On Pictures

13 Jan 2020 10:20 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

For a poet sensitive to all the arts, Eliot wrote relatively little about visual art in his published work, making his comments about pictures and museums in letters of the second half of 1931 especially noteworthy.

On August 31, he acknowledges receipt of a poem by Hale, a rare instance of her writing preserved among his letters. Her ekphrastic sonnet, “An Etching,” recalls and describes the image of “A man and a woman – humble children of an ancient eastern race,” praying to Allah over a dead body covered with a shroud. The man’s hands “that gently placed the pall, are caught/In a steel-like grip of self-control.” We have Hale’s text because he typed it out and returned it to her, with comments, on September 4. Though he encourages her writing, he tells her that simple description of a picture in verse is doomed to failure, for it will only lead readers to want to see the picture for themselves. She has described the etching too faithfully. However, he suggests, an artwork may serve as the launching point for impressions and emotions that develop beyond the poet’s experience of it. On the typed copy of her poem, Eliot questions her word choice, rhythm, and ideas, such as criticizing her expression “spent for pity” as weak. We don’t know what Hale’s reaction to his advice was, but no other enclosures of her poetry have been found in the letters so far. 

Responding to Hale’s sonnet, Eliot remarks that they have not discussed pictures yet, but there are many good ones to be seen in Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as well as in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s collection. At the end of December, he follows up with a remarkably complete list of his favorites from these museums, including a wooden Buddha, Tibetan hanging scrolls, a Monet of the Rhone, a painting of jockeys by Degas, and pieces of Greek pottery and sculpture (the head of a goddess, a boy playing the flute), all at the MFA. From the Gardner collection, he recalls some Venetian paintings, a Virgin, maybe by Gruenewald, and a Vermeer (perhaps the later stolen Concert). This list would be fascinating enough without Eliot’s off-hand identification of Hakagawa in “Gerontion” as the famed Japanese curator at the MFA, Okakura Kakuzo, an associate of Matthew Prichard ("Mr. Silvero"). The much-puzzled over Hakagawa joins Mr. Silvero and Marie as poetic figures whose real-life models are revealed for the first time in these letters.


  • 14 Jan 2020 4:54 AM | Sara Fitzgerald
    Like an over-critical English teacher or a too-"helpful" parent, Eliot's critique may have discouraged whatever attempt at poetry Hale might have considered. Reading your post reminded me of the words of Eliot's 1960 letter that Harvard released: "Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me." Perhaps in one critique, as well intentioned as it might have been, Eliot managed to "kill" whatever poet was in Hale. During the years 1949-54, at least, Hale's own papers suggest she sent out an annual Christmas poem or a prayer in the style of a poem. Perhaps, it will turn out when we review letters from those years, that she sent them to Eliot for advice. He likely would not have been impressed with them; however, he might have been pleased that she was expressing sentiments that were more overtly Christian.
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  • 14 Jan 2020 6:33 PM | CR Mittal
    //an artwork may serve as the launching point for impressions and emotions that develop beyond the poet’s experience of it.//

    An insight into Eliot’s own poetic art.
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