As in the case of all the information I provide in my writings, that contained within the piece that follows stems from what I've come to believe is true according to my research, and is at no point intended to mislead.
But it's been estimated that some 27 million Americans are of Scots-Irish descent, making it one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, although the vast majority of these would consider themselves simply to be ethnically American.
And among those sons and daughter of the US able to boast of Scots-Irish origins have been many of the nation's most legendary figures. Such as, reputably, Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Edgar Allan Poe, Kit Carson, Mark Twain, Henry James, Andrew W. Mellon, George S. Patton, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Jackson Pollock, Ava Gardner, Audie Murphy, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Robert Redford, and Kurt Cobain.
But that does not necessarily mean that all these illustrious individuals possess Caledonian – or for that matter Hibernian - roots. For Scots-Irish is a term which, almost exclusively American, tends to refer to those one-time immigrants to the US from Ireland who were of Protestant ancestry, together with their descendants. And thence theoretically just as likely to be originally from England as Scotland; and more likely to be of Anglo-Saxon, rather than Celtic, lineage. Again, according to theory.
Perhaps given they are of (alleged) Anglo-Scottish stock for the most part, with probable Irish, Flemish, French and German admixtures a far apter description would be British Irish; or Ulster British. However, Scots-Irish is the name by which they are most famous, so from this point on, they will mainly be referred to as such.
In addition to the US, people of Scots-Irish descent are to be found in all other parts of the Anglosphere, including Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, and of course Britain.
Indeed, the people whence they directly emerged are still to be found in Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom. While living Britons of Scots Irish, or more correctly Ulster Irish, lineage include the much-praised actor and director Kenneth Branagh, Rock virtuoso Matt Bellamy, and film and stage actor Daniel Radcliffe. As well as all those Northern Irish men and women who identify as British, of which there are allegedly 37%. Although it's not certain whether the first-named, who has referred to himself as Irish, is among them.
To say nothing of your humble author, who, while proud of his Scots Irishness, nonetheless maintains that there is no justification for claims of superiority on the part of any ethnic group, given we are each of us subject to sin from birth.
This is a concept which will hold great appeal to many of those of Scots-Irish extraction, given their longstanding affiliation to that form of Christianity which is predicated on a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, and which has become known as Fundamentalism.
As I've already stated with respect to their ethnicity, the Scots-Irish are neither strictly Scottish nor Irish. In fact, their origins as a distinct group lie in what are known as the Ulster Plantations, which came into existence in 1609, in the wake of the Nine Years War, a bloody conflict fought largely in the province of Ulster, Ireland, between its chieftains and their Catholic allies, on one hand, and the forces of Elizabethan England on the other.
The latter's decisive victory led to the end of the Gaelic Clan system, and the colonization of Ulster by English and Scottish Protestants; hence, the Ulster Plantations.
Many of these planters had been inhabitants of the Anglo-Scottish borderlands, and so, hailing from Northern English counties such as Cumberland, Westmoreland, Northumberland, Yorkshire and Lancashire, and counties of the Scottish Lowlands, such as Ayrshire, Dumfriesshire, Roxburghshire, Berwickshire and Wigtownshire.
According to many sources, Lowlanders are distinct from their Highland counterparts by being of Anglo-Saxon rather than Gaelic ethnicity, although how true this is it's impossible to say. Certainly, the region straddling the Scottish Lowlands and Anglo-Scottish Borderlands is one traditionally perceived by Highlanders as Sassenach, which is the Gaelic term for a person of Anglo-Saxon origin.
Whatever the truth, the sensible view is that their bloodline contains a variety of kindred strains including - as well as Anglo-Saxon - Gaelic, Pictish, Norman and so on, depending on the exact region. Moreover, all Caucasian inhabitants of the British Isles partake of a fairly homogenous ancestry, which certain contemporary experts are claiming to be more Iberian than anything else. Again, this is open to conjecture.
These Ulster Scots emigrated to the US in the 1600s, and their descendants are to be found all throughout the country, but most famously perhaps in those regions which are culturally Southern, which is to say those states situated beneath the Mason-Dixon Line. Indeed most of the original European settlers of the Deep and Upland South are widely believed to have been of British, and especially English and Ulster-Scots, origin. Today, many of them describe themselves as merely "American", while others continue to claim either English or Ulster-Scots descent.
