Thursday, May 11, 2006

Week 15, Yeats and Eliot

Notes on William Butler Yeats


Yeats was a poet of many phases, not as clearly marked as critics imply: romanticism and symbolism, Irish politics and folklore, aristocratic values, Modernist stylistic compression and an interest in poetic texts as containing entire symbolic systems. But he never left behind his early phases even after moving on from them. Yeats was always concerned with the power of art in relation to other areas of life, with poetry’s status as expression, with its approximation to religion and the stability and ultimate insight religions offer. His poetry becomes more and more complex in its investigation of all these matters. ‘‘A Vision’’ is his prose attempt to create, in the manner of Blake and Swedenborg, an integral system, a mystic yet accurate way of dealing with change in individual identity, the collective unconscious, and world history. Whether all his talk of “gyres,” “will/body of fate,” “creative mind / mask,” and so forth makes a theosophic system is beside the point: the whole affair is a vehicle for his poetry. His complex mature period blends with the ~np~Anglo-American~/np~ Modernism of Eliot and Pound, among others. Take the Symbolist insistence that art constitutes a higher reality all its own, add the allusiveness and integrative power of myth, the spiritual imperatives of mysticism, a paradoxical yet genuine engagement with politics, and a willingness to question his broadest claims for poetry’s truth-status and relevance—and you get Yeats the High Modernist. There is a certain aloofness in Yeats’ manner, an aristocratic contempt for those who want nothing but pleasure from art, as if, to borrow from Bentham, pushpin were as good as poetry. Like most Modernists, Yeats despises middle-class materialism, preferring the genuineness of the poor and the nobility alike. This carries forth a long romantic and Victorian tradition—recall Carlyle’s thundering at “Bobuses” who think of nothing but upward mobility and their stomachs.

But then, the argument over whether art should simply please us or improve us into the bargain is an ancient one; most critics and artists, even the most defiantly aloof among them, have implied that it should be a force both for social cohesion and for spiritual realization and transcendence. The Russian Formalists’ watchword “make it new” isn’t so new, and Modernists believe that art is a powerful shaping force over the spirit and intellect, even if they don’t trust themselves entirely when they say such things. The notion that Modernism doesn’t trust itself calls for an explanation: Yeats, with his occult and elitist tendencies, knows the risk he runs of his art collapsing into aestheticism or romantic solipsism. He’s fashioning a holy book out of his own semi-private symbolic language, a Book that promises special insight to the initiated. Even his use of the past’s myths and history throws down the interpretive gauntlet to us as readers—Yeats is a difficult poet who demands that we turn away from ordinary notions, step out of our individual selves, and understand him on his own terms. The self and the ordinary are cast as barriers to understanding and connection with others.

Yeats’ hero Blake wrote about religion’s tendency to become the province of an evil priesthood, a cynical hieratic class that feeds on the mysteries it propagates and guards. Mystery at its best—even the kind of manufactured mystery we see in the Victorian sages—can flow from genuine wonder at the complexity of humanity and the cosmos; but it can also take its origin from fear, ignorance, and misinterpretation, with consequent need for priestly elites. Modernist myth-making could easily amount to ideology in the service of somebody’s politics. ~np~Anglo-American~/np~ Modernists seem to know this, and yet they find it necessary to offer us a religion of art. Yeats is a man of dilemmas—he’s all for universal myths, yet remains an Irish nationalist; he’s deeply personal and subjective, yet breaks down the barriers of selfhood. And above all, the phrase applied to Tennyson in the nineteenth century—“Lord of Language”—is just as appropriate to Yeats among his twentieth-century peers.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

An early poem, symbolist. The speaker will remove himself from the everyday world and hear what the “deep heart’s core” has to say; this alternative reality will have an order and a peace all its own. The poem has the force of a decision: “I ‘‘will’’ go to the place that’s calling to me.” He hasn’t done it yet, and the chant itself is part of the process whereby he will convince himself to go. There’s some genuine pastoral imagery, a touch of romanticism’s descriptions of beautiful things in nature. Innisfree is symbolic—it is at least as much a state of mind as a real place, perhaps more so. The poem speaks the reality that calls the poet forth, so language participates in the making of something real, whether a state of mind or an actual place.

“Easter 1916”

Yeats here treats an act of Irish nationalism and martyrdom as a work of art, something that transfigures even those participants he didn’t get along with. But in the final stanza, doesn’t Yeats also bring up the dangers of nationalism? See his line, “Too long a sacrifice…” Nationalism is a temporary tactic; Yeats never supported violent revolution, and shows a preference for art and myth as shaping and continuity-providing influences in collective life.

“The Second Coming”

The Russian Revolution occurred in 1917; a new world is being born, and it seems neither rational nor predictable. The Sphinx Riddle, at its core, concerns human nature, and the Oedipus myth turns on a series of outrages against a civic order taken as natural or in alliance with nature. Oedipus commits the scandal of incest (incest is both a universal taboo and yet a local violation, so it is scandalously natural and cultural—see Claude Lévi-Strauss). Will this new world be like the one ruled by Shelley’s cruel Pharaoh Ozymandias, whose image remains to glare at us as a recurring possibility even though the artist mocked him? An Egyptian tyranny? Yeats is drawing upon his own and on the collective European symbolic system to describe the birth throes of a new age. In uttering his prophecy, he rejects optimistic C19 narratives about progress and the upward march of the spirit. Change is inevitable, but not necessarily change for the better. The “rough beast” stalks obscenely into the world, its crude sexuality reminding us that we haven’t left behind the worst in ourselves or in history. History has been called “the pain of our ancestors,” and here is some new monstrosity shaping up. Yeats’ imagery comes from ancient myth and religion; history is disjunctive. It proceeds by terrible leaps and thunderclaps. So we need the artist as a wielder of myths new and old to make the world intelligible again, to whatever degree possible. This is a claim that High Modernists have adapted from romantic poet-prophets like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake.

What is intelligible may not comfort us, but we are responsible for confronting it in any case. Yeats had read Nietzsche on eternal recurrence—can one face all but unbearable realizations, yet remain willing to do it all again? Here we are confronted with our own recurrent power to tyrannize, setting up fear and dread abstraction as our gods (recall Blake’s “hapless soldier’s sigh” that “runs in blood down palace walls” in the poem “London”). And his ideas resemble Jung’s notion that there’s a collective unconscious—Jung was going beyond Freud’s psychology, which was centered on the bourgeois individual. Yeats’ accomplishment is to wield Jung-like collective myths with the fiery individualism of Blake: “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another’s!” Not that his is a narrowly self-based poetics; Yeats isn’t a romantic creator pure and simple—notice that he often writes as if he were being dictated to by a medium, an automatic writing that wells up from the collective unconscious, an archetypal image bank that comes from the ‘‘Spiritus Mundi.’’ Neither does he try to play the stage father with the meaning of his poems—he respects their status as words to be interpreted. His emphasis on the subjective side of existence is characteristically Modernist: they privilege impressions, subjective responses.

“Sailing to Byzantium

How to cross over into what lasts? Yeats’ speaker explains why he has come to Byzantium, abandoning the boundaries of his ego and traveling to a region where he hopes to metamorphose into an eternal life in artistic form. This is truly a religion of art. Yeats refashions ancient symbols, grants us a vision of the Holy City, which is not Jerusalem in this poem but rather a decadent-phase Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The poem alludes to the poetic process itself, the magical hammering out of a world of eternal aesthetic artifacts. Like a Byzantine goldsmith’s handiwork, the poet’s sacred chant and symbolic system spanning many texts would fashion this world by what Shelley calls “the incantation of this verse.” But I’m not sure such claims for an eternal unchanging state of things suits Yeats’ theosophy in ‘‘A Vision,’’ as it emerges later. It seems to me that everything is dynamic in that explanation—Yeats, after all, borrows from the Pre-Socratics who are always talking about change as the only constant.

Stanza One: A personal poem about growing old and facing up to what one’s art has meant to oneself. The claim is that art transcends the “mire” of the material realm and human desire without simply rejecting them. Well, the first stanza rules out remaining in the world of natural generation, void of subjectivity. This kind of harmony and music don’t satisfy the self-conscious speaker about to pass on. Nature is “careful of the type, careless of the individual life,” as Tennyson writes in ‘‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’’

Stanza Two: Notice the incantatory power here, the ordering power of rhythm: song of a different sort overcomes the mortal decay implied by first stanza. Byzantium is in its decadent phase, a self-referential city wrapped up in artistic processiveness, in aestheticism. But Yeats is drawn to this beautiful solipsism, a place for intense concentration on what is eternal. This is not irresponsibility, I believe, but honesty—the speaker is old. Therefore, not having found his answer in physical nature, he has crossed waters, symbolizing creative power and life, and has come to this holy city. An old man must escape his dying self and enter into a different creative process—art.

Stanza Three: This stanza shows a turning away from the body and towards the forms of the sages on the Ravenna frieze mentioned in the Norton Anthology note. He prays to the sages, who have themselves been transformed into a work of art. He wants to be in the phase of existence they have reached, not remain where he is. His prayer is itself an outflowing of the phase in which he now finds himself.

Stanza Four: Once he has made the transition to a new world free of dying nature and the body, the artist will be wrought into his own artifice and become eternal. This poem confronts mortality, but not by reaffirming selfhood—instead, he confronts it on the grounds of his symbols and artifice, measuring his own endurance by their lasting power. A wish to merge with them. But will that be granted?

“Leda and the Swan”

Here the speaker handles poetic insight into history as a violent and dangerous gift. The rape of Leda engendered Helen, the Trojan War, and European history. What price insight? Many of the ancient prophets—Tiresias, Cassandra, Orpheus, gained their powers as compensation for terrible loss, or suffered for what they had been granted. Poetry is not merely pretty words. It is allied with prophecy and divination, and has been at the heart of civilization as a human task and process. The Modernists often describe poetry as an inseminative, male power. But is Zeus the only poet here, or is Leda also inspired? Does myth or poetic insight allow us to control such a process, or only describe it and face up to it spiritually? Coming to terms with the violent but necessary transitions from one epoch to the next seems to be the current poem’s task. This demands that we not dismiss the violent past, but try to make our knowledge of it worth something in the present—if that’s possible. Nietzsche says in “Homer’s Contest” that if we understood the Greeks “in Greek,” we would shudder—certainly Yeats’ choice of myths here doesn’t place him among the calm C19 Hellenizers. He says that the politics went out of the poem when he began to write it, but it still asks about the relationship between art and a given political order, indeed any political order. To what extent is poetic insight and language complicit in the violent events and transitions it presents? Leda and other myths, after all, were how the Greeks understood their own history and culture—at least early in their history, until C6-5 BCE, they lived within the framework of their myths. It is only with the presocratics that they begin trying to explain natural phenomena in scientific terms. Different cultures will read the same myth differently; the myths recur but are subject to reinterpretation.

“Among School Children”

Here “the child is father of the man,” as Wordsworth wrote. But Yeats may not draw as much consolation as Wordsworth did in his “Immortality Ode.” The romantic poem cheered up the speaker, but Yeats’ speaker tries to reassure children that he’s not such a frightening schoolmaster or old scarecrow. His smile is a mask, like a Gno-mask, a conventional role. Hollow, he wants to fulfill his public office, which entails one generation’s responsibility towards another.

Stanza 5: Refers to the ancient myth of metempsychosis, as in Wordsworth’s line “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” See also Plato’s ‘‘Symposium’’ and ‘‘Phaedrus.’’ Is the pain worth it?

Stanza 6: What is real? Philosophers sought abstract wisdom, and can’t tell. They propagate Bacon’s Idols of the Theater”—the strange errors that come with the territory of philosophers bent upon explaining the world with the help of huge thought-systems. Yeats’ autobiography ‘‘A Vision’’ shows his dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy. Much philosophy is an attempt to capture the relationship between self and world, to build up a vast framework for arriving at what is ultimately intelligible and enduring. It comes to seem a vain and self-isolating endeavor. I think Yeats is making the traditional complaint that philosophical explanations don’t ‘‘move’’ us, don’t make us able to act in the world and bear up under its stresses as they occur.

Stanza 7: Here a different relationship between thought and object emerges: images that move us.

Stanza 8: The reference to the chestnut tree is pure romantic organic metaphor—you can’t dissect a living thing without killing it. The whole is more than the sum of the parts, and you can’t divide up a person easily into the Seven Ages of Man. Neither can we “know the dancer from the dance.” This is a complex metaphor—the point in reference to Yeats’ theories in ‘‘A Vision’’ that states of mind, acts of will, etc., are not separable from the particular phase in which a person currently is. So the Yeats-like speaker is an older man, still somewhat wrapped up in his own subjectivity. He does not see the huge and luminous world of the more objective-phase child. So his poem is a product of where he is in terms of spiritual phase. His final words may seem like romantic poetry in the optative mode, as in “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” But the trouble is that he ‘‘isn’t’’ dancing, that he cannot reenter the thoughts and dreams of childhood. He can only reflect upon his past, but the activity is not necessarily a comfort or a useful thing to him—he’s trying to come full circle, reflect back on his childhood and draw sustenance for his old age, wrap his mind around his life as a whole. But that kind of reflection is in itself Hamlet-like, and leads to further alienation, not to recuperation of the past. And so he remains distant from the children even in the midst of them.


What’s happening in Byzantium once the pilgrim arrives? We find spiritual transcendence being wrought from matter, from Roman “mire” and centuries of more vital history. Art and death have come together productively. Byzantium, in Yeats’ description, has become a place of transcendence, not the practical, political world of the Roman Empire.

Stanza 1: What has been made by human hands withdraws, disdains its makers and their mixture of mud and spirit. The domes and cathedrals are pure, illumined with celestial, not human, light.

Stanza 2: Mummy-cloth… is the winding path death? Is that the way out of mire?

Final Stanzas: Yeats was never satisfied with nature as an answer to the problems of self-conscious humans. You can see from “The Wilde Swans of Coole” that he aspires to a higher vision than nature could ever afford us. So here we find images begetting images, generating an alternative world, or a state that differs greatly from the unhappy one in which the speaker apparently finds himself.

Eliot Notes

From Ritual to Romance, by Jesse Weston.

Eliot’s debt to the book From Ritual to Romance (1920) is significant. And here are the notes on that book:

Jesse Westin quotes Sir Francis Bacon: the soul should expand to meet the fullness of a mystery; mystery should not constrict itself to the limits of the soul. And that will be the point when T.S. Eliot uses myth—to go beyond the bounds of the individual ego and force the modern reader to confront his inability to appreciate the ancient myths by which people once lived meaningful lives.

Jesse Westin wants to go beyond and before the grail legend as we now have it—she is interested in finding out what lies behind the explicitly Christian and Romance or Arthurian versions of the grail quest. And throughout her book, she finds that ancient fertility myths are the source of the modern grail legend. She wants to trace the evolution of religious consciousness or at least to find out what lies at its base. She insists against Ridgeway that religion has always been more than simply ancestor-worship; it has always been connected with something beyond the individual self and immediate family relations. It has been about the relationship between divinity and humanity.

So that is one interest T.S. Eliot might take in Jesse Westin—the way in which genuine religious consciousness connects us to some realm beyond ourselves.

Moreover, Westin says that the ancient myths are life-myths—they are about the cycle of death and rebirth, and of course they are connected with seasonal change.

So Eliot wants to tap into this kind of imagery and significance in his poem.

Jesse Westin mentions several versions of the grail legend, and in some of them the sick or dead Fisher King is responsible for the desolation of the land, while in others the questor himself fails to answer the question properly and soul becomes responsible for the desolation of the land. Westin finds that the first version is the more genuine and ancient, but I am not certain that Eliot really cares about which came first—it would make sense for him to pose responsibility or agency as a legitimate question in his poem. For us, this means we must ask about the extent to which the poem itself is complicit in the condition it describes and in this way responsible for its perpetuation. What then would the punishment be? Would it have something to do with incoherence?

Westin describes the grail legend as follows: the main object is the restoration to health and vigor of a King suffering from infirmity caused by wounds, sickness, or old age. Further, it seems that the King’s illness has caused war or blight. The hero must “restore the waters to their channel,” and make the land fertile again. So the hero must restore the land to its previous condition, and most importantly make the King healthy again. Castration is sometimes the wound alluded to—loss of generative power.

Westin says that the Aryans believed in sympathetic magic. They believed in prayer and supplication, but also that they could stimulate divine activity. According to Sir J. G. Fraser, these ancients believed that the animal and vegetable world were bound together and that the same principle of life and fertility was at work in them both. Anthropomorphizing nature is one way of showing this. Life cults evolved beyond a belief in the vivifying power of water to recognition of “a common principle underlying all manifestations of life.”

Jesse Westin comes around to saying that the wasteland is central to an understanding of the entire myth cycle.

The grail is not a horn of plenty—it does not seem to be the case that we actually feed from the grail cup. Rather, it is a kind of magic artifact.

The four symbols are cup, lance, sword, dish. They correspond to the pack of cards as hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs. The taro pack seems to have been introduced to Europe from the East.

The fish as a symbol predates Christianity. It has to do with the origin and preservation of life since it is commonly believed that all life comes from water.

Section I. The Burial of the Dead.

Major themes: London is an unreal city, a place where myth seems to have no meaning. It is as if the city represents the death of the human. There is an obvious reference to the disjointed nature of seasonal cycles; April certainly should not be the cruelest month. The cosmopolitan figure Marie represents the kind of decadence that led to the first world war—Marie is among the living Dead of London. There is no sense of place, origin, or tradition for her or for London. Madame S. is a bogus mythic consciousness, not the genuine myth underlying Arthurian legend.

What Eliot introduces us to in this first section is a Dante-world in which individuals are profoundly alienated from themselves and from one another and from any system of meaning that would make sense of their lives. In order to be reborn, a person first must die a genuine death, but that kind of death seems to be denied the characters whose voices we hear in the wasteland.

I would like to introduce the problem of narrative unity. How are we to construe the speaker of this poem? Is there one? Would it make sense for there to be only one speaker in the context of T.S. Eliot’s poetics? He firmly rejects what he considers romantic egocentrism—the poetry of pure self-expression—but he also rejects Matthew Arnold’s version of disinterested objectivity, as well as the Victorian Sage writers and their strategies for garnering authority. I don’t think we are going to get a final version of the truth from any single narrative voice.

I see several voices emerging in this first section. The first voice is that of Marie, an alienated aristocrat. She speaks of fragmentary childhood experiences that she cannot put together or properly interpret. The imagery itself as well as the comments she makes bespeak frustrated desire, desire frustrated by the world in which she lives. The setting of the poem seems to be post WWI Europe, most particularly London, but the reminiscences of Marie refer to a time before that. She introduces unwittingly the theme of descent into an underworld, which for her seems to be nearly a frustrated sexual desire—a world in alliance with what Eliot might call deaths dream kingdom, a division that stops short of full spiritual enlightenment. She or her interlocutor—it is difficult to see which—claims to be delayed neither living or dead, and looks into the heart of light uncomprehendingly. She is the hyacinth girl, and this may be a reference to the fertility myths that T.S. Eliot got from Jesse Westin—the cult of Adonis employed the hyacinth flower to mimic the blood of the dying God. But the hyacinth girl does not seem to understand her relation to this mythology. Moreover, this imagery appears in other of Eliot’s poems—a male figure meets a young girl who is holding flowers. Perhaps Dante provides a clue to the meaning of this symbolism: in purgatory, Dante has a vision of a young woman named Matilda, who is in Eden. This vision of Matilda eventually gives way to the higher vision of Beatrice, so Matilda is a lower-level figure for Dante. She gives him a lecture on the properties of seeds—in Eden, things grow with unbelievable ease; there is no question of sterility or painful birth into the light of day. In the next canto from 28, Dante exhibits some resentment of what he has seen—thanks to Sinful Eve, he cannot carry in Eden. Now, generation is no easy matter. The references to Tristan reinforce the theme of frustrated desire.

But of course in between these passages where Marie and a lover speak, we are treated to the language of biblical prophecy. What is the function of this kind of language? Dryness, drought, predominate in this passage, and it is possible that the references to “something different” refer to Christ. Or perhaps it simply refers to death, which Marie and her lover cannot comprehend because they are neither living or dead. The kind of desire they exhibit is bound to fail them in age, for it leads nowhere beyond the boundaries of the self. They are self-isolated characters. Prophecy of radical change is no shelter or comfort for them.

Immediately following this voice or interrupting it rather we find a reference to Ezekiel. Perhaps these references are meant to remind us of the deeper significance missed by people like Marie, but as a scholar of Victorian literature however, I would have to add that biblical prophecy is one of the more common strategies employed by the Victorian sage-writers. So I am not certain that I trust this style, which Eliot as a modern author is almost bound to reject, simply as a marker for deeper significance in the poem. In any event, the prophetic voice challenges us with the fact that we know nothing but broken images and that drought is the prevailing condition of life. It is clear that what the Hindu texts call “the freeing of the waters” cannot yet occur.

Madame S. is a fake prophetic voice, and she is not even certain that she can transmit the insight she believes she has to offer—one must be so careful these days. The taro pack she wields seems to be somehow related to the fertility cults or life myths, at least indirectly. She refers to a drowned sailor, telling her interlocutors that this is their card. So the theme here is drowning, immersion, transformation. Is the hanged man the Fisher King that she cannot see? In any case, I don’t think we will get the answer from her, though her reference to the need to fear death by water is interesting because this sort of death amounts to a genuine “sea-change,” genuine death and transformation.

This final paragraph of section one is probably the most complicated: it associates London with Dante’s Inferno, referring explicitly to that work. Of course, this first paragraph justifies the title of the first section—what we have seen so far is characters who are among the living Dead.. This first section is a descent into the underworld. At 71, the theme of death and regeneration surfaces. Ask students what they make of the statement—what would it mean if the corpse were to sprout? The dead here seem resentful, sterile—it would disturb them to bloom.

Refer to my statement below concerning Charles Baudelaire—this poet and critic concerns himself with a teeming city of anonymous souls wrapped up in themselves and not connected with the bustling life around them. Yet, Baudelaire sees the necessity not to deny the present state of affairs. He is someone who could immerse his language and himself into a bustling urban environment and not get lost.

Comment: Dante, the prophetic authors, and the Hindu holy texts and Charles Baudelaire have something in common—they are able to immerse themselves in an environment and return alive, not as mere shades. The point is to immerse oneself and yet return with insight to offer others. They at least know where they stand, at least after going through a poetic or other process. Does the Fisher King get to this point by the end of the wasteland? Well the poem ends with a question—shall I set my lands in order?

What has emerged from my reading of Northrop Frye? One thing is that in the wasteland, the characters do not seem to know their situation; they are uncomprehending, neither living nor dead. They cannot even die, as we find in the first part of the poem.

II. A Game of Chess.

It seems to me that 2 main voices are heard in this part—an upperclass voice and a lower class voice. Sterility is common to them both. The first is shot through with ornate poetic references, one to Cleopatra and her splendor, and the other to Philomel, who was forced by the barbarous King and turned into a nightingale. This is a legend about swallowing one’s own increase, as the King was made to do. But here, there is no mention of a tapestry telling the whole story—the nightingale sings, but dirty ears do not understand.

A closed car at four seems to me very important line because even if rain came, the speaker would not allow it to penetrate. There is a total absence of any inspiration or genuine life in this section—the wind stirs, but to no real effect. And the culture of the past, most particularly Shakespeare, is turned into a silly ragtime hit. Fire is mentioned, but it is not the kind that purifies leading up to the releasing of the waters. The lower class voice Bears children and has abortions, and both acts seem to be about the same to her. From this will come no regeneration at either the individual or societal level. The reference to Ophelia at the end of this part underscores the craziness of the sexuality alluded to.

As Northrop Frye says, the title of the second part may well referred to Shakespeare’s play the Tempest. They are, of course, the issue is whether Ferdinand and Miranda will marry and help regenerate the social order. Certainly, the women in this second part have little in common with Miranda. But the stakes are high, even if they don’t know it.

III. The Fire Sermon.

Autumn, nadir of poem, physical and spiritual regeneration has been denied.

Of course, this part hardly sounds like a sermon, but it teaches us by the light of a mythic synthesis—Tiresias, Buddha, Augustine. So what is the point? Something seems to be happening because at 173, we here at “the river’s tent is broken.” The River Thames is flowing to the ocean, carrying no more filth with it. But the entire section seems to be about seductions, and the poet works in previous references to Philomel as well as Sweeney, the low and sensual man. The prophet Tiresias has been both a woman and a man, so he can judge the scene he describes. In his note, Eliot claims that Tiresias is central to the poem, but that needs explaining. I’ve heard it said that the poem’s references to sexual sterility are to be replaced by poetic engendering or reproduction—the capacity of poetic language to reshape the cultural heritage just at the point when all seems lost and irretrievably alien, fragmented. But that sounds a bit too optimistic for this poem, doesn’t it? It sounds like a concerted effort to make the poem offer a standard modernist thesis about poetic language. I don’t think Eliot is necessarily offering us one big claim about art’s regenerative power.

The typist allows herself to be used like a public urinal. Obviously this is sterile. Perhaps the point is that these lurid images and references must be worked through for purification to occur. Note the reference to St. Augustine, who dwells much upon how trapped we are at first in our senses, and how God needs to move us beyond him. And Augustine went from Carthage to Italy to become a Christian.

Edmund Spenser also makes a cameo appearance in this part—there is a reference to his Prothalamion, or song in preparation for the marriage of the Earl of Worcester. In that poem, the nymphs are all just like brides. The poet asks, not commands, that the Thames River runs softly until he finishes his poetic task.

IV. Death by Water.

Frye says that this refers to physical death, just as burial means physical life but spiritual deadness. But in any case the Phoenician here seems genuinely to die, forgetting everything. And perhaps forgetting is in itself a kind of purification, given where the scene occurs in the poem. Perhaps the passage indicates a drowning to ordinary life—the life of commerce, awaiting spiritual sea-change. And of course Carthage was a Phoenician colony, a place Aeneas needed to leave in order to found a new order in Western history. Rowe says that this section may refer to a baptismal immersion in culture and history, a purgation of the ego that makes way for a more genuine self rooted in interconnection with other members of a community. Perhaps, but again that seems to me rather a theoretical imposition on the poem’s immediate matter.

V. What the Thunder Said.

Frye refers to the voice that emerges in the final few paragraphs as fallen Adam, the does not have the power to regenerate what he has destroyed. But JC says that the voice emerging is the poet himself, as both madman and Fisher King. Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy used his madness as a tool to get revenge on a world that betrayed him.

Well, that last the torrent of rain comes from the sacred Indian River. It seems to me that the line “thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” means that a new way of escaping from the predicament of a decadent Europe and egocentrism. That is probably why the sacred river and the sacred Indian texts come into play here. But I’m not really certain that this poem achieves any solution—it is easy to read it in light of the poet’s conversion to Anglican religion in 1927, but that would be anachronistic. A speaker has gone through the chapel perilous, and the waters are now free, which indicates at least directionality towards progress. A new birth should be possible from this point on. It may be that the attempt to put together the fragments is in itself the healing answer. But the poem ends with an untranslateable Hindi quotation, really a magic incantation, somewhat like poetic incantation. I don’t see that the poem offers any final resolution to the situation it has described and participated in. Perhaps all that can be offered in some indication of how to proceed, how to undertake the journey. Or we might even want to compare the overall effect with Yeats’ “Second Coming,” where the old cycle is ending and the new one is coming, but we aren’t quite sure what the new cycle is going to be. The bottom line may be, either be like Tereus and swallow your own past and future in an act of uncomprehension, or take an active part in working with the fragments of culture and history, trying to make something new come of them. Perhaps the story of the loss is itself the stuff of a new mythology and a new quest, for which the Waste Land provides a path.

Notes on “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

1093. The past is altered by the present. We might consider this simply good neoclassicism—the past is a stable entity, yet it is not unattainable for us. It seems to me that for Eliot, European literature is one large lyric poem, unified like the poetry that Cleanth Brooks and other New Critics consider autonomous. Eliot means by historical sense something very different from historicism. It isn’t so much that ideas become obsolete, but rather that conditions render us unable to act or appreciate the relationship between past and present. It seems to be a perceptual problem brought on or intensified by material developments.

1094. In fact, says Eliot, only the present can render the past intelligible. So how is this idea different from the romantic pursuit of ever-greater self-consciousness? The infinite march of reflective understanding, or the infinite regression of acts of self-consciousness—only not at the individual level.

Where does the individual poet get the ability to tap into this tradition? Well, see Matthew Arnold, who says that the man and the moment are necessary to genuine creation. Arnold says that we need a current of true and fresh ideas. Eliot seems to think that there is not such a current in his own day, so the poet becomes rather a bookish creature. The poet, that is, must be difficult in this modern age.

1094-95. Eliot uses the term depersonalization. We might look at this demand of his from a few different perspectives. Northrop Frye, for example, says that Eliot is interested in eastern mysticism and religion. In such religious contexts, one achieves a sense described by the phrase “thou art that.” The terms karma and atman come to mind—karma is due to selfishness or desire, and atman is a kind of identification with the world without completely losing one’s individuality—it is a “total self.” And of course, this is what romanticism is always trying to accomplish—recovering a loss unity between mind and nature, between an individual and all others. Well, we might also bring up Matthew Arnold, who writes about the need for disinterestedness, the ability to remain aloof from the goings-on of the world in all its self-interested frenzy. Arnold’s term refers to criticism, of course, not so much to poetry, but the point is that one needs to get outside one’s ordinary skin and achieve a certain degree of objectivity about the object of one’s attentions. Like Matthew Arnold, Eliot offers a formulation that betrays a certain pathos, a personal need to escape from personality. Notice that Eliot uses terms such as self-surrender. Perhaps his scientific metaphor of platinum covers up this romantic pathos. Indeed, we might compare his metaphor to romantic inspiration theory. The mind of the poet serves as a catalyst for language drawn from tradition and culture; tradition itself speaks through the poet. In a sense, then, this is an expressive theory—but what is expressed is not the poet’s personality but rather something much larger than himself. The poetic process is rather like the achievement in Hindu religion of “atman.” It is fair to remind ourselves that romantic theorists do not necessarily advocate simple theories of self-expression—they capture the complexities of language as a medium for spirit, and it makes sense to describe romanticism as an encounter between language and the poet, not simply as self-expression. In any case, the reward for readers is a truly new, authentic experience with art.

1096. The poet has an experience with language and tradition, and is not simply expressing desires that flow from autonomous consciousness. Language and tradition use the poet; they express themselves through poetry. Again, it is worthwhile not separating Eliot entirely from romantic theory. Do good poets ever simply express their feelings? Oscar Wilde points out that “all bad poetry originates in sincere emotion.” When Eliot uses the term “fusion,” there is something in that term of the romantic symbol. The metaphor is scientific, but it carries theological overtones. The romantic symbol fuses things that were disparate, overcomes the gap between subject and object.

See the nightingale reference—this is a concrete image that serves as a focal point for disparate feelings. A complex, traditional literary image of this sort has the power to unify and embody otherwise disjointed feelings. So the poet is a medium who wields such images, he is not a personality that needs to express itself. His primary task is to combine images and words drawn from the literary tradition.

1097. The New critics claim that poetic context warps ordinary or denotative meanings to suit the context of the poem. On this page, Eliot refers to emotion in this way. He rejects Wordsworth’s theory that emotion is recollected in tranquility, favoring instead a different kind of concentration. He seems to like the older or combinatorial terms of faculty psychology—for an author like Sir Philip Sidney, remember, originality was not the point of writing poetry.

We should mention imitative theory—the poet does not imitate but rather serves as a catalyst for the past, for tradition. Repetition is not the goal, but rather a scientific version of poetic creation comes to the forefront. It is as if Eliot is trying to achieve a balance between neoclassical respect for culture and modern faith in “making it New,” with a trace of romantic creative pathos thrown in for good measure. Eliot does not assume that tradition is simply stable, so pure imitative theory would not make sense for him. I don’t think he would agree that we can simply point to touchstones, as Matthew Arnold would call them.

1098. Eliot calls emotion impersonal, and he means that emotion is embodied in the poem and sustained by its contexts. Up to now, we have listened to Eliot offer advice to the poet, as many poet-critics have done. But let’s ask at this point where the reader fits into Eliot’s scheme. The implication of what I just said about emotion getting embodied in an image or in the poem is that the reader, like the poet, must go out of himself and be willing to engage in a certain kind of transaction with language. So reading a modernist poem like The Waste Land turns out to be a very difficult endeavor.

The Metaphysical Poets

2402. What if Eliot’s main demands for metaphysical poetry is that it draws out a figure of speech as far as ingenuity can carry it. He also mentions rapid association of thought. It makes a lot of demands upon the reader, as well as telescoping of images and multiplied associations. So the point seems to be that metaphysical poetry is very far from rhetorical smoothness or romantic one-liners in isolation from context. Metaphysical poetry taxes language heavily, makes something new out of what was ordinary, and draws the reader out of himself. Eliot mentions Samuel Johnson’s criticism that “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” But he does not approve of Johnson’s criticism, and in fact implies that Johnson was a product of dissociation of sensibility so he could not understand metaphysical poetry.

2404. Eliot does not find metaphysical poetry unclear; in fact, he says it is quite clear, and the complex structure of its sentences is more faithful to thought and feeling than smoother rhetorical poetry could ever be.

2405. The metaphysical poets as well as the Elizabethans and early Jacobians, were able to be both learned and passionate at the same time; they could think and feel in one act. As Eliot says, that ability is exactly what we find in John Donne. Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning could not do the same thing—they are more reflective and intellectual, and cannot feel their thoughts. Eliot says that a thought to John Donne was an experience.

2406. Here Eliot makes an important distinction between the mind of the poet and an ordinary person’s mind. Ordinary people, he says, cannot bring together the fragments of their experience into an intelligible unity. Evidently, they never have had this experience or this capacity. As Eliot says on 2406, the metaphysical poets “possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience.” So the point is that certain poets can deal with experience in a deeply productive manner. Implicitly, and at times even explicitly, Eliot takes aim at the romantic poets, who follow upon what he calls the sentimental age, a revolt against reason and mere description.

2406-07. The poet of today, apparently, is the man for the moment. Eliot says that modern civilization is extremely variegated and complex, so poetry comes from a sensibility refined by this complexity. Simply put, modern poetry reflects the difficulties of modern life, so it must be difficult. Eliot makes a further point, which is that poets must manipulate or force or dislocate words to mean within the contexts established by the poet. I think that here he makes something like the new critical point about poetic language being essentially connotative rather than denotative.

2408. One must not simply look into the heart and write, but also into the brain, the nervous system, and the stomach. In sum, I think that Eliot is trying to describe an affinity between the metaphysical poets and modern poets like himself, Certainly, The Waste Land shares some of the characteristics Eliot gives to metaphysical poetry. He says that properly understood, metaphysical poets are “in the direct current of English poetry.” They are part of the tradition within which the poet must write, so we will have to reclaim them as members of the tradition.

Final thoughts: even though Eliot opposes the romantic poets, it seems clear that the modern poet as Eliot describes him is involved in a recuperative effort. A phrase such as “dissociation of sensibility” implies that we should recover a lost unity between thought and feeling. So my question to you is whether The Waste Land actually tries to put thought and feeling together or whether it challenges us, confronts us, with the fact that we cannot do so and neither can the poem itself.


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