“Siren voices lost at dawn”: Nancy Cunard, T.S. Eliot, and the Place of the Artist

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When Nancy Cunard published her long poem Parallax through the Hogarth Press in 1925, several reviewers noted similarities between it and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, released three years prior. According to the pages of The Nation: “Miss Cunard’s poem would never have been conceived without the example of Mr. Eliot. But even when this is recognized, Miss Cunard’s poem shows the individuality of its author.” Outlook chimed in with a similar sentiment: “T.S. Eliot is the first who heard the new music in its full harmony. Miss Cunard has caught strains of it too. She is not piping over again Mr. Eliot’s tune [but] adding her own motifs and orchestration to the general theme.” Over time, some critics began to argue that the poem’s piping was, in fact, a little too derivative. F.R. Leavis, five years after the poem’s initial publication, dismissed Parallax as a “simple imitation” of The Waste Land. Still, most critics have maintained that the poem holds a complicated relation with Eliot. What scholars have yet to do is pin down the precise nature of her response—what, exactly, she said.

Parallax offers a rich web of allusions to The Waste Land. Like Eliot, Cunard weaves together a multiplicity of speakers, perspectives, and languages. She also uses an urban setting and a deserted landscape as spaces emblematic of the modern era. The allusions to specific passages are discreet but persistent, accumulating from line to line until Eliot’s poetry forms a sort of under-song for Parallax. At the same time, Cunard employs Eliot’s language and collage method to question his views on the decline of civilization and the artist’s place in society. Attending to these allusions can shed light on a little-known response to The Waste Land, as well as a notable alternative to the philosophy that Eliot helped to make such a dominant strain of modernist literature.

Parallax opens with the journey of a “poet-fool” through a landscape reminiscent of The Waste Land:

…… Earth, earth with consuming breast,
Across its ruined waste, its tortuous acre
Draws out his complex fires, drives on his feet
Behind imperious rain, and multiplies
The urges, questions in the wilderness.
All roads that circle back—he shall tread these
And know the mirage in the desert’s eyes
The desert’s voices wait.
This clouded fool,
This poet-fool must halt in every tavern
Observing the crusty wrecks of aftermath,
Plied by his dual mood—uneasy, still—
Devouring fever of bone transfused to brain,
In that exact alembic burned away,
…… Made rare, perpetual.

The phrase “ruined waste” in the second line quickly establishes Cunard’s frame of reference. The “desert’s voices” evoke a host of voices in Eliot’s poem: the nightingale Philomela in section II, who “Filled all the desert with inviolable voice”; the “voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells” in section V; and the discordant languages that reverberate across the final lines of the poem: “London Bridge is falling down falling down… Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie… Shantih shantih shantih…” The taverns in which Cunard’s “poet-fool must halt… Observing the crusty wrecks of aftermath” recall the pub scene in section II, where gossip about Lil and Albert gets interrupted by repeated calls of “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.” Indeed, the “poet-fool” could easily be read as a sly reference to Eliot himself. This passage reconfigures the sights and sounds of The Waste Land and places them within a new context.

Elsewhere, Cunard’s allusions extend beyond The Waste Land to Eliot’s other early poems. In particular, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” makes several appearances. Compare the rhythm of “In the rooms / A somber carpet broods, stagnates beneath deliberate steps” (‘ u ‘ u ‘ u ‘ u ‘ ‘ u u ‘ u ‘ u u ‘), with “In the room the women come and go, / Talking of Michaelangelo” (‘ u ‘ u ‘ u ‘ u ‘ ‘ u u ‘ u ‘ u u). The allusion is discreet yet effective, depending as it does on an opening phrase and a very similar, if not identical, meter. Eliot ghosts these lines without Cunard having to overstate the relation. In other instances, she combines echoes to multiple poems within a single passage. For example: “Sunday creeps in silence / Under suspended smoke / And curdles defiant in unreal sleep. / The gas-fire puffs, consumes, ticks out its minor chords—” Here Cunard fuses the image of the yellow fog in “Prufrock,” which “Curled once about the house, and fell asleep,” with the “Unreal City” of The Waste Land lying “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn.” In doing so, she takes up the collage method Eliot had developed in The Waste Land, and applies it to Eliot’s own poetry.

At the same time, Cunard repeatedly criticizes the collage method and its underlying impulse. To her, the desire to shore up fragments against ruins and thereby impose order on a broken world is a morbid enterprise—one that shows a stifling preoccupation with the past over the present and future. In a key passage, a medical museum becomes a symbol for the macabre nature of collections more broadly:

Down a side-street, there’s a full century’s matter
The death-before-life, the atom in the womb
Preparing—snarled embryos,
……………………………….. pinched
By once-roseate poisons.
(Frail brown
Pre-natal dust, what life is it you missed?)
The skeletons swing on a line,
Dark waxed, patined, defective-boned—
O commemorable fusion of science with disease…
(That was a new contemplation, the death-museum.)

