ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 12

 - T.S. Eliot (cont.)


In this lecture, Professor Hammer considers the psycho-sexual aspects of T.S. Eliot’s, The Waste Land. The landscape of the poem is described and its key figures introduced. Particular emphasis is placed on couples and scenes of dialogue with aspects of romantic or sexual distress. At the lecture’s conclusion, a broad summation of the individual units of the poem is presented, and the editing process, in particular Ezra Pound’s contributions, is reflected upon.  

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 12 - T.S. Eliot (cont.)

Chapter 1. T. S. Eliot Poem: “The Waste Land” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Is private ritual possible? This is a kind of oxymoron, “a private ritual,” because ritual is, or should be, precisely something that’s collective and shared. Is it possible for the individual to produce some kind of shared patterning of experience such as ritual represents? For Freud, who is, of course, a thinker in the background of The Waste Land and all of the poetry that we’re reading and thinking about this semester, private ritual meant neurosis, sickness of a kind, some kind of derangement. And indeed, The Waste Land, which is a poem that in certain ways tries to imagine a form of private ritual, or at least struggles with this question, was certainly considered by some readers to be a neurotic poem.

Chapter 2. “The Waste Land”: The Burial of the Dead [00:01:19]

I began last time by talking about that first verse paragraph of the poem. Why don’t we go back there. That’s on [page] 474 in our anthology. I’ll try to talk about the poem in sequence from first section to last and at least tell you some of the ways in which I make sense of it. And this may be, I hope, helpful to you. In this first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” we have, well, what I think of as a series of preliminary statements about the poem’s aims: what it seeks, what it would gesture towards or move towards. They include, well, some form of ecstasy. I think Marie’s sled ride is an experience of personal freedom in its modest way. “In the mountains, there you feel free,” she says, recalling that experience. Prophecy. The poem introduces us to prophecy in the second verse paragraph. Freedom, I suppose. Intimacy between people, some kind of meaningful coherence. All of these possibilities of experience are, as it were, glimpsed in the poem in this beginning, glimpsed and then withdrawn or blocked or parodied. Marie’s sled: well, isn’t that a kind of figure for letting go and, well, for release and for trust? An experience, as I say, of freedom. Ultimately, in “What the Thunder Said,” the poem will again return to those specific themes when it interprets those Sanskrit words Datta, Dayadhvam, and so on.

Well, in the second paragraph of the poem – a sort of second strophe, if you like – we’re introduced to this sort of wasteland landscape. It’s a kind of landscape that the poem returns to at different points.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

Here, well, we have a kind of symbolic representation, a kind of modernist iconography, if you like, of a spiritual state, one of desiccation. It is, as it were, a kind of picture of the mental space inhabited by the people that we’ll meet in this poem. Well, there are quotations here, your notes from Eliot and then your editor explain, from Ezekiel. The poem is drawing on prophetic language and giving its own form of prophecy. But Ezekiel here is secularized in this context. And you might look at this as something more like a quotation from prophecy rather than prophecy itself. Here, the poem’s general concern with a spiritual state that – let me call it the withdrawal of God – is represented, as I say, as dryness, as dryness and as fragmentation. What we have is “stony rubbish… / a heap of broken images, where the sun beats.” Here, you know, we’ve got a kind of fragment of sacred text, itself, you know, if you like, a bit of rubbish that’s part of the poem’s heap of broken images that we will explore. The withdrawal of God in the poem is a kind of fall into fragmentation where experience doesn’t cohere, where there’s dryness; there’s no connectivity, there’s not fluidity.

The poem then moves abruptly. And the poem, you know, it moves at this kind of exhilarating abruptness throughout between kinds of language; here, introducing Wagner and a little quotation from a quatrain from the libretto for Tristan und Isolde, translated for us:

Fresh blows the wind
To the homeland;
My Irish darling,
Where are you waiting?

Isolde hears this song, and it’s a kind of, well, song of longing as she goes off to marry the wrong man. This Wagner text and the little quotation from it down below – again, another quotation from Wagner, “Oed’ und leer das Meer” – is a more sinister and haunting phrase that may be translated as, “waste and empty the sea” or “desolate and empty the sea” here. This frames a little vignette, a little scene, a dialogue or part of a dialogue: “ ‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / They called me the hyacinth girl.’” And then out of that quotation, the poem now speaks to us, as it were, more directly without quotation marks.

