Today’s younger readers approaching T. S. Eliot’s poetry for the first time are faced with two alternatives. They can either accept its monolithic reputation and prestige on face value, and examine it from that preconditioned state, or they can ignore orthodoxy and, without supposition, read the poetry for what it is.
If, as is likely, they are students in advanced secondary or higher education they will almost certainly have to take the former path. They will thereby encounter a huge body of opinion that Eliot’s poetry is the work of a major innovative literary talent (the word genius is not withheld) of a quality not experienced since Wordsworth. Contributors to this body of opinion include F. O. Matthiesson, F. R. Leavis, Helen Gardner and others too numerous to mention. Over most of the twentieth century this canonicity has increased in mass and weight like a snowball rolling down a snowy slope, seemingly blocking the student’s path in any alternative direction.
As poet, critic and publisher, Eliot’s influence on contemporary literature in English has been very considerable. Many honours have descended upon him, crowned by the Nobel Prize for Literature. There is no doubt that Eliot wrote some very good poetry, some of it outstandingly good. But, with the possible exception of Four Quartets, much of it accrued in an episodic and fragmentary way. His early and middle years were characterized by much mental anguish, especially from his disastrous first marriage. This seems to have induced his poetry to occur mainly in isolated jottings to which he refers, at the conclusion of The Waste Land, as ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’
Near the end of 1921 Eliot travelled from England to Lausanne to be treated for a mental breakdown. From then until early 1922 his friend and mentor Ezra Pound worked intermittently on some 850 lines of Eliot’s disparate fragments, reducing them to just over 450 lines and editing them into some- thing approaching a single poem. The result was largely what we now have as The Waste Land.
Pound’s assistance has been acknowledged but he has probably never received the full credit due to him for his editorial contribution to the poem. My own view is that Pound could, with profit, have cut out even more than he did which might have resulted in the final poem being even less fragmentary. However, much of the poem as we have it is of a high order and deserves its place in the permanent canon of verse in English.
The received wisdom from the Eliot monolith implies that by the beginning of the twentieth century the English language, as a medium for the creation of genuine poetry fully alive to the conditions of the age, had become wholly unfit for purpose. The fag-end of Romantic poetry in the hands of Edwardian and Georgian writers had lapsed into terminal anaemia and only the advent of the Americans Eliot and Pound had ‘restored the intellectual dignity of English poetry’ and had re-invigorated the English language into a fit me- dium for living verse.
This is an example of a partial truth being exaggerated to questionable viabil- ity. A dispassionate examination of poetry in English written during the years 1900 to 1920 will readily show this opinion to be less than watertight. Thomas Hardy’s sequence of poems Veteris vestigial flammae, generally acknowledged to be among the highest achievements of verse in English, were written during 1912-13 at a time when Eliot’s early work appeared. Some of D. H. Lawrence’s best poems were written during this period. And what is there to say about the notable achievements of Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen, three poets of great promise prematurely cut down by the First World War? The fact is that poetry of a high order continued to be produced during those first two decades by English poets who were untouched by the modernism of Eliot and Pound.
It can, however, be said that if Pound’s and Eliot’s modernism didn’t rescue the English language from complete extinction as a medium fit for poetry, it did bring into play a new concept of writing verse which strengthened that language for new achievements.
There is, after all, something rather un-English about Eliot’s poetry. Pound and Eliot’s modernism was essentially an American import. It should not be forgotten that Eliot was born, grew up and, apart from brief periods in Paris and Oxford, was educated in the U.S.A. His higher education was mainly in philosophy, a discipline which he very nearly took up as an academic career. For the rest of his life philosophy was never far from his mind and its mental habits are omnipresent in his verse.
Pound claimed that the young Eliot ‘… had modernized himself on his own.’ Indeed he had, but it was as an American poet that he had done so. Unlike Pound, who turned his back on his native land to the point of treason, Eliot never repudiated his homeland even though, after having become a British subject, he sought, successfully in social terms, to become more English than the English.
Whenever I read through Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1962, as I have done many times, I get the impression of someone trying to avoid or escape from something rather than engage with it. Eliot very much wanted his poetry to convey to his readers his personal reading of life but at the same time he was desperate to keep himself and his feelings out of it. Allusions and learned notes, ostensibly there to guide and enlighten, frequently serve as red herrings to divert the reader from possibly discovering what Eliot’s experience really was.
