I read the craziest thing the other week–well, more like my eyes passed over a subheadline, and my brain immediately said, “that can’t possibly be true,” and then I forgot all about it for weeks. The headline read, “Widow of T.S. Eliot Dies at 86.” Now look, we all know who Eliot is, I studied him as a high schooler and college student and there’s this funny, profile picture of him in all the anthologies, looking like it was taken by Louis Daguerre himself. He’s lumped in with all the modernist masters, a giant, sure, but he started publishing more than 100 years ago. Reading that headline was like hearing that Benny Goodman would be performing a live show in town next month.
So the Guardian says, “Friends said the marriage was a happy one despite the almost 40-year gap in their ages.” And then it all starts to make sense, you know? He was a publishing bigwig at Faber & Faber, she a secretary. It was his 2nd marriage. And she was his literary executor until this month. Eliot himself, of course, was born quite a very long time ago (1888-1965), in St. Louis. For me he’s always had this dense air of complete seriousness–his poems are big, and monumental, and they consume and spit out within themselves reams and reams of western history and literature: myths, symbols, drama, religion, psychology, war… all these themes and topics are considered and given a weight of words they deserve.
Therefore I was delighted to find this little near-sonnet, which I would never have recognized as an Eliot poem. Some of the vocab retains his formality, but there’s a pleasant tone to the speaker’s voice, and even a little quirky humor with the reference to the deceased’s pets. As for full-rhyme–it’s there, but I’ll let other readers dissect all that. Hope you all got to spend some time with your oddball relatives this Thanksgiving week. -ed.
Miss Helen Slingsby was my maiden aunt,
And lived in a small house near a fashionable square
Cared for by servants to the number of four.
Now when she died there was silence in heaven
And silence at her end of the street.
The shutters were drawn and the undertaker wiped his feet —
He was aware that this sort of thing had occurred before.
The dogs were handsomely provided for,
But shortly afterwards the parrot died too.
The Dresden clock continued ticking on the mantelpiece,
And the footman sat upon the dining-table
Holding the second housemaid on his knees —
Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived.