Is Great Poetry Dead?

In Whispers of Immortality, T.S. Eliot alludes to John Webster and John Donne to explore the immortality of the work done by metaphysical poets; Eliot also uses Grishkin as a metaphor for the loss of connection that poets in the present have between their emotions and their thoughts. Eliot’s main argument is that poets today rely too much on reality and on physical pleasures to understand great literature, let alone write great literature. The speaker is Eliot, who is expressing his opinion on modern writers and how they are different from the metaphysical poets of the past.

This poem is divided into eight stanzas, and each stanza is a quatrain. The rhyme scheme of each quatrain is ABCB, so only the pralines rhyme and they do so in assonance; this is also known as a heroic stanza. In addition, every line in the poem has an iambic pentameter structure. This piece includes words with a double sense that have sexual connotations such as lust and luxuries (8) or penetrate (11). Eliot also uses archaic words like ague (14) and circumambulate (30). The poem is also split after the fourth stanza and the speaker begins to narrate in the present tense. The first four stanzas are written in past tense to represent how metaphysical poets in the past used to act, and what they used to believe in. These writers were known as "proper writers." The present tense, which starts being used in the fifth stanza, is meant to represent present poets that allow physical temptation to draw them away from the metaphysical style, and from great literature. These poets have a dissonance, or sometimes a disconnection, between their thoughts and their feelings. Today's poets allow their emotions to cloud their sense and judgment.

The first two stanzas the speaker illustrates a terrifying world in which the dead come to life, the “creatures” are buried underground (3) and still grinning (4). In line one, the speaker presents the first character whose name is Webster; a man that “…was much possessed by death, and saw the skull beneath the skin, and breastless creatures under ground leaned backward with a lipless grin.” (1-4). Webster seems to be alive in a dead world. "He knew that thought clings round dead limbs tightening its lust and luxuries." (7-8). These two lines create an image that allows the readers to understand that someone's thoughts can be immortal. In this case, our speaker is saying that John Webster's thoughts because they were written as a great piece of literature, are immortal. Webster knew that thoughts can overcome time, and he believed it to be far more important than getting side tracked by lusts and luxuries (8). Webster can escape death, through his writing, but he cannot escape time, which is why he is depicted in a sort of underworld with dead creatures.

The next two stanzas introduce Donne, whom the speaker describes as “…such another who found no substitute for sense…” (9-10). Donne is another great writer that, much like Webster, knew that thought is far more important than physical temptation. However, the difference between Donne and Webster is that Donne is ill, and therefore, he has no other choice but to choose thought over lust. "He knew the anguish of the marrow, the ague of the skeleton; no contact possible to flesh allayed the fever of the bone." (13-16). This makes Donne much more aware of his mortality, both physical and artistic.

The last four stanzas bring in a new character, Grishkin, and a change in verb usage. When the speaker begins the fifth stanza they shift from speaking in past tense with Webster and Donne to speaking in present tense with Grishkin. “Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye is underlined for emphasis; uncorseted, her friendly bust gives promise of pneumatic bliss.” (17-20). Grishkin is a sexual symbol, she represents physical temptation and sexual impulse that writers so easily fall into today; “Compels the scampering marmoset with subtle effluence of cat…” (22-23). She is described as a “Brazilian jaguar” (21 and 25) meaning that she is a dangerous threat to present writers, she tempts them with her female and “feline” (23 and27) skills. Towards the end the reader is told that those that fall into temptation and drift from thought and good writing will find their end, and they will not be immortalized by their writing; “And even the Abstract Entities circumambulate her charm…” (29-30). Finally, the speaker has a hint of hope in his voice and says, “...but our lot crawls between dry ribs to keep our metaphysics warm.” (31-32). There are still poets that crawl, or create a name for themselves, between amazing past writers, such as Webster and Donne, that hope to keep great literature alive and in production.

In conclusion, Eliot’s Whisper of Immortality is a representation of the lack of connection that modern poets have, and how it will lead them to be utterly mortal and forgotten. He alludes to popular metaphysical poets, John Webster, and John Donne, to pose and support his argument that thoughts and not emotions are what makes writing unforgettable, and ultimately, immortal. Finally, Eliot creates a third character, Grishkin, to illustrate the dangers of relying on physicality and reality for writers.

Whispers of Immortality


Webster was much possessed by death

And saw the skull beneath the skin;

And breastless creatures under ground

Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls

Stared from the sockets of the eyes!

He knew that thought clings round dead limbs

Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

Donne, I suppose, was such another

Who found no substitute for sense,

To seize and clutch and penetrate;

Expert beyond experience,

He knew the anguish of the marrow

The ague of the skeleton;

No contact possible to flesh

Allayed the fever of the bone.

. . . . .

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye

Is underlined for emphasis;

Uncorseted, her friendly bust

Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

The couched Brazilian jaguar

Compels the scampering marmoset

With subtle effluence of cat;

Grishkin has a maisonnette;

The sleek Brazilian jaguar

Does not in its arboreal gloom

Distil so rank a feline smell

As Grishkin in a drawing-room.

And even the Abstract Entities

Circumambulate her charm;

But our lot crawls between dry ribs

To keep our metaphysics warm.

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