Eliot has sometimes been accused of hating life. What is probably more true is that he profoundly wished his life to have been very different from the one he had actually endured, at least until the years of his second marriage. It is obvious that Eliot had a deep-rooted problem with the physicality of human existence, especially sexual, and it was only as he aged and passed beyond its more pressing demands that he finally felt free from its peculiar burden upon him. That was when he was able to enter into his personal Vita Nuova, his new life, which happily came to him in his later years.
La Figlia Che Piange
O quam te memorem virgo
Stand on the highest pavement of the stair –
Lean on a garden urn –
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair –
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise –
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.
The above poem is something of an aberration from the norm of Eliot’s verse. The title may be translated as ‘The Young Woman who Laments’ and, although it is clearly a kind of love poem, it contains no declaration of love. It was almost certainly written in 1912 when Eliot was twenty-four and when his experience of the opposite sex must have been, to say the least, elementary. This was the year when he first made the acquaintance of Emily Hale, a young Bostonian who had a significant effect on his concept of woman throughout the rest of his life. Eliot’s involvement with Emily Hale is dealt with in detail in Lyndall Gordon’s biography T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life.
A starting point in Eliot’s conceiving the poem is thought to have been the idea of a weeping young woman sculpted on a flat surface. A friend of Eliot’s had seen this sculpture in a museum in Italy and had urged Eliot to visit it. Eliot never actually saw the sculpture but his friend’s description must have made a lasting impression, becoming one of the many disparate factors which Eliot habitually stored in his memory for possible literary use.
Commentators on the poem naturally vary in their responses but they tend to fall loosely into two groups. One favours the view that the poem deals with feelings that Eliot had not himself experienced at first hand but which he had obtained entirely from sources outside himself, e.g., from the sculpted weep- ing woman, Virgil’s Aeneid and so on. The other group incline to the view that the tone and feel of the poem indicate that it is a re-presentation of an aborted love which had really happened to the young Eliot and had survived as a deeply-felt experience.
Later, in his 1917 essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot declared: ‘…. emotions which he (the poet) has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him.’ In the same essay he also declared: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality.’ These comments are best not taken as universal truths but as observations pertain- ing particularly to himself and elucidating his personal poetic practice. My own reading of his work suggests that he practised that escape for most of his creative life.
And yet, in this particular poem, Eliot uncharacteristically, and for some unknown reason, lowers his guard and re-presents his experience of love directly in a uniquely lyrical and moving way. The epigraph to the poem is taken from the Aeneid, ‘O quam te memorem virgo…’ which has been translated as ‘By what name should I know or remember you, maiden?’ Why would Eliot have deliberately chosen this epigraph if not to draw at- tention to the lamenting young woman as someone remembered as distinct from someone merely imagined or appropriated from an external source?
However, the question of whether Eliot was writing about a real woman or only an artefact should best be left to biographical enquiry. What we have to attend to is a choice of particular words arranged in a certain order. Eliot chose and arranged these words to re-present, as precisely as possible, par- ticular elements from the disparate and chaotic amalgam of experiences in his sensibility which would best serve his purpose at the time. Although some critics have praised the piece, it has not received anything like the attention lavished on much of his other verse. In a letter to Richard Aldington, dated 8th September 1921, Eliot referred to it as ‘…. the mildest of my productions …’ This could well be because the poetry on which Eliot’s reputation mainly rests appears to offer more of the intellectual challenge which appeals to the academic mind.
Lyndall Gordon has drawn attention to the pervasive presence in Eliot’s subsequent work of the idealized woman we find in La Figlia Che Piange. If this early poem contains an element potent enough to be reintroduced and sustained in later work (e.g. The Waste Land, Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets) it should repay closer examination.
The poem presents a regretted lost opportunity experienced with resigned sadness. The language suggests that the opportunity was lost due to some inevitable personal failure on the part of the poet. Much of this is conveyed by implication between the lines of what is stated.
The lyrical ease with which the poem moves may, at least at first reading, belie its meticulously-wrought structure. The poem’s twenty-four lines are divided into three separate sections of unequal length, each dealing with a successive stage of the poem’s development, and each section rhymes in a different, irregular way. The verse is metrical, seventeen lines having five stresses per line, the remaining seven having only four, three or two stresses. The shorter lines are irregularly interspersed between the longer. Throughout the poem one detects a definite rhythm achieved by a skilful interweaving of sense, rhyme and meter, not according to any preconceived design but in response to the poet’s instinctive pursuit of precision and balance.
