LA FIGLIA - a post from TS Eliot Discussion Forum archives 


   In the book "Words Alone", Denis Donoghue's begins his chapter on TSE's 

"La Figlia che Piange" ['The Weeping Girl'] by writing: "I can't be the only 

reader who thinks that 'La Figlia che Piange' is Eliot's most beautiful 


    I've always found this poem to be beautiful and powerful and haunting. 

I've recently read two quite different critiques of the poem, by Donoghue and 

by Lyndall Gordon, that I thought might make for interesting discussion on 

the list. Donoghue's analysis does a good job of elucidating the poem's 

literary references and structure, so I thought I'd start with that first. I 

certainly don't want to infringe on the book's copyright, so I'll only quote 

overview excerpts for discussion purposes. For the complete detailed 

analysis, see "Words Alone." (For convenience, the poem itself appears at the 

end of this post). 

   Donoghue lays the groundwork for his "La Figlia" analysis by discussing 

sections of the Aeneid, from which Eliot took the poem's epigraph.  Donoghue 



    " 'La Figlia che Piange': the title is thought to refer to a stele of a 

weeping woman in a museum in northern Italy. A friend mentioned it to Eliot 

and urged him to see it. In the late summer of 1911, Eliot was in Italy and 

tried to find it but failed. . ."

   ". . .The next words a reader meets are the epigraph: "O quam te memorem 

virgo. . . ." It comes from the first book of the Aeneid, where Aeneas's 

mother Venus, disguised as a virgin huntress, meets him in the woods at 

Carthage and speaks to him. Aeneas answers: "O-quam te memorem, virgo? namque 

haud tibi voltus / mortalis, nec vox hominem sonat; o dea certe!" "By what 

name should I address you, maiden; for your face is not mortal, nor has your 

voice a human ring to it. Surely you are a goddess?". . . Venus speaks to him 

about Dido, and finally, as she leaves for Paphos, Venus discloses herself to 

Aeneas and he recognizes her as his mother: "You too are cruel," he says. 

"Why do you mock your son so often with these vain shows?" "Quid natum 

totiens, crudelis tu quoque, falsis / ludis imaginibus?" "Why can't we join 

hands honestly, face to face?" 

   "The episode often reminds readers of two later passages in the Aeneid. In 

Book IV some months after Dido and Aeneas have become lovers, Jupiter sends 

him a message that he must leave and establish the city of Rome. Aeneas gets 

ready to leave, but Dido hears of his preparations and denounces him for 

abandoning her. She vows that "when cold death has severed soul and body, 

everywhere my shade will haunt you." . . . The second episode is in Book VI 

when Dido has killed herself and is now a shade in Hades. Aeneas meets her 

and tries to defend himself from her accusations. What he did, he was ordered 

to do. Dido starts to leave, and Aeneas tries to detain her: "Stay your step, 

do not withdraw from our view. From whom are you fleeing?": "siste gradum 

teque aspectu ne subtrahe nostro. / quem fugis? But Dido leaves, running back 

into the arms of her husband Sychaeus, without saying a word to Aeneas:

   ilia solo fixos oculos aversa tenebat

   nec magis incepto voltum sermone movetur, 

   quam si dura silex aut stet Marpesia cautes.

"She turned away, keeping her eyes fixed, and she no more changed her 

countenance as he started to speak than if it were set in hard flint or 

Marpesian rock." 


   Donoghue clearly believes that "La Figlia" is Eliot's poetic 

interpretation of the abandonment of Dido by Aeneas. He cites passages in two 

Eliot essays that refer to the Aeneas/Dido relationship. The first Eliot 

passage is from "What Is a Classic?" (1944):



"I have always thought the meeting of Aeneas with the shade of Dido, in Book 

VI, not only one of the most poignant, but one of the most civilized passages 

in poetry. It is complex in meaning and economical in expression, for it not 

only tells us about the attitude of Dido -- still more important is what it 

tells us about the attitude of Aeneas. Dido's behaviour appears almost as a 

projection of Aeneas' own conscience: this, we feel, is the way in which 

Aeneas' conscience would expect Dido to behave to him. The point, it seems to 

me, is not that Dido is unforgiving -- though it is important that, instead 

of railing at him, she merely snubs him -- perhaps the most telling snub in 

all poetry: what matters most is, that Aeneas does not forgive himself -- and 

this, significantly, in spite of the fact of which he is well aware, that all 

that he has done has been in compliance with destiny, or in consequence of 

the machinations of gods who are themselves, we feel, only instruments of a 

greater inscrutable power."


