Monthly Archives: May 2017

A Thousand Years of Forbidden Knowledge

In Dr. Faustus, Lucifer entertains with “some pastime” (Marlowe A2.3: 99) as he parades the various sins of hell in their corporeal forms before their host, Faustus. Lucifer is giving a performance, in effect telling the story of how he, Lucifer with his crew believe they will succeed in corrupting humanity – or at least in corrupting Faustus. In this essay I wish to take on the role of Lucifer and examine seven texts which explore the idea of forbidden knowledge as it appears in its various forms over a thousand years of English literature from the Old to the Modern period.



“For fifty winters,” (Beowulf 129) Beowulf ruled his people well yet what could have caused it all to go so wrong? Early in the tale we learn of Hengest’s vengeance when “the flashing sword” (Beowulf 102) is placed in his lap. Though peace had persisted through winter, now that it was spring and his people were no longer required to keep the peace, he sought his vengeance. Hengest’s revenge is a clue as to why a dragon has begun to terrorize Beowulf’s people. This dragon had “for three hundred winters,” (Beowulf 131) guarded a treasure which remained buried in a barrow far from man, yet because of a slave who was “escaping from men’s anger,” (Beowulf 130) happened to stumble upon this treasure and carry it off into the world caused the dragon’s vengeance was loosed upon Beowulf’s kingdom.

Yet what is this treasure and why was it buried? The contents are no doubt of great earthly wealth, but it’s doing little good just buried in the ground. What we learn of this treasure is that it had been deliberately buried by someone who was the last of his people, perhaps an ancient king like Beowulf and Hrothgar since he is described as “the protector of rings” (Beowulf 130). Yet like Beowulf who also has no heir, this protector of rings does not use his wealth to forge any new alliances and thus enrich his fellow man as was custom, instead he greedily hides it away from man where it can do no good. In effect the treasure becomes symbolic of greed itself and the dragon becomes the consuming consequences of pursuing this greed; the treasure is literally cursed. Hidden away this treasure is a forbidden knowledge best left untouched, yet Beowulf, perhaps wishing to provide for his people financially since he has no heir to provide them with, but more importantly for the fame it might bestow our epic hero, seeks the treasure, a knowledge of sorts, that is not his in hopes of securing a prosperous future.

And perhaps if Beowulf had acted more like Hrothgar (who also had no heir) and allowed for a champion to slay this dragon then maybe events would have turned out better. However, “the giver of gold [Beowulf] disdained / to track the dragon with a troop / of warlike men,” (Beowulf 133) because his own pride (ofermod) has convinced him that only he is capable of the feat (Beowulf 137). Like the man who buried his treasure in the earth and does not share his wealth, Beowulf does not allow for his own people to share in the chance at glory. Glory, the ultimate goal for the epic hero, must be all his just as wealth is the ultimate goal for a man who buries his riches in a barrow.

Beowulf thus is ultimately consumed by the dragon’s fire and dies. His obsession with the cursed treasure, a quest for what amounts to obtaining a forbidden knowledge, coupled with his pride, a theme we will see repeated again in Milton, is his ultimate undoing.



The Breton lai of Milun not only explores instances of secrets and forbidden knowledge, but it also carries over the theme of genealogy and an heir from Beowulf. Milun is a story about the family, specifically the legitimacy of family and at this point in English literature we see the shift in identity towards the family and away from Beowulf’s clans, and how the women now, not the men, are central to this new identity even though we have not yet reached the point where we actually learn these women’s names.

Central to the story is our heroine’s pregnancy with the “fine” knight Milun. Fearful that she “would be severely punished: tortured, or sold as a slave,” (Marie 98) she must hide her condition less she forfeit “her honour and good name,” (Marie 98). Her father has plans for her to be betrothed to “a very wealthy man from the region,” (Marie 98) and if he were to find out what his daughter has been doing in the bedchamber near her garden then nobody would have her. THe irony being that as she fears becoming a slave, she is being bought and sold as a slave.

Her insistence on attracting Milun and exploring her sexual passions with him places her in an almost impossible situation. She cries that she “never realized that things would turn out this way,” (Marie 99) apparently because nobody told her of the consequences of sexual intercourse. Yet her situation is not entirely impossible either. Her’s is a true love, unlike that with her betrothal to the nobleman, and as we know from the genre of romance, true love will prevail even if it takes awhile and some scheming to see it through.

