Whispers of Immortality

T.S. Eliot

‘Whispers of Immortality’ contemplates yearning for immortality and the power of art amidst the permanence of death.


T.S. Eliot

Nationality: American

T.S. Eliot, originally American turned British citizen, is remembered today as a literary critic, poet, and editor.

His poems have had a lasting influence on a generation of writers.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Immortality lies beyond the brief materialistic pleasure enjoyed by mortal humans

Themes: Death, Immortality

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Amusement, Frustration, Sadness

Poetic Form: Quatrain

Time Period: 20th Century

'Whispers of Mortality' captures the complexities of immortality and its whispers amidst art while presenting the inevitability of death in eloquent, poetic language.

‘Whispers of Immortality’ by T.S. Eliot is an eight-stanza poem that was written between 1915 and 1918. It was first published in the September issue of Little Review and then was later included in Eliot’s volume, Poems, in 1919.  Of the many quatrain poems written by Eliot, ‘Whispers of Immortality’ is one of the most popular. Upon an initial reading, it is clear that the poem is divided into two distinct sections, each containing four stanzas. The first contains a philosophizing statement in regard to death, and the second is materialism, sex, and love.

In addition to its formatting within sets of four lines, the poem is also structured with a casual rhyme scheme of abcb. There are a number of moments in which the rhymes are not precise, though. These are known as half or slant rhymes. A perfect example of this occurring is in stanza four, with the end rhymes “skeleton” and “bone.” There are similar consonant sounds in these words, but only to an extent. In regards to meter, the poem is mostly contained within iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed. 

Whispers of Immortality
T.S. Eliot

Webster was much possessed by deathAnd saw the skull beneath the skin;And breastless creatures under groundLeaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of ballsStared from the sockets of the eyes!He knew that thought clings round dead limbsTightening its lusts and luxuries.

Donne, I suppose, was such anotherWho found no substitute for sense,To seize and clutch and penetrate;Expert beyond experience,

He knew the anguish of the marrowThe ague of the skeleton;No contact possible to fleshAllayed the fever of the bone.

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eyeIs underlined for emphasis;Uncorseted, her friendly bustGives promise of pneumatic bliss.

The couched Brazilian jaguarCompels the scampering marmosetWith subtle effluence of cat;Grishkin has a maisonnette;

The sleek Brazilian jaguarDoes not in its arboreal gloomDistil so rank a feline smellAs Grishkin in a drawing-room.

And even the Abstract EntitiesCircumambulate her charm;But our lot crawls between dry ribsTo keep our metaphysics warm.
Whispers of Immortality by T.S. Eliot

Summary of ‘Whispers of Immortality 

Whispers of Immortality‘ describes the connection between life, death, love, and sex and how ultimately, death becomes the most important thing in life.

The poem begins with the speaker describing how John Webster, a dramatist, thought about life and death. He, as well as other writers such as John Donne, saw the truth of death beneath life. They were able to use their own knowledge to investigate deeper and discover its presence within everyone’s bones. 

The second half of the poem introduces sex into life. There is one character of note, Grishkin, who is used as a representative of life and passion. She is a sexual person, but even when one enters into her breast, one will find cold bones and eventual death. The poem ends with the speaker describing how the study of the presence of death will become all-consuming. 

You can read more about T.S. Eliot’s poetry here.

Analysis of Whispers of Immortality 

Stanza One 

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

In the first stanza of ‘Whispers of Immortality’, the speaker discusses the beliefs and works of John Webster. He is best known today as a dramatist and author of ‘The Duchess of Malfi. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare and appealed to Eliot in how he got to the truth of a situation. The first line makes this clear as the speaker states that Webster was “possessed by death.” It was all he could think about; it consumed his thoughts. He was able to look past the masks set out over the world and down to the “skull beneath the skin.” 

The speaker goes on to use another metaphor to describe Webster’s way of thinking. He could look “underground” at the strange and “breastless creatures.” These creatures are without hearts or human (or humane) intentions. This is a dark image, made more macabre by the image of a creature, which is actually an exposed human being, leaning back “with a lipless grin.” 

Stanza Two 

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

In the second stanza, the speaker expands on the sight of a skinless person. This same creature which lacks the outward appearance of humanity, has “Daffodil bulbs instead of…eyes.” This is another terrifying sight and is related directly to a play by Webster titled, The White Devil. Towards the end of that particular work, a ghost brings in a flower pot in which a skull is placed.