The poem begins with several stated requirements which, as several crit- ics have noted, are as if a painter were posing his model or the director of a play or film were instructing an actress in how to mime a scene. She is required to pose in a certain way so that the sunlight in her hair achieves a particular effect. She is also required to express ‘pained surprise’ at some clearly unexpected (and unexplained) turn of events by flinging to the ground the flowers she had been holding, expressing her hurt feelings and yet turning away in an effort to disguise and control her resentment.
Whether the poet is inventing all this, or whether he is remembering some- thing that once actually happened to him, is not absolutely vital to an un- derstanding of the poem. Emphasis is unmistakably focused on the effect of sunlight in the young woman’s hair. For the sake of the poem, it is the visual image of her that matters, not the person herself.
The first five lines of the second section are crucial to an understanding of the poem:
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
Featured here are: the woman/actress as ‘her’, a man/actor as ‘him’ or ‘he’, and the poet/director as ‘I’. Yes, the poet/director muses, that is how I should have arranged it, the woman remaining and grieving as the man leaves her. But the imagery here endows the separation with an unexpect- edly heightened quality and introduces an ethereal dimension. The depar- ture of the man is likened to that of the ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ leaving the body, implying not only a death-like experience but also the invisible, immortal and thereby truly valuable part of man being released from the material, corruptible part that is mere temporary dross.
There is nothing in the poem to indicate the inflicting of physical injury so the phrase ‘torn and bruised’ is obviously a metaphor for some non- material kind of damage. It seems to imply the wear and tear which the sheer process of living imposes on an individual not only physically but also psychologically. The man’s compulsion to leave the woman can hardly be from mutual incompatibility because she is in some way obviously dear to him, and her ‘fugitive resentment’ at his leaving indicates that she clearly had great expectations from the relationship.
Is it not reasonable to deduce that the man decided to abandon the woman as the only way to avoid exposing some vital physical shortcoming on his part which, if put to the test, would find him drastically wanting? May this not also indicate a longing, albeit subliminal, on the part of the poet to escape from elements of his own physical existence? This would at least conform to the widely-held view that the soul’s and mind’s leaving the body is a release from temporary limitation rather than the loss of some- thing of lasting worth. The ethereal self would thus escape from its material encumbrance and, by departing from his imperfect body, he would thereby become perfect.
At this point in the second section the separate personas of the male actor and the poet/director merge into one, leaving only that single male entity and the young woman to enact the remainder. The male entity now adopts an urbane, sophisticated, detached demeanour in the manner of the French poet Jules Laforgue, the master of ironic poise whose poetry is known to have had a strong influence on the young Eliot. Indeed, the line ‘Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.’ bears a close resemblance to a line from Laforgue’s poem Petition, which has been translated as ‘…. bland and faithless as a ‘Good-day.’
With a trivializing touch ‘incomparably light and deft’ the male entity would, in that false guise, resolve an otherwise unpleasant situation by reconciling both parties to the separation ‘with a smile and shake of the hand’. The parting would be deceptively ‘simple’ but also quite ‘faithless’, presumably because the real reason for the abandonment would not have been revealed to the young woman. The poet will have lost the mortal La Figlia but will retain what he really wants – her idealized image rather than her carnal reality – and this will, like Dante’s image of Beatrice, remain forever in his being and his art.
In the third and final section of the poem the pose of superficial detachment can no longer be sustained. In what now does seem more like a remembered actual event than something only imagined, the poet acknowledges that the young woman did turn away from him in her grief and the language implies that he was to blame for whatever happened. The memory of the occasion and its beauty, despite its ignominious circumstances, had obviously sunk deep into the poet’s sensibility and, within its autumnal setting, returns to haunt and bemuse him again and again. Even if this were not based on an actual incident between Eliot and the real Emily Hale – who was a woman of flesh and blood and not some beatified Beatrice – it movingly and faith- fully prefigures Eliot’s attitude towards her throughout the rest of his life.
Finally, the poet conjures up the idealized La Figlia, ‘Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers,’ forever preserved in his imagination, and he wonders ‘…. how they should have been together!’ if they had at- tempted to become lovers in practice. The poem, however, indicates that he already knows the answer.
The overwhelming experience re-presented in the concluding lines is one of regretful resignation that he had felt obliged to adopt ‘…. a gesture and a pose.’, a mannered disguise of his true feelings. That this was probably due to a deep-seated fear of the situation to which his true feelings would have exposed him only adds to the wistful sadness of the poem’s conclusion.
The lyric beauty of La Figlia Che Piange immortalizes the beauty of the young woman who could belong in Eliot’s life only as an idealized metaphor for the real thing.