The final scheme in the lai involves murder. Milun and his (newly reconciled) son plan how to reunite the family and the son suggests that “I shall kill her husband and marry her to you,” (Marie 103). And had the lai not followed the conventions of the genre and the son really had carried out the murder we would not have had a nice family reconciliation but rather perhaps the terrible consequences of tasting the forbidden knowledge of murder. Yet divine providence stepped in and we learn that “[H]er husband was dead,” (Marie 104). True love won out and the nobleman whom she had been married to just conveniently dies. In fact her husband dies because he was ignorant to the forbidden knowledge of her (lack of) virginity. As we will explore in A Journal of the Plague Year when hundreds of thousands die to the ignorance of what was causing the plague, so too does this nobleman pay the price for this hidden and forbidden knowledge.

Thankfully for the son, he does not have to taste the forbidden fruit of murder and the family is affirmed in love and the legitimacy of the son is secure.


The Miller’s Tale

Sexual intercourse with a woman who (currently) belongs to another is a theme explored not just in Marie de France, but also in Chaucer. Yet while our genre remains that of love, unlike Milun which is a romance, here Chaucer writes a fabliaux, a dirty story focusing more on the genitals than it does the heart. And here too we explore the consequences of forbidden knowledge, only this time with much more levity and mirth than in Beowulf of Milun.

Our first clue as to what Chaucer is up to is in the Miller’s prologue when the Miller says to the Reve, “Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold,” (Chaucer 3152). Right away we know we are going to be in for a tale about cheating wives and all the trouble that can bring. This contrasts with Milun in that Marie de France writes tales for the court about the importance and bonding of family and ennobled love, whereas Chaucer, speaking as the drunken Miller to the sickly Reve, is basically giving his 14th century audience the equivalent of porn.

One thing to keep in mind here however, Chaucer isn’t completely straying out of the genre because line in Milun the Miller’s Tale also focuses on a young woman married to an older man who doesn’t deserve her. Yet whereas the heroine in Milun was at least betrothed to someone she shared the same class with, the old and uneducated carpenter, “He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude,” (Chaucer 3227), is here mismatched to his 18 year old wife and he is incredibly jealous, “And demed hymself been lik a cokewold,” (Chaucer 3226). And so this mismatch and jealousy is the opportunity for someone like the learned, youthful, and horny scholar, Nicholas to take advantage of this carpenter so that he can sleep with the young wife: “‘A clerk hadde litherly biset his whyle, / But if he koude a carpenter bigyle,” (Chaucer 3299).

Nicholas’ plan preys on the carpenter’s ignorance and uses his “forbidden knowledge” as power to get what he wants because he knows it will impress the old man; “This man is falle, with his astromye,” and the carpenter believes, “Men sholde nat knowe of Goddes pryvetee,” (Chaucer 3454) and so is convinced that the knowledge Nicholas has about a second “Noes flood,” (Chaucer 3518) is true and imminent and goes along with the outrageous plan to hang bathtubs from the rafters, “Men may dyen of ymaginacioun,” (Chaucer 3612).

In the end the carpenter is completely humiliated, “That he was holde wood in al the toun;” (Chaucer 3846) and, “Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,” (Chaucer 3850). The carpenter had bought into the supposed authority of the the young clerk, Nicholas and because he was so blinded with jealousy that anyone with even the remotest ability and education (power) was able to take advantage of him. The carpenter’s desire to trust in a forbidden knowledge, even though he said man shouldn’t pry into the mind of God, turned out to be his undoing.

Yet how was it exactly that Nicholas was able to pry into the mind of God, or at least appear to posses such knowledge? Perhaps in Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus is a clue.


Doctor Faustus

In the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas is a literate man; he can write and read, and so he has access to knowledge that someone like the carpenter does not have. In short learning has moved on from being an oral tradition, such as in Beowulf, or Marie de France reading her lais to a baronial court or the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales passing the time with each other telling their various stories, and can now be found written down in a book whose barrier to entry is the ability to read. This literacy, coupled with more and more people moving to the cities to find work, work that required an education, institutions arose to train young people, like Nicholas, in the required curriculum of the day. And so no longer was the bible the only book that contained what you needed to get along in the world. The bible may contain the providential word of God, but it could not teach you much about law, logic, or how to be a doctor. Yet just as conservative religion had grown out of the teachings found in the bible, an orthodox curriculum of the new secular knowledge, a new providence, had arisen.

But what exactly was in these books? According to Faustus, “O, what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence / Is promised to the studious artisan!” (Marlowe A1.1:55) can be found in books, but not just any books, but rather “necromantic books,” (Marlowe A1.1:53), and anything containing not the boring orthodoxy of the standard curriculum but which, “try thy brains to gain a deity,” (Marlowe A1.1:65). Faustus is not interested in being a clerk, he wants to be a 16th century Oppenheimer and unlock the mysteries of the universe and he is willing to dig, like Beowulf looking for a dragon’s horde, to find, “all the wealth that our forefathers hid / Within the massy entrails of the earth,” (Marlowe A1.1:148).

