6Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
              7He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
              8Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

              9Donne, I suppose, was such another
            10Who found no substitute for sense;
            11To seize and clutch and penetrate;
            12Expert beyond experience,

            13He knew the anguish of the marrow
            14The ague of the skeleton;
            15No contact possible to flesh
            16Allayed the fever of the bone.

. . . . . . .

            17Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
            18Is underlined for emphasis;
            19Uncorseted, her friendly bust
            20Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

            21The couched Brazilian jaguar
            22Compels the scampering marmoset
            23With subtle effluence of cat;
            24Grishkin has a maisonette;

            25The sleek Brazilian jaguar
            26Does not in its arboreal gloom
            27Distil so rank a feline smell
            28As Grishkin in a drawing-room.

            29And even the Abstract Entities
            30Circumambulate her charm;
            31But our lot crawls between dry ribs
            32To keep our metaphysics warm.


1] The poem's title alludes to William Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."
Another homage to Théophile Gautier, this time his "Bûchers et tombeaux" (Émaux et Camées [1858]):

Le squelette éait invisible
Au temps heureux de l'Art païen;
L'homme, sous la forme sensible,
Content du beau, ne cherchait rien.

[You could not see the skeleton
in the happy days of pagan art!
Man, viewed from the perspective of the five senses,
content with beauty, searched for nothing.]

(Poésies Complètes, ed. René Jasinki [Paris: A. G. Nizet, 1970], III, 72).

Eliot wrote an essay on the plays of John Webster, a Renaissance playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare, and included it in his The Sacred Wood in 1920.

9] John Donne (1572-1631), English poet and (at his death) Bishop of London. In his essay on "The Metaphysical Poets," published in 1921, Eliot wrote that "A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility."

17] B. C. Southam, following Ezra Pound, identifies Grishkin as "Serafima Astafieva (1876-1934), a Russian dancer with the Diaghilev company who opened her own ballet school in London. Pound introduced her to Eliot, `with the firm intuito that a poem wd result & intention that it should'; and elsewhere Pound recollected that once `I took Parson Elyot to see the Prima Ballerina and it evoked "Grushkin"'" (A Guide to The Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, 6th edn. [San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994]: 110).
Cf. Gautier's "Carmen":

Carmen est maigre, -- un trait de bistre
Cerne son œil de gitana.

[Carmen is unsubstantial, some shading
outlines her gipsy's eye.]

(Poésies Complètes, ed. René Jasinki [Paris: A. G. Nizet, 1970], III, 91).

21] couched: lying as if on a couch or sofa.

22] marmoset: a type of arborial monkey.

24] maisonette: `little house,' a term describing a flat in a house with its entrance and, hence, with privacy.

27] rank: coarse, offensive, ruttish.
feline: catlike.

31] our lot: our sort of people, i.e., the type Eliot consorts with, those who have a philosophical bent of mind and who, even when they appreciate the senses (as Webster and Donne do), tend to see it in the context of skeletons and death (that is, the world of "dry ribs").

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: T. S. Eliot, Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920): 31-32. E546 A753 1920a Fisher Rare Book Library.
First publication date: September 1918
Publication date note: "Four Poems," Little Review 5.5 (Sept. 1918). In England published in an almost identical book, Ara Vos Prec (London: Ovid Press, [1920]). Donald Gallup, T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (London: Faber and Faber, 1969): A4b, C45.
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1998.
Recent editing: 2:2002/4/26

Composition date: 1917 - 1918
Rhyme: abcb

Other poems by Thomas Stearns Eliot