– Yet when we came back, late from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

A kind of ecstatic vision, but here one of a certain, perhaps frightening emptiness where a couple, presumably, have had some kind of exchange that leaves the speaker with this particular vision of the heart of light and silence. The references to the flower, the hyacinth, call up the whole system of images of April and spring that the poem will play on, as well as the story of Hyacinth from The Metamorphoses. And your editor here will explain that “Apollo loved and accidentally killed Hyacinth; from his blood sprang the flower named for him, inscribed with ‘AI’, a cry of grief.” Here, love is associated with killing and also with a kind of generation, though of a painful and disturbing kind. Here the general, you know, wasteland space, with what I’m calling the space of God’s absence, becomes a space between two people, two lovers and, it seems, some form of missed connection. As a sequence, these lines I’ve just been talking about, like the poem as a whole, advance by collage. They make a kind of argument. They make a kind of sense, but perhaps not in the ways that we’re used to.

These materials together, I think, suggest that the loss of common experience that comes with the withdrawal of God is played out between people in their erotic relationships. Where God was, sex is. Or you could say that the loss of collective and sharable meanings, which results in the privacy of our mental experience – our dreams, our aspirations, memories, poems, difficult poems – is represented here in this poem by the irreducibly private, and therefore anguishing, nature of sexuality. And this is a theme that the poem will return to again and again. Instead of reciprocity and some kind of mutuality in human relations, we find people doing kinds of violence to each other, dominating each other; finding incompleteness in their unions.

The poem then moves on, again, with a kind of exhilarating shift of register or reference, to a comic figure, “Madame Sosostris, famous clarvoyante” with a bad cold. I think of Madame Sosostris often in the winter. She is nevertheless “known to be the wisest woman in Europe,” and she had “a wicked pack of cards.” What does she produce? Well:

Here, said she,

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor. [Who is “you”? Perhaps
ourselves, the reader; perhaps the poet.]
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel…

And so on. And something that she is forbidden to see:

I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

This is a wonderful passage. Here, it’s doing a number of different things. The horoscope seems like a kind of debased modern form of – a modern system of interpretation, a way of understanding the self. There is, in these lines, a kind of parody of occultism, which would include, perhaps, a parody of Yeats, although Yeats’s Vision wasn’t published yet. At the same time, even while the poem is parodic, it’s serious, too, because in this kind of ad hoc, somewhat fanciful and crazy way, Madame Sosostris’s cards are producing images that Eliot is dealing us and that he will collect in the course of the poem and try to make some sense of in the collage that is The Waste Land, including among those cards the drowned Phoenician sailor who will return for us in that little section “Death by Water.” Well, I like to think of Eliot himself as Mrs. Equitone. That is because he’s so difficult to read in his tone, and after all, it’s, in a sense, Mrs. Equitone who is getting this stuff and is going to try to do something with it.

Well, Part I, “The Burial of the Dead,” ends with another instance of scene-setting. Now, this sort of symbolic iconography of the dry landscape is going to be overlaid on another landscape, which is metropolitan London. “Unreal City”: this is Eliot’s evocative name for the urban space that the poem represents.

Unreal city,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down [in a rhyming couplet] King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

You go to the note, and Eliot says, “A phenomenon which I have often noticed,” just in case you were wondering whether he’s in the scene or not. Well, here we are being introduced to the metropolis, which, as I say, is the scene of The Waste Land. It’s where the events of the poem will take place, more or less. What we’re seeing here are people going to work, people that we’re going to see later, in effect, in the poem: the typist and “the young man carbuncular” must be crossing, too, or the people that we’ll meet in the pub and so on. There’s a kind of strange mixing here of the dead and the living, of the apocalyptic and the utterly ordinary.

Eliot then moves with, you know, again, no framing that would help us:

There I saw one I knew [and then who of course is this “I” who is
speaking to us? We don’t really know], and stopped him, crying:
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? [A hyacinth perhaps?]
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frère!”