In the early 1700s, some 50,000 Scots-Irish men and women left the ports of Belfast, Larne and Londonderry for the New World. They came as a fiercely independent people, complete with Bible and musket, and mostly as skilled workers, filled to the brim with the Protestant work ethic, and desperate for religious freedom.
Having had a negative experience of gentry-dominated societies in both Britain and Ireland, the freshly arrived Scots-Irish were understandably keen to steer clear of similar regimes in the US. So at first, they avoided Virginia, which had been settled during the English Civil War and its aftermath by Royalist Cavaliers of gentle birth, as well as the Carolinas, as all were under the sway of the plantation system and the Church of England; while Maryland had been established for the Catholic nobility.
Their first part of call was the Pennsylvanian backcountry, and from there, they moved further down into the Southern hinterland, to Virginia and the Carolinas; and following the war of independence, and together with fresh immigrants, they set about the population of Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee, and so the rest of the South. At the same time, many remained in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas, while others moved further west, so that parts of Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma went on to become culturally Anglo-Celtic, and specifically Scots-Irish. The same could be said of the southernmost parts of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
They formed the dominant culture of the Appalachian mountains from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and featured strongly among those who tamed the West in the wake of the American War of Independence.
In time, they largely forsook their Calvinist roots to adopt the fervid Evangelicalism for which they are renowned throughout the world, as they are for their unyielding allegiance to God, nation and family.
In time, their influence grew to the extent that they became part of America's ruling elite, with no less than a third of all American presidents having ancestral links to Ulster, these reputedly including FDR, Truman, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes and Obama.
Thence, this remarkable little race made the voyage all the way from the borderlands of Scotland, where they existed as the lowliest and most oppressed of peoples to the highest political office in the world...an incredible testament of the resilience of the fighting Scots-Irish.
3. Werther and the Rise of Romantic Melancholia
Most students of world literature would surely agree that Goethe's famous epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, has exerted a quite incalculable influence on the evolution of the Western mind from the date of its publication in 1774. And that it did so principally through Romanticism, that great movement in the arts of which it was a prime antecedent, would be disputed by few.
And while the notion that melancholy is a feature of sensitive and creative youth was not new at the height of Romanticism, it attained a credence within it that was possibly unprecedented, at least in its intensity. The name Weltschmerz, which can be translated as world pain, becoming attached to it.
Such a development can be at least partly attributed to Werther, whose forlorn hero has served as the forefather of succeeding generations of melancholy youth.
And then there are the countless scions of Romanticism within the Decadent and Symbolist Movements, Expressionism and Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism and the Beat and Rock Generations, who by pursuing tragic, tormented existences and dying while yet young and preferably beautiful, have become the favoured artists of the Modern Age.
Surely, all who remain unconvinced by the romantic and avant-garde persuasions will view this development as not just tragic but horrifying. For while old age is all too often a source of deep regret for follies past, youth, precious youth, provides a person with almost unlimited opportunities for the eradication of this outcome.
Which is not to mitigate genuine depression, of which there are sufferers in all age brackets, and to which youth can be singularly susceptible. For to do so would be not just cruel but dangerous.
But most people in the privileged West, no matter how exorbitantly romantic in youth, yet survive into late middle age. And all that remains for them to do is find a place for themselves in the world, but without the advantages of youth and beauty and endless reserves of time.
So, what precisely was it that possessed Goethe to write a novel that at least partially caused an entire movement in the arts to be birthed in its wake. And what was it about the work that was so inflammatory?
In order to answer this question, it's necessary to examine certain events from Goethe's own young manhood.
For in 1770, at the tender age of 20, Goethe found himself in Strasbourg in order to complete a law degree he'd previously abandoned while at Leipzig. And while there, became a close friend of future fellow polymath Johann Gottfried von Herder, who introduced him to Shakespeare, then allegedly barely known in the German speaking world.
And by the following year, he was working as a licensee in Frankfurt, although he soon lost his position, at which point he set about attempting to make his living as a writer for the first time, publishing the drama, Goetz von Berlichingen, in 1773.
By so doing, he'd provided the first classic of the Storm and Stress movement, which also included his one-time mentor Herder. As well as - in the shape of the drama's eponymous hero - an example of the Daemonic as Goethe conceived it. Which is to say as a type of genius, typically possessed by a charismatic individual of overpowering will and energy, who could to some degree be said to be a precursor of the Byronic Hero.