The museum is a place of sickness and stunted potential. “Pre-natal dust, what life is it you missed?” The promise of “A full century’s matter” in the first line gives way to objects “snarled,” “stunted,” and “frail.” Meanwhile, the word “Collected,” which stands emphatically alone in line 2, makes this scene a dark allegory of the collector’s impulse as a whole. To Cunard, collections are fearful even as they are also a little silly; consider the kitschy “skeletons swing[ing] on a line.”

Cunard’s suspicion of collage points to a broader difference in how she understood the place of disorder in art, society, and history. Eliot in the early 1920s developed a deeply pessimistic view of civilization, according to which the coherence that had defined the classical world and the Middle Ages gave way to disorder in the seventeenth century. World War I and its aftermath marked for him another major stage in that decline. He would later crystallize these views in the Clark lectures of 1926, but he had already begun to formulate them in book reviews throughout the first half of the decade—and, of course, in The Waste Land.

One important aspect of Eliot’s views that Cunard challenges in Parallax is his understanding of the artist’s place in society. For Eliot, classical and medieval artists enjoyed complete integration in their respective cultures and formed a part of their coherence, whereas the modern artist endures a profound sense of alienation. This belief is reflected in the use of multiple speakers in The Waste Land: a poem with no central voice, but rather a shifting perspective that always seems to lie on the periphery. Cunard argues against this position in a key passage where she recounts a visit to Aix-en-Provence in search of Paul Cézanne, who had died in 1906. She begins by remarking how few have any memory of the painter, despite his having left a rich pictorial record of the region’s landscapes and people.

In Aix, what’s remembered of Cézanne?
A house to let (with studio) in a garden.
(Meanwhile, ‘help yourself to those ripe figs, profitez
And if it doesn’t suit, we, Agence Sextus, will find you another
………………………………………………………………….. just as good.’)

The years are sewn together with thread of the same story;
Beauty picked in a field, shaped, re-created,
Sold and despatched to distant Municipality—
But in the Master’s town
Merely an old waiter, crossly,
‘Of course I knew him, he was a dull silent fellow,
Dead now.’
And Beauty walked alone here,
Unpraised, unhindered,
Defiant, of single mind,
And took no rest, and has no epitaph.

The opening question might sound mournful at first, as though the poet were lamenting that the town Cézanne so honored in his art is unable—or unwilling—to give him the same respect in death. For the “old waiter,” there is nothing significant about the artist who lived in their midst: Cézanne, to him, was not a major Post-Impressionist painter, but merely “a dull silent fellow, / Dead now.” By the end of the passage, however, Cunard makes it clear that she sees this alienation from culture as key to Cézanne’s success. “Unpraised, unhindered, / Defiant, of single mind.” It is telling that she places no conjunction between the words “Unpraised” and “unhindered,” so that the two become co-dependent. “Unpraised and unhindered” would have maintained a stronger distinction between these two states of being, but the implication is certainly not that Cézanne was “Unpraised but also unhindered.” The simple comma joining these two words argues that praise would have prevented Cézanne from developing his unique style, and that true freedom requires one to live without praise. What Eliot saw as alienation, Cunard saw as an opportunity for artists to assert their independence from social and aesthetic expectations she considered a burden.

The concluding line—“And took no rest, and has no epitaph”—evokes the end of Eliot’s “Mélange Adultère de Tout,” where the speaker lists his various identities, some of which overlap with the poet’s own professions: “En Amérique, professeur; / En Angleterre, journaliste… / A Londres, un peu banquier” (In America, a professor; / In England, a journalist… / In London, a little bit of a banker.). In the final couplet, Eliot declares (ironically): “On montrera mon cénotaphe / Aux côtes brûlantes du Mozambique.” (They will show my cenotaph / On the burning coasts of Mozambique.) The lines are themselves a winking turn on the end of Horace’s Ode ii.20, which speaks triumphantly of the artist’s immortality: “No grievers weeping noisily at my tomb. / It’s all superfluous, I won’t be there” (trans. David Ferry). By contrast, Eliot’s speaker has assumed so many roles that he was never truly alive; thus, his tomb can only be an empty cenotaph. What Cunard does is work past Eliot’s satirical portrait, back to Horace’s vision of art refusing to capitulate to death.

The idea of a “single voice,” individual but not alienated, recurs throughout Parallax. In one passage in particular, Cunard evokes Eliot’s vision of cultural history, as detailed in his prose of the early 1920s, only to propose an alternative.

…… And the seas turn mutable foam, in fear transfusing
Themselves to the watcher—
……………………… they have nor wish nor choosing,
But turn, tossing fragments, spars,
Forever—meridian calms
Fill these still classic shores with unaccountable voice,
And in the weeded stones
The carapace life creeps singly, unafraid.