Not surprisingly this quest for knowledge has its consequences in that Faustus eventually must relinquish his immortal soul to Lucifer, but it also reveals a shift in literature from the medieval and into a (early) modern world of science and rationalism. In one scene Faustus tells Lucifer that he believes, “hell’s a fable,” but to which Lucifer replies, “Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind,” (Marlowe A2.1:127). This focus on experience is important because it contrasts with a world view consisting of authority coming from the revealed word of God. God’s authority is being challenged by the possibility of the forbidden knowledge of experience in the hopes of gaining a power that could perhaps make oneself a God. But this choice between authority and experience also gives rise to doubt because now what is someone to believe? Who really has authority? Our author, Marlowe, was born a generation after Martin Luther challenged the church’s authority and so now people have the freedom to choose between letting the church tell them how to find salvation or to try and figure it out for themselves. Yet what are the real consequences to all this freedom?


Paradise Lost

While we do not learn of what becomes of Faustus after Marlowe’s Lucifer comes to collect his soul, we might imagine it could be something similar to what Milton’s Lucifer experiences once he’s kicked out of heaven; “look on me, / Me who have touched and tasted,” (Milton IX:687) Satan says to Eve as he attempts to seduce her into eating the forbidden fruit. And from Eve’s pre-fall point of view, Satan seems to be making a convincing argument, “Yet rung of his persuasive words, impregned / With reason, to her seeing, and with truth,” (Milton IX:737).

But just as Faustus vacillates with doubt and wonders if it’s not too late to repent, “‘Tis thou hast damned distressed Faustus’ soul. / Is’t not too late?” (Marlowe A2.3:75), Milton’s Satan soliloquizes his decision to rebel against God. Satan reflects that “nor was his service hard,” (Milton IV:45) so then why did he ever decide to rebel? Basically, Satan is jealous of the Son of God, “with envy against the Son of God, that day / Honoured by his great father, and proclaimed / Messiah king anointed,” (Milton V:662) because Satan is no longer the most important angel in heaven and must be subordinate to someone else and be subject to “new laws thou seest imposed; / New laws from him who reigns,” (Milton V:679). From Satan’s point of view God is a tyrant and so like a child who first discovers they can say “no” when they don’t want to do something, he rebels. He acts like the drunken Miller from Chaucer who speaks out of turn and upsets the hierarchy.

This decision to rebel raises an important question as to why Satan, and later Eve and Adam, is free to even make such a choice in the first place. Wouldn’t God have saved everyone a whole lot of time and trouble had he not given anybody the freedom, “free to fall,” (Milton III:99), to make such terrible decisions? Herein lies the paradox of the freedom we have to either be freely obedient to God’s rule and his hierarchy, or to use our Godlike freedom to be like Faustus so that we too “shall be as gods,” (Milton IX:708). What God wants is not robots who “had served necessity, / Not me,” (Milton III:110) but beings who are obedient because they also understand that only God can truly handle ultimate freedom. By breaking our obedience to God we overreach and attempt to gain the knowledge that God has, a knowledge which has literally been forbidden to us by God.

And the consequences of this overreach is dire. In book XI, Milton describes the angel Michael’s prophecy of humanity’s fate in great detail, and pretty much all of it is graphic and tragic, “A lazar-house it seemed, wherein were laid / Numbers of all diseased,” (Milton XI:479). Our overreach of knowledge and disobedience leads to nothing but suffering, a theme we see explored in great detail in Daniel DeFoe’s novel about the Great Plague of London in 1665.


A Journal of the Plague Year

While Adam and Eve know perfectly well why they had been banished from Eden and have had the consequences their offspring will endure due to their decision to rebel against God literally revealed to them, the people of London in 1665 have no such clear knowledge. As we have explored above, humanity has the freedom to choose whose authority he wishes to serve: he can rely on the revealed word of God, or he can look elsewhere, to books and experience to make sense of the world. Yet what good can either of these do in a world that, “for many People that had the Plague upon them, knew nothing of it; till the inward Gangreen had affected their Vitals and they dy’d in a few Moments,” (Defoe 77). Worse still were those who supposedly possessed the authority of God who instead of offering hope, “those Ministers, in their Sermons, rather sunk, than lifted up the Hearts of their Hearers,” (Defoe 26). All is in confusion, society has broken down and nobody possesses the knowledge to defend themselves from death.

