Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dramatic Illusion in A Midsummer Nights's Dream: The Play Within The Play

The only other play of Shakespeare's, so far as I can recollect, to have another play tucked inside it is Hamlet. As you may remember, Hamlet has the players who happen to be passing through Elsinore put on a play that mimics the circumstances of his father's death—or rather, murder. It is a test, or, as Hamlet calls it a mousetrap. When the King reacts violently to this play, Hamlet knows that his father's ghost had told him the truth. What he doesn't realize is that by exposing the King as a murderer, he has also blown his own cover. Now the King knows what Hamlet knows.

The play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream that the tradesmen of Athens put on for the entertainment of the court—"A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/ And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth"—is only slightly connected to the plot of the play. The cast happens to be rehearsing in the forest near the spot where the aristocratic lovers of the main plot have agreed to meet, which also happens to be the place where Oberon and Titania (King and Queen of the faeries) are trying—and failing—to settle their differences over who should possess a particular 'changeling' child'; he resorts to force i.e. magic. But magic, like force, can have unintended consequences: the aristocratic lovers become totally confused, and Bottom, the weaver, mischievously given a donkey's head by Oberon's agent, Puck, becomes the willing lover of Titania, the intended victim of Oberon's magic.

While Bottom is having the time of his life as the bestial object of Titania's sexual desires,  the upper-class lovers are madly chasing each other through the forest in abject confusion.

When the magic spells are finally lifted, everyone is happy to be able to get on with their lives: the lovers return to Athens in perfect harmony with each other—each lad has his lass and vice-versa—Titania and Oberon are reunited as if nothing untoward had happened, and Peter Quince is able to get on with his play.

Here's is where we begin to see what the play-within-the-play is all about. The lower class players are as deeply confused about dramatic illusion as the upper-class lovers had been about their real feelings, which, thanks to the magical manipulations of Oberon and Puck, they are finally able to recognize.

When the upper-class lovers are happily married and looking for some slight diversion before bed-time, they are delighted—more so than they expect— to watch a play in which the actual and imaginary, art and life, are totally confused. What's important here is that both audiences,  the lovers and the larger audience out there in the theatre, are in the same boat.

Plays are designed to draw an audience into its make-believe world so that there are moments when they forget that that they are watching a play.

Watching the clumsy efforts of the Athenian tradesmen as they try to pull off that bit of theatrical magic, we may forget that these clumsy oafs are really professional actors drawing us into another illusion—the illusion of course being that Bottom and his friends really don't know what they are doing. We laugh, not realizing that we've been fooled again.

The fact that A Midsummer Night's Dream has so many layers of dramatic illusion—more than any other play of Shakespeare's—is what makes it so utterly charming.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Trouble With T. S. Eliot

This quotation—"these fragments I have shored against my ruins"— virtually concludes The Waste Land, a poem cobbled together by Ezra Pound out of a collection of fragments that Eliot had written without knowing, it seems, what kind of poem he was trying to write. Pound did, but he had to do some pretty radical editing to make it happen.

For me, all of Eliot's poetry thereafter is fragmentary—unless one shares, as I am unable to do, his belief in the Christian doctrine of incarnation and the eucharist, or his unchristian disdain for the masses of ordinary people. When I read lines like "human kind cannot bear very much reality" (Burnt Norton) or the lines in East Coker describing the "mental emptiness" of the people in the London subway, or the lines (re: the eucharist), "The dripping blood our only drink,/ The bloody flesh our only food," I turn away. Since I cannot share Eliot's beliefs and prejudices, Four Quartets becomes, for me a poem of fragments, like The Waste Land—beautiful fragments, often, like this from East Coker:

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides.

Or these strange and magical lines from Burnt Norton:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
And reconciles forgotten wars.
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

I like these lines, from the beginning of East Coker:

                                                  Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotized. In the warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence
Wait for the early owl.

But the lines that I find most moving and wonderful are the lines about the rose-garden that I discussed, briefly, in my last post. Those lines, which may be about the children that Eliot
never had, remind me of an earlier poem that is probably not very well known nowadays, Marina, which may be about the daughter Eliot never had:

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping at the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter . . . .

What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye

Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.

The rigging weak and canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life  for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.

The image of "whispers and small laughter beween leaves" will be picked up in Burnt Norton.

Eliot's contempt for ordinary humanity, implicit in that other message of the thrush— "human kind cannot bear very much reality"—will be elaborated on in the other Quartets as well as here, in Burnt Norton:

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul . . .
                                                Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London, 
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness in this twittering world.