The image of chaos represented by the seas—which are “mutable,” fearful, and robbed of agency (“they have nor wish nor choosing”)—finds itself pitted against the “meridian calms” which “Fill these still classic shores with unaccountable voice.” The word “classic” helps us to read the seas as emblems of modernity’s disorder, against which the shores appear to provide a bulwark of stability. In the years leading up to the publication of Parallax, Eliot had written a number of essays praising the classical world as the root of a coherent European culture. In October 1923, he offered up the following verdict: “The fact is, of course, that all European civilisations are equally dependent upon Greece and Rome… If everything derived from Rome were withdrawn—everything we have from Norman-French society, from the Church, from Humanism, from every channel direct and indirect, what would be left? A few Teutonic roots and husks. England is a ‘Latin’ country.” In April 1924, he further praised classicism on the grounds that it provided and embodied stability: “what is meant by a classical moment in literature is surely a moment of stasis, when the creative impulse finds a form which satisfies the best intellect of the time, a moment when a type is produced.” Cunard, by contrast, deemed that stasis both stifling and unfounded. In Parallax, “these still classic shores” are dominated by an “unaccountable voice”: in other words, a voice that is totalizing, that refuses to justify itself, and whose authority cannot be traced.

Against the backdrop of land vs. sea, order vs. disorder, “the carapace life creep[ing] singly, unafraid.” Crucially, the carapace is not simply a feature of the classic shores—nor, for that matter, the chaotic waters. Here, once again, is the figure of the artist as a “single mind,” fully inhabiting a world while standing apart from it. Even as the carapace creeps among “weeded stones,” the poet isolates the description grammatically by placing it after a final “And” in line 7. For Cunard, a good artist should remain in touch with both tradition and modernity, but not feel bound to either. In this regard, she offers an amendment to Eliot’s own writings, in particular “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919):

We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.

Eliot’s essay served as a counterweight to the Romantic celebration of individuality and difference, which he felt had led novelty to be valued for novelty’s sake. He argued that connections to prior works are just as important in making a new work of art distinctive. In turn, Cunard’s aim was to reassert the importance of difference and individuality over prior influences, but without denying that these antecedents have very much a role to play, as her own poetic practice shows. What she did, in short, was find a midpoint between Romantic and Eliotic ideas on art.

Despite its spirited defense of individuality standing against the pressures of the past and the present, Parallax does not end on a comforting note of optimism. In the final lines of the poem, the kitschy skeletons of the death-museum resurface to confront the speaker, more ominously this time.

…… —And at last, before me
In fierce rise and fall of impetuous seasons,
The articulate skeleton
In clothes grown one with the frame,
At the finger-post waiting, aureoled with lamentations.
“Hail partner, that went as I
In towns, in wastes—I, shadow,
Meet with you—I that have walked with recording eyes
Through a rich bitter world, and seen
The heart close with the brain, the brain crossed by the heart—
…… I that have made, seeing all,
…… Nothing, and nothing kept, nor understood
…… Of the empty hands, the hands impotent through
…………………………………. time that lift and fall
…… Along a question—
…… Nor of passing and re-passing
By the twin affirmations of never and forever,
…… In doubt, in shame, in silence.”

Eliot haunts this passage, as he does much of Parallax. “The hands impotent through / time that lift and fall / Along a question” combines several allusions to “Prufrock.” The lines evoke “the works and days of hands / That lift and drop a question on your plate,” as well as the many instances of the word “along” in that poem: “For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,” “Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl,” “the skirts that trail along the floor.” The line that follows in Parallax (“Nor of passing and re-passing”) itself revises the “visions and revisions” of “Prufrock.” Finally, the skeleton’s declaration amidst the “rise and fall of impetuous seasons”—“I, shadow, / Meet with you”—contains a discreet echo of The Waste Land: “Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.”

It is important that the “articulate skeleton” takes over the final lines, robbing the poet of speech, and that Parallax itself ends with the word “silence.” This grim conclusion serves to remind us that creative independence is not easily earned nor sustained. For Cunard, the weight of tradition and the pressure of contemporary trends both invariably conspire to force the poet into submission. Parallax leaves its readers with a powerful statement about the difficulty of standing apart from these external forces. At the same time, by echoing Eliot so widely in this passage, Cunard admits that his was the dominant voice she needed to wean herself from in writing Parallax. Even as she was open about her love for his poetry and his influence on her own writing, Cunard also saw in Eliot those twin pressures of tradition and modernism she feared would eventually silence her.

Though little-known today, Nancy Cunard’s Parallax is a notable response to Eliot’s major modernist poem—one that makes use of his techniques in order to present an alternative view of art, culture, and society. It contributes significantly to our knowledge of the debates that animated modernism, and it also expands and complicates our understanding of the ideas this movement was built upon. In keeping with her beliefs, Cunard wrote a poem that asserts independence from the dominant strains of modernist literature; but it is also very much a part of modernism’s story, and important, too, on that account.