Cheer Three: Gossip as Literature

v. Gossip in poetry


Gossip, being primarily designed for information, is almost invariably in prose, not in verse. Poets may use it, it will always lurk in the background when they write narratives, but it generally remains the background, the dramatic incident out of the jumble of real life which the poet has recast, sharpened, deepened. Ballads, which have always been among the most popular forms of verse, ordinarily develop out of what were originally straightforward gossipy accounts of events in daily life - Frankie shooting Johnny three times through the hardwood door in a 19th-century whorehouse and ending up in the northeast corner of hell, a rich (at least rich enough to own a horse and a hawk) man named Edward on his 16th century moor who is manipulated by his mother into murdering his father.

But such ballads were considered mere popular entertainment, nothing so serious as Literature, till scholars of later generations began to find them quaint or lively fragments of a more colorful past or profound reflections of the soul of the folk. Or, in the case of the songs sung in the streets and disorderly houses of Paris about the loves and gonorrhea of King Louis XV, they were written down by police spies building up evidence of cases of sedition, recently unearthed from the archives of the Bastille by Professor Robert Darnton and revealed as examples of 18
th-century French verse in its wittiest wickedest phase..


Modern poets with their passion for passing from direct experience to the written page have gone further than any of their predecessors in incorporating what sounds like genuine ordinary gossip in their verse.

T. S. Eliot eavesdropped on his charlady to get the material for the celebrated scene of closing time at a pub in The Waste Land:


When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said --

I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,


 Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.

 He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you

 To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

 You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,

 He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.

 And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,

 He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,

 And if you don ‘t give it him, there’s others will, I said.

 Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.

 Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.


 If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.

 Others can pick and choose if you can’t.

 But if Albert makes off, it won ‘t be for lack of telling.

 You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.

 (And her only thirty-one.)

 I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,

 It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.

 (She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)

 The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.

 You are a proper fool, I said.

 Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,

 What you get married for if you don’t want children?


 Well, that Sunday, Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,

 And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot --



 Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.

 Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.


 Eliot was proud of having got the tone of voice right, and he had every reason to be, you could hear such phrases and such rhythms in any pub in Kentish Town or Golders Green in his day, and you probably can today. And the whole passage might be both affecting and effective if he had not added a line at the end,

 Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night. to indicate that this is all part of his tiresome tirade against the modern world. It is impossible to escape that frosty sense of superiority, that pinched contempt for the people of London whom he described as “‘these crawling bugs” in one of the parts of the poem cut out by the discerning critical pencil of Ezra Pound. It underlies the whole conversation in the bar, and comes out with a rush in the very last line when in counterpoint to the slurred sloppy idiom of the bugs going home to a beery sleep in the East End we have the precise pearly tones of Shakespeare’s doomed Ophelia going off to drown herself in Elsinore in the fourth act of Hamlet.

When you stop to think about them, Ophelia’s troubles were neither more nor less grievous and heart-breaking than those of Eliot’s Lil, and it seems quite tasteless to use her as a stick to beat poor Lou and May with.

But that was Eliot’s way, the taste and refinement of the past always dragged out to reprove the odious present in which he had to live. Later in the poem we have a dramatic contrast between the lovely luxurious Thames of old::

Elizabeth and Leicester

 Beating oars

 The stern was formed

 A gilded shell

 Red and gold

 The brisk swell

 Rippled both shores

 Southwest wind

 Carried down stream

 The peal of bells

 White towers


with the poor polluted river of today:

 “Trams and dusty trees.

 Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew

 Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees

 Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.”


The mere mention of Elizabeth and Leicester and white towers is supposed to establish the grace and grandeur of the old time as opposed to the tawdry raised knees of our deplorable century. I suppose that, having all read history books, we are all expected to assume that a queen and an earl in the golden days of 16th-century London would have had deeper and more delicate things on their mind than would a frumpy little typist from Kew in the dreary 1920's. (They must also have had sturdier nostrils, considering that the Thames of Elizabeth’s day was an open sewer.) But the poet sees no reason to offer any evidence, and in the text he has chosen to give us, there is no real difference between the two river landscapes except in the decoration of the boats. As to what went on in the boats, there must have been some similarities from which his eyes remain averted. What in the name of the great Jehovah did he suppose Queen Elizabeth did with her knees while Leicester was on top of her?

Compare this mannered and rather unpleasant treatment of gossip to the simple lively lines of an early poem by D. H. Lawrence singled out by the eagle eye of Ezra Pound in a review that helped launch the young writer’s career:

 I expect you know who I am, Mrs. Naylor!

 Who are yer - yis, you’re Lizzie Stainwright..

 An’ ’appen you might guess what I’ve come for?

 - ’Appen I mightn’t. ’appen I might.”


 Beside this living language, Eliot’s seems no more than expert journalism. He is safely removed from its subject, well above it in fact, looking down his long nose. While Lawrence is right in the middle of the world he is writing about. He is dealing with the same kind of local lower-class gossip that Eliot was exploiting. It would have been so easy for him to make fun of Lizzie and her love for the handsome feckless policeman Tim Murfin, caught by the wiles of

 A widow of forty-five

 With a bitter swarthy skin,

 To ha’ ‘ticed a lad of twenty-five

 An’ him to have been took in!


and babbling out excuses:


 After thy kisses, Lizzie, after

 Tha’s lain right up to me, Lizzie, and melted

 Into me, melted into me Lizzie

 Till I was verily swelted.


 And if my landlady seed me like it,

 An’ if her clawkin’ tiger’s eyes

 Went through me just as the light went out,

 Is it any cause for surprise? 


But Lizzie is a determined girl, and after giving her swain a taste of her feelings:


 No cause for surprise at all, my lad

 After lickin’ and snuffin’ at me, tha could

 Turn thy mouth to a woman like her -

 Did ter find it good? 

  she arranges to buy off Mrs. Naylor for twenty pounds, adopt the baby she is about to have, and off to the marriage registry with her hapless love.

It never occurs to Lawrence to make fun of Lizzie and Tim and Mrs. Naylor, or scorn them for their narrow sordid lives, or treat them as symbols of the decline of the west. In his own life he was as snobbish as the next man, he had as irrepressible a yen for titled personages -- the German baroness he married, Lady Chatterley, Don Ramon and Don Cipriano, the Mexican hacenderos in whose arms the heroine of The Plumed Serpent found God -- as Eliot did for bishops, and he never would have had Lizzie Stainwright or the others in for tea. But he had grown up among people like them, and when he wrote about them he let them live on their own terms, in their own stubborn short-sighted way, he recognized them as individual human beings making their difficult way this way or that way through the world.


This seems to me to be the way to gossip with style and a proper respect for our fellow creatures.

This of course a matter of judgment, and if there is anything Dame Gossip is not, it is judgmental. Beneath her capacious skirts she has room for everybody, for Queen Elizabeth and Lizzie Stainwright, for Ophelia and T.S. Eliot.