We know there’s something magical about Scarriet March Madness tournaments—the pairings so often feature uncanny resemblances without any conscious intent by those putting together the brackets.
Look at this one:
Two of the most famous lines in poetry.
Elizabeth Barrett’s “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
T.S. Eliot’s “I measure out my life with coffee spoons.”
There’s counting, or measurement, in each offering.
Poetry, of course, the poetry people love (we don’t know about that formless modern stuff) involves counting—the measurement of beats—what the professors call meter.
We might note here that Plato said “art” and “measurement” were exactly the same thing. And even here in 2017, we kind of see what he means.
Anyway, is it any accident, then, that two of the most famous lines in poetry, one from 19th century England, and the other from 20th century America, involve counting?
T.S. Eliot’s family traces back to Massachusetts and a Unitarian grandfather who knew Emerson—Emerson and Poe were enemies, and Eliot excoriated Poe in “From Poe to Valery.”
Poe and Barrett were correspondents before Browning famously entered Barrett’s life, and Poe dedicated his Poems, 1845 to Barrett.
Do these facts “count,” when we study the poetry?
Barrett’s sentiment is an expansion of a singular love: how do I love thee? Let me count the ways is a glorious movement outward from the one.
True love is geometry.
Eliot’s moves in the opposite manner—Life (his life) is chopped up, subtracted, despairingly made smaller, even as there is an adding, a counting of the ways: coffee spoonful after coffee spoonful.
Fascinating, really, how two similar tropes work in completely opposite directions: the optimistic 19th century, the pessimistic 20th century.
We may as well throw in this quote from Eliot right here:
The essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal; it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.
We should allow Barrett to have her turn, too. She wrote the following:
If you desire faith, then you have faith enough.
Elizabeth Barrett is like a large, comfortable Victorian pillow.
T.S. Eliot is like a black-and-white horror film.
Eliot wins—only because the zeitgeist forces us to choose him.