The next two lines are even stranger than those which came before them. The speaker describes how “He,” the one without eyes, relates death and thought, together with lust. It seems to him that sexual love is intimately connected to death. So much so it “clings” to the dead. 

Stanza Three 

Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense,
To seize and clutch and penetrate;
Expert beyond experience,

In the next four lines, the speaker turns away from Webster to discuss English poet John Donne. The speaker states that Donne was “such another” like Webster, who prioritized his senses. He was deeply engaged with his world and sought out all experiences. Through his thoughts, Donne came to know the world and, more importantly, realize the ever-present nature of death. He was an “Expert” in emotion and wrote penetratingly about the things he learned. 

Stanza Four 

He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.

The fourth stanza makes clear that Donne had a good understanding of what death is and how important it is to one’s life. He understood the “anguish” that is part of one’s bones. It is an “ague,” or illness, deep within the body. So integral is humanity’s path toward death that it lives within one’s physical frame. 

The next two lines explain that even though sex is tied to death, nothing can relieve or allay the terror of its coming. Eliot once more uses physical contact to illustrate his meaning. 

Stanza Five 

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

When Eliot gets to the fifth stanza, the poem changes. In its original form, the two sections were separated by five dots, denoting a change in the current topic but not the larger themes.

 He immediately refers to “Grishkin.” This person is not well-known like Webster and Donne before her. It has been speculated that she was a Russian woman who was a “friendly” and sexual woman. In the poem, she uses her “eye” to emphasize what she’s saying and what she wants. The speaker also describes how when she is “Uncorseted,” or her corset is taken off, her “bust” gives out a “promise.” The bliss that she experiences and that which she gives is “pneumatic” or pressurized, as if powered by a machine. This phrase, “pneumatic bliss’ was coined by Eliot and has since been used to refer to a woman’s breasts. 

Stanza Six 

The couched Brazilian jaguar
Compels the scampering marmoset
With subtle effluence of cat;
Grishkin has a maisonnette;

In the sixth stanza, the speaker introduces another image, that of a “Brazilian jaguar.” He compares the cat to Grishkin and describes how she is about to “scamper” after a “marmoset.” The two are contrasted in their power. The marmoset is helpless at the hands of the jaguar. She moves with the “effluence of cat.” 

The final line states that Grishkin has a small apartment or a “maisonnette.” The conspicuous placement of this line, after the focus on sex, suggests the apartment is dedicated to sexual escapades. 

Stanza Seven

The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.

Although Grishkin was favorably compared with the jaguar in the sixth stanza, in the seventh, she overtakes it. Both, when they are in their native homes, whether in a “drawing-room” or the ”arboreal gloom” of the forest, smell distinctive. Grishkin obviously smells more favorably, in this case, “rank[er],” than the jaguar does. Its smell is less obvious, more “subtle.” 

Stanza Eight 

And even the Abstract Entities
Circumambulate her charm;
But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm.

The eighth stanza ends the poem with a strange yet clever conclusion. The speaker states that the “Abstract Entities,” or the essence of the world, circle around Grishkin. This philosophical language relates back to the earlier stanzas in which the speaker refers to “pneumonic bliss.” He states that “our lot,” meaning all human beings, from the speaker himself to John Donne and the reader, are doomed to “crawl between dry ribs.” 

While there, searching for love, sex, passion, or a combination of all three, one is only able to find “metaphysics.”  Metaphysics is defined as the study of the first principles of things. These principles include the concept of essences, as well as time, space, and knowledge itself. The truth of life’s closeness to death is all that will end up mattering. Everyone who follows this path will eventually dedicate their lives to the philosophizing Eliot has been engaging in for the last eight stanzas. 