He says, quoting Baudelaire, at the very end bursting out with it. It’s a, again, fascinating turn that the poem takes. There is, perhaps, a kind of glimpse of the still echoing World War in the here imagined hailing of one man who knew another in battle. That is, the ships at Mylae where they last met. There’s here another instance of exchange between two people. Here, there’s a way in which that first person’s address to Stetson plays upon or parodies, if you like, the poet’s relation to you or to me the reader. There’s here a general problem or question of how to make each other out, how to recognize and acknowledge the relation between brothers or “semblables,” as Baudelaire would have us call them.

Chapter 3. “The Waste Land”: A Game of Chess [00:20:47]

The little glimpse of war and the war dead, perhaps, that we get in these lines will throughout the rest of the poem turn into a post-war vision of, again, war between the sexes and war between people, most immediately in “A Game of Chess.” In this second section, which is built around two conversations, the first takes place in a well-to-do drawing room, the second in a pub. There’s much to contemplate in the opening description of that home, where we’ll hear these two characters speaking and thinking in a moment. One that is important and recurs often in the scene – one detail that recurs often in the poem, is the image of Philomel around line 98. “As though a window” – oh, excuse me. Let me go a little bit further:

Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel [another Ovidian metamorphosis], by the
barbarous king
So rudely forced [Philomel raped by Tereus is transformed into the
nightingale]; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice…

Suddenly, Eliot has brought us into this dining room to see this picture, and now we’re in the picture listening to the nightingale filling all the desert, this wasteland space, with a kind of, again, song of complaint, a kind of lyric voice that’s called here “inviolable.”

…And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.

“Jug Jug” being the conventional representation of the nightingale’s song in Elizabethan poetry. Well, this is, you know, again, an image of sexual violence that produces a particular kind of lyric utterance. It is a kind of motif that recurs in the poem, and it’s also a way of imaging the poem itself as a kind of “inviolable voice” that emerges from some kind of vision of erotic violation.

In the conversation that follows, if it’s a conversation, what we have is one speaker speaking in quotation marks and the other speaking without quotation marks. What does that mean? Presumably, the one speaker that we overhear that seems to be female, we’re hearing her speak. When those quotation marks disappear, probably for the man’s speech, that would seem to represent some kind of interiorized speech, some kind of thought:

“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.” I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
“What is that noise?”
The wind under the door. “What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
Nothing again nothing. [Another phrase that will recur in the poem.]
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
“Nothing?” I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
But O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag –
It’s so elegant
So intelligent
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?” [Quotations there from Prufrock,
“I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
“With my hair down, so. [Here Prufrock’s questions are being answered
perhaps.] What shall we do tomorrow?
“What shall we ever do?”
The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

This is often understood as a version of an evening at the Eliots. The female speaker is being satirized, surely. She’s frightening, but surely also is her companion. They’re driving each other mad. It’s a kind of folie a deux. The first person here speaks for a kind of state that other people experience in the poem and that other first-persons in this poem experience: that is the condition of having nothing in your head; “nothing” almost constituting “something”; again, “nothing” being a kind of wasteland.

But in that wasteland, nevertheless, there persist certain kinds of rubbish, fragments, bits of language, as in Prufrock’s consciousness. And this speaker recalls, first of all, when pressed, “Those are pearls that were his eyes”: a quotation from The Tempest, a quotation from Ariel’s song that holds out some image of death by water that would provide some kind of transformation where eyes might become pearls. By calling up Shakespeare and The Tempest, Eliot evokes Shakespeare’s whole romance promise of transformation through drowning, through magic, and romance redemption. In the course of the poem, that little fragment will become another motif that recurs and circulates, becoming almost a kind of object of collective memory in the poem, a bit of shared knowledge of, let’s say, potential that is drawn specifically from the literary past. You could say that here and elsewhere Shakespeare and literary tradition in general stand in for sacred texts that would offer some kind of guide to action and some source of meaning.

