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Thursday, 3 May 2012

T. S. Eliot: What the Thunder Said (Strokes)


File:Lightning flashes as the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Strait of Malacca.jpg

Lighting flashes as the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Strait of Malacca, underway on a scheduled deployment to the U.S. 7th and U.S. 5th Fleet areas of responsibility: photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Colby K. Neal, 8 October 2010 (U.S. Navy)

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
-- But who is that on the other side of you?

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land (1922), Part V: What the Thunder Said (excerpt)

 Lightning panorama: photo by Todd Martin, 4 April 2012
Endeavour at the Pad

 Space shuttle Endeavour sitting on Launch Pad 39A as a lightning storm passes prior to the rollback of the Rotating Service Structure, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida: photo by Bill Ingalls, 28 April 2011 (NASA)


Conrad DiDiodato said...

How nice to read Eliot, especially after a post in Harriet about how a certain Perloff recommends a little literary stealing in order to remedy "tepid" work.

I'm not making this up.

Hazen said...

Stunning photos, in every sense. Might Eliot have added "Washington, Beijing" et al, were he here today? I got caught out in the open during a thunderstorm a few days ago. I scurried home, acutely aware of just how vulnerable I was and how I could do nothing about it, except to try not to be the highest point around.
Thanks, Tom, for all this.

TC said...


Yes, crazy thunderstorms all about, one's head spins as the static electricity crackles in the violet air over the cracked plains and in the eerie ignis fatui street light of the Unreal City.

Eliot's note on The Third Who Walks Beside passage:

"The following lines were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton's): it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted."

The mysterious phantom third has been taken to be a sort of chimerical person.

He is not mentioned in this clip in which Shackleton talks about the South Pole Expedition, 1910.

(One feels rather bad for Socks the Pony, lost in the crevasse for the Good of Mankind. Perhaps it might have been better to have lost the Mysterious Third.)

Conrad, I fear I'm even further out of touch than the Phantom Explorer -- Perloff, is that an investment firm??

Nin Andrews said...

I love these lines of Eliots and have always loved/feared thunderstorms. As kids we used to all huddle together to watch them on our porch --
But here, where it is flat, I am more afraid of them and very afraid of tornadoes.

TC said...

It is sane to be afraid. The animals know. They react to lightning & thunder the same way they do to earthquakes.

We are told the intensity and frequency of powerful storms is something new, but we did not have to be told.

It would be pleasant to think there might be an edifying figure of some sort (this being poetry after all, which instructs by pleasing) hid in among the blurry shapes stumbling over the endless plain as the sky flashes and booms.

I've found that the bolt from the blue effect can also be experienced cerebrally, due to ideation in the best of cases, and due to short circuitings at the worst.

TC said...

I see that I have errantly referred to the Phantom Explorer as a He, when of course the text allows that this mysterious figure could equally be a She, or for that matter an It.

John McCloskey said...

Reading in Ellman that Joyce had a lifelong terror of thunderstorms. At the first sign of lightning, he would cross himself and recite, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, from a sudden and unprovided for death deliver us, O Lord."
And in A Portrait, Stephen says he fears "dogs, horses, firearms, the ea, thunderstorms, machinery, the country roads at night." Pretty complete list.
In any case, it's fun to know the two great Modernists shared phobias.

TC said...


In the environs of my childhood (back around the time Socks tumbled into that crevasse), the common expression of the women of the family in the event of a particularly bold stroke of lightning, or similar startling natural event:

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!"

Speaking of crevasses, I was once involved in the plunging of a Jeep Wagoneer down a steep mountain crevasse into a roaring creek.

Black ice was the cause.

The driver, a devout Irish Catholic mountain lady, mother of I believe it was eleven, managed the better part of an entire Hail Mary, at the speed of an auctioneer gifted with Tongues, as the doomed vehicle bounced down the steep boulder-strewn cliff side, path to probable ultimate perdition for yours truly, but of course salvation for her.

Chris said...

Believe it or not, I had a friend who used to say, "Datta Dayadhvam Damyata" all the time. He was studying Sanskrit. And in fact he had come over a dry plain, and more of the same awaited him.

