In his article in The London Review of Books, Eliot and the Shudder, Frank Kermode presents a fascinating account of T.S. Eliot’s aesthetics. Eliot, he says, valued a particular sensation that, in an analysis of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, he labeled “the shudder”. This shudder, according to Kermode, is about “describing the horror, or even the beauty, of a body’s response to violent stimulus. Eliot admired shock and surprise, looked for these qualities in his own verse, and judged others, as he does Tennyson, by their success in providing them.” More specifically, by the shudder Eliot (according to Kermode) refers to “experiences one would rather not have, and which are roughly antithetical to moments of ecstasy.” It “belongs to a set that includes ‘fear’ and ‘horror’ and is associated with a powerful physical response.” For Kermode, Yeats’ Leda and the Swan is an example par excellence of a shudder-inducing poem.
The idea of the “shudder” links up with what Eliot considered to be an integral part of the aesthetic experience, something that good poetry must aim at: “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations.” The newness and suddenness of the combination (recall Rimbaud saying that all poetry must be modern, and Pound saying that poetry must be new) is what, I think yields the “shudder”. In a sense, what Eliot is saying is remarkably similar to the Russian defamiliarists such as Schlosky who, in Art as Technique, writes:
“And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”
“After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence, we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways.”
And, on a specific passage from Tolstoy:
“The familiar act of flogging is made unfamiliar both by the description and by the proposal to change its form without changing its nature.”
Kermode himself, in his article, uses different words to describe the phenomenon. The French word “frisson“; a “hit”; “shock”; “a touch of mystery”; Poe’s “quality of surprise”; and so on.
For my part, all of these, I think, are partly true, yet incomplete. The “shudder” (and there probably is no better word for the experience in question), I would suggest, is the product of an intense – almost paradoxical – meeting of novelty and recognition. When Eliot talks about words in new combinations, I take him to mean that the words themselves are familiar, and used in a familiar context, but it is the way that they associate with each other that is novel (Eliot’s classic example, Shakespeare’s phrase “strong toil of grace” to describe Cleopatera’s seductive beauty, is an outstanding illustration – “strong toil” and “grace“). Now, the initial force of the phrase certainly, I think, stems from its novelty; but the Eliotic shudder isn’t simply novelty. After the initial shock, the hit, we recognise the new combination as expressing something important about the human condition in a way that hasn’t been expressed before, but that is nonetheless, in a sense, true. That is the stage of recognition, of matching the novel description, the novel association of ideas, thoughts, sensations, feelings (and I know that these are all different things for Eliot) with our prior experiences and beliefs, and it is at the moment when the two align that the “shudder” is completed. In a sense, the “novel” association has always been latent within us, as a way of understanding ourselves and the world, and the great poets tease it out into awareness. But what is crucial is that we do realise that it was, indeed, latent, and what the novelty does is to prompt an awakening.
To illustrate these admittedly vague generalisations, I will refer – yet again, in this blog – to the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. Previously, I’ve found Baudelaire fascinating because of his approach to the impossibility of achieving the ideal, and his ideas about the ugliness of beauty. But I feel that above all else, his poetry evokes – most brilliantly – the Eliotic “shudder”. I’ve already written about A Une Passante, Le Soleil, L’Ideal, Le Cygne, Hymn to Beauty and The Carcass, all of whom I think exhibit this quality in abundance. But here are three more examples (Aggeler translations). I will attempt no analysis of them, only say that I felt – never more strongly – the Eliotic shudder when I read them. Perhaps you will, too.
I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.
A heavy chest of drawers cluttered with balance-sheets,
Processes, love-letters, verses, ballads,
And heavy locks of hair enveloped in receipts,
Hides fewer secrets than my gloomy brain.
It is a pyramid, a vast burial vault
Which contains more corpses than potter’s field.
— I am a cemetery abhorred by the moon,
In which long worms crawl like remorse
And constantly harass my dearest dead.
I am an old boudoir full of withered roses,
Where lies a whole litter of old-fashioned dresses,
Where the plaintive pastels and the pale Bouchers,
Alone, breathe in the fragrance from an opened phial.
Nothing is so long as those limping days,
When under the heavy flakes of snowy years
Ennui, the fruit of dismal apathy,
Becomes as large as immortality.
— Henceforth you are no more, O living matter!
Than a block of granite surrounded by vague terrors,
Dozing in the depths of a hazy Sahara
An old sphinx ignored by a heedless world,
Omitted from the map, whose savage nature
Sings only in the rays of a setting sun.
The Complaints of an Icarus
The lovers of prostitutes
Are happy, healthy, and sated;
As for me, my arms are weary
Because I have embraced the clouds,
It is thanks to the peerless stars
That flame in the depth of the sky
That my burned out eyes see
Only the memories of suns.
I tried in vain to find
The middle and the end of space;
I know not under what fiery eye
I feel my pinions breaking;
Burned by love of the beautiful
I shan’t have the sublime honor
Of giving my name to the abyss
That will serve me as a tomb.
The Death of Lovers
We shall have beds full of subtle perfumes,
Divans as deep as graves, and on the shelves
Will be strange flowers that blossomed for us
Under more beautiful heavens.
Using their dying flames emulously,
Our two hearts will be two immense torches
Which will reflect their double light
In our two souls, those twin mirrors.
Some evening made of rose and of mystical blue
A single flash will pass between us
Like a long sob, charged with farewells;
And later an Angel, setting the doors ajar,
Faithful and joyous, will come to revive
The tarnished mirrors, the extinguished flames.
And lastly – I’m cheating here, but nonetheless – this quatrain from To the Reader, which uses the well-worn image of paint on canvas in conjunction with a deeply disturbing suggestion, the two of which combine in a rather heady concoction:
If rape, poison, daggers, arson
Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs
The banal canvas of our pitiable lives,
It is because our souls have not enough boldness.