T. S. Eliot

By George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D.

[For Part 1 of this essay, click here.]

4. A Brief Summary of Eliot’s Background

T.S. Eliot, the Anglo-American poet, was born in 1888 in Saint Louis, Missouri. He studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford. Despite the fact that Eliot was brought up in a conservative Christian atmosphere, he exposed himself later to a completely different culture when he went to live in England. It is obvious that the political and spiritual world in which Eliot lived bestowed upon him its own distinguishing characteristics.

Eliot was lucky in his education. Harvard offered him a thorough introduction to Dante and to Romance literature. Since his earlier poetry, Eliot was influenced by Dante. Dante held a central position in Europe and linked the Roman past with the modern age. In Dante, Eliot found the spiritual identity of Europe. This allowed him to try to make Europe more conscious of itself. Eliot also allowed the French culture to influence him. Originally an American without the inherited English rigidity, he accepted the characteristics of the French civilization. His views of criticism were those of Remy de Gourmont’s school, and Charles Maurras influenced him politically.

Although it is always possible to argue that Eliot is, after all, an American, no one can deny that his exposure to different cultures gave him a unique political and literary background. Of course, it was his genius and talent which contributed most to the production of his great works of poetry and criticism.

5. A Brief Summary of Salah Abdel Sabour’s Background

Salah Abdel Sabour was not only a major poet, but also the literary editor of a wide spread newspaper, Al-Ahram. He was born in 1931 in the provincial district of Zaqaziq, Egypt, in a conservative Islamic house. When he was twenty, he graduated from Cairo University with a degree in Arabic Language and Literature.

During his university years, he read some works of well-known European and American poets. At the same time, he was writing short stories and poetry. But “it was only after reading Eliot’s Selected Poems that Sabour discovered himself mainly a poet.” (9) During that time, the most popular poetry in the Arab world was directed towards Romanticism. The poets were living in closed ivory towers without any awareness of the new theories of modern criticism. They were blind to the political and social changes that were taking place in the world. Their experience was limited, so their poetry was shallow. These literary examples did not attract nor satisfy Abdel Sabour. He was looking outside his world to another culture. It was Eliot who attracted him, and “the discovery of Eliot was the most important event in Sabour’s life as a poet. (10)

In her personal interview with the poet, Samar Attar was told that after reading Eliot’s words which propounded that a poet should write not merely with his own generation in mind, but with a feeling of the whole literature of Europe since Homer has a simultaneous existence in his bones, Sabour realized the importance of wide reading, and the necessity of developing his consciousness of the past as well as that of the present. Sabour added that from Eliot he learned that the perfect artist knows how to completely separate in himself the man who suffers from the mind which creates. It was Eliot who introduced him to himself, and who opened his eyes to the notion that a great poet expresses himself not in thought, but in an emotional equivalent of thought. Under Eliot’s influence, Sabour wrote his famous poem, “A Journey at Night” in 1954.

Eliot struggled to bring poetry as close as possible to the level of ordinary everyday life. Any Arab reader who has enough experience in Sabour’s poetry, and is familiar with the vocabulary he uses, quickly recognizes the poet’s use of Eliot’s advice. The language Sabour uses is everyday speech, which shows his deliberate avoidance of the artificiality of rhetoric. Sabour said: “In Eliot I found the answer for all my technical problems. I fought with him the same battle against the dead, sterile, and formal order of poetry.” (11)

The struggle for which Sabour is held responsible was dangerous and discouraging. He was facing a tradition which the Arabs considered perfect, and which lived with them for more than a thousand years. Sabour was willing to take the challenge. He kept Eliot’s ideas in mind and wrote with seriousness and inspiration:

The form in which I began to write after 1950 was directly drawn from the study of Eliot. “A Journey at Night” written in 1954 serves very well to illustrate the first stage of influence… I learned from Eliot how to use the method of Symbolism which works by implication and mood, the method of myth which is allied to Symbolism, and the method of parallelism and contrast which works by the juxtaposition of situation. (12)

Although Sabour was influenced by other poets and writers like Baudelaire, Lorca, Kafka, Bergson, and Sartre, Eliot was to him as Virgil was to Dante, and as Dante was to Eliot. It was Eliot who influenced him the most and who taught him how to write and think. (13)

6. A Practical and Comparative Analysis of One of Sabour’s Poems: “A Journey at Night”

“A Journey at Night” demonstrates Eliot’s influence on Abdel Sabour. This poem introduces a departure from traditional Arabic poetry. The pessimistic colors, the threads of despair and agony, the deep feeling of idleness expressed here do not simply mirror one individual’s sorrow, but that of a whole civilization.