And so where do people turn? Some turn to looting (Defoe 85), some to homeopathic remedy, “his Wife’s Remedy was washing her Head in Vinegar,” (Defoe 87), or succumbing outright to despair, “for People that were Infected, and near their End, and delirious also, would run to those Pits wrapped in Blankets, or Rugs, and throw themselves in,” (Defoe 59). In effect all knowledge has been cursed, like a dragon’s horde, and it leads to a systematic collapse of civilization. The very top of man’s society, the wealthy, abandon the poor which leads to commerce and trade either being taken over by criminals and swindlers (Defoe 27-28) or just falling apart entirely (Defoe 141), which leads to the political and religious authorities deteriorating (Defoe 226). Marie de France wrote of God’s Providence guiding the family towards reunion and a restoration of ennobled civilization (Milun), but in the modern world there only seems to be tricksters like Chaucer’s Nicolas taking advantage of a confused situation.

Thus it would seem civilization is doomed and there is nothing man can do to improve his standing in a world where he is free to indulge in any and all knowledge and where there seems to be no real authority. However, just as Adam and Eve put Eden behind them, “The world was all before them,” (Milton XII:646), perhaps then it might be possible to make the best of a terrible situation to rebuild civilization.


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

In our previous examples the pursuit of forbidden knowledge has only led to despair; Beowulf, Milun’s lover, Chaucer’s carpenter, Dr. Faustus, Milton’s Lucifer and Eve, and Defoe’s London society have all suffered the consequences of reaching beyond their limitations. Yet is the pursuit of “forbidden knowledge” and a desire for freedom only a path leading towards destruction? When we think back to the paradox Milton explores in Paradise Lost where real freedom is actually in obedience to God and rebelling against it leads to destruction, perhaps we can look to Olaudah Equiano’s life as a slave as a counter-example to how he used his pursuit of freedom and knowledge to better himself and society.

A religious allusion to Jesus turning water into wine so that the masses could hear the word of God (revelation) cannot be understated when Equiano meets up again with Dr Irving and was then “daily employed in reducing old Neptune’s dominions by purifying the briny element and making it fresh,” (Equiano 172). This process of turning undrinkable seawater into fresh, life-giving water contrasts with Faustus’ greed for power by use of “magic, magic that hath ravished me,” (Marlowe A1.1:112), and also contrasts with Defoe’s London society who wrongly thought so many were dying of the plague because, “the Calamity was spread by Infection, that is to say, by some certain Steams, or Fumes,” (Defoe 73). Yet Equiano seemed to have tapped into a forbidden knowledge that previously could have been thought of as a sort of alchemy, a knowledge he has perhaps gained through some of the very same books (Equiano 68) Faustus and Chaucer’s Nicholas used in their greedy and manipulative abuse of power.

Equiano also seemingly contrasts with our previous examples in his quest for freedom. Milton has taught us freedom is obedience to God and obedience will keep our freedom in check lest we try to overreach and become like God, but Equiano experiences almost constant mistreatment at the hands of those he’s supposed to be obedient to: his owners. Yet Equiano is not seeking freedom from God’s rule, but from the tyranny of men. Equiano writes, “Christ is my pilot wise, my compass is his word,” (Equiano 199) because not only is God a literal guide in the scientific and secular sense where Equiano must navigate his way on a ship, but also in the spiritual sense of his own obedience to God in guiding him through a chaos, much like the one Lucifer travels through (Milton II:910), so that He will, “save me in the trying hour,” (Equiano 199). Like Lucifer, Equiano rebels, but what he rebels against is an actual injustice, not against a just obedience that wasn’t really that hard anyway (Milton IV:45). Even Equiano’s pride contrasts with Milton’s Lucifer in that he posses a self-worth, but not an overabundance that blinds him into believing he can become like God.

Equiano then makes for a fitting conclusion to our exploration of forbidden knowledge in that he uses his reason to seek only that which can improve him and his fellow man, but does not go beyond that. He understands his limitations but is perfectly happy with such restrictions. He has “put [his] ears to,” (Equiano 68) forbidden knowledge, but like the books that remained silent when he was illiterate, has been practical in his application of what knowledge he eventually learns through his experiences

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano : Different but the Same

what advantages do not a refined people possess over those who are rude and uncultivated?” (45)

The first image we get of Olaudah Equiano is of his actual portrait on the cover and title page. Here he looks perfectly refined in the western sense with his lace scarf, expensive red jacket and the Bible open to the Book of Acts. He embodies, literally, the idea that just because he is black he is nevertheless no less of a dignified human than a white man, “Surely the minds of the Spaniards did not change with their complexions!” (45). Our first impression of him is of an assimilated black man into western civilization, and so we must put our ear to his book “in hopes it would answer [us],” (68) so that we might learn who this black man wearing the clothes of a white man is.

In the first chapter of his narrative we learn exactly just how civilized, arguably more civilized, this black man is to that of the white men who enslave him. When compared to Defoe’s plague infested Londoners, Equiano’s people seem more advanced as well. “Sometimes we are visited by locusts,” (38) and when a famine follows his people respond as a social collective (38) unlike the wealthy of London who run off into hiding at the first sign of inconvenience from the Plague. In fact by the nature of his people’s cleanliness, “Those that touched the dead at any time were obliged to wash and purify themselves,” (42) and their architecture which was designed to “keep off the different insects,” (36), they are better protected from disease than the “more advanced” people who enslave them. Practical experience does more for a “simple” people living in the African interior than all the libraries of knowledge in England.