That word "twittering" was prescient.

Do you suppose that Eliot ever felt a flicker of sympathy for those "strained time-ridden faces," or the "unhealthy souls" belching from "unwholesome lungs" into the faded air of this "twittering world"? Not a chance.

You can also hear Eliot's contempt in East Coker when he is describing how people "in the tube" respond when the train

stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about . . .

or when he is complaining about the shabby state of the "equipment" he must use as a poet—the English language—as it deteriorates "in the general mess of imprecision of feeling/ Undisciplined squads of emotion."

At this point, I want to call Eliot's bluff: what do you mean by precise feelings and how are they related to disciplined squads of emotion? That phrase has military, even totalitarian overtones; who or what is to do the disciplining? Who gets to to define the precision of our feelings? Some sort of Jesuitical super-state? (We know that Eliot, like Pound, had fascist sympathies, at least for a while.) Do we even begin to understand how feelings are related to emotions and vice-versa? And what does all this have to do with the deterioration of a language—even if we grant Eliot's assumption that such a thing is possible? For me, Eliot's language at this point is full to bursting with imprecise feelings and undisciplined emotions.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

T. S. Eliot's Rose Garden

Consider these lines from the conclusion of The Waste Land:

Datta [give]: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can neve retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms

Dayadhvam [sympathize]: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison . . .

Eliot obligingly provides a foot-note from F. H. Bradley's book Appearance And Reality for these last four lines:  "My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts and feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a  circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it. . . . In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul."

Which was it to be?  Can we connect with others or can't we? Eliot must have thought long and hard—agonized perhaps—over this question but it's pretty clear where he ended up: in his own private prison, or "citadel" as Lyndall Gordon calls it:

"Eliot's personality was self-centered enough to assume that the world and its vicissitudes—its women, its wars, seasons, crowds—existed as signals for his private conduct. The isolation and the absence of signs . . . brewed a certain wilfulness . . . .
  "[He] passed his youth walled-in by shyness and vast ambition. His adult life may be seen as a series of adventures from the citadel of his self in search of some great defining experience. He made expeditions across a perilous gap that divided him from the great world, and ventured into society, into marriage, into religious communion. He tried to maintain the polite, even curiosity of an explorer far from home, but each time had to withdraw—shuddering from the contact—to his citadel, where he would labor to record, as precisely as possible, his strange encounters." (Quoted from William Pritchard's Lives of The Modern Poets, 1980.)

You can see why it was so important for Eliot to separate the "man who suffers from the mind that creates." And you can see why such a doctrine might make for a certain heartlessness in his poetry. But I can't leave it at that, because some of the poetry he wrote after he caved in, converted to Anglo-Catholicism and became a fervent believer in the incarnation and the eucharist is, nevertheless, both moving and beautiful. Burnt Norton, the first of the Four Quartets, is one of these.

Though I am not the least bit interested in what Eliot has to say about time past and time present, the still point of the moving world, incarnation, the end which is also his beginning etc., or the dance that he goes on and on about, a might-have-been that is deeply considered at the beginning of Burnt Norton is worth paying attention to. Here are the relevant lines:

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point toward one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
                                 But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do no know.  
                                 Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery . . .
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

And the poem ends with the laughter of those children, hidden in the foliage:

Sudden in the shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

T. S. Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1914 and lived with her until 1932. They could have had children but either decided not to or found that they couldn't. Here is how the poem puts it:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

I guess you can read these lines any way you want.  To me they seem the most nearly personal lines that Eliot ever wrote—as if the man who suffers had become very close to the mind that creates.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Fear In A Handful Of Dust": Poetry For The Hot, Dry World To Come (with apologies to T. S. Eliot)

The phrase, "Fear in a handful of dust," and the paragraph that precedes it comes as, you probably know, from the first section of The Wasteland, which was published shortly after the First World War. The rest of the material comes from the final, prophetic, section of that poem. What was prophetic metaphor in 1922 is beginning  to seem, unhappily, as if  it might become a more or less literal representation of the world that our grandchildren will inhabit in the not so very distant future.

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.  Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. . . .

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we would stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
                                            If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But the sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water . . . .

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over  the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells."

Friday, October 29, 2010

"Rhapsody On A Windy Night" by T. S. Eliot

Twelve o'clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations,
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory 
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one,
The street-lamp sputtered,
The street-lamp muttered,
The street-lamp said, "Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin."

