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TSE  April 2005

TSE April 2005

Subject:

Re: The personal?

From:

Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Mon, 4 Apr 2005 22:42:35 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (133 lines)

Dear Debra,

What a delight to get a thoughtful, developed, text-based response to
what I actually said.  So I will try to offer something comparable, but
as I am briefly hiding out from work I have to do tonight, this will be
a short version.

I take it that the focus on writing a "Love Song"--with all the history
of textuality that evokes, is central to your interest in what more than
the violent sexuality may be going on in Eliot's Saint poems.  I agree
that there is a strange conjunction here, but the use of the genre as a
trope does not mean necessarily that it is used in a traditional way or
a directly lyrical way.  If one reads all of _Inventions of the March
Hare_ _and Poems Written in Early Youth_ at the same time, one finds, I
think, not only a persistent adolescent sort of sardonic quality but a
deliberate tendency both to shock and to transform traditional images or
tropes.  I would have to look up poems to justify this, and I would be
glad to with more time.

[Before anyone bothers to get distressed at "adolescent," I note that at
the time he was very young and that although he admired Laforgue, he
later said that about him.]

So the presence of the title COULD evoke the lyrical tradition in a
direct way, but it also can be a pointer to a twisted (troped) and
non-love use of the terms.  That is, to call it that is deeply ironic
because the "love" is so perverse.  But that too has its history: 
Othello claims he strangles Desdemona because he loves her.  Browning's
poem (forgot title) with the same image is also about the claim of
"love" for what one destroys.   I think, in contrast, of the poems of
Denise Riley, who DOES  invoke the lyric to challenge and subvert but
also embrace with nostalgic desire the lost lyric.

So although I think your theory is--in principle--valid and important, I
do not see a reason to apply it here.  If the lyric love song is
invoked, it is to distort and violate it, not to reveal the experience
of struggling with it.

But I'd be fascinated to hear more that would demonstrate a textual base
for moving to the particular metaphoric relation you suggest beyond the
general fact of many poems being about writing poems and the use of the
tradition in some way.
Best, 
Nancy

>>> [log in to unmask] 04/04/05 9:50 PM >>>
Nancy Gish wrote:

>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?

>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.

Nancy, I think I understand your concern.  I often find that students 
will interpret a poem rather freely, and I caution them that they 
must be able to find something in the text of the poem, the language 
of the poem, to justify their interpretation.  As you say, " Poems 
may be about many things, but they are not about anything at all." 
As it happens, though, I never said (I wonder how many posts on this 
list include the words "I never said..."?) that "The Love Song of St. 
Sebastian" is "about" writing poems or that what it says isn't what 
it's "really" about.  I'll assume that the quote marks you put around 
"about" and "really" are intended to give them your emphasis rather 
than indicate quotation of words I didn't use.  I did use the word 
"metaphor," but it's my understanding of metaphor that, as Carrol 
puts it, "the imagery counts as itself _even_ when it aims towards 
some other meaning."

My post was not an attempt to devise some benign substitute for the 
poem's explicit sexual violence, but to speculate (hence the "I 
wonder if" and the "If so") about the identity or identities of the 
poem's word "you."  In the Sidney poem we know the "you" is Stella 
and in the Donne poem we know the "you" is God, but in Eliot's poem 
we don't know who "you" is.  The poem's imagery fashions the "you" as 
a person, and a reader might decide that that's all the "you" is. 
However, given the tendency poets have to personify that which is not 
human, it seemed to me at least possible that the poem was conveying 
something more than just what it makes explicit.  Note: "more than," 
not "something else than."  Multiple layers, not mutually exclusive 
ones.  To say of an Eliot poem, even an early one, that "There is 
nothing IN the poem except an image of murder and S & M" is to make a 
drastically restrictive statement about the possibilities of the poem 
and what it may have to offer.

Still, we agree that the possibilities are not unlimited.  So what in 
the language of the poem led me to speculate that if "you" may be 
taken as more than just a person, that "more than" is a poem, or a 
body of poetry?  Carrol says that "there simply is nothing in the 
text, as Nancy argues, to point towards 'beautiful, lyrical, Romantic 
poems' being the tenor" - but I think there is, and that something is 
the title.  "The Love Song of" announces the genre of the poem as 
something lyrical and romantic, something in the tradition of "A Song 
of Love" by Sidney Lanier, or "Sonnets from the Portuguese" by 
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or "She Walks in Beauty" by Lord Byron, 
etc.  The list of such lovey-dovey, often beautiful poems is 
immensely long - they're in English, they're in French, they're in 
German - and for a young poet trying to do something new and 
unsentimental, they're as sticky as treacle.  So what does young Mr. 
Eliot do?  He shockingly pairs "The Love Song of" with the name of a 
pious and supposedly asexual Christian saint.  Then he does it with 
another Christian saint.  He employs brutal imagery in the body of 
these "love songs," thereby redefining or attempting to redefine the 
genre for himself into something as tortured and harrowing as love 
itself can sometimes be.  Years later, he will attempt a different 
route for escaping from lyricism by crafting his quatrain poems in 
accordance with the hard, chiseled aesthetic of Gautier.

My speculations perhaps make too much of too little, but they do 
"start with what is in the language."

Carrol, you quite appropriately quote "much later lines of Eliot, in 
which divine grace is the tenor, the bloodiness of surgery the 
vehicle," but in fact violent images permeate Eliot's work, from 
Prufrock "sprawling on a pin / ... wriggling on the wall" to Thomas 
Becket getting murdered in the cathedral; from an undersea current 
"picking" the bones of Phlebas the Phoenician to Harry in _The Family 
Reunion_ remembering pushing his wife overboard in the middle of the 
Atlantic.  TWL refers to the rape of Philomela, "by the barbarous 
king / So rudely forced"; "Animula" refers to "Boudin, blown to 
pieces."  In "Portrait of a Lady," a "dull tom-tom" hammers in the 
speaker's brain; in "Mr. Apollinax," the head of the title character 
rolls under a chair.  All these and more are part of what the speaker 
in "Preludes" calls "The thousand sordid images / Of which your soul 
was constituted."

Debra

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