The other Eliot passage is from "Virgil and the Christian World" (1951):



"Aeneas and Dido had to be united, and had to be separated. Aeneas did not 

demur; he was obedient to his fate. But he was certainly very unhappy about 

it, and I think that he felt that he was behaving shamefully. For why else 

should Virgil have contrived his meeting with the Shade of Dido in Hades, and 

the snub that he receives? When he sees Dido he tries to excuse himself for 

his betrayal. Sed me iussa deum  -  but I was under orders from the gods; it 

was a very unpleasant decision to have imposed upon me, and I am sorry that 

you took it so hard. She avoids his gaze and turns away, with a face as 

immobile as if it had been carved from flint or Marpesian rock. I have no 

doubt that Virgil, when he wrote these lines, was assuming the role of Aeneas 

and feeling very decidedly a worm."


   Donoghue then begins a detailed stanza-by-stanza analysis of the poem. 

I'll quote some short excerpts for discussion purposes:

   "I take it that the implied speaker of "La Figlia che Piange" is not 

Virgil's Aeneas but Eliot's. Eliot has imagined a similar situation. The girl 

feels herself abandoned and speaks not a word: the main effort on the 

speaker's part is to change the scene and remove himself from the feelings in 

the case. Like Aeneas, he mostly feels a mixture of guilt, fatedness, and 


   ". . . In the first stanza we are to suppose that the Dido-woman has been 

abandoned. . . The speaker is directing her as if in a film; he is something 

of a dandy, too - "Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise." . . . 

"But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair." It is as if the film director 

were to tell the girl: in the midst of these instructions, whatever else you 

do, weave, weave the sunlight in your hair. . .

   "The second stanza is different, reflective where the first was 

imperative. The speaker is distancing himself from himself, just as much as 

from the girl. He is directing himself, turning his own feelings into a 

gesture and a pose. "So I would have had him leave." He has divided himself 

into two, the film-director and the Aeneas-figure, "I" and "him." . . . The 

violence of the abandonment, "As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised" 

and "As the mind deserts the body it has used," suggests the lover's guilt, 

commensurate with Dido's vow of vengeance in Book IV: "when cold death has 

severed soul and body," "cum frigida mors anima seduxerit artus." 

   ". . . After the shortest line, "I should find," the distancing gestures 

turn sinister, caught between affectation and opportunism. "Simple and 

faithless as a smile and shake of the hand" is Eliot's version of Laforgue's 

"Simple et sans foi comme un bonjour" from "La vie qu'elles me font mener." 

It also alludes to Aeneas's chiding of his mother: "Why can't we join hands 

honestly, face to face?" . . . Cynicism wins out in "Some way incomparably 

light and deft, / Some way we both should understand." "Both": girl and 

lover, the "I" and the "him" are one now . . . "


   "The change in the third stanza is abrupt, from the conditional perfects 

to the simple past tense: like Dido, "she turned away." It is another 

distancing gesture, but one that allows what has passed to remain and to 

press upon the present, as it does in Book VI of the Aeneid. . . ."

   "The repetitions in the first stanza, "Weave, weave" and "weave, weave," 

were incantations to charm the agony into peace: now it is too late for that. 

The only hope is to fix the girl in an enchanting image: "Her hair over her 

arms and her arms full of flowers." For the first four lines, director and 

lover are one, the Aeneas-figure, but they are divided again in the fifth - 

"And I wonder how they should have been together!" - and for the rest of the 

poem . . . 