And in this, he was powerfully influenced by Shakespeare, whose age he evidently saw as being in marked contrast to late 18th Century Germany in all its sedate respectability.
In 1772, he resumed his legal career in Wetzlar on the river Lahn, and it was in that city state that he met the woman who would inspire him to write what remains his most famous work apart from his masterpiece, Faust.
The woman in question was Charlotte Buff, who by rejecting Goethe in favour of the civil servant Johan Christian Kestner provided the model for Lotte, heroine of Werther. Yet while he suffered from her repeated rejections of his love, his friendship with Charlotte was far less intense than the novel suggested. While the titular hero himself was based not just on the youthful Goethe, but the German-Jewish philosopher, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, who committed suicide following an unhappy love affair.
Werther perfectly captured a nascent restlessness and passionate extremism among the youth of Europe in the later years of the Enlightenment that would ultimately culminate in the Romantic revolution. In fact so much so that in some quarters its depiction of suicidal despair was condemned for flouting the traditionally Christian view of the sanctity of human life.
Although to be fair, it was hardly new, having played its part in tragic literature since time immemorial. And there is no hard and fast evidence for the existence of the so-called Werther Effect of copy cat suicides.
But the fact remains that Werther helped to develop the notion of the hero as rebel against all constraints.
And Werther's rebellion even extends to his dress, which is to say the famous blue coat and yellow breeches, which were inappropriately proletarian for the bourgeois society of the day. And which serve to make him a remarkably contemporary figure, for in the days leading up to the sartorial revolution of the '60s, male clothing had been of a near-universal drabness for several decades.
While at the height of the Swinging Sixties, hordes of young middle class men on both sides of the Atlantic elected to grow their hair; and sport dandified outfits like the Rock acts and artists who were seen as vulgar and low class by many from among their parents' generation.
Other facets of Werther's rebellious uniqueness include his emotionalism, seen at the time as ill-befitting an educated male, but which went on to become an important part of the artistic armoury in a brave new aeon in which the Artist served as High Priest. Or to paraphrase Shelley, the unacknowledged legislator of the world.
And a certain wandering quality which results in his accepting a mission to go in search of a family legacy, and then feel no overwhelming desire to either return home or seek a job in the rural region to which he has been sent. An idleness in other words...possibly born of a rebellious distaste for the puritan work ethic that has long been one of the key foundations of European bourgeois society.
A distaste which has persisted since among Bohemian artists, but which is usually transcended beyond a certain age, as in the case of Goethe, who mutated into the most industrious of men. But Werther never matures beyond a state of infantile dependence, and for a time is content to do little other than socialise with the local peasant folk, or read Homer beneath the linden trees.
And when he does finally find himself in work, his employer's fastidiousness drive him to distraction, and he quits in disgust, only to drift to the nearby town of Wahlheim in search of a local girl by the name of Charlotte, with whom he'd earlier become infatuated.
This despite the fact that Lotte is as good as engaged to be married to an older man called Albert, who befriends the lad, so that a kind of love triangle comes into being. And it could be said that Lotte is tempted by Werther, as the essence of proto-Romantic Bohemianism.
However, Werther ultimately leaves Wahlheim to find work, only to return after quitting his job; while Albert and Lotte have since married and settled into domestic contentment. Yet Werther is warmly welcomed by the couple in his new capacity as a family friend.
But he becomes increasingly de trop until Lotte is forced to become firm with him and tell him to stay away until Christmas Eve at which point, he reveals his true feelings to her. Not that she'd ever been in doubt about these. But of course, she rejects him, and the following day, Werther kills himself by shooting himself through the head.
And so...after Werther, the deluge of the Romantic Revolution; although it would be unjust to suggest that his creator and partial role model, Goethe, was its only forefather. For Goethe himself was responding to revolutionary ideas that were already very much in existence, such as those of Rousseau for example. And it would be equally unjust to over-emphasize the movement's negative aspects.
For it could be said that Romanticism was a reaction to the stultifying rationalism of the Enlightenment, and thence in some respects a step in the right direction in terms of renewing interest in the spiritual side of life.
