WEBSTER was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.
Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.
Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense,
To seize and clutch and penetrate;
Expert beyond experience,
He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.
Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
The couched Brazilian jaguar
Compels the scampering marmoset
With subtle effluence of cat;
Grishkin has a maisonette;
The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.
And even the Abstract Entities
Circumambulate her charm;
But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm.
- T.S. Eliot
The poem “Whispers of Immortality” is a poem inspired by a Russian dancer named Serafima Astafieva, whom Ezra Pound had introduced to Eliot `with the firm intuito that a poem would result & intention that it should' (Guide to Poems). Astafieva is found in the persona of “Grishkin” in this poem, a temptress whom the men in the poem are drawn to (Raffel). In this poem, Eliot uses an organization similar to the artist form “juxtaposition without copula”. In this form of painting, discovered by nineteenth-century artists, they “could establish on canvas two or more points of force – blobs of different shape and color – and have them set up potent but unspecified relations within the frame.” (Donoghue) This organization is set into the poem; there are the two 17th century poets, Webster and Donne, on one side of the metaphorical canvas, Grishkin on another, and the protagonist on the other. Grishkin is a temptress worried only about the hysical; “Uncorseted, her friendly bust / Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.” She has the instincts and cares of an animal; her only desire is sex, which in itself is cheapened by the author in his comparison between sex and machinery. On the other extreme, there is the protagonist, who values nothing physical or sensual, and instead values only his philosophy and obsession with death, because “our lot crawls between dry ribs / to keep our metaphysics warm.” Though it is assumed by many readers, the protagonist in this poem is not necessarily Eliot himself. He is probably using a second voice, an assumed voice, when talking as the protagonist. (Donoghue 28) In the middle of these two extremes are the 17th century poets Donne and Webster. Both were able to balance both extremes, and experimented with both the physical and the philosophical.
Both Grishkin and the protagonist are searching for meaning in life, even though it is more obvious in the protagonist. Eliot hints at this when he talks about Grishkin’s “promise of pneumatic bliss.” Besides the obvious meaning about tires, pneumatic also has another meaning “taken from the Gnostics and from Origen….: ‘PNEUMA … the vital soul or the spirit;- variously interpreted as the animal soul mediating between the higher spiritual nature and the body, as the breath or life giving principle…’”(Headings) Though she seeks meaning to life, obviously her pursuit through sex is futile. However, the protagonist’s pursuit is shown to be futile as well.
If death be predominant in our lives, we only “crawl” between “dry ribs” in order to “keep our metaphysics warm.” Even death, then, means nothing and figures only as food for our theories. After the boredom of life and the life of boredom, death, too, adds but little to our human experiences.
Ergo, Eliot is showing that both the protagonist and the antagonist are tinkering with what poets like Donne had gotten right centuries ago. Neither obsession with the physical nor the philosophical can bring anyone any closer to finding meaning in life; it is important to have a balance of both, even if no meaning is ever found, because it doesn’t exist in the first place.
“Whispers of Immortality” is important in Eliot’s body of work because it directly led to his beginning of his greatest work, The Waste Land. Though The Waste Land bears little resemblance to “Whispers of Immortality” in its final form (mostly because the latter was finished with far more sexual content than the former), it was created solely because of “Whispers of Immortality,” and originally had much more sexual material in it than when it was finally published. “It is hard to argue with the perceptive reader of twentieth-century poetry, Helen Vendler, who says flatly that ‘The Waste Land is obsessed with sex….' It is indeed – and was even more obsessed with it as Eliot had tried to write the poem.” (Raffel) Much of the sexual material found in the first drafts The Waste Land was cancelled.