‘Tentacular Roots’

The Nayland Rock Hotel in Margate is near the bus shelter where Eliot wrote a draft of ‘The Fire Sermon’, Part III of The Waste Land, in October 1921. The hotel was chosen by artist-curators, Chiara Williams and Shaun Stamp for At the Violet Hour, an exhibition in 2018 based on Eliot’s poem. I was one of twenty-three artists in the show and each of us was given a room in which to install work.

The Waste Land has long been my favourite poem. I have often wanted to paint from it but have always been daunted. Yet when I started to think about this project I realised how much in my paintings had already been inspired by it: solitary figures and figures in wilderness, figures who are neither male nor female, figures with shadows, melancholy figures in spring, polar explorers and figures blanketed in snow, wanderers in mountains, figures on a beach, paintings of Ferdinand in The Tempest, a preference for the colours lilac and violet and an attachment to painterly mess.

Mess was a key to my exhibition and suited the space chosen for it. This large Victorian hotel, built in 1885, was once the pinnacle of elegance. According to its manager, Carol Abou El-Khir, it is likely that Eliot went there for drinks when he was staying in Cliftonville and going every day to the seafront. But it is now only partly used for guests since its upper floors are in considerable disrepair. The top oor, where I was showing, had become a roost for pigeons who were squeezing in through broken windows. My room had a desolate and beautiful sea view, reminiscent of the line from Tristan und Isolde in ‘The Burial of the Dead’, but there were heaps of pigeon droppings on the window sill and in its ensuite bathroom many more droppings gave off a sour, toxic, nauseating smell.

Cleaning up this filth was something of an ordeal, but as I sprayed and scraped and wiped and hoovered I thought how appropriate the neglected ambience was to much of Eliot’s work. The hotel made me think of the dilapidated house in ‘East Coker’ in Four Quartets where the wind has broken ‘the loosened pane’ and where the field-mouse now ‘trots’. Then its grime and smell seemed apposite to Eliot’s earlier poems and their focus on squalor and chaos. The poet, whose manners and appearance were famously impeccable, was all too aware of the opposite: in Hysteria where taking tea in a café is the backdrop to a grotesquely inflated body’s uncontrolled laughter, in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or Portrait of a Lady where drawing-room conversation is accompanied by an undertow of monstrous or difficult thoughts, in Sweeney Erect’s wildly incongruous images and ugly contortions and in The Waste Land with its unruly structure and sordid episodes.

The Waste Land’s structural disorder was something that was commented on by Conrad Aiken, contemporary and friend of Eliot’s, just after it was published. He wrote in a review in 1923 that ‘the poem succeeds — as it brilliantly does — by virtue of its incoherence, not of its plan; by virtue of its ambiguities, not of its explanations.’ The Waste Land veers from one place to another, from one time to another, from one tone of voice or speaker to another to the extent that it is sometimes dififcult to know who is speaking. It is an ‘extremely messy poem’ according to Lawrence Rainey (speaking on ‘In Our Time’ on Radio 4) with its interruptions, quotations and deliberate fragmentations which can be compared to the later device of montage in lm or to the discontinuous routines of music hall, a form which Eliot admired.

Then, as its title suggests, much of The Waste Land’s subject matter is unforgettably squalid: the scene in the typist’s bedsit with the pimply seducer, ‘rats’ alley’, unwashed ears and hands, the brothel madam, dissolute Mr Eugenides, Lil’s rotten teeth and botched abortion, the corpse in the garden and other references to human remains, the sweating river and its litter, the sexual detritus of summer encounters and, although deleted from the nal poem, the shocking scene with noisome Fresca in the facsimile edition. Like Swift, praised by Eliot as a great writer of disgust, or like Baudelaire, whose Les Fleurs du mal influenced The Waste Land, Eliot, at this stage of his poetic career, dwells on dirt.

So, although my show contained pictures of figures in blossoming parks, in ‘the hyacinth garden’, in deserts and in remote mountains, urban mess was very much a part of it in its preparatory drawing and its hang. I sought out derelict areas of London in which to draw and took my sketchbooks to gasometers, canals and parts of the East End that have not been smartened up. I noticed rats in Mile End park, rubbish in the Thames and had another look at my ‘Plumper’ paintings of sleazy nudes in order to depict the typist or Mrs Porter with her daughter. I then made new works in the studio using sheets of blotting paper, paper glued to paper, paper with footprints on it and torn sheets of old cardboard. For my installation in the hotel I followed the suggestions of Paul Stolper, my gallerist, and painted quotations on the discoloured Artex surface, interspersing them with a mass of contrasting paintings and drawings which I pinned and taped all over the walls. Many were hung as low as possible in keeping with the lines:

‘White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.’

‘Low’, like ‘dirty’, is a conspicuous word in the poem and it prompted me to paint not just unwholesome images but subterranean scenes of rats in tunnels, roots in the ground and people going down escalators in drawings divided into above and below. However, The Waste Land’s lowness is not just naturalistic. My escalators, bearing dark shapes of Eliotic commuters, are descending (as in ‘Burnt Norton’ in Four Quartets) into a netherworld. The Waste Land takes us lower than urban realism into a di erent dimension. It goes down into the underworld of myth and literature in Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante and Milton, and the Cumean Sibyl, doorkeeper of this lower world in Roman literature, is fittingly placed at the entrance of the poem in its epigraph from Petronius. Like Odysseus, The Waste Land descends into Hades with the words of Tiresias who, as in The Odyssey, has ‘walked among the lowest of the dead.’ The sighing crowd going over London Bridge in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ is a reference to Cantos III and IV of the Inferno when Dante, led by Virgil, passes through the gates of hell and finds souls in limbo. And the ironically named ‘sylvan scene’ in ‘A Game of Chess’ is a quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost when Satan, fresh from hell, enters the Garden of Eden. Here, in the lady’s sepulchral boudoir, it also depicts an act of demonic cruelty: the rape and mutilation of Philomela by Tereus as told in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