But at the same time, it ushered in this notion of the artist as set apart from the common run, and inclined to all manner of excess in terms of intuition and sensibility, of seditiousness and eccentricity, of mental and emotional instability, which is surely absurd. Or rather should be seen as such by anyone of a responsible cast of mind.
For in its wake there arose a series of artistic movements or avant-gardes which fostered the most aberrant behaviour on the part of some of its participants. And presumably they acted as they did because they felt they had the right to as artists.
And yet it could be said they were more inclined to do so than previous generations by virtue of the tenor of the times. Which is to say an age in which the Judeo-Christian values on which the West had ever relied on for its foundations had already begun to decline following the Enlightenment, and so given birth to a spirit which has come to be known as Modernism.
But it would be altogether wrong to suggest that Werther is responsible not just for Romanticism but its protracted decadence...which could with some justification be said to still be in operation.
For there were many Romantic precursors, and in comparison to some of these, Goethe's breakthrough novel was the soul of innocence. And what's more, in the wake of its phenomenal success, its author distanced himself from the nascent Romantic movement which caught fire first in Germany and then in Britain.
And he did so for the sake of a form of Neoclassicism which has become known as Weimar Classicism, whose minute number of participants included, in addition to Goethe himself, his close friends Schiller and Herder, as well as the poet and novelist Christoph Martin Wieland.
Yet, some half century after the publication of the book that made him world famous, Germany's greatest poet, and the equal as such of his one-time idol Shakespeare looked back on the time of Werther's sensational impact on a restless, passionate generation of youth. And he described it as "a spring, when everything was budding and shooting, when more than one tree was yet bare, while others were already full of leaves. All that in the year 1775!"
One can't help thinking there are many of the so-called Baby Boomer generation who view such totemic years as 1965, or '67, or perhaps even '77, in much the same way as Goethe when he was inspired to write these lines about his own wild youth. But then is that not the way for all generations of youth now grown old?
Of course...but then perhaps it's especially true for the generation who didn't so much invent the madness of youth, as incarnate it as never before within living memory.
And for my part, without sacrificing a tithe of what I've learned and achieved up to this point, I'd dearly love to make a return to a time when life seemed like some kind of eternal spring when everything was possible, nothing too much trouble. And this time around, youth would not be wasted on me, no not one delicious drop of it.
4. The Romantic Prince (Alfred de Musset)
It was in the glittering Paris of the 1830s that a certain French Romantic poet, playwright and novelist of noble birth by the name of Alfred Charles de Musset-Pathay came close to having the exorbitant ambition of one who didn't want to write unless to aspire to the greatness of a Shakespeare or a Schiller. But then as the son and grandson of writers he'd been an outstanding student; and one who'd published both his first poem and a translation of de Quincey's The Confessions of an English Opium Eater when he was just 16 years old.
And he entered that decade blessed with every great gift a gilded young genius might hope to possess. Being tender as well as elegant, beautiful as well as brilliant, and an irresistible enthusiast...brimful with passion and sensibility. But he'd have to wait a few years before real artistic success came his way.
And his was the era in which the Romantic movement came into full flower in France. And he revelled in it as the so-called Phosphorescent Prince, his sphere, the dandified cafe society of the Parisian Right Bank, his closest friend, fellow dandy Alfred Tattet.
And yet while he was the Byronic dandy par excellence, his relationship with fellow Romantic George Sand had much of the Bohemian about it. That is, in terms of its turbulence and debauchery, which left the former golden boy of French letters a prematurely broken man at just 24, spurring him to pen his hyper-emotional The Confession of a Child of the Century. And this was as much about his failed love affair with Sand as the disenchantment of the generation that had come to maturity in the wake of the Revolutionary Age.
Sand, born Amantine Lucile Dupin in Paris in 1810, was clearly a woman of quite extraordinary magnetic power...and by the time of her affair with Musset, she was a divorcée with two young children, and a baroness to boot, even though her own roots were only partly aristocratic. For her effect on Musset was little short of cataclysmic, inspiring much of his finest work; and not just the Confession.
For the famous series of poems known as Les Nuits, composed between 1835 and '37, also spring from his unhappy relationship with Sand, and they are rightly considered to be among the unimpeachable masterpieces of French Romanticism. Indeed of French literature as a whole.