Equiano goes into great detail as to the advanced level of civilization his native people possess. They engage in trade with the Oye-Eboe who bring them “arms, gun-powder, hats, beads, and dried fish” (37). They are familiar with science, “We compute the year from the day which the sun crosses the line,” (40-41). His people comport themselves respectfully, “we were totally unaccustomed with swearing,” (41). They are knowledgeable of medicine in that they “practiced bleeding by cupping, and were very successful in healing wounds and expelling poisons,” (42). In other words they are self sufficient and capable of managing plague, famine, and war, quite unlike Defoe’s terrified and helpless Londoners.

A key to their success is in their community and the norm of helping their neighbors, “The whole neighborhood afford their unanimous assistance in building [houses], and, in return, receive and expect no other recompense than a feast,” (36). This is a far cry from the white men who, as we learn later in the narrative take advantage of Equiano and outright steal from him for their own gain, or like in Defoe who just lock up their neighbors to save themselves when the plague breaks out.

Equiano is so cultured and civilized that upon first meeting these white men he asks “if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair?” (55). There is great irony in a slave questioning the very humanity of a race of people who sees him as merely a piece of ignorant property.

From this point on he must, in effect, build a bridge between his own civilization and identity to that of his captors. He must prove his worth by becoming more like his captors in appearance so that they might pause long enough to hear his story. Of course he has the ability to tell his story because he possesses the financial means to do so. Like Defoe’s wealthy Londoners who are able to save themselves and pass on their genes, Equiano is also able to protect his identity and pass it on to later generations, quite unlike the millions of less fortunate Africans whose stories were never told. And perhaps in this one aspect Western civilization has the advantage over “those who are rude and uncultivated,” (45) in its ability to pass down not just the practical technical knowledge of staying alive, but because they have the ability “to keep their great men when they died,” (63).

Paradise Lost : God’s adversary?

Meanwhile the adversary of God and man,’ (Book II, 629)

The word “adversary” (2:629) is carrying a lot of thematic weight in the poem. Initially, “adversary” can be defined in its classic sense, that of the traditional, epic antagonist, such as Grendel, or the Dragon of the horde, or even in the romantic sense of the jealous husband who locks up his young and pretty wife. Milton is drawing on this traditional view of the word “adversary” to build the character of Satan up in the same tradition as the old epics and romances so that the character will be instantly recognizable, and sympathetic.

An example of “adversary” in the classic definition can be seen in such lines as “That glory never shall his wrath or might / Extort from me.” (1:110) where we witness Satan’s defiance against his enemy, God. We know this will be a good fight, and we also know that any great hero has to have a foe worthy of his attention because in vanquishing such a mighty foe is for the greatest of all glory and eventual reward, “The world shall burn, and from her ashes spring / New heaven and earth, wherein the just shall dwell,” (3:334).

Another example of Milton’s use of “adversary” comes in the later definition we have explored in the genre of the romance. Satan, in his temptation of youthful and naive Eve, prays on her innocence as well has her vanity to capture her, “Taste this, and be henceforth among the gods / Thyself a goddess,” (5:77). Satan is like the jealous old husband of Chaucer who against all odds manages to score a wife who is out of his accepted social position – in other words, he is grasping for more than he is has been allowed by society, or in this case, God.

This then leads us into the use of the word “adversary” as playing directly into how the character of Satan sees himself. Satan defines his worth through this adversarial relationship with God, his pride blinds him into thinking he is equal enough to actually be an “adversary” of God. Yet we know he is lacking all the facts, specifically God’s existence outside of all time, “Wherein past, present, future he beholds,” (3:78) and thus is unaware of the inevitable outcome. Satan is unaware just how doomed he is since God has already seen Satan’s failure, but he does not have this knowledge and so we watch as he fights a battle he cannot win.

All this helps build up a character we are familiar with from the tradition of literature (from epic to romance and the medieval) which creates an antagonist who is powerful enough to be dangerous (and also entertaining to read about), but relatable enough through his flaws so that we can empathize with just how dangerous Satan can be in our own lives. Milton has personified evil and humanized it, he is showing us how evil is ultimately a human adversary which is a part of our very nature. Evil is transformed from an ambiguous, or monstrous concept outside of ourselves into something entirely human capable of great evil within ourselves.

