A Note on War Poetry
Not the expression of collective emotion
Imperfectly reflected in the daily papers.
Where is the point at which the merely individual
In the path of an action merely typical
To create the universal, originate a symbol
Out of the impact — This is a meeting
On which we attend
Of forces beyond control by experiment —
Of Nature and the Spirit. Mostly the individual
Experience is too large, or too small. Our emotions
Are only ‘incidents’
In the effort to keep day and night together.
It seems just possible that a poem might happen
To a very young man : but a poem is not poetry —
That is a life.
War is not a life : it is a situation ;
One which may neither be ignored nor accepted,
A problem to be met with ambush and stratagem,
Enveloped or scattered.
The enduring is not a substitute for the transient,
Neither one for the other. But the abstract conception
Of private experience at its greatest intensity
Becoming universal, which we call ‘poetry’,
May be affirmed in verse.
After Milton’s stirring prologue, it’s time to begin the war theme in earnest – this time on a more restrained, meditative note. This is not, in my opinion, one of Eliot’s better efforts – indeed, it is little more than a collection of finely wrought sentences strung together to make a poem – and yet it is topical, and Eliot’s standards are high enough so that what is for him a fairly ordinary line, is, by any other yardstick, sheer brilliance.
I love the way Eliot tosses in “the abstract conception / of private experience at its greatest intensity / becoming universal, which we call poetry” as if it were common knowledge, rather than a stunning definition he has newly coined. And I love the professorial tone of the poem, polished yet precise, the way the poem takes a single phrase, dissects it, exposes each part to its analytical light, drawing out its exact distinctions, and then, unexpectedly, introduces that final “But” and implodes into grudging acceptance.