Nancy Gish wrote:
> 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. [CLIP]
> 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.
Some marginal annotations.
First, the imagery counts as itself _even_ when it aims towards some
other meaning. Susanne Langer commented, I think correctly, that there
are no negatives in poetry. Or in Richards's terminology, the vehicle is
there, in its own right, whatever the tenor may be. The vehicle may even
be so powerful (as in Donne's "The Extasy") that it can very nearly
submerge rather than manifest the tenor. I have no truck with "depth
psychology" (Freudian or otherwise), but the pervasive image (in the
works of male writers) of writing as birth is quite possibly not only
because it is an effective vehicle. And it must make _some_ difference
that when Donne reaches for his climactic image he finds it in sexual
rather than (any number of other possible sources). Had he used a
military image (in keeping, perhaps, with the poem's title) no one would
have ever noted that he did _not_ use a sexual image. I don't want to
put too much emphasis on this, but I think if certain choices of imagery
run throughout a writer's work (or some period of his/her work) those
choices ought to count for something independently of the use made of
Secondly, in poetry of the last two centuries it seems to be never
wholly irrelevant to consider the act of writing itself to be at least
part of the poem's action or burden. One could paraphrase (at a high
level of abstraction) a large number of quite different 19th-c poems as
"The world is a all chaos, but I have created order within this poem,
and hence the world is not (quite) a chaos." I won't try it here, but I
think I could show that "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death" fits this
pattern -- the frozen moment (of death) between "all behind" and "all
before" corresponding, for example, to Keats's frozen urn.
Hence, keeping Nancy's reading as primary, it would still be quite
possible that in these perverse scribbles Eliot was _also_ moving
towards something like the following:
Debra San wrote:
> 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.
I don't think this quite works -- there simply is nothing in the text,
as Nancy argues, to point towards "beautiful, lyrical, Romantic poems"
being the tenor; but _some_ sort of reflection on the process which
produces a poem is involved -- and specifically, the poem in question,
Saint Sebastian. And then we could bring in some much later lines of
Eliot, in which divine grace is the tenor, the bloodiness of surgery the
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That quesions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Those of us who observe Christian thought and feeling "from outside" as
it were (or as I put it sometimes, those of us who are atheist by
birthright more than merit) have always been a bit suspicious of all the
blood and rape that seems to inform so much christian imagery. That is
why I have always thought Milton's failure in his unfinished poem "The
Passion" a healthy sign. I think that last line could be seen as a
reflection on the poet's craft -- especially the craft of a poet
committed to resolving the "dissociation of sensibility," and most
especially if, as Charles Altieri argues, Eliot really saw that
dissociation as an atemporal phenomenon, always needing repair through