by Melanie Bettinelli on November 13, 2012
A friend shared this obituary from the Telegraph for T.S. Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, who died on November 9. As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, Eliot is my favorite poet. I’ve always loved the story of his late life romance with his secretary, Valerie. And even though, as the obit writer points out, it isn’t “remarkable as art,” this poem, the dedication to his play The Elder Statesman and the last one in his Collected Works, has always been one of my favorites because it serves as a perfect capstone to his life’s work:
A Dedication to My Wife
To whom I owe the leaping delight
That quicken my senses in our wakingtime
And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,
The breathing in unison
Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other
Who think the same thoughts without need of speech
And babble the same speech without need of meaning…
No peevish winter wind shall chill
No sullen tropic sun shall wither
The roses in the rose garden which is ours and ours only
But this dedication is for others to read:
These are private words addressed to you in public.
After all the anguish about love and sexuality in The Waste Land, this sweet little dedication suggests a final peace. It captures Eliot’s recurring fascination with time and the possibility of eternity, this garden is a place outside of time where the seasons cannot reach nor decay corrode. The image of the rose garden is a recurring one in Eliot’s work and in The Four Quartets the rose seems closely linked to Dante’s image of the multifoliate rose, his symbol of the beatific vision. Here it has always seemed to me an image of paradise found, the culmination of a long journey through the inferno and purgatory to a place where love is pure and unfading.
Critic Albert Gelpi writes:
The loathesome bodily odors which filled the earlier poems become here the aura of a love which embraces mind and body. There is no mention of the Incarnation, but the poem betokens Eliot’s most personal and intimate experience of that mystery. The unspoken Word stands behind the lovers’ speechless thoughts and babbled speech; the rose has bedded in the garden which is theirs only in season and beyond season.
(from A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance, 1910-1950)
I’ve always loved the story of their romance but Valerie’s obituary adds details I hadn’t previously seen.
The headmistress of Queen Anne’s may also have smiled wryly when Valerie Fletcher told her, on leaving, that she was determined to become TS Eliot’s secretary. For six months she worked at the Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds, and then as private secretary to the novelist Charles Morgan. But her aim, as she artlessly phrased it, was always “to get to Tom”; and in August 1950 she duly succeeded in becoming his secretary at Faber & Faber.
The essential prerequisite of Valerie Eliot’s final triumph was that she knew better than to alarm her formidable employer with uncontrolled and gushing admiration. Mary Trevelyan called Eliot “the Pope of Russell Square” on account of the fawning respect with which he was treated at Faber & Faber; such was his fear of women, however, that he would duck into the lavatory rather than risk having to leave the building with a secretary. For years, therefore, Valerie Fletcher’s office hours were consecrated simply to earning a formidable reputation for efficiency.
“I can’t get to know her at all,” Eliot complained to Mary Trevelyan as late as 1955, “she shuts up like a clam.” After their marriage he would acknowledge that for a long time he was not even sure that she liked him. He had no notion that, outside the office, the discreet secretary was building up a collection of his works that rivalled his own. In whatever way the breakthrough was made, once Eliot had discerned Valerie Fletcher’s unconditional love he did not hesitate.
It is said that he proposed by slipping a note into a batch of letters which he gave her for typing.
I love the story of the young woman in love with the poet who determined to become his secretary and eventually married him. Although today her actions might be characterized as “stalking”, her restraint and circumspection as she maintained a professional relationship show that there was something more there. How wonderful that it bloomed into love for both of them.
Another article about Valerie published after the release of the film Tom and Viv.
by Melanie Bettinelli on August 30, 2012
The Fortune Teller by George de la Tour
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards.
[I’ve tried to follow Eliot’s line breaks as much as possible, selecting sections of text where the sentence endings and line breaks coincide. But in this third section of Part I, the constant use of enjambment means I’m going to have to break up the lines and consider only the first half of line 46, the second half we’ll consider in the next post.]
These lines begin the third section of Part I. The focus of the poem shifts yet again to look at the character of Madame Sosostris.
First, she is a clairvoyante, the literal meaning of the word is someone who sees clearly, who has clear vision. (Question: Does she see clearly? Can we trust her vision or is she leading us astray?) Figuratively, a clairvoyant is someone who has the ability to gain information about a person, event, object via a means other than the natural human senses, through some form of extra-sensory perception. In other words, she is a fortuneteller.
