Revisiting Burnt Norton, one of TS Eliot’s great, late poems, has led to a deeper consideration of the possible role of wine in his work. It was driven by a realisation that one particular passage, were it actually tracing Eliot’s search below stairs for a bottle of wine, might have read:
Footfalls echo in the cellar
Past the claret which she said we could not take
Towards the bottles we never opened.
Quick, said the wife, find them, find them,
Human kind cannot bear very much sobriety.
This has inspired a critical reassessment of TS Eliot’s work, and the appearances which wine might have made in his poetry.
In his earliest work, Eliot did not include references to wine. We do not, for example, find in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock that:
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Montepulciano
The narrator of Portrait of a Lady drinks dark beer (“bock”), but his emotional distance from his hostess might have been emphasised had he declined an offer of wine:
Now that claret’s quite passé
She has a glass of rosé every day
And twists one in her fingers while she talks…
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
By the time of The Waste Land, Eliot should have been able to incorporate references to wine more confidently. At the conclusion of its typist episode, “She turns and looks a moment in the glass” – perhaps this may not be a mirror, as commentators assume, but a contemplative gaze into an empty wineglass? Indeed, the passage might have ended with the lines:
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smooths her hair with automatic hand
And pours another glass of Cote de Beaune
(Perhaps inciting Ezra Pound, editing Eliot’s manuscript, to scribble in the margin, “Burgundy be damned”)
In later life, as Eliot became a significant figure in English society, he would surely have sought to put together an appropriate cellar. A cellar certainly features increasingly in his work. And he may have experienced problems in maintaining it. In The Hollow Men, he writes of “dried voices”, obviously bereft of wine; perhaps following an incident in which his stock was shattered, resulting in his reference to “broken glass/In our dry cellar”.
And when he later turned to drama, his anxiety about his wine collection continued. “We ask only to be reassured/About the noises in the cellar/And the Merlot that should not have been open”. (Published scripts of The Family Reunion substitute the word “window”.)
Could his late poetry, in which he wrestled with the concept of time, have incorporated his years of experience of vintages, of maturity and of wine’s development? Further lines modified for the opening of Burnt Norton were famously first written for Murder In The Cathedral, but cut before its first performance. Of course, references to drinking would surely have been inappropriate for the character of a priest:
Wine present and wine past
Are both perhaps present in wine future,
And wine future contained in wine past.
That’s the thing with vintages.
What might have been, and what has been,
Point to one end, which is always present.
Unless we drink it.
This is a new way of reading TS Eliot, with which wine drinkers will surely empathise. For my own part, along with that early narrative voice,
I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
Suddenly, his expression in a glass.
It is exciting to imagine that one of our greatest poets might also have experienced that moment of reflection in a full Riedel.