   I should have lost a gesture and a pose. 

   Sometimes these cogitations still amaze 

   The troubled midnight and the noon's repose.

"The irony on 'lost' tells against the film director; the real loss is the 

one this loss only technically evades. The man should feel himself a worm."

"'Amaze' is amazing. . .The past love is not past, so long as he has to 

control it by making it a thing of spectacle and astonishment . . . In the 

end, the poem reposes on reposeless repose."


   In a discussion of the poem following this analysis, Donoghue makes clear 

that he does not believe the poem has personal significance for Eliot:

". . .I surmise that 'La Figlia che Piange' did not start with feelings - 

guilt, self-disgust - from which Eliot was impelled to find relief in words. 

It has nothing to do with his first marriage or his decision, many years 

later, to leave Vivienne. Eliot wrote the poem in 1912, four years before his 

marriage. His early poems analyze feelings he didn't otherwise have; he found 

them in poems by other poets - Virgil, Dante, Laforgue, Gautier, and many 

more. I believe that 'La Figlia' started with Eliot's sense of a possible 

poem that might be conjured from another poem, and then with an emotion of 

art, in which Eliot recognized the episode of Dido and Aeneas, like that of 

Ariadne and Theseus, as a fundamental story, one of the primary experiences 

of love-and-loss in a supreme articulation. Reimagining the experience, and 

changing it for reasons we can only guess, he made it become his own emotion 

in the end . . . "


   A much different point of view from Donoghue's is expressed by Lyndall 

Gordon in her book, "T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life". Gordon ties the poem to 

Eliot's biography, to Eliot's first meeting with Emily Hale, in 1912, the 

year the poem was written. Gordon writes: 

"[Love does not have] a chance in 'La Figlia che Piange', where a lover and a 

girl holding flowers, her hair irradiated by sunlight, part with artistic 

grace . . . The poet does wonder 'how they should have been together', but 

prefers his fantasy of the beautifully controlled, unmessy parting - 'a 

gesture and a pose' - which he may enshrine forever in his memory and his 

art. The lover loses flesh and blood; the poet yet possesses her. There is 

more than a hint of triumph amidst his regret. . .Eliot froze Emily Hale into 

art so that he could possess her in memory as one might possess a statue of 

poignant beauty."



     I'd like to wrap up this post with a few points of my own.

     Firstly, Donoghue provides a fine literary analysis of the poem (both 

the extended discussion on Dido/Aeneas and the stanza-by-stanza analysis), 

but I'm not as sure as Donoghue that the poem has no roots in TSE's 

biography. The tie to Emily Hale, as Gordon notes, is probably a good guess. 

However, I don't get the same sense of tone that Gordon does. Her comment 

that "There is more than a hint of triumph amidst his regret" seems misguided 

to me -- I get a sense of profound sadness from the speaker, not "more than a 

hint of triumph".

   Secondly, consider the lines:

   As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,

   As the mind deserts the body it has used.

Donoghue analyses these lines by saying, "Grammatically, the lines are nearly 

identical, but the change from 'soul' to 'mind,' the intensification of 

'leaves' to 'deserts,' and the spilling-over of 'torn and bruised' on 'used' 

disturb the Gregorian movement of the poem." This seems to imply that the two 

lines both refer to a soul/mind leaving its own corporeal body. While both 

lines may be read that way, it is also the case that the second line can be 

read as the 'mind' of one person deserting the 'body it has used' of the 

other person, a reading with connotations of sexual exploitation. This may be 

in keeping with Gordon's reading, that the poem has its roots in Eliot's 

guilt over his feelings towards Emily Hale.

   Thirdly, I don't know French, so I grabbed a French dictionary and 

self-translated Laforgue's "Simple et sans foi comme un bonjour" as "Simple 

and without faith as a good day" or maybe "Simple and without faith, like a 

greeting of 'Good-day'". Is that right?

