T.S.Eliot's Five-Finger Exercises
1:07 PM

From Five-Finger Exercises

IV. Lines to Ralph Hodgson Esqre. 

How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson! 
                          (Everyone wants to know him) -- 
With his musical sound 
And his Baskerville Hound
Which, just at a word from his master 
Will follow you faster and faster 
And tear you limb from limb. 
How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson! 
Who is worshipped by all waitresses 
(They regard him as something apart) 
While on his palate fine he presses 
The juice of the gooseberry tart. 
How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson!
                          (Everyone wants to know him), 
He has 999 canaries 
And round his head finches and fairies 
In jubilant rapture skim. 
How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson! 
                          (Everyone wants to meet him).

V. Lines for Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad Ali Beg 

How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot! 
With his features of clerical cut, 
And his brow so grim 
And his mouth so prim 
And his conversation, so nicely 
Restricted to What Precisely 
And If and Perhaps and But. 
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot! 
With a bobtail cur 
In a coat of fur 
And a porpentine cat 
And a wopsical hat: 
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot! 
                            (Whether his mouth be open or shut).

The whole idea of a five-finger exercise, of course, comes from the frequent but tedious practice that keeps the concert pianist's fingers perfectly nimble. These poems, Eliot is suggesting, are his way of keeping on top of his form, but if so, (...) readers to this day are perpetually flummoxed in trying to discern Eliot's intentions.

Exercises IV and V (...) forming a coy pairing, one apparently in honor of fellow contemporary poet Ralph Hodgson, the other - surely the most famous of the exercises - self-deprecatingly painting a self-portrait, or at least a sketch, of Eliot's perceived public persona. Even here, however, there is a subtext. Hodgson, though a personal friend of Eliot's, was one of the leading practitioners among the Old School Poets of his time, the Georgians. By making everyone "want to meet him," there is the implication that, intentionally or not, such poetry panders to public taste. These poets permit the public to equate light verse with serious poetry, thus fostering the sort of undue demands that market forces make on the efforts of poets like Eliot, less popular and less understood, to improve and maintain the art of poetry writing. "How unpleasant to meet Mr.Eliot," indeed, when the reading public has poets like Hodgson to flock to.  

From Critical companion to T.S. Eliot: a literary reference to his life and work by Russell Elliott Murphy


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