Second, she “had a bad cold” (love the sound and rhythm of those words: “had” “bad” “cold” the short vowels and the hard D at the end. It has the feel of a child’s reading lesson, especially in contrast with the Latinate the polysyllables of the line before. And I bet that’s intentional. Even a child can see that there’s something fishy about Madame Sosostris.) What is the significance of her cold? There is something diseased about her. In later commentary about the poem Eliot regrets his mention of the Tarot in the notes to this section because it sent so many people on a wild goose chase. In The Four Quartets Eliot makes clear his disdain for fortune-telling and the occult (In section V of Dry Salvages he refers to them as “usual pastimes and drugs, and features of the press.”) Even here, though, it is obvious we aren’t supposed to trust this fortune teller with her “bad cold” and “wicked” cards. I think there is a play on the word “cold” too. We’re returning to the winter/spring imagery of the first lines. Madame Sosostris has not thawed with the coming of spring but is still cold. I think you can lump fortune telling in with staying up all night and traveling south in the winter as another form of trying to defy the constraints of time and nature. It is an attempt to control the natural world.
“Nevertheless” set apart by the enjambment. There’s something tricky about this “nevertheless” but I can’t put my finger on it.
She “is known to be” not “she is.” Do we trust the judgment of those people who “know” Madame Sosostris to be the “wisest woman in Europe”? Again, I think, we see the narrator’s disdain for the people who dwell in the modern waste land, who place their trust in fortune tellers, fixing their gaze on an unknowable future while forgetting the wisdom of the past. Madame Sosotris is the second seer we’ve encountered if you include the Sibyl in the epigraph. We’ll return to the figure of the seer later when we encounter Tiresias.
“With a wicked pack of cards” There is no ambiguity here about with the adjective “wicked’. Attempting to know the future is dangerous business and a form of clinging to the temporal dimension instead of seeking the eternal. It’s really a form of fear, isn’t it?
I’m stalling out on this section. Think I’ll just publish this now and move on to the next few lines. Please feel free to comment at length.
Previous Post: You Gave Me Hyacinths—Blogging The Waste Land Part 10
by Melanie Bettinelli on July 11, 2012
‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’
-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.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.
I’m intrigued by the image of the hyacinth girl but for some reason this passage has me stumped. I feel like I’ve hit a wall and can’t move forward. I’ve been stuck on it for a month now. All I have is questions and no answers. It’s a puzzle and I can’t seem to find a way in. So I’ll just pose questions—and perhaps a few thoughts as they come to me—and then wait to see if anyone can help to find a path through this passage.
Here we have another image of “memory and desire”. First, a speaker who remembers a moment in the past when the person she is addressing gave her hyacinths. The “first” suggests an ongoing relationship and hyacinths being bestowed on multiple occasions. Who is the “they” who called her the hyacinth girl? What is the significance of that title? Then in the next lines it is unclear if the speaker has changed. If the speaker is the same; perhaps she has shifted to an interior monologue instead of direct address? Or have we switched perspectives and are now hearing from the “you”? The “yet” seems to signal some sort of shift. The image of the girl (or is it the giver of the hyacinths?) with arms full and hair wet seems to be an image full of life, full of love; but strangely complicated with the inability to speak, to see, to know. In an indeterminate state, neither living nor dead.
And then that interesting image: “Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” Is this the blindness of looking into a light that is too bright so that it blinds the vision? Is it some sort of mystical experience? Or has the speaker become paralyzed because the possibility of intimacy is too frightening?
The final line returns us to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde: Oed’ und leer das Meer. Translation: “Desolate and empty the sea.”
In this scene Tristan lies on his deathbed, waiting for Isolde to appear. Her healing arts are his only hope for recovery. Wikipedia’s summary:
Kurwenal has brought Tristan home to his castle at Kareol in Brittany. A shepherd pipes a mournful tune and asks if Tristan is awake. Kurwenal replies that only Isolde’s arrival can save Tristan, and the shepherd offers to keep watch and claims that he will pipe a joyful tune to mark the arrival of any ship. Tristan awakes (“Die alte Weise - was weckt sie mich?”) and laments his fate — to be, once again, in the false realm of daylight, once more driven by unceasing unquenchable yearning (“Wo ich erwacht’ Weilt ich nicht”). Tristan’s sorrow ends when Kurwenal tells him that Isolde is on her way. Tristan, overjoyed, asks if her ship is in sight, but only a sorrowful tune from the shepherd’s pipe is heard.
I found this allusion particularly helpful in perhaps shedding light on what has gone before. The shepherd announces that the sea is empty and desolate: things look hopeless for Tristan for Isolde has not come. Yet in the next line Tristan awakes, recognizing the tune the shepherd is playing, He asks where he is and Kurwenal rejoices that he has been restored to life. However, this rejoicing is premature. Later in the scene Tristan dies with Isolde’s name on his lips. Tristan is home once more; but is not able to fully enjoy his homecoming. Instead, he has only come home to die. Later in the scene when Kurwenal rejoices that Tristan will recover, Tristan counters with a different vision of his fate:
Is that what you think?
