Thank you, Debra, for your fine analysis of "Lune de Miel".
You may be interested in an analysis of the poem written by the late William
Arrowsmith in 1982 that presents, in 20 pages, many of the ideas you
expressed in a few paragraphs. Arrowsmith also discusses allusions in the
poem to Ruskin, Dante, Plato and others. I scanned in a section of the
dialog which I'm posting at the end of this email
- Tom Colket -
"Eros in Terre Haute"
By William Arrowsmith
The New Criterion October 1982
Volume 1, number 2
Note: The analysis by Arrowsmith is written as an imaginary "dialog" between
several literary people who have 'gathered together' as the dialog opens to
discuss Eliiot's poem "Lune de Miel". You will see proper names (such as
"Ayres" and "Saettaro") before the passages so the reader can keep the
Butz: I wonder if our discussion wouldn't profit from a discrete dose of
fact. Who are these 'amateurs de chapitaux d'acanthe'? Well, Eliot tells us.
In his usual way, with an allusion. But detective pride aside, I think that
something's gained if we know that Eliot's echoing - in fact, directly
quoting - Ruskin, surely the Casanova of all 'amateurs de chapitaux'. It was
Ruskin on whom Eliot was lecturing when he wrote the French poems. . . in
the soaring evocation of St. Mark's, Ruskin describes the basilica as an
architectural Earthly Paradise:
". . . sculpture fantastic and involved, of palm leaves and lilies, and
grapes and pomegranates, and birds clinging and fluttering among the
branches, all twined together into an endless network of buds and plumes;
and, in the midst of it, the solemn forms of angels. . . their figures
indistinct among the gleaming of the golden ground through the leaves beside
them, interrupted and dim, like the morning light as it faded back among the
branches of Eden,. . . their capitals rich with interwoven tracery, rooted
knots of herbage, and drifting leaves of acanthus and vine."
Later, Ruskin invites his readers to inspect his reproductions and to note
". . . the leaves drifted as it were by a whirlwind round the capital by
which they rise. . . all outlined by grand and simple curves. . . the whole
of their minute fretwork and thistlework is cast into a gigantic mould which
subdues all their multitudinous points and foldings to its own inevitable
dominion. And the fact is, that in. . . these Byzantine sculptures we
obtain, . . for the first time in the history of art, the germ of that unity
of perfect ease in every separate part, with perfect subjection to an
enclosing form or directing impulse. "
So Ruskin gives us not only the image of the wind-drifted leaves, but the
idea of a Byzantium whose 'forme precise' subordinates its particulars to
its own architectonic design. Throughout his life Ruskin was drawn to the
spirals and volutes of acanthus, thistle, and thorn. What he took their
meaning to be, beyond "the idea of life," he never quite explains. Eliot's
allusion to Ruskin seems undeniable, yet I can't quite see why it's there.
Ayres: But the point's surely Ruskin's aestheticism, isn't it? Ruskin
exemplifies the aesthetic passion of the 'amateurs de chapitaux' -in Eliot's
work a persistent theme. . . if the lovers know nothing of Saint
Apollinaire, they're at least on they're way toward the Last Supper, which,
in their secular fashion, they'll enact in a 'restaurant pas cher'. For all
their groping misery, they're _alive_, 'en route' but also 'en acte'. By
contrast, the aesthetes are suspended in their arty Limbo, passive observers
like the younger Ruskin, never having lived at all.
Caricature tourists the honeymooners may be, but the purpose of the poem,
I'm convinced, is to interrogate that caricature and qualify it with the
pain of real experience.
Butz: The aesthetes study the spines of the acanthus. The honeymooners feel
them. Is that the point?
