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TSE  April 2005

TSE April 2005

Subject:

Re: The Love Song of (was: The personal?)

From:

Debra San <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Fri, 8 Apr 2005 16:08:00 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (68 lines)

Dear Nancy,

I've been having trouble figuring out why we arrive at different
conclusions ("conclusions" is probably too strong a word - mine is
little more than a guess) about "The Love Song of St. Sebastian" -
that is, about whether there's anything more to the poem than just
perversity. The reason I'm having trouble is that I agree with so
much of what you say in your Apr 4 post. For example, in speaking of
the genre of love songs you say that "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," and this seems to accord with my saying that
Eliot was "redefining or attempting to redefine the genre for
himself." I certainly don't think that the beginning of his title
invokes the genre for the purpose of employing it in a traditional or
lyrical way; I think it invokes the genre in order to set up readerly
expectations that Eliot hopes to frustrate by filling the poem with
sexual violence instead of the traditional romantic lyricism that the
reader expects. This interpretation of the title seems to me also to
fit quite well with your statement that Eliot's early work contains
"a deliberate tendency [...] to shock." Indeed, I had asked: "What
does young Mr. Eliot do? He _shockingly_ pairs 'The Love Song of'
with the name of a pious and supposedly asexual Christian saint"
[emphasis added]. Perhaps I should have said that he attempts to
redefine the genre not only for himself, but also (he hopes) for his
audience.

If Eliot indeed was hoping to shock his audience out of their
"certain certainties" ("Preludes") about love songs being romantic
and lyrical, that hope is manifested (for me) in the subjunctive mood
of its speaker throughout the poem: here's what I, Sebastian, would
like to do; here's what I, Eliot, would like to do. I (Debra) know
better than to equate speaker and author, but I can't help thinking
that in this poem Eliot is consciously or unconsciously projecting
some kind of parallel between himself as a poet, possibly a 'poète
maudit,' and Sebastian as a martyr, pierced with arrows; between what
he as a poet experiences (the mixed "torture and delight" of
confronting the white page) and what Sebastian as a (presumably)
celibate saint experiences (the mixed "torture and delight" of
fantasizing about sado-masochistic sex and murder). When Sebastian
imagines seeing the woman's braided hair against the whiteness of her
gown, I hear a kind of Mallarméan allusion to the black ink on the
white page. When Sebastian fantasizes about the curl of the woman's
ears, I am reminded of lines Eliot would write that seem to explain
_why_ he writes: "I am moved by fancies that are curled / Around
these images, and cling" ("Preludes"). When Sebastian imagines that
murdering his lover will re-create her into someone beautiful only to
him, I think of Prufrock in _his_ love song thinking that "There will
be time to murder and create." This order -- first murder, then
creation -- suggests that the old must die before it can be reborn as
the new (e.g., romanticism must die before the poetic impulse can be
reborn as modernism). As the Chorus in Part II of _Murder in the
Cathedral_ says: "What sign of the spring of the year? / Only the
death of the old."

I realize that all these associations are highly subjective, but I
think they are the best I can do in explaining why I have the feeling
that this poem, juvenile and distasteful though it is, aims to be
more than just an instance of perversity (unlike the King Bolo poems,
which seem to revel in perversity for its own sake). I don't think
Eliot would use the image of a stair, so significant to him in his
later poems, nor borrow from his beloved Dante ("torture and delight"
appears to be a variation on "diletto e doglia," delight and pain, in
_Purgatorio_ XXIII, 12), unless he had something serious in mind,
something the grasp of which exceeded his reach. I grant, though,
that my original speculation about what that something is may be all
off.

Debra

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