Eliot and Baraka: Identity and Disenfranchisement

While T.S. Eliot and Amiri Baraka have seemingly opposing philosophies concerning the role of the poet’s identity in art, their work shares similar cultural realities; both attempt to address the inequality of the modern world, specifically as it relates to the identity of marginalized members of society.

In 1919, T.S. Eliot explained in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the poet is distinct from the poetry they are writing and that poetry “… is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” (Eliot 42). Eliot’s view of the individual’s identity can hardly be surprising in the context of when this essay was written so soon after the end of WW1. Mechanized advancements in warfare, such as the airplane and long-range artillery, had depersonalized the value of human life by turning the battlefield into a meatgrinder where the value of the individual is little more than a stain upon the vastness of an apocalyptic wasteland where death comes at any moment from an entrenched and unseen enemy.

Eliot’s depersonalization and loss of identity is reflected in his poem “Preludes” where he describes the modern city not through the individual people who inhabit it, but through the stains left behind from these collective masses. His lines, “The burnt out ends of smoky days”, “The grimy scraps”, and “… faint stale smells of beer” (Kalaidjian 34) build up an image of humanity’s waste to allude to the idea of humanity as waste.

Eliot also argues that the role of the poet in creating art is a process of “continual surrender of himself,” (Eliot 39). Here he is explaining that the artist is part of a tradition, the classical Western Tradition, that is greater than himself and that this tradition is totally inescapable. Eliot is arguing that the artist writes “not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country,” (Eliot 37). Eliot’s definition of the artist is not as a unique individual, but is someone who is part of a process of the past and the present. Eliot’s artist has no individual identity but whose “mature” mind is a catalyst (“a filament of platinum,“) (Eliot 39) that causes a chemical reaction between two previously existing gasses to form a new substance but that ultimately destroys the catalyst. Eliot uses as analogy the impersonal advances of science and technology to define the identity of the artist.  

Nearly fifty years after Eliot’s essay, the poet Amiri Baraka will stand at the front lines of the Civil Rights movement and use his poetry as a force demanding that the individual – specifically the African American – be recognized and taken seriously as a part of American (Western) society. Baraka is part of a generation who no longer is willing to accept an identity of the African American as being “Invisible”, as Ralph Ellison uses the term in his 1952 novel, “Invisible Man”. Baraka is not willing to be a filament subsumed by the white world, rather he will use art violently against a “static reality,” (Reilly 168).

Amiri Baraka seems to stand in sharp contrast to Eliot in that he is an active (even violent) agent of protest against the classical Western Tradition in order to “free himself, and his people,” (Reilly 15) as he, still known as LeRoi Jones at the time, stated in his 1966 interview with Stewart Smith and Peter Thon when asked about what happens to “a creative person when you start to give yourself over entirely to protest activities,” (Reilly 15).

In “Poem for Black Hearts”, which eulogizes Civil Rights leader Malcolm X, Baraka (Jones) uses his poem as a call for black men to literally avenge Malcolm X’s death, “Malcolm’s assassination demands retribution from black men against white men,” (Watts 112). It should be noticed, however that Baraka is saying white men will call black men “faggots” if black men do not fight back, a call to action which seeks to move discrimination off onto another marginalized group.

“Poem for Black Hearts” further contrasts to Eliot in that Baraka is not only an active agent for (violent) change, but he is breaking from the tradition and forms Eliot believes the artist is beholden to. Baraka is writing in free verse, of which Eliot said “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job” (Perloff) because Baraka is, in effect using new methods to express his refusal to be lumped in with the “static” hegemony of the Western Tradition. The lines of Baraka’s poem swell in length as they continue down the page and as they become more impassioned and more insistent that action be taken, unlike “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” where Eliot’s narrator waffles with the same indecision as Hamlet and ultimately just grows “old” with “the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” (Eliot 15). Where Eliot uses ironic rhymes, “tool” and “Fool”, “meticulous” and “ridiculous”, “use” and “obtuse” to describe the sad state of the narrator, Baraka uses the phrases “stupid animal” and “dumb white man” (Watts 111) to describe whom he is fighting with no lack of certainty.

Yet despite these seemingly ungulfable differences, both poets are exploring the everyday life of the disenfranchised in a modern world which has taken on the qualities of a prison. For example, Baraka writes in “KA ‘BA” that black people “sprawl in grey chains,” (Kalaidjian 294) while in Eliot’s “Preludes” the state of modern man is like “Women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots,” (Kalaidjian 36). Even Prufrock’s waffling can be seen expressed in the confused dual-consciousness Baraka alludes to in “Dope” where Baraka is both preacher and slave parishioner, drug addict and the hustling dealer. Prufrock himself lives under a sky that is “Like a patient etherised upon a table,” (Eliot 11) which shares the themes of society and religion as being like a drug (dope) sedating us.

