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Sunday, 13 September 2009
Eliot : Disturbing the Universe
This post has in a sense been handed to me by two or three responses to my post On not getting it. In the course of discussing how a reader might react to difficulties in a poem they all said (something like)... otherwise you end up just problem solving. (What preceded the three dots varied in each case, but had to do with unravelling apparently meaningless lines, phrases, images etc.
The question turns, I suppose, on that word just. I think I answered for the most part gaily (glibly might be a better way of putting it), but later it occurred to me that there is another, more important, side to the matter, illustrated perhaps by the way in which T.S. Eliot used it to revolutionise English poetry.
Eliot, at that time a bank clerk in London, was appalled by what, in his view, the Victorians had done to English poetry. They had allowed it to flounder in a great soup of sentimentality. Emotion and feeling were all. It had lost that all-important contact with the intellect. He hatched his master plan to rescue it, to drag it to the firm land of reason before it drowned altogether. Accordingly, he produced three great poems: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady and "La Figlia che Piange" (The Weeping Girl).
Here is the text of The Weeping Girl
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.
Is that not beautiful? So are each of the other two, in their rhythms and in their cadences (something that Eliot did masterfully), so beautiful that you may easily not spot the plan, as I believe most people do not until it is pointed out. My personal opinion is that these three poems are as good as anything Eliot wrote, with the possible exception of The Four Quartets.
The public were baffled, as they had every right to be, for technically, theoretically and actually these three poems are incomprehensible. Eliot intended them so to be. That, indeed, was the master plan - to make them completely and permanently incomprehensible by withholding the essential information that the reader would need if s/he were to understand them. That way, he reasoned, the intellect would be continually engaged with the poems in its unending effort to understand them. The alternative, to give sufficient information for complete comprehension, would result, he reasoned, in the reader losing interest the moment that the problem unravelled. But of course, the plan would not have worked if they had been incomprehensible conundrums and nothing else. They were not. As I have indicated, they were - and are - poems of great beauty. They also contain some brilliant images which alone would have kept me reading. If we look at J Alfred Prufrock first - for no better reason than that it was the first one I read - we find that it opens in this wise:-
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
To my way of thinking the image contained in lines 2 and 3 is brilliant - though not completely understandable. I still am not sure HOW the evening is like the patient. I'm not sure either, what a half deserted street is like, but following like a tedious argument does it for me. Eventually, though, we come to the overwhelming question. The stricture not to ask runs right through the poem, as an attitude when not actually spelt out. We never do find out what it is. We never do find out what is this visit we are to make. And then we come to the two lines
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Who are these women?
Why do they come and go?
Where from and where to?
Where is the room?
What sort of room is it?
Why are the women talking constantly of Michelangelo?
These two lines appear twice in the poem, so you would think they must be of some importance, yet none of those questions are ever answered. These opening lines, in what they offer and in what they withhold are typical of the poem. Indeed, they are typical of all three of these poems.
Portrait of a Lady begins
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.
The second verse 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!
We are in similar territory. We do not know who the Lady is or who the young man is. Much less do we ever discover what they are to each other, not - despite the many clues and false clues - what they want from each other. Is it a healthy relationship. At times it does not seem so, but we do not know, we are never told. Nevertheless, much as I want to know, I for one find that I have to keep reading. And yes, the brain is permanently engaged upon the matter and the matter is beautiful.
What we do se here, it seems to me, is that Eliot did not jettison feeling. He did not go to the opposite extreme. There are feelings in plenty in these poems. Many of the feelings that we encounter in The Waste Land, for a start, feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, waste, the triviality of modern living, resignation and even martyrdom.
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons from Prufrock.
I shall sit here serving tea to friends from Portrait of a Lady. (Another refrain that appears more than once in the poem.)
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while, - from Prufrock
Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her 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. from Portrait of a Lady
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. from Portrait of a Lady
And there is wit:
My smile falls heavily among the bric-a-brac. from Portrait of a Lady
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?