The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things:
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
A broken spring in a factory yard,
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap.

Half-past two,
The street-lamp said,
"Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter,
Slips out it tongue
And devours a morsel of rancid butter."
So the hand of the child, automatic,
Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running
   along the quay.
I could see nothing behind that child's eye.
I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of the stick which I held him.

Half-past three,
The lamp sputtered,
The lamp muttered in the dark.
The lamp hummed: 
"Regard the moon,
La lune ne garde aucune rancune,
She winks a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners.
She smooths the hair of the grass.
The moon has lost her memory.
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face, 
Her hand twists a paper rose,
That smell of dust and eau de Cologne,
She is alone
With all the old nocturnal smells
That cross and cross across her brain."
The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices, 
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars.

The lamp said,
"Four o'clock, 
Here is the number on the door.
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair.
The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life."

The last twist of the knife.

The music of Preludes is followed by a very different composition, a ‘rhapsody,’ which may be defined as a “musical composition of irregular form having an improvisatory character.” Reading the twelve perfectly assured lines of the first stanza, though, you would never think they were improvised. Yet there are signs that the speaker of this poem, having announced the time of day, or night—"Twelve o'clock"— is making it up as he goes along. For instance, the grammar of the second sentence—if it is a sentence—is unobtrusively confusing: there ought to be a subject and a verb but finding them is not easy. At first you might be inclined to define “whispering lunar incantations” as the subject and “dissolve” as the verb; but then you realize that this sentence does not end with a period but a comma. So, are lines 3-5 merely a long parenthesis, leading up to the sentence, “Every street lamp that I pass beats . . .”? These grammatical questions lead to a substantive one: what exactly is the moon doing to the speaker of these oddly disjointed lines?

As our nightwalker observes the seemingly empty "reaches" of the street, they seem to be "held in a lunar synthesis" i.e. they seem to form a coherent whole, but that  may be an illusion, for the moon is having the opposite effect on the the structure of memory that makes him what or who he is: its whispered "incantations" "dissolve the floors of memory/ And all its clear relations. . ." leaving him vulnerable to despair: now every street lamp that he passes "Beats like a fatalistic drum" the message that all his choices are blocked off, and that he is locked into the life he has made for himself. The last two lines are truly horrifying: "Midnight shakes the memory/ As a madman shakes a dead geranium."
He is that dead geranium.

Now the character of the street itself turns mean, sordid and vaguely threatening. A woman in a dirty dress sidles towards our nightwalker out of a  grinning doorway,
giving him a twisted look out of the corner of her eye, which reminds him of other twisted debris thrown up by the sea of memory: a twisted branch eaten smooth and polished, like a skeleton, a broken spring in a factory yard, almost rusted through. It is a stunning image:

Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap.

Is that how our nightwalker is beginning to see himself?

As memory turns fragmentary, so also does the quality of what he remembers: the sight of a cat in the gutter licking up a morsel of rancid butter reminds him of a boy he saw once stealing a toy and slipping it, "automatically" into his pocket. The eyes of this boy reveal as little as the crooked eyes of that woman, or the eyes he has seen peering into or out of closed shutters, or the crab that, long ago, instinctively grabbed the end of a stick
he had held out to it. The meaning of these images, like that of the rusted spring, is highly suggestive: grab what you can, as soon as you can; don't think about it, just do it.

The street lamp that has so far been directing the speaker’s attention, randomly, toward the various denizens of this sordid street, now begins to take a more active—or ironic?—interest in his education:  take another look at that moon, it says, in French, not very reassuringly: she bears no grudges (why should she?) and anyway she’s so feeble and feeble minded she doesn’t count. Forget that lunar synthesis; this senile moon is incapable of holding anything together: “She winks a feeble eye, she smiles into corners” says or hums the street lamp; she has “lost her memory”—like the speaker? “A washed-out smallpox cracks her face.” She is a study in senile irrelevance, isolation and futility:

Her hand twists a paper rose,
That smells of dust and eau de Cologne,
She is alone
With all the old nocturnal smells
That cross and cross across her brain.

Rhyme is used sparingly in this poem; 'Cologne'-'alone' is one of the few that the poem allows itself. When they occur, they affect us powerfully, like a spring suddenly unwinding to deliver a powerful blow—or spring shut like a trap. Lines 9-12, for example, rhyming “drum” and “geranium” hits us between the eyes, as also the rhyme “grin”-”pin” in lines 18-22. And, of course, “life” and “knife” at the end.

