Five-Finger Exercises: Pollicle Dogs and Wopsical Hats

In my reading, I’ve come across T.S. Eliot’s often overlooked “Five-finger Exercises,” a short sequence of poems composed perhaps around 1935-1940 (the exact date escapes me). This is yet another of his poems which hearkens back to musical imagery. Hanon’s Piano Exercises were a much despised way (in my opinion) for a pianist to exercise all five fingers of the hand. I prefer Czerny. In Eliot’s case, it was a way for him to exercise his writing skills, not very seriously, just as a pianist practices technical studies to warm up before a concert. Despite the brevity, they are quite good and very funny, though not without a biting edge.

II. Lines to a Yorkshire Terrier

In a brown field stood a tree
And the tree was crookt and dry.
In a black sky, from a green cloud
Natural forces shriek’d aloud,
Screamed, rattled, muttered endlessly.
Little dog was safe and warm
Under a cretonne eiderdown,
Yet the field was cracked and brown
And the tree was cramped and dry.
Pollicle dogs and cats all must
Jellicle catts and dogs all must
Like undertakers, come to dust.
Here a little dog I pause
Heaving up my prior paws,
Pause, and sleep endlessly.

The word choice is superb. “Pollicle” and “jellicle”? The use of such “ridiculous” language belies the troubling images of the “crookt” tree and the black sky.

Or what about Eliot’s “porpentine” (prickly?) cat and his “wopsical” hat as he pokes fun at himself?

V. Lines for Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad Ali Beg

How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut,
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But.
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With a bobtail cur
In a coat of fur
And a porpentine cat
And a wopsical hat:
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
(Whether his mouth be open or shut).

Read the rest here. 


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