Fletcher: That's the point. Take acanthus. The word's Greek, meaning almost
any prickly plant, usually thorn or thistle. The "thorns and thistles"
which, in the Greek Bible, the earth will produce for fallen Man, and which,
in sign of Christ's sacrifice, reappear as the crown of thorns in the
Crucifixion: "And when they had platted a crown of thorns [ akanthon ], they
put it upon his head" (Matthew 27:29). That's why Milton places acanthus
proleptically in the Garden of Eden:
"Laurel and Mirtle, and what higher grew Of firm and fragrant leaf; on
either side Acanthus. . . "
Saettaro: Excuse me, Fletcher, but I want to finish with my earlier point.
The Dante allusions here are richer than we might suspect.
The Commedia, everyone knows, is linked by intricate correspondence. The
'selva oscura' of the Inferno, for instance, corresponds to the 'divina
foresta' of the Purgatorio. This, in turn, corresponds to still another
Garden, in a passage pertinent to our poem. The apostle John asks Dante in
how many ways, and also in what ways, he is bound to God:
Ma dl ancor, se tu senti altre corde
tirarti verso lui, si che tu suone
con quanti denti questo amor ti morde.
[But tell me if you feel other cords draw you toward Him, so that you speak
forth with how many teeth this love bites you. ]
To which Dante replies:
(Paradiso 26, 49-60)
[All those bites which have power to make the heart turn to God have
collaborated in my love; for the being of the world and my own being, the
death that He sustained that I might live, and that which every believer
hopes for, as do I, have drawn me from the sea of misdirected love and set
me on the shore of right love. The leaves wherewith all the garden of the
eternal Gardener is
leaved, I love in measure of the good that has been proffered to them from
Dante's thought here is extremely compressed, saturated in texts of Biblical
and neo- Platonic origin. But that final tercet contains Dante's personal
avowal of love (am' io) for the leaved Garden, that is, for Christ the Vine
("I am the true vine"). Once we hear it, the effect on the poem is as
unmistakable as it is startling. Behind Ruskin, the Romantic 'amateur de
chapitaux d'acanthe', looms the figure of Dante, the medieval
God-intoxicated lover of the leaves with which God's Garden is leaved. Here,
in short, vividly present in the image of the wind-trembled stone leaves,
are the diverse layers, Romantic and medieval, of this laminated poetry.
But there's more. In the crown of thorn Christ assumes fallen Man's
portion of thorn and thistle; fallen Man, for his part, craves re-union with
God. That craving can't be sated by other objects; misdirected toward
worldly goals -sexual love, power, wealth - its very insatiability and
restlessness reveal its true object: God. Out of the "sea of misdirected
love," Man is drawn upwards, bitten by purgatorial pain, toward the Earthly
Paradise. Redeemed by love, the fallen soul re-enacts the suffering of its
Redeemer. Dante drives his point home with a pun of astonishing boldness:
'amor ti morde'. Love bites, Love hurts. Desire is an itch, an irritant
whose 'morsi' sting the soul as the spines of the acanthus pierced the dying
Christ. And the 'morsures' of Eliot's honeymooners correspond, at a secular
level, to Dante's 'morsi', those "bitings of love" that draw the soul
upwards toward God.
Ayres: Up from Hell, up from the "Low Countries," toward Terre Haute. . .
Their misery craves relief from Hell, from the 'morsi' of sexual love,
restlessness, repetition. Their darkness wants a light - something like that
welcome light that greets Dante and Vergil when they emerge from Hell.
Saettaro: Which is surely why the second stanza begins with the lovers'
plans for the next morning. The break indicates the movement from Hell to
Purgatory, from dark to light. The groom's projecting his itinerary. It's a
long haul from the Low Countries to Terre Haute. There are places to "do,"
pilgrimages to make to the "shrines" of Western culture. The caricature of
the mid-American tourist is subtly qualified by the Dantesque pilgrimage. I
don't suppose Terre Haute means Paradise, but it must at least be the 'santo
monte'. Whatever they think they're looking for, their unconscious purpose
is to recover the Eden from which they've been expelled. It's home - Terre
Haute in the higher sense - they're really seeking. . .
-- end of excerpt --
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