The street-lamp’s description of the moon as a senile old lady, reminds the speaker of sights and smells that he (like Prufrock?) has known all too well. (Line 7, "divisions and precisions," sounds like a deliberate echo of Prufrock's "visions and revisions".)

The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices,
Smells of chestnuts in the streets
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smell in bars.

Is this the world that speaker has been running away from? (The only good thing is the smell of chestnuts in the streets.) Lunar incantations dissolved the floors of memory at first; here that edifice is reconstructed with a vengeance. This is your life, says the street-lamp, and don’t you forget it:

Here is the number on the door.
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair.
The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.”
(Or is it death?)

The last twist of the knife.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Tradition And The Individual Talent" by T. S. Eliot

I've thought about this essay and the deep claims it makes about poetry for a long time—all my life, it seems—and every time I read it I feel as if I'm missing the point. And yet the main point is clear enough: it's the poetry, stupid; if you don't know how to read it, as poetry, no amount of biographical information about the poet will help you out. This essay is aimed at bad critics i.e. people who confuse art and life.

Here is a fairly brief paraphrase of the essay which will contain much of Eliot's language (without quotation marks) and some ad-libbing of my own.

"No poet," says Eliot, "no artist of any art has his complete significance alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation the poets and artists that have preceded him; he cannot be valued alone, but must set be set for comparison and contrast among his predecessors. Indeed no poet that knows what he is doing is ever unconscious of the poets of the past—not if he is a true poet. To become a true poet, he must develop or procure, at whatever cost in labor and time, a consciousness of he past and he most continue to develop this consciousness of the past throughout his career.

"What happens in a true poet is a continual surrender of himself to something that is more valuable. The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation are directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry . . . the poet has not a personality to express but a particular medium . . . in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and and experiences that are important for the man may take not place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality . . . .

"It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting . . .  The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. Consequently, we must believe that [Wordsworth's phrase] "emotion recollected in tranquillity" is an inexact formula. For it is not neither emotion, nor recollection, nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquillity. It is a concentration and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a great number of experience which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation . . . . the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him "personal." Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality.

"There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, but there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. Very few know where there is an expression of significant emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal and the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself to the work to be done.

"The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates."

I said, above, that this essay is aimed at bad critics; out of it, the so-called New Criticism of the 20th century was born. But the claim Eliot is making for the complete separation of art and life, of "the man who suffers and the mind which creates," is so radical that I wonder if there may be something else going on. I'm wondering if Eliot is trying to get at something central to modernist art in general: the discrediting of the object. That was Kandinsky's revelation when he saw an exhibition of impressionist art for the for the first time at an exhibition in Moscow in 1891 (See my earlier posting on
3/5/10). Eliot's earlier poetry "discredits" the subjective self; there isn't any. The first person pronoun, 'I' which is so important in Romantic poetry, never appears. In The Waste Land, Eliot achieves what he has been aiming at all along, the discrediting of the object. That poem is a symbolist poem in which words have meaning but not references to a real world outside the poem. William Pritchard (The Lives Of The Modern Poets) makes this point in his chapter on Eliot (p. 109) and quotes  Denis Donoghue:

"At first, the words seem to denote things . . . but it soon appears that their allegiance to reality is deceptive, they are traitors in reality. So far as the relation between word and object is deceptive, so far also is 'objective reality' undermined. The only certainty is that the absence in reality has been effected by the words, and now the same words are enforcing themselves as the only presence. What we respond to is the presence of the words."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

T. S. Eliot: "La Figlia Che Piange"

   La Figlia Che Piange

O quam te memorem virgo…

STAND on the highest pavement of the stair—
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.

This poem, like “Portrait Of A Lady,” exemplifies (perhaps in a way that Eliot did not intend) his claim in “Tradition And The Individual Talent” that poetry “is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion.” Emotion is what the speaker in “Portrait” wants to escape from at any price, and the price is high:  he becomes a heartless and diminished prig.

Something similar occurs (if it hasn’t already done so) in “La Figlia Che Piange” (“The Weeping Girl”—which, like “Portrait,” is provided with an ambiguous epigraph to stumble over: when Virgil, In the Aeneid, makes his obligatory descent to Hades (a precedent established by Homer’s Odysseus in the Odyssey) he meets Aphrodite disguised as a huntress and asks her, “O maiden, by what name should I address you?”—knowing all the while exactly who she is. 

