As quickly as the poet’s imagination can take us from a summer walk in Somerset to a ship in the Atlantic, so we suddenly find ourselves somewhere … where does not matter … perhaps the when matters. It’s late November. But nature is out of joint. The regularities upon which life depends have become erratic and unreliable. Chaos threatens to overwhelm, just as war with Germany was perhaps threatening to overwhelm Great Britain at the time of the poem’s composition.
What is the late November doing / With the disturbance of the spring / And creatures of the summer heat, / And snowdrops writhing under feet / And hollyhocks that aim too high / Red into grey and tumble down / Late roses filled with early snow? / Thunder rolled by the rolling stars / Simulates triumphal cars / Deployed in constellated wars / Scorpion fights against the Sun / Until the Sun and Moon go down / Comets weep and Leonids fly / Hunt the heavens and the plains / Whirled in a vortex that shall bring / The world to that destructive fire / Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.
The chaos is erupting into our world, but Eliot chooses to shape (tame?)—the reality by adopting the tetrameter, alternating between iambic and trochaic. The poet will later share his opinion whether the form is appropriate to what he is trying to express; but in any case the meter jumps out at the reader, departing as it does from Eliot’s normal free versification.
It’s late November, but the winter has been disturbed by an untimely interruption of spring. Animals have been awakened prematurely from their hibernation. Flowers are blooming out of season. Thunder is rolling (but where are the dark clouds and rain?).
Scorpio is fighting the sun, yet given that it’s late November, shouldn’t the sun have already passed out of this region of the Zodiac? In the poet’s vision are the constellation and the Sun simultaneously visible?
And then Sun and Moon set and the dark night sky is filled with comets and meteors, signs of the coming apocalypse, when the world will be engulfed in a vortex of fire and ice.
Has humanity always lived in fear of apocalypse? Perhaps at the height of empire some have been protected from this fear. Civilization brings an order that insulates us, seemingly, from the chaos that always threatens. We know this fear. It is always at the edge of our consciousness. Why else are dystopian and zombie movies so popular?
Will Russia’s incursion into the Crimea inaugurate a third world war? Is it only solidifying its geo-political position, or does Putin have greater designs, depending on how Europe and the United States responds. The generation that survived World War II are mainly dead now. They are not present with us to testify to the indescribable horrors of that war. Yet there are horrors aplenty throughout the world, but we are able to distance ourselves from most of them and remain emotionally uninvolved. But we know that something terrible is wrong with with our societies. We are so vulnerable. We feel the sense of foreboding at the edge of consciousness. Our economy could crumble in a moment and we would find ourselves overcome by barbarism and violence. Our politicians could miscalculate, and we would find the nations of the world drawn into a war that would destroy everything and everyone we love. Perhaps a terrorist cell will finally get hold of nuclear weapon and obliterate one of our cities. Is humanity making the world inhabitable for mankind?
What of our children?
The night sky is filled with weeping comets and the Leonids.
The vortex of apocalypse approaches.
Maelstrom of destruction.
Fire and ice.
And then only ice.