Here, the sacred text of Shakespeare is no sooner invoked than it is parodied through this 1912 jazz song that comes to mind, as also in, presumably, the speaker’s head: the “Shakespeherian Rag – / It’s so elegant / so intelligent.” There’s a way in which, well, Eliot’s making fun of his own wish for Shakespeare to be meaningful. There’s also a way in which the jazz brings this speaker suddenly to some kind of manic life, and he has a kind of energy fitfully for a moment. And here, as in other moments in the poem, high culture and low culture are brought together in a kind of vertiginous and interesting way. In fact, you could see this whole section, “A Game of Chess,” as doing that since we move from the drawing room and its particular interior decoration to the pub scene that follows with the account of Lil’s childbearing and so forth that we then get to overhear. And then the poem, or rather this section of the poem, ends with another quotation from Shakespeare: Ophelia’s parting words in Hamlet, “good night, sweet ladies,” and so forth.

Chapter 4. “The Waste Land”: The Fire Sermon [00:30:45]

“The Game of Chess” here, well, it has all sorts of complex resonances. Eliot’s certainly punning on some sense of stale-mating and unions, sexual unions, that have gone wrong and that have left people against each other in warring postures. As the poem proceeds in “The Fire Sermon,” we get more scenes of erotic impasse or worse, erotic violence of different kinds. The scene of the Thames, the water that flows through London, is now brought into focus again, not at London Bridge precisely, but just the shore where, well, Eliot describes it as:

The river’s tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. [As it usually does.] The nymphs
are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.

Here, Eliot’s, you know, conjuring a kind of erotic debris that has been left behind by these businessmen and their nymphs. As the poem progresses, there are more images of erotic confusion and desolation.

But at my back from time to time I hear [on the bottom of 479]
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
O the moon [I should be able to sing this for you] shone bright on Mrs.
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water.
Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole! Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d.

Again, a kind of amazing linguistic vertigo as we pass from a bawdy Australian soldier ballad about Mrs. Porter, which has all kinds of obscene stanzas that your editor doesn’t quote for you, to Verlaine’s image of children’s voices singing under the dome in his Parsifal, introducing another narrative and theme that recurs throughout the poem: the grail story and the story of Parsifal.

The poem moves then with those – first of all, it’s just those sounds, which are the sounds of Philomel; here, you know, human voice reduced to a kind of noise almost, to another anecdote: “Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant / unshaven,” who asks the “me” of the poem “in demotic French / to luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / followed by a weekend at the Metropole.” A proposition, it seems, and again a kind of sinister sexual invitation. There then follows the extended scene between the typist and “young man carbuncular,” an ugly scene of sexual emptiness and domination. And Eliot doesn’t shrink from, you know, representing this man in the most ugly – both visually and morally – the most ugly terms, although the poem was indeed a lot uglier yet than it is now. At the very end of it, after he’s left and bestowed one final patronizing kiss, the poem used to – or this section of the poem used to end with a rhyme that he, you know, then stopped outside to take a piss. That was excised, however, in the course of the poem and is an unnecessary further registering of the degradation of this scene.

Then the poem moves to, well, these inset lyric songs on [page] 482. “The river sweats”; again, we’re on the river. And we’re given a kind of image of Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester – a potential lover for the virgin queen – who are being carried downstream. And then finally, another speaker emerges; this time, it seems, a woman, speaking again in quotation marks:

“Trams and dusty trees.
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew
Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.” “My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart
Under my feet. After the event
He wept. He promised ‘a new start.’
I made no comment. What should I resent? “On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect

There’s a kind of extraordinary metamorphosis of speaker here. We begin listening to the sexual anecdotes of, presumably, one of these nymphs abandoned by one of the city directors who has been had in the park in Highbury, Richmond and Kew. There’s been, it seems, an event: perhaps, what – a pregnancy, an abortion? “ ‘He wept. He promised ‘a new start.’ / What should I resent?’” That experience then shifts to another location. There’s a kind of mutation of the speaker going on. “On Margate Sands” – it’s just that location, and then, “I can connect nothing with nothing.” And now that phrase, “nothing with nothing.” “What’s in your head? Nothing.” Those lines and that motif recur. That first person is like the first person of “A Game of Chess,” as if that woman had turned into that man. And “Margate Sands” locate the poem at this moment at one of the places where, after working in the city and succumbing to a kind of nervous breakdown, Eliot went to compose parts of The Waste Land. So, there’s a way in which he, too, the poet, is that first person there, merged with these other first-persons who finally then merge with Queen Elizabeth when we hear that first person say, “My people humble people who expect nothing.” Again, there’s a kind of shifting and metamorphosis of identity as people are brought into relationship with each other through their shared experience of erotic failure.