Poetry+ Review Corner

Whispers of Immortality

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

T.S. Eliot

Written during the first world war sometime around 1915-1918 and first collected in Eliot's 1919 'Poetry' collection, 'Whispers of Immortality' presents transient human life with a focus on mortality while critiquing the superficiality of society. Nevertheless, the poem includes Eliot's characteristic style and themes, including complex allusions, multiple voices, the hollowness of meaningless daily pursuits, and the search or significance of a higher spiritual meaning.
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20th Century

'Whispers of Immortality' refers to its time's dominant literary and cultural concerns. The poem critiques the increasing materialism, superficiality, and meaninglessness of lives - a theme common in Eliot's other poems. Eliot's philosophical contemplations on immortality and complex form reflect the broader modernist intellectual concerns of contemporaneous times.
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Eliot was an American citizen when 'Whispers of Immortality' was published in 1917. However, Eliot was in London when he wrote the poem; however, the poem deals with universal human desire and philosophical concern. Nevertheless, despite leaving his American citizenship for English in 1927, Eliot has acknowledged American and American contemporaries' influence on his poetic work.
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While portraying the true nature of immortality, 'Whispers of Immortality' establish death and mortality as inevitable and permanent truth. The poem emphasizes the transience of human life despite the presence of worldly pleasures. The dark imagery, such as "twisted candle", "carnal stench", and "yellow smoke," accentuate the pervading theme of death.
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'Whispers of Immortality' primarily centers on human immortality contemplating the human desire for immortality and the permanence of the transient nature of human life. The poem reflects on the hollowness of worldly pursuits as they are disconnected from any meaning and immortality; for immorality, the poem offers a search for higher truth and meaning, hinting at spiritual transcendence while attributing art as a medium for attaining higher meaning and moving toward immortality.
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The poem's richly poetic language, imagery, and allusions to great art and artists like Michelangelo, Webster, Shakespeare, and Dante can evoke readers' amusement toward art and artists who achieved great heights. The evocative imagery and language used to portray artistic excellence, such as - "saw the skull beneath the skin," further accentuates readers' amusement.
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The poem's critique of worldly pursuits and pleasures with emphasis on the permanence of mortality and reflection on the true nature of immortality deny the human desire for immortality, making the poem dark and gloomy while evoking readers' frustration; the poem gives no respite to readers with any optimism rather further frustrates them with dark imagery such as of "carnal stench."
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The poem's emphasis on the permanence of mortality and the transient nature of human life can evoke readers' sadness for the brevity and impermanence of human life. The poignant imagery reflecting on death like a "twisted candle" further evokes readers' sadness over the nature of human life. Moreover, the brevity and meaninglessness of materialistic pleasures further saddens the readers engaged in such pursuits.
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Like Eliot's other major poems, 'Whispers of Immortality' does not explicitly engages with the topic of the afterlife; however, the poem implicitly alludes to the notion of the afterlife by suggesting the notion of immortality that is beyond the permanence of death. The enduring value of art and reference to various artists against the permanence of mortality indicates the artist's afterlife through art.
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Eliot employs his characteristic allusive method in 'Whispers of Immortality' while alluding to cultural and artistic references. The poem's allusions are intrinsic to the intertwined theme of art and immortality. Eliot's significant allusions include literary figures like John Donne, John Webster, and Shakespeare, painter Michelangelo, and the poem 'Intimations of Immortality' by William Wordsworth.
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'Whispers of Immortality' while reflecting on the truth of immortality and critiquing the everyday worldly trivialities - attribute art and artists to a higher realm reflecting on the enduring power of art. The poem presents art as a medium for attaining transcendence or understanding the truth about immortality. It refers to various artists, including John Webster, John Donne, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo, praising their understanding of the true meaning while critiquing the hollow materialistic pursuits.
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'Whispers of Immortality' deeply engages with mortality to present its idea of transcendental immortality. The poem establishes mortality as the ultimate truth by emphasizing the inevitability of death and the brevity of human life. The poem's symbolic imagery of decay, including the "breastless creatures under ground", "lipless grin", "twisted candle", "daffodil bulbs", "carnal stench", and "agony of the marrow" constantly foregrounds the truth of mortality and transience of human life.
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The thematic concerns of 'Whispers of Immortality explore the philosophical problems of human existence and life while dealing with mortality and immortality. Through rich poetic language, the poem explores the transience of human life while alluding to philosophic transcendence for immortality. Posing existential problems, the poem stirs intelligent thoughts making the readers explore higher meaning and truth.
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'Whispers of Immorality' is divided into two parts, each having four quatrains, i.e., four stanzas with lines having an alternate rhyme scheme in two parts. The lines of the poem flow into each other cohesively, having an abcb rhyme scheme while mainly employing iambic tetrameter. The poem's complex and dark imagery is well-contained and balanced within neat quatrains.
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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