The spirit is sick, and the remedy is unforeseeable. It is an unbalanced world where human beings are beasts and where only the fittest survive. There is no place for sympathy or freedom. Strange visitors are horrible like ghosts, inevitable as storms. Here, man is defeated and deprived of his ambition. He accepts what he receives with shameful submission. Frustration is scattering man’s abilities and coloring his vision with hopelessness. The general atmosphere is that of the Wasteland. Sabour says, “From Eliot I learned this cluster-like poem. How much I owe Eliot in this poem.” (14)

The young man in this poem is passing through a horrible experience, the cause of which is unknown. Still, he wishes that it might change or end unexpectedly . He is aware of his suffering, especially when he returns home alone. He hates the sleepless nights which arouse him and irritate his mind. He is like Eliot’s main character in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” who roams the streets at midnight and visualizes the lamps as beating drums because “through the spaces of the dark/midnight shakes the memory.” (15)

Like the people of The Wasteland, the people in “A Journey at Night” do not see anything. They are hollow corpses. Their world is limited and nothing interests them. They have no preoccupation in winter besides women, a warm bed, and maybe a book to read. All is but hollow expectations. Like those of “The Hollow Men”, theirs are soundless voices, “stuffed brains”, and “meaningless” speeches.

As for the symbol of the Chess game, “Sabour states in a critical essay that Eliot has drawn his attention to the significance of chess as a political symbol.” (16) Unlike Eliot who used the chess game as an emblem of killing time, Sabour uses it as a symbol of the movement of life and death.

The atmosphere of terror and the horror resulting from the unexpected night visit of the unknown evil man with dagger-like eyes parallels Eliot’s hero’s nightmare of loneliness after which he wakes up in a sweat and in a hell of a fright, shaking as if someone hit him on the head. (17) Here, both Sabour and Eliot portray the weakness of mankind in the hand of destiny and the unknown.

A striking image in Sabour’s poem is Sinbad who is well known in Arab myths as the symbol of an adventurer that never rests. Sinbad is always on the go, exploring new worlds and sailing across virgin seas. To him, movement is life and rest is death. It is noteworthy to compare him with his people who, in Sabour’s poem, are tied to one place by idleness and empty hopes. They reflect restlessness which according to Sinbad equals death. They live their adventures, fantasizing while listening to Sinbad tell of journeys to unexpected horizons.

Like the wretched woman in Murder in the Cathedral, they prefer to die in silence because they are afraid to face the unknown which might surprise them. They are never ready for anything new:

“We do not wish anything to happen
Seven years we have lived quietly
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.” (18)

Both people are cowards and they do not deserve the grace of life. They reject responsibility and the challenge of existence. Their aimlessness is a shameful retreat where death and life are alike, where man is but a hollow skeleton, a shadow of himself. This moral and spiritual death is more destructive than death itself, because in some cases, death could mean life and glory.

The poet in “A Journey at Night” is ambitious like Sinbad. He appreciates life and understands it as a continuous adventure. To him, every new morning is a rebirth, a beginning of a new journey, and a full experience.

Notes

9 Abdel Sabour, “My Poetical Experience”, in al-Adab, Beirut, np, 1966. P. 8.
10 Samar Attar, The Influence of T.S. Eliot Upon Salah Abdel Sabour, Halifax, Dalhousie University Press, 1967, p.9.
11 Attar, p. 15.
12 Attar, pp. 17-18.
13ا لواقع ان تأثير اليوت بشكل عام يبدو واضحا ً ايضا ً عند شعراء رواد آخرين. انظر مثلا: (ندوة حول حركة التجديد في
الشعر العربي الحديث) ادارها يحيى حقي واشترك فيها البياتي, بلند الحيدري, خليل حاوي وصلاح عبد الصبور, في “المجلة” عدد خاص, العدد 144, ديسمبر, كانون الأول, ص 87- 98 حيث تتوضح آراء الصبور حول اليوت بشكل خاص وتأثير اليوت في الشعر العربي المعاصر بشكل عام.
14 Attar, p. 30. See also “A Journey At Night”, in al-Nas fi Biladi, 2nd edition, Beirut, np, 1965, pp. 5-14.
15 T.S. Eliot, Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950, New York, Harcourt, Brace and World Inc., 1952, p. 14.
16 Attar, p. 35.
17 Eliot, p. 84.
18 Eliot, p. 180.

to be continued …