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
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
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 --
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.CROn 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 ).CROn 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.”CROn 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.CROn 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.NOn 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 FIGLIACROn 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.NancyOn 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.”CROn Tue, Sep 17, 2019 at 9:27 AM Materer, Timothy J. <[log in to unmask]> wrote:In about an hour, I’ll be discussing this poem with my adult ed class, so a further observation.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.
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.