Let’s see, not too many minutes left to talk about the end of the poem and to give some sense of its shape. Here’s a kind of narrative of the poem. “The Burial of the Dead,” the title, it comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It suggests that the poem will search for, perhaps itself try to substitute for, the kind of ritual understanding of life and death that the Anglican Book of Common Prayer provides; again, some kind of collective meaning. “A Game of Chess” then specifies the poem’s problem as erotic impasse, as a kind of stale-mating, as the failure of love.

“The Fire Sermon” then proposes a kind of solution. From the Buddhist teaching, self-control is a way to combat lust and domination, the selfishness of desire – all of which resonates in a moral register with the poetic program of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” where the theme is self-extinction or self-submission. The point in the middle of the poem where I’ve been dwelling for the past few minutes – the point is to convert the fires of lust into refining and spiritualizing fires. Then there’s a kind of scherzo, that little section “Death by Water,” where the drowned Phoenician sailor seems to, well, be a kind of sacrificial figure meant to represent, again, iconographically, self-extinction.

Chapter 5. “The Waste Land”: What the Thunder Said [00:43:07]

And then finally, after this emblematic sacrifice, we are introduced to the long final section “What the Thunder Said,” when there is a return of divine speech and the promise of rain and of water, what the poem seems to be looking for: aligning the redemptive regeneration that would come with the rain with the experience of divine speech made present here in that simple syllable, “Da.”

Let me say just a couple things about the shape of the poem as we have it. I’ve asked you to look at Pound’s work on the poem in the form of some pages from The Waste Land Manuscripts. Well, Pound collaborated in the writing of this poem by, in particular, excising and shortening the poem at many points and specifically, if you study the drafts, by, I think, isolating those moments in the poem where Eliot is drawn to a kind of Romantic lyricism. On what becomes the first page of the poem, “April is the cruelest month,” Pound circles the word “forgetful”: “with forgetful snow.” In the passage about Philomel, he circles the word “inviolable” for “inviolable voice.” Pound wants to get the Romanticism and lyricism of the poem out of it in certain ways. Eliot resists that, and there are ways in which these two men working together and against each other to create the poem enact some of the poem’s own struggle with lyricism and with Romanticism and help us to see that struggle as part of what goes into the creation of the poem itself.

One of the sections that Pound had the biggest effect on was “Death by Water,” which was originally a long, heroic narrative or mock-heroic narrative ending in the sailor’s drowning. That short section is worth dwelling on for a moment because it is an instance where we are given, I think, an image of what Eliot was giving up. He is giving up a certain investment in romance quest and, more generally, Romanticism that’s emblematized by this drowned figure. There’s also a way in which this very short section points us to and makes us think about the shortness of the poem as a whole. The Waste Land is the shortest long poem in the language. It is, you know, a kind of radically condensed epic. And there’s a kind of, you could say, claim made by the poem’s form that epic extension and duration are no longer possible, just as romance quest is no longer possible, precisely because we lack the kind of culturally shared vocabulary and language that would allow Eliot to create a kind of continuous form. Instead, what we have is a radically condensed and discontinuous form; the brokenness of the poem’s form representing the brokenness of a world that doesn’t have a sacred center.

Finally, there’s the matter of those notes. They are, I think, an important part of the poem. They kind of get lost in the editor’s notes in your anthology. Well, when Eliot first published the poem it didn’t have those notes, when he published it in England in The Dial magazine – excuse me, in The Criterion. When he published it in America shortly after, he added those notes to extend the length of the poem; he was asked to make a longer poem. There’s a way in which those notes establish a particular kind of figure, a poet who is also a scholar and an editor, who is producing a poem that needs notes and that needs to explain itself in these ways, and that draws on literary tradition and various forms of cultural knowledge that require annotation. Eliot presents himself as this figure, a poet who is also a kind of scholar. And this figure emerges as a kind of central modern figure, replacing the epic poet of the past, the one who produced a poem such as Paradise Lost without any footnotes.

Well, Hart Crane responds to all of what I’ve been talking about today and uses it as a point of orientation to create a related but very different kind of poetry, as we’ll see on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

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