   Finally, regarding the title: For those who know Italian, is it properly 

translated as "The Weeping Girl" or "The Weeping Daughter" (I've seen it 

translated both ways)? Perhaps "The Weeping Daughter" comes back in some form 

in "Marina", which also mentions a daughter. Or perhaps "The Weeping 

Daughter" is meant to have a religious connotation.

  As usual, comments are welcome.

-- Steve -- 



On Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 10:58 PM Chanan Mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Of course, “O how shall I address you, maiden?” is the only apt translation in Aeneid’s context. What I have in mind is the added resonance in the epigraph of La Figlia as an object of memory.  Just a clarification.


On Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 5:41 PM Chanan Mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Well, if this is not wrong: 

As for MEMOREM , it is the present subjunctive 1st.person singular of the verb ‘memorare'( to call, to name, to bring to remembrance, mention, recount, relate, speak of, say, tell ).


On Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 4:58 PM Chanan Mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
It was Lyndall Gordon (Eliot’s Early Years, p. 24) who remarked about Eliot’s notion that “to satisfy love was to destroy it forever.”


On Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 4:51 PM Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
As Tim Materer just pointed out, that is not a correct translation. The correct one is generally available, including in Ricks. It is not about remembering. Also, Venus is "disguised" as a huntress, hence "maiden."

On Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 3:34 PM Chanan Mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
“How shall I remember you, maiden, as a human or divine presence? You look so divine.” Well, an elaboration, if you like. 


On Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 12:43 PM Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
She was quite lovely, and apparently he did care a lot for her, given that he corresponded with her later for 30 years. I don't see what that has to do with what the choice of Aeneas about Venus or about whether the poem was suggested by leaving her.

But my prior point was about Venus, not whether Eliot had Hale in mind.

On Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 12:12 PM Chanan Mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
An image of Emily Hale that stands out vis-a-vis LA FIGLIA 


On Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 11:51 AM Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Two things matter here. First, Eliot repeatedly denied that the poem was about any woman at all but about a statue that, in fact, he never saw. Not that that means he really had no emotional experience behind it, whatever he denied. 

But the "maiden" was Venus, goddess of love (also his mother), and she is about to send him to the palace of Dido, where he will be protected and where he will fall in love with Dido (or at least she will be in love and he will be her lover/partner in building Carthage until Zeus tells him to leave). She appears specifically for the purpose of sending him there.

That scene is not about transcending the merely human but about going off to find what turns out to be a very physical and passionate and human love (they make love in a cave in a rainstorm and she takes that as marriage). Venus was divine and celestial but hardly into Platonic love.

If one uses that image and story, it does matter what is happening in the story.

On Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 11:37 AM Chanan Mittal <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
A further observation, s’il vous plait.

"By what  name should I address you, maiden; for your face is not mortal, nor has your voice a human ring to it. Surely you are a goddess?". . 

The poet of LA FIGLIA utilizes a remark by Aeneas that underscores the divine aspect of the maiden he comes across in his own romantic context of Emily Hale to stress the need for transcending the merely human and embracing the divine in that relationship. “Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.”


On Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 9:27 AM Materer, Timothy J. <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
The epigraph to LA FIGLIA, “O quam te memorem virgo ...” literally translated to “O how shall I remember you virgin” proved prophetic vis-a-vis Emily Hale, in that she became for him an object of memory. 
In about an hour, I’ll be discussing this poem with my adult ed class, so a further observation.

It’s ok to pun on “memorem,” but the literal word is not “memory.”

"O quam te memorem  virgo. . . ." It comes from the first book of the Aeneid, where Aeneas's  mother Venus, disguised as a virgin huntress, meets him in the woods at  Carthage and speaks to him. Aeneas answers: "O-quam te memorem, virgo? namque  haud tibi voltus / mortalis, nec vox hominem sonat; o dea certe!" "By what  name should I address you, maiden; for your face is not mortal, nor has your  voice a human ring to it. Surely you are a goddess?". . 

Some see the poem as a meditation on Aeneas’ parting from Dido, but Gordon and others as his parting from Emily Hale.

Timothy Materer
English Department, University of Missouri
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