I know differently
but I am not able to tell you.
Where I awoke,
there I was not,
but where I was
I cannot tell you.
I did not see the sun,
nor did I see land and people;
but what I did see
I cannot tell you.
where I had been before I was
and where I am destined to go,
in the wide realm
of the Night of the world.
But one certain knowledge
is ours there:
How did I cease to perceive it?
did I call you,
driving me on anew
towards the light of Day.
The one thing that I remembered,
a warm and ardent love
drives me from the terror of Death’s bliss
to see the Light,
which, deceiving, bright and golden,
still shines about you, Isolde!
(Kurwenal, in the grip of terror,
hides his face. Tristan
gradually raises himself up)
in the realm of the Sun!
In the shimmer of Day
To see her,
The crash that I heard
now once more it stands
the sun’s beams
have burst it open;
with wide open eyes
I had to emerge from Night
to seek her,
to see her;
to find her,
in her alone
has it been granted to Tristan.
Alas, there now rise up
pale and fearful,
Day’s wild urgings;
baleful and deceiving
rouses my mind
to deceit and folly!
with your light!
Will you for ever
be witness to my anguish?
Will it burn for ever,
which even at night
kept me from her?
When at last,
when, oh when
will you extinguish the spark,
that I may know my fortune?
The light - when will it be extinguished?
So many of the motifs from the Wasteland’s lines appear here, in the lines that follow the one Eliot quotes that I can’t think that Eliot means us to hear the echoes: In Tristan speech we also see memory and desire. Tristan is also a speaker who is not fully living or dead, his are eyes that fail he also has lost the ability to speak. His speech is full of images of light and of death. So is Eliot’s speaker in these lines that are bracketed by quotations from Tristan und Isolde meant to be Tristan? Or is he or she a modern echo of Tristan?
These lines certainly suggest a tragic love. And the operatic lovers who are moved more by magic than by natural passion, who are caught in a web of adultery and deceit, tie in with Eliot’s themes of defying nature or running counter to nature and of love which is somehow disordered and unfulfilled.
So maybe I’m not as at sea as I first thought. I think once again the allusions help to crack open Eliot’s imagery. Once again they are a sort of Rosetta stone. If we dig into the source material and look at the whole of it and not just the few lines Eliot quotes, then certain patterns become more apparent. I do think that Eliot wants us to do more than look at the few lines he quotes. His method is to use those lines to draw in the whole of the text, to allow that text in its entirety to inform our understanding of The Waste Land. The purpose of the allusions is to create resonances certainly, to inform our reading of his text; but I think it is meant to work the other way as well. I think that our readings of Eliot’s source texts is meant to be shaped by Eliot’s poem. We the readers are the wounded king (or the wounded knight or the wounded Tristan, I guess in this particular passage). As Eliot describes the wounded inhabitants of The Waste Land we are meant to recognize ourselves: Surely we too are wounded, we too are waiting for healing, wondering what can possibly save us.
We are meant to be drawn in to interact with the source texts in a more active way, to begin to use them in an act of architecture, to begin to shore up our ruins with the fragments, to allow the literature itself, the richness of it and the depths of it, to work on us, to be an antidote to the illness we are suffering from. The Waste Land is more than just a diagnostic, telling us what is wrong. It is also a prescription and if we allow Eliot to guide us, we will begin to take our own journey toward wholeness through the healing medium of poetry—not just Eliot’s poetry but the poetic tradition, our heritage, our roots, which we have forgotten, lost touch with.
(Oops a bit of a digression away from this particular passage and into thinking about the poem as a whole. But then it’s not a bad idea to go back and look at how the part relates to the whole when you start to get stuck, is it?)
But back to the passage.
I wonder if Eliot uses hyacinths specifically, rather than some other flower, to reference the myth of Hyacinthus, the youth who was beloved by Apollo and to whom after his death the god gave new life as a flower. I’ve seen it suggested that the story of Hyacinth is a metaphor of the death and rebirth of nature. I wonder if it is referenced in Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which Eliot attributes as his source for much of the Grail myth material he incorporates. Is that stretching it? Given how fond Eliot is of classical mythology and the epigram about the Sibyl, perhaps not.
Well, it seems I’ve found a lot more to say about this passage than I thought I would at first. Amazing how a bit of research can give you new insights. It’s getting a bit long and rambling so I think I’ll just publish what I have and see what you, my lovely readers, think about the hyacinth girl.
by Melanie Bettinelli on May 26, 2012
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?
These lines are from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde
Fresh blows the wind
To the homeland
My Irish child
Where do you linger?