Yet it could be argued that Musset is best known for his theatrical writings, which began as early as 1830 with La Nuit Venitienne. And of which Lorenzaccio from 1833, and On ne Badine pas avec l'Amour from '34 are among the most celebrated.
Having said that, it's the Confession, as well as the true life romance at its heart, that appear to most inspire contemporary creators. And certainly it's a glamorous tale; while Musset's life itself is the stuff of legend.
Yet despite the fact that like Gautier, he became a deeply respectable figure in late middle age, receiving the National Order of the Legion of Honour in 1845, before being elected to the French Academy in '52, his was an ultimately tragic life, blighted by alcoholism. Which together with the condition known as aortic insufficiency, brought about his demise from heart failure at just 46 years old.
An age which appears to be a common one for the deaths of great poets whose flaming, beautiful youths were garlanded with the most magnificent promise imaginable. For as well as Musset...Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde died at 46, and together they might serve as a testimony to the awful truth of the brevity of even the most glorious of youths.
As well as the ruinous nature of youthful self-indulgence which so often leads ultimately to what is described in 2 Corinthians 7:10 as "the sorrow of the world," and of which Musset's own heartbreaking poem, Tristesse, is a pre-eminent expression. As opposed, that is to "godly sorrow," which "worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of."
5. Thomas Stearnes' Pilgrimage to East Coker
The great Anglo-American Modernist poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) had strong links to the East Coast, and specifically New England, that most spiritually English of American regions, a distinction it shares with the South, with which Eliot was linked through his mother, the poet Charlotte Champe Stearns, originally from Baltimore in Maryland. Although he was actually born in St Louis, a Midwestern city in which it could be said that the wildly divergent cultures of the North and South, Midwest and East Coast are somehow mysteriously fused.
He was a scion of the famous Eliots, a family of Brahmins, or top families of largely Anglo-Saxon extraction, based in Boston, but originally from the little Somerset village of East Coker, subject of one of Eliot's most famous poems, and who came to dominate the American education system. And after graduating from the exclusive Milton Academy, Eliot himself attended Harvard between 1906 and 1909, earning his B.A. in what may have been Comparative Literature by his third year and his M.A., in English, by his fourth.
He also discovered Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature, which introduced him to the French Symbolists and Decadents, such as Verlaine, Rimbaud and Laforgue, all of whom went on to exert a profound impact on his work, as did Symbolist founding father Charles Baudelaire, more of whom later.
After Harvard, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, where he attended lectures by Henri Bergson, to whose philosophical ideas he was drawn, as he was to those of the ultra-conservative writer Charles Maurras. And he came to know Alain-Fournier, ill-fated author of a single much loved novel, Le Grand Meaulnes, and Jean Verdenel, a brilliant medical student with whom he forged an exceptionally close friendship, cut short by the latter's death in the First World War.
But it was when he was awarded a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford in 1914 that his artistic life could be said to have truly begun, almost as if, by arriving in England, he came home in a spiritual sense. Yet he quit Oxford after only a year, and this academic restlessness persisted into 1916, when after having completed a PhD dissertation for Harvard, he failed to return to the college to defend it; and so never received his doctorate.
However, by this time, he was already a published poet, The Love Song of J Arthur Prufrock having been published in Chicago in 1915 at the behest of his soon-to-be mentor, fellow Modernist titan Ezra Pound, and dedicated to Verdenel.
Prufrock has been cited as the point where modern poetry begins, and its famous third line, in which the night sky is likened to "a patient etherised on a table," remains a startling and even disturbing image to this day. However, the literature of shock was hardly new in 1914, possessing as it did multiple precedents among the French Symbolist and Decadents, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautreamont foremost among them.
Eliot had a special admiration for Baudelaire...Symbolist forefather and first great poet of the modern urban landscape... as he did for Rimbaud, the angel-faced enfant terrible whose ferociously beautiful free form verse contained in his last two volumes, Une Saison en Enfer and Illuminations, exerted an influence on the evolution of 20th Century poetry that exceeds even that of Eliot. While their ecstatic, visionary quality is an obvious precursor of Eliot's own poetic vision.
However, with its doleful emphasis on regret and frustration, failure, exhaustion and decay, Prufrock could be said to have to some degree anticipated Camus' Theory of the Absurd, as well as the theatre that came in its wake, which attained its possible apotheosis in the shape of Beckett's Waiting for Godot from 1955.
