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TSE  March 2010

TSE March 2010

Subject:

Eliot's Readership & the Poems

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Sun, 7 Mar 2010 12:36:50 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (79 lines)

T*WL & Prufrock have both become fairly standard pieces in textbook
anthologies, and thus are both being taught (in survey courses) and read
by large numbers of peopel who are _not_ specialists in Eliot or even in
20th-century literature. Or, in the case of the readers. mot even in
literary scholars of any kind. From the standpoint of cultural studies
or the history of culture (and thus of general history) these readers
(and teachers) are perhaps of greater importance thanare Eliot scholars.
(he widespread confusion  of the Bible with Paradise Lost did not come
from Milton scholars, but is of more current politial importance than
anything Milton scholars have to say.) And many familiar qutoes from
Pope are popularly supposed to cme from Shakespeare. And of course many
popular passagews from Shakepeare (e.g., "To your ownself be true") are
taken as Shakespearean wisdom rather than the words of some character in
a dramq.

Now none of these readers will approach an Eliot poem as stripped of
context as Rcik proposed to treat Gerontion, but the context they bring
to it will be fairly shallow. I have forgotten how much inforjmation the
footnotes in the Norton English Lit anthology give on Tiresias, but that
information and its limits will have considerable influence on how many
readers perceive the poem. The old man with withered female dugs takes
us to Ovid, but I'm not sure how relevant the Tiresias who sides with
Antnigone in that play is to TWL. And unless the instructor insists on
it, I dobut that most students will make much his walking by the wall of
Thebes. And then there is the Tiresias who needs to drink blood before
he can speak to Odysseus. Line after line in the poem offers this
'opportunity' for the thinning out of context. And, since Eliot added
the notes only as an afterthought, how much of that history of Tiresias
did _he_ have in mind as he worked out the original msss. or responded
to Pound's cutting and shaping of his poem? Since Tiresias appears in
the poem itslf only in telation to the typist, lacking the notes there
would be no very poweerful reason to view other passages through his
eyes.

Following up on this (in a direction I didn't have in mind when I began
ths post), there would seem to be several, perhaps many, quite different
'editions' of TWL, with questionable relationships among them. That is,
I'm raising the issue Rene Wellek raised (and definitely did not solve)
in the chapter in Theory of Literature on the ontological mode of
existence of a text. Ink on paper or pixels on a screen hardly seem an
adequate answer to the question, and if it only 'really' 'existed' in
the poet's mind, then it ceased to exist when he died, or for that
matter the original poem (whatever that might be) ceased to exist almost
immediately, given what we know about the neurology of the human memory.
If it exists in the minds of "qualified readers," than many thousands of
non-TWLs exist in the minds of the unqualified readers of the poem, not
to spak of the different poems in the minds of different but equally
qualified readers. I haven't read Wellek for about 50 years, but I think
he settled for affirming tha the poem was a system of norms, but that
never did seem satisfactory, since the same quetions spring up as to the
ontological mode of existence of those norms. Even its genre (and thus
its implied criteria of decorum) is subject to change. (This may be a
major differnce between "moderinist" and earlier poems). Considered as a
War Poem, for example, and I find this generic suggestion quite
attractive, its genre is subject to change after the fact by the later
discovery that The War to End War was only a prelude to a yet greater
War two decades later. The reference to "rat's alley" was probably
meaningful to many of its original readers, making it for them a WW 1
War poem, but the attitude of _most_ of those readers towards that war
would have resembled the typists "Well that's done and I'm glad it's
over" -- when it wasn't over, as we know now. And Eliot implcitly
catyegorizes it as an inter-war poem in his refernce in one of the 4Qs
to his struggle with  language between those wars. Does that reference
in 4Q change the poem's mode of existence?

And then there is a puzzle abut Eliot's own initial relationship to his
poem. He produced a huge mass of text, sent it off to Pound, got back a
drastically cut text, and pretty much accepted that as the poem he would
publish. In other words, Pound knew the "complete" poem before Eliot
himself experienced it. And as I believe we discussed on this list in
the last year or two, Eliot was nearly as shocked by the resulting poem
when he read it as any of the first reviewers were. His changing later
remarks on it seem to reflect a first reading on somehing of the order
of "What in the world have I created now!" That reading of the mss.
transformed by Pound was the poem as it first existed in the mind of the
poet. Was that the _real_ poem, and all subsequent readings
(unsuccessful) efforts to get back to that lost original?

Carrol

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