I recently ordered the four-CD set of Irons' performance of Eliot's poems. Knowing the poems, I felt a strong sense of recognition from Irons' reading, like encountering a dear friend after a long absence.
Irons also made the poems seem new and strange.
The recordings were originally made for BBC's Channel 4, which indicates the cultural gap between public broadcasting in Britain and here.
Irons' interpretation of my favorite poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock," was disappointing. The poem on the page has a distinctive voice, but Irons makes the poem abstract and impersonal.
It's a difficult poem to render orally; the character seems quite passive. Irons' flat voice finds little drama, or the mordant humor, in the lines.
Still, Irons' reading invites spiritual scrutiny. I anticipated the arrival of the well-known phrases, and felt a deep emotional connection.
It's hard to determine how one would interpret the narrator. I always assumed Prufock was middle-aged or older, his emotional despair is strangely world-weary for a poet as young as Eliot when he wrote it.
But Irons makes me consider that the narrator is really a young man, perhaps 30. The poem's reference to "Prince Hamlet" indicates that the narrator is at a similar age as Shakespeare's character. Prufock's moral choices are smaller and less heroic than the Danish prince's. Not only does the narrator judge himself. He sees himself as living in a mediocre age.
The high point of the recording is "The Waste Land." I always found the poem as much of an artistic failure as Eliot found "Hamlet." Its juxtapositions seemed contrived; its images overwrought. Irons' reading, along with Dame Eileen Atkins doing the female voices, reveals the imaginative cohesiveness of the poem's vision.
The "Waste Land" recording has a cinematic excitement, and the language soars and surprises. Eliot would probably shudder, but Irons and Atkins give it a hip-hop urgency. I wish Irons had found a similar dramatic power in "Prufock."
"Geronition," "The Preludes," "Rhapsody on Windy Night" and "The Journey of the Magi" come off well. Several of Eliot's poems haven't held up well over the years, defeating Irons' virtuosity.
I want to listen again to "Ash Wednesday" and "Four Quartets." My first impression is that Irons delves deeply into their complexity and beauty.
So far, I've avoided "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." Andrew Lloyd Webber ruined them for me.