First, this is the second part of the poem--the S. The M is in the
I would come in a shirt of hair
I would come with a lamp in the night
And sit at the foot of your stair;
I would flog myself until I bled,
And after hour on hour of prayer
And torture and delight
Until my blood should ring the lamp
And glisten in the light;
I should arise your neophyte
And then put out the light
To follow where you lead,
To follow where your feet are white
In the darkness toward your bed
And where your gown is white
And against your gown your braided hair.
Then you would take me in
Because I was hideous in your sight
You would take me in without shame
Because I should be dead
And when the morning came
Between your breasts should lie my head.
Like the narrator of "The Love Song of Saint Nacissus," this narrator
imagines himself both victim and murderer, and the sex and gender are
explicit. Metaphor relies on some indication that a trope is involved.
What in either section of this in any way suggests it is "really" about
something else, and if that is the case, what is any language ever
"really" about? Poems may be about many things, but they are not about
anything at all. This poem, for example, is not about the Holocaust
(which had not yet happened) or about the beauty of Nature or about the
dreariness of dark streets that argue with an insidious intent. If it
is not about anything in it, what is it about?
Second, of all the possible things this never mentions or has even a
single word for, why choose writing poems as what a description of
self-flagellation and abjection and strangling and slaughter is "really"
about? Why have words and images at all if they point simply to
something else not even implied, let alone named?
Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties in early Eliot criticism is the
assumption that whatever image is there, it is really not about itself
or anything like it but is really about something else. Eliot started
this, no doubt, by sending generations of critics off on a "wild goose
chase" after the holy grail. But he did acknowledge that later. The
grail legend only really appears for a part of Section V of TWL, not
surprisingly since so much of the poem was drafted before Weston was
I think in any reading, one must start with what is in the language, and
then turn to other implications when there are tropes sending one off to
other possible meanings. Here I find nothing at all that suggests any
reason to read it as not "about" what it is about but as "about"
something it has no words for.
Sidney, for example, says quite clearly in the first lines of sonnet 1
that he is "Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show." His
trope is set up from the beginning. He seeks words, studies inventions
fine, and yet Invention flees. That is why he is "great with child to
speak." The poem is explicitly about finding words to express love.
Donne's poem is, likewise, explicitly about longing for God to break
down his resistance to the divine and his betrothal to "your enemy."
Its theme is overt from beginning to end, so when the sexual image
arises in the couplet, it is part of a single extended metaphor whose
application has been defined in each quatrain.
I am at a loss to see any analogy in "The Love Song of St. Sebastian,"
which is far more like a Browning monologue spoken by a madman, whose
preoccupations with S & M are the single set of images throughout.
>>> [log in to unmask] 04/03/05 5:46 AM >>>
At 12:47 PM -0500 4/1/05, Nancy Gish wrote:
>Please read "The Love Song of St. Sebastion" [...]
>There is nothing IN the poem except an image of murder and S & M.
>Example of "perversity":
>I would come with a towel in my hand
>And bend your head beneath my knees;
>Your ears curl back in a certain way
>Like no one's else in the world.
>When all the world shall melt in the sun,
>Melt or freeze,
>I shall remember how your ears were curled.
>I should for a moment linger
>And follow the curve with my finger
>And your head beneath my knees--
>I think that at last you would understand.
>There would be nothing more to say.
>You would love me because I should have strangled you
>And because of my infamy;
>And I should love you the more because I had mangled you
>And because you were no longer beautiful
>To anyone but me.
Reading these lines, I am reminded of situations that presumably have
little or nothing to do with sex or gender but that nonetheless get
figured in poems as sexual or gendered (or cross-gendered). Example:
when the speaker in Sidney's first sonnet of _Astrophel and Stella_
writes about how difficult it is for him to get onto paper the poem
that he knows he has inside of him, he figures the unwritten poem as
his unborn child, and himself as a woman in labor: "great with child
to speak, and helpless in my throes." Another example: when Donne in
"Batter my heart" wants to experience religious ecstasy, he begs God
to rape him, "for I / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free /
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me." I wonder if Eliot in the
lines quoted above may not be struggling against an impulse to write
beautiful, lyrical, Romantic poems, figuring such poetry as a woman
who seduces him but whom he must subdue, or kill, or at least mangle,
in order to be free to write the poems that he wants to write, poems
that he would love even if no one else did. If so, the "mangling" in
this early poem becomes "dislocation" in his 1921 essay "The
Metaphysical Poets," where he writes that a contemporary poet must
attempt "to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his
meaning." I suppose one could say that to characterize the act and
the product of poetic creation in terms of violence, whether sexual
or not, requires a certain "perversity" of imagination, but it's a
perversity that's provided more than one poet with a compelling