Eliot and the Shudder

Frank Kermode in the LRB:

Tennyson was not a poet for whom T.S. Eliot professed much love, though he was judicious as well as cool in his appraisals: ‘He has three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety and complete competence.’ (He means ‘they must be like Dante.’) And ‘he had the finest ear of any English poet since Milton’ – an opinion that loses warmth when one recalls what Eliot said elsewhere about Milton. (Having a fine ear is not enough.) When Eliot attends to Tennysonian detail, for instance in Maud, he finds much to dislike, and pronounces ‘the ravings of the lover on the edge of insanity’ and the ‘bellicose bellowings’ to be ‘false’: they fail ‘to make one’s flesh creep with sincerity’. But In Memoriam is a different matter; there alone does Eliot find that Tennyson achieves ‘full expression’. He issues, quite insistently, his customary warning: the poem must be ‘comprehended as a whole’. Nevertheless it seems permissible to remember this part on its own:

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

‘This,’ Eliot says, ‘is great poetry, economical of words, a universal emotion related to a particular place; and it gives me the shudder that I fail to get from anything in Maud.’ ‘Shudder’ is a bit surprising coming from the stately Eliot, though the experience to which he refers may in some forms be common enough. He certainly experienced it, or something that puts him or us in mind of it. If the word is used as equivalent to ‘frisson’ (and lexicographers defining frisson seem unable to avoid ‘shudder’), we can propose a debt to the French, likely in these years when English poets were influenced, as Eliot was, by Baudelaire and others. Indeed Eliot, rejecting the 1890s reading of Baudelaire, had made himself the major exponent of that author as a fierce moralist as well as the poet of ‘l’immonde cité’, and Baudelaire’s book has its share of horrors, shudders and shadows. Huysmans, a disciple of Baudelaire, was admired by Eliot, and it might be said that his A Rebours would have to be shortlisted in any shuddering competition, especially as frémir lends support to frissonner. As an admirer of Huysmans, Oscar Wilde had recourse to the ‘shudder’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray. A high proportion of these instances occur in commonplace expressions such as ‘I shudder at the thought’ or ‘a shudder passed through’ whoever it was, examples which tend only to show that whatever its original force the shudder was susceptible to vulgarisation; but the word remained capable of describing the horror, or even the beauty, of a body’s response to violent stimulus.