The disingenuousness of the epigraph carries over into the poem which begins with a scene which is not really being staged, as the various imperatives might lead one to think. Those imperatives are ironic: what we are really observing is a scene of cruel mockery in which the speaker, by ironically pretending to instruct the girl how to perform her scene, and ironically pretending to admire her performance, is doing his best to destroy her. 

Or rather, as lines 8-12 seem to suggest, that is how the speaker might have liked to handle this break-up. But it is hard to be clear about Eliot’s use of the subjunctive, “should”, in line 13:

I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.

In other words, keep it simple? Which, evidently is how they handle it.
The faithlessness, however, is all his—as she perfectly understands.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.

She, however—the person that she is, whom he at least pretended to care for—is not what compells his imagination, but her estheticized image, “with her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.” 

The last stanza returns to the oddly evasive use of the subjunctive, ‘should’, which we have already noticed in line 13:

Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.

What it all come down to, seemingly, is his wonderment at this last image of this girl, with her hair over he arms and her arms full of flowers, which is the only memory of her that he values. “How lucky I am that these things should have come to together so perfectly; I should, otherwise, have lost a beautiful gesture and a beautiful pose.” The last two lines, however, hint at deeper cogitations and more troubled midnights than he has heretofore admitted to.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

T. S. Eliot's "Portrait of A Lady"

Taking an ambiguous quotation from Marlowe's play The Jew Of Malta (c. 1590),

Thou hast committed—
Fornication: but that was in another country,
And besides, the wench is dead.

as his point of entry, Eliot of edges his poem edges nervously into its theme of emotional entrapment and evasion with a spineless seven line sentence in which the verb is postponed for six lines and the subject, if you can find it, is more or less smeared across the previous lines. And yet it seems to make sense in an odd sort of way. It is a remarkably accomplished performance:

Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon
You have the scene arrange itself—as it will seem to do—
With “I have saved this afternoon for you”;
And four wax candles in the darkened room,
Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb
Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid.

We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole
Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and fingertips.
“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
Should be resurrected only among friends
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.”
—And so the conversation slips
Among velleities and carefully caught regrets
Through attenuated tones of violins
Mingled with remote cornets
And begins.

“You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends,
And how, how rare and strange it is, to find
In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,
[For indeed I do not love it ... you knew? you are not blind!
How keen you are!]
To find a friend who has these qualities,
Who has, and gives
Those qualities upon which friendship lives.
How much it means that I say this to you—
Without these friendships—life, what cauchemar!”

Among the windings of the violins
And the ariettes
Of cracked cornets
Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins
Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,
Capricious monotone
That is at least one definite “false note.”
—Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance,
Admire the monuments,
Discuss the late events,
Correct our watches by the public clocks.
Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks.


Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in his fingers while she talks.
“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
“Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
To be wonderful and youthful, after all.”

The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune
Of a broken violin on an August afternoon:
“I am always sure that you understand
My feelings, always sure that you feel,
Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand.

You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles’ heel.
You will go on, and when you have prevailed
You can say: at this point many a one has failed.

But what have I, but what have I, my friend,
To give you, what can you receive from me?
Only the friendship and the sympathy
Of one about to reach her journey’s end.

I shall sit here, serving tea to friends...”

I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amends
For what she has said to me?
You will see me any morning in the park
Reading the comics and the sporting page.
Particularly I remark
An English countess goes upon the stage.
A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance,
Another bank defaulter has confessed.
I keep my countenance,
I remain self-possessed
Except when a street piano, mechanical and tired
Reiterates some worn-out common song
With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
Recalling things that other people have desired.
Are these ideas right or wrong?


The October night comes down; returning as before
Except for a slight sensation of being ill at ease
I mount the stairs and turn the handle of the door
And feel as if I had mounted on my hands and knees.
“And so you are going abroad; and when do you return?
But that’s a useless question.
You hardly know when you are coming back,
You will find so much to learn.”
My smile falls heavily among the bric-à-brac.

“Perhaps you can write to me.”
My self-possession flares up for a second;
This is as I had reckoned.
“I have been wondering frequently of late
(But our beginnings never know our ends!)
Why we have not developed into friends.”
I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
Suddenly, his expression in a glass.
My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.

“For everybody said so, all our friends,
They all were sure our feelings would relate
So closely! I myself can hardly understand.
We must leave it now to fate.
You will write, at any rate.
Perhaps it is not too late.
I shall sit here, serving tea to friends.”