Though Eliot may hold his definition of the Western Tradition in highest regard, he is not saying poetry is only a product of this ancient tradition. Eliot writes, “The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations,” (Eliot 38). These undistinguished reputations which the poet must take into consideration when creating art can include everything from pop-culture to black activists (for they lie outside the hegemony) and so he is saying it is vital to have a finger on the pulse of the times.

For Eliot the state of the modern man is in doubt, as we have seen with Prufrock. War has ravaged the nations whose culture make up the majority of the Western Tradition and so man is described by Eliot in “Gerontion” as being “A dull head among windy spaces,” (Eliot 31) who is in debt to the foreign banks (here described with the racist stereotype of “the jew”, which is not even given the dignity of capitalization, and draws a racist scapegoat comparison with Baraka’s use of the derogatory “faggot”), who owns a goat that “coughs”, and whose maid “Sneezes”. Everyone is sick and it is a “dry month” and they are “waiting for rain”. There is no relief and our narrator is so weakened and ineffectual he has lost his senses, his “sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch,” (Eliot 33). All is uncertain, the old symbols are twisted, Christ is no longer a lamb but now comes as “the tiger,” (Eliot 31).

Baraka, too is reacting to the state of the world as he sees it. In “Square Business” he writes about the hegemony,

… They own each

Other. They own

my mother. They own

and own, go on, what else

is theirs?

Time. Time is. (Watts 111)

Baraka is showing us how greed motivated society is while alluding to how his own people have been and still are owned by a structure with so much power that it owns time itself. This section of the poem demonstrates this through rhymes that are enjambed into the next line, as if those in power are reaching down into the next line to take as much as they can there, too. When Baraka writes of his own people, they “kill each other” and live “on a dirty courtyard,” (Kalaidjian 293), which could perhaps be the same courtyard from Eliot’s “Preludes” where,

a gusty shower wraps

The grimy scraps

Of withered leaves about your feet

And newspapers from vacant lots; (Kalaidjian 34)

Eliot gives us a society that is old and sick, and Baraka gives us one that continues to enslave the people. Both Eliot’s people and Baraka’s are faceless, and we only see pieces of them, “the yellow soles of feet” (Eliot 34), (emphasis on the pun with soles and souls), or “full of masks and dances and swelling chants / with african eyes, and noses, and arms,” (Kalaidjian 294). In both examples the individual is depersonalized into a modern art jumble of body parts or is hidden behind a mask whose greater spiritual meaning we can’t fathom or has been utterly degraded.

Yet as Eliot’s generation grew out of the violence of WW1 to inform his mechanized worldview of the depersonalized individual full of Hamlet’s uncertainty, Baraka turns the violence right back around and uses it to give meaning and purpose back to the individual. He writes in “Black Art” (Benston 115),

we want “poems that kill.”

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot

guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys

and take their weapons leaving them dead

with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.

Baraka is giving his audience the stage directions he believes they need to break the chains of oppression, something he alludes to with his stage / performance directions in “Dope”, and he is giving direction to what had previously been the uncertainty that wracked the minds of generations. In “Gerontion”, Eliot’s narrator did not fight at the “hot gates” (Eliot 31) at Thermopylae, but Baraka’s generation fights at the hot gates of the inner city ghetto against the new forces of oppression, the “cops”. Baraka removes Hamlet’s doubt and returns his agency to act, even if it is bloody violent and might end in his own death – at least there will be decision and change! Perhaps Baraka is speaking “the sacred words” that will “raise up / return, destroy, and create,” (Kalaidjian 294) not just his people, but all people who have for too long been disenfranchised.

In 1957 Eliot wrote in his essay “The Music of Poetry”, “Every revolution in poetry is apt to be, and sometimes to announce itself to be, a return to common speech,” (Harris 55). Just two years after Ginsberg’s “Howl”, Eliot is in effect saying that poetry (and thereby the poet) can give agency and voice to the people whom society has silenced. The same year Eliot was penning his essay on a potential “revolution in poetry”, The Little Rock Nine were being escorted to their classrooms by federal troops; black people would finally begin the process of integration into the white American educational system and thus become accredited members of Eliot’s Western Tradition.

Yet poetry alone was not going to open wide the gates of American institutions to the African American. While Eliot had been writing to and about an audience that while depersonalized at least had the agency to act, Baraka had been “given an ‘undesirable discharge’” from the military on the grounds that “he had been a communist” (Watts 27), and by 1964 he would write in his poem “Short Speech to My Friends”,

                             / The perversity

                              of separation, isolation,

after so many years of trying to enter

    their kingdoms, (Rich)

Adrienne Rich, herself an artist who explores the role of the oppressed and marginalized in her own work, describes Baraka’s disillusionment as that “… of a young artist doing what some few manage or dare to do: question the foundations of the neighborhood in which he or she has come of age and received affirmation,” (Rich). Just at a time when it would seem African Americans were beginning to be included as a legitimate segment of American society, Baraka only grows disillusioned with the idea of being subsumed by white America and by 1966 wrote in his essay collection “Home”, “The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it,” (Watts 175). Baraka doesn’t want to be part of Eliot’s Tradition, rather he writes in 1969,

… Hard work. Brutal work…. Build a house, man.