‘A Game of Chess’ is like a scene from a macabre Jacobean drama with its allusions to the plays of Middleton and Webster, its reference to sexual violence and its sinister, candlelit chiaroscuro. The ominous atmosphere of The Waste Land is partly due to much of it being in semi-darkness, lit by crimson torchlight, lurid violet or the flickering flames of the candelabra creating shifting, curdling sensations. This candlelit section was one I painted again and again, relating it to my ‘Dining Room’ paintings of hellish social occasions. Eliot is a wonderful poet of social awkwardness, of acute conversational unease, in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady, The Cocktail Party and in this section of The Waste Land with the nervous, choppy exchanges between two voices. I therefore decided to paint this scene as a murky dinner party and paint it not just on paper or on board but on the locked door of the ensuite bathroom, remembering the lines from ‘What The Thunder Said’ about psychological imprisonment:

‘I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall …’

I was imagining diners, like Edward in The Cocktail Party or the ‘I’ in Portrait of a Lady or the couple in ‘A Game of Chess’, as locked inside themselves and trapped with each other in a Stygian dungeon.

The underworld, a powerful presence in The Waste Land, is therefore obviously a place of torment. And yet it is ambivalent as a site both of suffering and of initiation, in Eliot as in Dante or Virgil. The underworld, as for Dante guided by Virgil, or Aeneas guided by the Sibyl, or Arnaut Daniel at the end of The Waste Land, or Eliot descending into darkness in ‘Burnt Norton’, is where people can be strengthened, purified or enlightened. They can also be artistically inspired. Eliot’s essays in The Sacred Wood, published two years before The Waste Land, suggest that these chthonic regions are where the writer needs to go and where the reader responds to him/her most intensely as, quoting Psalm 42, ‘deep calls unto deep’. In his essay ‘Ben Jonson’, Eliot is critical of Jonson’s work because it is too much of the conscious mind, too much on the surface. In Jonson’s writing ‘unconscious does not respond to unconscious; no swarms of inarticulate feelings are aroused’ and Eliot contrasts the limitations of this bright, metropolitan polish with the works of Shakespeare, Donne, Webster and other Jacobean writers whose words have ‘a network of tentacular roots reaching down to the deepest terrors and desires.’

Eliot’s metaphor anticipates the tubers and roots at the beginning of The Waste Land, buried things that the speaker is frightened to stir up but that the poem, like April, does. Despite all its references to sterility and weariness, the poem triggers excitement and energy, going down into a generative abyss and communicating a sense of the boundless with its epic grandeur, its allusiveness (Aiken’s ‘ambiguities’ rather than ‘explanations’) and its negation: its reluctance to define or to name. To define is to restrict and Eliot follows the via negativa of the undefined, the inarticulate and the unnameable to create a feeling of mystery, fear and what Wordsworth in The Prelude called ‘whatso’er is dim/Or vast in its own being’. Hence the sinister, unseen card in the Tarot reading, the nameless shapes on the walls in ‘A Game of Chess’ and the series of unanswered questions in ‘What the Thunder Said’:

‘and this card, Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see.’

‘And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.’

‘What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming Over endless plains …’

And apart from these specific examples of obscurity, the poem as a whole, as with the sense of increasing tension at the approach of thunder at the end, produces a feeling of pent-up force, of something not declared, what Lyndall Gordon in The Imperfect Life of T.S. Eliot calls ‘an unspoken confession beating with violence against sealed lips.’

This use of the unrevealed and the unsaid is one of the things I love most about Eliot’s poetry, not just in The Waste Land but in Prufrock, where Prufrock cannot begin to express himself, or in ‘East Coker’ where negation is religious and apophatic. And it is another aspect of his work that has, I think, inspired my paintings. It has, for example, influenced the way in which I depict figures that are in some way hidden. They are reduced to silhouettes, are painted without faces, are concealed by darkness or disappear into dazzling light. Then it has also influenced the way in which I like to abstract or disrupt images, turning them into blots, marks and shapes. This is partly to keep the image in an unfinished state, to suggest possibility and potential that completeness would shut down. It is also to pull the recognisable towards uncertainty and to exchange the known for the unknown. For me representational images morphing into abstraction contrast two ways of seeing: seeing things as named objects or as nameless shapes. Such transformations therefore threaten the everyday world of labels and nouns with the unnamed and unnameable. In Eliot’s terms they get beneath the upper world of familiarity to a shadowy one of the inarticulate and tentacular.

And because my abstraction involves spots, blurs, scars and smears, it seems to me that it relates even more closely to Eliot’s credo of reaching that lower world and to the poems that, for me, express that belief most intensely. As I touched on before, his alarming earlier poems, Sweeney Erect, Sweeney Among the Nightingales, Whispers of Immortality, as well as parts of Prufrock and The Waste Land, leave the upper world of rare ed conversation or comprehensible narrative to plunge down into an insane amalgam of scrambled horror, swerving away from comprehension in half-formed, mangled images of violent and anguished disorder, the kind of writing that led poet and critic Randall Jarrell to call Eliot one of the most ‘daemonic poets who ever lived’. And such works of chaotic abjection have influenced my understanding of my own painting and my use of what I call mess. I do not just mean the choice of downmarket subjects (dirty canals, junk in the Thames, defunct gasometers) or my use of old bits of paper to paint them on. I mean the messy metamorphosis of images that tears up cohesion, pollutes decorum, lays waste finish in order to open things out into terror and complexity. For me only mess can do justice to this crucial aspect of Eliot’s poetry and its indelible stain.