History Over Nature: Effects of Revision in Gerontion
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.
These lines from T.S. Eliot's "Gerontion" (1429, 34-37) appear in the final version of the poem, published in 1920. The speaker of this dramatic monologue is an old man sitting inside a “decayed house.” The reference to knowledge invokes the original sin of Adam and Eve, signifying that the man (or society as a whole) has disobeyed God. Christ is no longer a symbol of forgiveness, but is instead represented by the fierce image of “Christ the tiger” (20, 49). In the absence of spiritual redemption, the old man says, "Think now," immediately turning to “History.” History is described by its "passages" and "corridors," suggesting that it is the path the old man is looking to in his search for meaning. His description of the path of history as "cunning" and "contrived" further complicates the old man's disillusionment with his current predicament. However, in the 1919 manuscript of “Gerontion,” the word "Nature" appears in place of the word "History" in line 35. Though this revision is syntactically minor, thematically it greatly affects the reading and interpretation of the poem. In what ways does this revision change the circumstances of the old man’s dilemma in his search for order and belonging? Also, what can be learned about the development of Eliot’s poetry by examining his reasons for substituting “History” for “Nature?”
In the 1919 manuscript, the appearance of “Nature” in line 35 recalls the first two lines of the poem. The old man says, “Here I am, an old man in a dry month...waiting for rain” (1-2). He looks to nature for renewal in the form of refreshing rain. This barren image of longing represents the deserted state of his mind and his spiritual being. The man describes an identical situation at the end of the poem, saying, “Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season” (76). The concept of nature as a source of order is based on its function as a cycle. The old man waits for the cycle to deliver him from his spiritually dry state to a place of fulfillment. But nature brings no change to the man and leaves him in the same arid condition in which he began. The failure of nature to provide a cycle is supported by the natural, stationary images in the poem, such as, “Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds” (12), and the “Gull against the wind, in the windy straits” (70), which shows nature forcefully impeding the progress of the bird, just as its lack of cycle reinforces the stagnation of the old man’s mind, body, and spirit.
The idea of looking to nature to find order, or at least escape from a chaotic world, is seen early in Eliot's career. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” ( [published 1915] 1420), the speaker, Prufrock, also finds himself alienated from the world. At the end of the poem,...