Although needless to say, the Absurd was nothing new, having pre-existed for example in French literature in the shape of the vast array of Decadent sects that proliferated in the second half of the 20th Century.
He was also a married man, having wed the attractive and vivacious Vivienne Haigh Wood in June 1915, a move which evidently dismayed his family, who expected him to make an imminent return to the US in order that he might take up his rightful place as a Harvard professor.
Instead, after a brief period spent teaching at various academic institutions, he embarked upon a successful eight-year career as a banker for Lloyds of London, working on foreign accounts. And it was during his tenure at Lloyds that he wrote some of the most earth-shaking poems of the 20th Century, which have caused his name to become almost synonymous with Modernism, which prompts the question, what precisely is Modernism?
One possible definition of Modernism is the avant-garde, but the avant garde translated into a worldwide artistic movement of some half century's duration, lasting from ca. 1880-1930.
However, there are those cultural critics who'd insist that Modernism is far more than a mere artistic phenomenon, is in fact a spirit, with roots in the Enlightenment, the great 18th Century movement which saw age-old conceptions, specifically related to the Divine origins of Creation, being questioned as never before.
For them, the Modern embraces all aspects of human endeavour: the arts, religion, philosophy, science, politics; while others would assert that the Modern lives on, confounding the notion of a Post Modern age in which the pursuit of the absolutely modern has exhausted itself beyond recovery.
But whatever the truth, few would disagree that of all the masters of literary Modernism, Eliot remains the most famous and most quoted.
And all thanks to a mere handful of masterpieces, starting with Prufrock, which in 1917 became the title piece of Prufrock and Other Observations. And going on to include Gerontion, which contains one of Eliot's most famous and desolate lines in the shape of "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" which has been sporadically referred to since by writers seeking to convey the utter enormity of Man's inhumanity to Man.
While the third of these, The Waste Land, was published in 1922, a year which has been cited by at least one cultural critic as the very acme of the Modern, as it produced not just Eliot's obra maestra, but James Joyce's equally seismic Ulysses.
It was received by the youth of the inter-war years as some kind of clarion call to arms...a cry to the young to rise; and as such, could be likened to Allen Ginsberg's Howl, which ignited the Beat Generation in 1955, that totemic year in which Rock started to make serious inroads into the mainstream for the first time. And James Dean took his place as the prototype of youth in revolt for the entire late 20th Century simply by dying while still young and beautiful at the flaming height of his fame.
While the following year of '56 witnessed the onset of Britain's Angry Young Men, led by playwright John Osborne, and among whose manifestos could be said to have been The Outsider by Colin Wilson, which included several quotations from Eliot's poetry.
And Eliot himself was perceived as "wild" according to fellow poet Stephen Spender, which of course could not have been further from the truth, for all throughout the '20s, he faithfully worked from 9 to 5 as if he were the very epitome of middle class propriety.
Yet, he became an idol to a wild generation of gilded privileged youth...sonnenkinder such as Harold Acton, who famously declaimed The Waste Land from the balcony of his room at Christ Church, Oxford, an incident which Evelyn Waugh included in his much loved elegy to his own generation at Oxford, Brideshead Revisited.
However, according to Waugh, the novel's chief aesthete, Anthony Blanche was based not on Acton, but another of Waugh's contemporaries at Oxford, that Bright Young Thing par excellence, Brian Howard, whose single published volume of verse revealed exceptional poetic gifts. Although unlike Eliot, he remained in decorous obscurity.
As a poem, The Waste Land remains quite inscrutable, although rightly or wrongly, it conveys a powerful sense of disgust with the Established Order latterly responsible for sending millions of young men to their deaths in a pointless conflict, with its unforgettable opening lines starting with "April is the cruellest month."
Eliot's next major poetic work, The Hollow Men was from 1925, also the year of the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the quintessential Jazz Age novel, which serves as an exquisitely wrought evocation of the despair that underlay its frenzied hedonism. Little wonder that Eliot admired it so much.
Hollow Men contains lines which are if anything even more mythically desolate than those of The Waste Land, such as "We are the Hollow Men / We are the Stuffed Men," which opens the poem, and "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper," which closes it.
Many are familiar with the former through their inclusion in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam-era version of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, in which they are recited by the character of Captain Kurtz, which is apt, given that Eliot's original poem was prefaced by a quotation from Conrad's novel, "Mistah Kurtz - he Dead."
But this is just one of the seemingly endless allusions to The Hollow Men that have haunted the arts and popular culture since the midpoint of what Fitzgerald famously called "the greatest, gaudiest spree in history." In fact, references to the poem, not just in literature, but music, the cinema, television, even video gaming, etc. are so numerous as to verge on the plethoric.
Yet, it boggles the mind that the most influential poet of modern times was such an unlikely revolutionary, was in fact the most impeccably respectable of men. For also in '25, he left Lloyds of London to begin a new career as a publisher for Faber and Gwyer - later Faber and Faber - where he remained for the rest of his professional life, eventually becoming one if its directors.
Two year later, he joined the Anglo-Catholic communion, so that thereafter, his work was informed by his deep Christian faith, and he became a British citizen in the same year, ultimately declaring himself to be "classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion."
His next major work was his first long poem published since his conversion, Ash Wednesday (1930), which while being almost entirely devoid of the darkness and cynicism of its better-known predecessors, deals with the struggle of one who, hitherto lacking faith, strives to move closer to God.
Also published that year were Eliot's contributions to Faber and Gwyer's Ariel Poems, a series of pamphlets containing illustrated poems by Eliot and several other poets.
But after 1930, rather than the poetry that made his name, he'd devote himself to a sporadic succession of plays, from The Rock, which was first performed for churches of the diocese of London in 1934, to his final play, The Elder Statesman from 1959, via Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), and The Confidential Clerk (1953).
In 1932, he accepted the Charles Eliot Norton professorship for the 1932-'33 academic year that had been offered him by Harvard, and when he returned he formally separated from his wife. In 1938, she was committed to the Northumberland House mental hospital, Stoke Newington, where she died at the tragically early age of 58 in 1947.
A year later, a collection of comical poems about cats written by Eliot throughout the decade was published under the title, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, while also in '39, he contributed two poems to The Queen's Book of the Red Cross, sponsored by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Consort, these being The Marching Song of the Pollicle Dogs, and Billy M'Caw: The Remarkable Parrot.
To say nothing of The Idea of a Christian Society; for Eliot's greatness was tripartite, being rooted not just in his poetry and his plays, but his essays and other non fiction works, of which he published many between 1920 and 1957, with one being published posthumously. And together with Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, it sets forth Eliot's conservative Christian world view, which while unfashionable among intellectuals at the time, is even more so today and on a far wider scale.
For to Eliot, modern Britain was what could be termed Laodicean, or lukewarm, a society which while tolerant of Christian principles, yet fell lamentably short when it came to living by them, and if that was true in 1939, it's even more so today.
By the beginning of the Second World War, Eliot had already begun work on his final poetic masterpiece, Four Quartets, another markedly Christian work centring on various phenomena related to Eliot's belief in the necessity of Christian faith.
The first of these, Burnt Norton, was named after a manor house in the Cotswolds, and published as part of his Collected Poems 1909-1935 in 1936. The second, East Coker, took its name from the little Somerset village whence Eliot's ancestors, a father and son named Andrew Eliot, emigrated to Beverly, Massachusetts, between 1668 and 1670, and was published in The New English Weekly. As was the third, The Dry Salvages, written in 1941 at the height of the Blitz on London, and named after a rock formation known to Eliot. While the fourth, Little Gidding, owes its title to a former Anglican community in Huntingdonshire established by the scholar and courtier Nicholas Ferrar.
And the remainder of Eliot's life saw him being showered with honours for his services to literature, such as the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, the Legion of Honour in '51, the Hanseatic Goethe Prize in '55, the Dante Medal in '59, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in '64, as well as honorary doctorates from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, the Sorbonne, and nine other universities.
On the 10th of January 1957, at the age of 68, he married the 32 year old Esme Valerie Fletcher, his secretary at Faber and Faber since 1949, and the marriage brought him much happiness, lasting until his death from emphysema in 1965.
Since that totemic year, in which Pop music started to mutate piecemeal into Rock and disseminate the Modernist world view throughout the world as never before, a development one cant help thinking would have appalled the ultra-conservative Eliot, Valerie Eliot has devoted herself to her husband's legacy, which, by any standards known to Man, has been phenomenal.