And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression ... dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance—

Well! and what if she should die some afternoon,
Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose;
Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand
With the smoke coming down above the housetops;
Doubtful, for a while
Not knowing what to feel or if I understand
Or whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon...
Would she not have the advantage, after all?
This music is successful with a “dying fall”
Now that we talk of dying—
And should I have the right to smile?

The 'subject' of that first sentence is not grammatical but thematic; it is what the poem is about: the efforts of a lonely, rather pathetic woman of conventionally refined taste to alter the terms of her friendship with a younger man. She wants him to be more than a friend, perhaps a lover; he, knowing perfectly well where she is trying to lead him, wants none of it. So in the first stanza, he understands that the "scene" with its atmosphere of Juliet's tomb only seems to have arranged itself; this is a set-up: he is to be the Romeo who will enter just as Juliet wakes up and take her in his arms. That, if you remember the play, is how it was supposed to happen but didn't.

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of innocence: 

"What's in a name?" asks Juliet innocently, as if names don't matter: Romeo and Juliet

 think they can escape the deadly history of their families, leave it all behind, and live their own lives. Everything that could possibly go wrong, goes wrong.

There's nothing tragic about Portrait Of A Lady—or comic, for that matter; it's the sad little story of a hollow, heartless man who is too knowing for his own or anyone else's good.

He subtly mocks his 'friend', right from the beginning: 

We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole

Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and fingertips."

But she does leave herself open to mockery:

“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
Should be resurrected only among friends
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room."

"Velleities" are wishes that are never acted upon: this is a woman, as the man critically appraises her, who is too weak to break out of the comfortable routine in which she has established herself. All she knows how to do is gush about music, friendships, the fragmentary nature of life, and serve tea to friends. He's heard it all before; her voice reminds him of the "attenuated tones of violins, mingled with remote cornets."

This time, his inner self rebels, and the cornets sound as if they've got cracks in them:

Among the windings of the violins
And the ariettes
Of cracked cornets
Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins
Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,
Capricious monotone
That is at least one definite “false note.”
—Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance,
Admire the monuments,
Discuss the late events,
Correct our watches by the public clocks.
Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks.

Oh for an ordinary life of odds and ends, he thinks. But his rebellion is not final; he keeps coming back for more. In Part II he gets more than he had bargained for: what we would call today a guilt-trip, which leaves him speechless: 

I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amends
For what she has said to me?"

And that, you would think, is the end of that. The following lines have the sound of finality: "You will see me any morning in the park . . . . I remain self-possessed . . ." which indeed is what's wrong with him: he is too self-possessed, too self-enclosed for friendship or love. Or anything: this is a man who who doesn't have anything better to do than sit in the park and idly scan the newspapers for the latest gossip or the latest scandals.

The sound of some old street piano, "mechanical and tired," reiterating some worn-out common song, and the smell of hyacinths "across the garden" (whose?) reminds him of things that other people have desired—and, presumably, made some effort to obtain. So that supercilious word, "velleities" comes back to bite him. "Are these ideas right or wrong?" he wonders, missing the point: he hasn't been talking about ideas but feeling and emotions. Ideas can be, arguably, right or wrong, but feelings and emotions are things that you may or may not have; or, as in his case, have been trying to avoid.

Six months later with, surprisingly, only a slight sensation of being ill at ease he returns—he has come,

 it seems, to say goodbye—and discovers that what he really feels is humiliation as well as guilt and confusion. His smile falls heavily "among the bric-a-brac" and he sees himself with his shit-eating smile for the first time as his self-possession "gutters" like a burnt-out candle-end. They are both, as he acknowledges for the first time, "in the dark." For a moment, seeing himself as the futile, empty person that he has allowed himself to become, he tries to dehumanize himself: 

And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression ... dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.

And, it may be that he succeeds:   

Well! and what if she should die some afternoon,
Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose,

he says, carelessly, clearly more interested in the picturesque qualities of the day than the woman whose death he is imagining. But as usual, there is something about this person, unremarkable as she is, that won't let him alone, and we know why: she is, for all her little clichés, more of a person than he is and he knows it. It may be that, unremarkable as they are, they were made for each other.

He has pretensions to being a writer, perhaps (or maybe he is at last getting round to that letter he had promised her) which is what he imagines himself to be doing when he gets the news of her (imagined) death, to which he responds—imaginatively— in all the wrong ways: not by having feelings but by talking, irrelevantly, about the feelings that he doesn't have.

This poem clearly belongs with that titannic panorama of waste, futility, emptiness and despair, The Waste Land.