Many will recognize the hooded companion. I have been trying to identify it for years. Sometimes it's named the Protector, and looms over a figure called the Young King.
I only hope it augurs rain, and is not the grim Cromwell.

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ACravan said...

This is terrific and really brightens everything about this evening -- the photos, the Eliot and especially the colloquy on top of it all. I love the clarity of all the photos (and particularly the top shot with the receding power lines), the images, the language and the shared memories. Oh -- I read something by a certain Perloff also last night concerning a literary subject intersecting with a sort-of contemporary news event. Curtis

TC said...


That definitely helps to clear things up re. the Perloff issue. Particularly Pertinent re. the agenda-setting processes.

Chris, speaking of the "Datta Dayadhvam Damyata" mantra and the hooded companion, forgive my errant memory again, but wasn't that the Zimmerman Defense?

Or maybe it was DSK?

("She had a black trash bag over her head, your honor, how was I to know it was not, for example, Madame Sarkozy?)

Colin, the principal and standard cautionary admonitions concerning lightning, in my childhood spent (wasted?) on the big-shouldered, hog-butchering prairie, were pretty much universally ignored by the ungrateful beneficiaries.

One strong caveat, for instance, involved staying out of open areas, such as the city golf links across the boulevard.

So of course during a good zinging electrical storm, when all the golfers were sensibly (and hastily) taking cover, we lads, always enterprising, combed the fairways, scooping up abandoned balls.

Which, disingenuous imps disguised as innocent city waifs that we were, when play had resumed, we then sold back to the same golfers at a dime apiece (a nickel for scuffed ones).

It was indeed through the practise of such forms of mutant dwarf capitalism that one laid the precarious foundations of a life of stunning financial failure.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Zounds! A stunning array of photos and comments accompanying this Eliot fragment but with all due respect regarding oaths surrounding thunder and lightning, one would have expected a reference to the Father of Thunderbolts, Zeus!

TC said...

Well, Vassilis, that just goes to show how much drawing-board toil in the conceptual sanctuary of the boiler room of the ark of the Blogger covenant always goes to waste.

For indeed, at an earlier stage, Zeus had left his gigantic mark, in the form of multiple burn scars, all over this post. And for that matter (honest injun), Achilles and Thetis were in there too. It was quite a divine party to be honest. But then there came a knock at the boiler room door, it was Lucretius, bearing his extremely sensible (and extremely long) explanation of just how thunder and lightning actually work. And as you know, the old boy was terribly jealous, and couldn't stand the way superstitious people kept unscientifically attributing the heavenly light-and-sound shows to celestial activities of the Pantheon.

All went well, then, for a while, with the revisionary midnight oil pooling up around the lost snippets of De Rerum Natura on the cutting room floor, the mixed metaphors rumbling safely in the distance...

Until rosy-fingered dawn arrived in the form of the Great No-Nonsense Goddess of the household, who took one look at the draft, turned up her beauteous nose haughtily and sneered (as is her wont) with terrifying disdain, uttering that one party-killing word that has sunk a thousand blog posts:


So much for you, me and Zeus.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

What can I say? Your previous comment has left me dumbstricken!



What IS that sound in the high air . . .


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, blue jay on redwood fence
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

absence of names in another
action, cloud passing

part of seeing, “going out”
of place, transparent

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
cloudless blue sky to the left of point

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ACravan said...

"Pedantic." Only someone who truly cares would give you the benefit of that fine word. Curtis

TC said...


Yes, well, that would be a kind way of considering the matter.


I hope it is safe to assume the ball was merely caught up in a tuft, rather than actually lodged in the... would exhaust pipe be a polite term?

Dan De Vries said...

So, much past the use before date, I suppose.

Reading in Bean Spasms, sent back into it by email from Jane regarding Anselm, and there more than one reference to the Tom Clark blog, and find What the Thunder Said and check to see where those two noted literary hooligans stole it from and this comes up. Too Much. Live long and be well Anselm, and TC too for that matter.

TC said...

Thanks, Frans.

Dates of use don't mean too much when all dates become missing or forgot well before the shelf life expires.

(You'll see that your interest has sparked a new spasm of electrical activity at the top, here -- a phantom limb of Poseidon twitching, mayhap.)