T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath were two poets who helped me fall in love with poetry when I was a teenager. I’m not alone in my early reverence for these two poets, who on the surface are quite dissimilar.
In addition to being a poet, Plath was an ambitious young woman, cheery in photographs, who went on to be an expert homemaker and mother before her famous suicide. By contrast, Eliot’s public persona was dour and fastidious, and he spent his time in London taking meals with famous writers like Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound. Whereas Plath railed against God along with her dead father in poems, Eliot underwent a religious conversion that inspired his later poems.
And yet these two poets have much in common. They both made the move from America to England, from vocational pursuits to lives of writing. Eliot worked his way from St. Louis to London, from bank clerk to preeminent poet and intellectual. Plath was a pretty, intellectually-gifted young woman who worked for fashion magazines and then became a Fulbright scholar and a serious poet.
Both spent time in mental institutions. Both found troubled British spouses who were likely unfaithful to them, and both obtained divorces. Both wrote verse passionate enough to move teenagers, a trait they share with Dylan and Springsteen.
I loved them both for their powerful words, for expressing painful emotions in kaleidoscopic free verse, for their attempts to exorcise the demons of mental illness with their pens.
Furthermore, they both introduced me to an incredibly beautiful poem (sung as a taunt by a sea spirit) from The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
No spoilers for The Tempest, but this verse is sung to someone who believes his father has drowned. Plath alludes to the poem in “Full Fathom Five” as she struggles to come to terms with her father’s death. Eliot includes the line “[t]hose are pearls that were his eyes” twice in “The Waste Land.” This is a beautiful and frightful image—of impermanent eyes replaced in their sockets by strong, lovely pearls, and of bones with decaying flesh replaced by gorgeous coral.
One reason people write poetry (or attempt any endeavor) is in hopes of achieving a kind of immortality. At their best, poets take mundane details of life and turn them into permanent decorations. Another quality Eliot and Plath both share is that they’re both dead, and yet we remember them.
Poems, pearls, and coral do not last forever, but they can last longer than a human life. Shakespeare, Eliot, and Plath (and Dylan and Springsteen) perhaps hoped to achieve immortality through verse. We do not have these poets with us in the flesh, but we have words they wrote long ago. I’m grateful for the survival of the poems I’ve loved, and yet their existence benefits us and not the ones who wrote them.
Our hope is in more than memories. We hope in one who came not only to suffer with us as the poets do, but to end our suffering. As we remember the Resurrection this season, we hope for a sea-change—an exchange of mortality for immortality. We hope for a new world that will be stronger than pearl, more beautiful than coral, and stranger than poetry.