For Eliot has haunted contemporary culture to a degree surely unparalleled by any other 20th Century poet.
Yet, some would argue that Dylan Thomas is the supreme poet of our age, and while he's undoubtedly a more colourful figure than Eliot, his cultural influence is surely but a fraction of Eliot's, and the same could be said of Sylvia Plath...although many would disagree.
And there seems to be no end to its depths, leading one to come to the conclusion that he's one of the greatest icons of our culture, taking his place as "the poet" alongside fellow giants...such as Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, JFK, Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Princess Diana. But what would Eliot make of such a list? One can't be certain...but after surveying it, he might have wondered, "Where's Groucho?"
For if the portraits on the wall of his London home were anything to go by, there were few icons Eliot himself rated higher than his beloved Groucho Marx, the only man Eliot ever deemed worthy enough to ask for his autograph. Ridiculous? Not to Thomas Stearnes Eliot, it wasn't.
6. Darling Fan (For the Love of Prunella Ransome)
Prunella Ransome was a fey and hauntingly vulnerable redheaded beauty who only made a handful of major films, and never achieved the major stardom she so richly deserved. However, she was absolutely unforgettable as the pathetic Fanny Robin, abandoned by her sweetheart Sergeant Troy - played by '60s icon Terence Stamp - for having mistakenly jilted him on their wedding day in John Schlesinger's masterful 1967 adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, a writer of genius whose works were replete with Biblical allusions.
And yet could it be said the tragic nature of so much of his art is predicated on the fact he never came to saving faith, despite an early attraction to Evangelical Christianity? Only God knows the answer; but the tragedy is beyond dispute, not least in Madding Crowd, whose saddest character is is surely Troy's pure-hearted "darling Fan".
Her father, Jimmy Ransome, was the headmaster of West Hill Park, a private school for boys aged 7 to 13 located in Titchfield in Hampshire, from 1952 to 1959; and she was born on the 18th of January 1943 in Croydon in Surrey, a massive suburban area to the south of London which, in demographic terms, could not be more mixed, including as it does many tough multicultural districts, such as West Croydon and Thornton Heath, the largest council estate in Europe in the shape of New Addington, and wealthy middle class enclaves such as Sanderstead.
Her career began in earnest in 1967 with a television series, Kenilworth, based on the historical novel by Sir Walter Scott, in which she had the vital role of Amy Robsart, first wife of Lord Robert Dudley, who met her death by falling down a flight of stairs. Although, as early as 1959, she'd allegedly danced in the long-running summer show, Twinkle, which first saw the light of day in 1921, courtesy of the comedian and pantomime dame, Clarkson Rose.
On the back of this major role, she made her incredible debut as Fanny Robin, for which she was deservedly nominated for the 1967 Golden Globe for best supporting actress, only to lose out to Carol Channing for the role of Muzzy Van Hossmere in Thoroughly Modern Millie. While Crowd was not a major box office success despite some critical acclaim, it has come to be viewed by many as an unsung masterpiece. Despite this extraordinary early burst of success, she wasn't to appear onscreen for a full two years, when she featured opposite another idol of the swinging sixties, David Hemmings, in Alfred the Great, directed by Clive Donner, as Alfred's love interest, Aelhswith.
A good deal of British television work followed, until she landed her third and final major film role in 1971, as Grace Bass, wife of Zachary Bass - played by Richard Harris - a character loosely based on American frontiersman, Hugh Glass, in the action western, Man in the Wilderness, directed by Richard C. Sarafian.
From '76 to '84, she worked pretty solidly for TV, and among the programmes in which she had major roles during this period were Crime and Punishment (1979), directed by Michael Darlow, and featuring John Hurt as Raskolnikov, and Sorrell and Son (1984), based on the novel by Warwick Deeping, and directed by Derek Bennett. After this, though, she vanished from British television screens for a full eight years, and was only to appear in a further three more productions, the last one being in 1996. And she died in 2002 in Suffolk, East Anglia, although some internet websites give the date of her death as '03.
For my part, I'll treasure those few moments she graced the screen in Far From the Madding Crowd, and especially the fathomless heartbreak in her face as she watches her beloved Sergeant Troy walk out of her life forever, but for a final reunion so heartbreaking it destroyed both their lives, Fanny's within a few hours, Troy's after a period wandering the earth as a soul in torment.
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