Build a city, A Nation. This is the heaviest

work. A poem? One Page? Ahhhh man, consider

200,000,000 people, feed and clothe them, in the

beauty of god. That is where it’s at. And yeh,

man, do it well. Incredibly Well. (Watts 196)

Baraka is calling for real, concrete action to aid the disenfranchised and voiceless. Poetry is a vehicle for revolution in the real world, not just in language as Eliot believes.

Baraka is honoring his people by leading them in a new direction, and in fact honoring his people is a concept in his 1965 novel, “The System of Dante’s Hell” where he puts the heretics, not the treacherous as Dante had, into the lowest levels of hell. Honoring his people and not selling himself or them out is more important than anything else and he is unwilling to let Eliot’s Tradition continue to define him and his people. Yet the irony here is that he is still using the Tradition; Eliot famously quotes Dante in an epigraph for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. He may have evicted the traitors and rearranged the furniture in hell, but it’s still Dante’s, and by tradition, Eliot’s hell. And so while Baraka rejects a tradition that, “continues to function in the artist’s work for the simple reason that a conscious act of repudiation does not necessarily constitute an expunging,” and that  “there will always be a tension between the artist’s proclaimed repudiation and the continuing role of that heritage in his work,” (Benston 72). Baraka goes as far as to put Eliot (as well as Pound and Joyce) in hell, but he is still acknowledging their influence by merely mentioning them.

I have spent much time here accusing Eliot of being little more than the establishment, but he too was a voice for changing cultural norms. In his 1915 poem “Cousin Nancy” he writes,

Miss Nancy Ellicott

Strode across the hills and broke them,

Rode across the hills and broke them –

The barren New England hills –

Riding to hounds

Over the cow-pasture.

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked

And danced all the modern dances;

And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,

But they knew that it was modern. (Cooper 8)

Eliot is aware the times are changing and that society and art will have to find new modes and methods to express itself. However, “Eliot’s deliberate association with popular culture, and with its largely African American roots, provided a way of laying claim to revolutionary cultural power while simultaneously acknowledging ambivalence about his relationship to it,” (Cooper 7). Just as Baraka has an uneasy relationship with the Western Tradition, Eliot’s relationship with the people he is writing about is just as complicated.

In conclusion, both poets give voice to the disenfranchised, yet both poets were not immune to the forces of oppression their work explores. Eliot was an anti-semite (Kakutani), and Baraka’s objectification of women, “the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped,” (Watts 332) is incendiary. And while I do not argue that their personal flaws negate the messages of their art, it is important to recognize the dualities present in each poet since it highlights the complexity of these issues of the poet’s role in their art. Eliot gives voice to the everyday person yet lionizes a system that has for centuries held little regard for anyone who is not white. Eliot’s world seems unsustainable as humanity is reduced to gathering scraps in a courtyard or as they ride over “barren New England hills”, and Baraka, though he fights against Eliot’s inherently racist and oppressive tradition in hopes of revolutionizing a better world, he nevertheless participates in homophobia and misogyny because this seemingly legitimizes him in the eyes of the black male community. Both poets are keenly aware of a tradition they are a part of and though Eliot chooses to conform to it – in fact has become the face for these traditional views – while Baraka fights against it, both reveal the struggle of the ordinary individual who must try to make sense of a world that is inherently oppressive.


Works Cited


Baraka, Amiri. “Dope.” Poetry Foundation. 2009.

Benston, Kimberly W., editor. Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978.

Cooper, J. (2000). T.S. Eliot’s orchestra : Critical essays on poetry and music (Garland reference library of the humanities ; v. 2030). New York: Garland Pub.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Poems. San Diego: Harvest, 1998. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Perspecta, vol. 19, 1982, pp. 36–42.,

Harris, William J., The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka. University of Missouri Press, 1985.

Jones, LeRoi., The Systems of Dante’s Hell. Grove Press, Inc. 1963.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Bigotry in Motion”. The New York Times Magazine. 16 March 1997.

Kalaidjian, Walter., Understanding Poetry. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.


Reilly, Charlie, editor. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Rich, Adrienne. “What Country Is This? Rereading LeRoi Jones’s The Dead Lecturer.” Boston Review. 01 Mar. 2009.

Watts, Jerry Gafio., Amiri Baraka The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York University Press, 2001.