Just for fun, here’s a video clip. The quotes lines are the very first lines of the opera and thus the first lines in this clip.
In the scene that Eliot quotes, Tristan and Isolde are on a ship sailing east from Ireland to Cornwall. A sailor is singing—it is his song that the quoted lines are taken from. The full text of his song:
the gaze wanders;
skims the ship.
Fresh the wind blows
my Irish child,
where are you now?
Is it your wafting sighs
that swell my sails?
Blow, blow, you wind!
Ah, alas, my child!
you wild, adorable girl!
Interesting that again we have the theme of movement toward the east. However, here the sea is in stark contrast to the preceding desert. This passage then seems like, literally, a breath of fresh air, a relief from the dry, dusty passage in the desert. But does this represent a true turn away from the aridity of the desert or can the ocean be another form of desert?
The wind blows toward home or from the homeland? The translations I’ve looked at differ and that seems to be a big difference, and one that would make for very different interpretations. Any German speakers want to give me a hand here?
But I think we need to back up a little and look at the quotation in it’s original context before we can really understand what Eliot’s doing with it.
From a synopsis of the opera:
The legend of Tristan and Isolde (Tristram and Iseult) takes place during the Middle Ages, when knighthood and the chivalric code prevailed. On board ship from Ireland to Cornwall, a sailor’s voice resounds from the rigging. His song about an Irish girl annoys the fiery [Irish] Isolde, who is being taken by Tristan as bride for his uncle, King Marke [king of Cornwall]. Isolde wishes the ship would sink rather than take her to her hated destination.
Wagner’s story is derived from the medieval romance Tristan and Iseult, a romance more or less loosely connected to the Arthurian romances. The core story of the adulterous romance between the Irish princess and the Cornish knight echoes the fatal love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Tristan is escorting the reluctant Iseult/Isolde to her wedding with his kinsman King Marke/Mark of Cornwall. In all versions the love between Tristan and Iseult is the result of a love potion. In the version Wagner follows Iseult has reason to hate Tristan because he is responsible for the death of her former lover/fiance. Therefore she attempts to give him a poison but because of a mistake they both drink a love potion instead and fall fatally in love with each other. Versions of the story vary considerably, but the love created by the love potion and the love triangle are constant.
So here Eliot again introduces the theme of illicit romance/love gone wrong—a theme that pervades the Arthurian material and in the form of infertility/sterility of the Fisher King is essential to the Grail legend—which will surface again and again in the poem. The love triangle will also appear later in the Waste Land in allusions to the figure of Cleopatra who was involved with both Julius Ceasar and Mark Anthony. What is it about the love triangle and misplaced passion? Part of it is that the impotence of the Fisher King is echoed in the cuckolded King Mark. Part of the “waste land” experience is that passions are disordered, unnatural and that love is frustrated and sterile.
I think the Arthurian connection is not at all coincidental but connects to the basic structure of Eliot’s poem. In later versions of the Tristan legend Tristan is one of the knights of Arthur’s Round Table and a participant in the Grail Quest. The quest for the grail is the quest for that which will set all aright, will create right order and reign in the passions.
Now to go back to the literal meaning of the words in the song, I think that verb “linger” is interesting. It reminds me of that voice that we identified as the tempter acedia which invited the traveler to stop under the shadow of the rock. There are many ways to avoid completing a journey, to avoid a homecoming or an arrival at a destination we don’t want to reach.
I speak no German and I’m not familiar with this opera except in the synopsis I’ve read, so I welcome input from anyone who can give me a clearer idea how to read these lines and how these lines might fit into Eliot’s poem. And of course even if you are just as ignorant about those things as I am, I welcome any and all comments. What do you think about these lines? And, be honest, what blindingly obvious things have I missed?
by Melanie Bettinelli on May 20, 2012
Image: Black Cross by Georgia O’Keeffe
If you’ve been eagerly awaiting the next installment of my Waste Land series, then you can thank the Philosopher Mom for helping to jump start the series again. It was wonderful getting to meet Erika in person—at last!—at the New England Catholic Homeschooling Conference on Saturday. She said so many very encouraging about this series that it really made me want to sit down and get writing again. As tired as I was after a day of conferencing with Anthony, I sat down after the kids were in bed last night and opened the document and began to write again on this entry that I began almost exactly two months ago.
I think the main thing that has been holding me back is that this chunk of text is so long. Because of all the enjambement there is no natural break that doesn’t break in the middle of a line and I’m too darn persnickety to break in the middle of a line. Also, life does tend to get in the way. With the new baby coming I can’t promise any greater regularity, though I can always hope.
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. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
With these lines the poem shifts back to the more formal feel of the first seven lines. The imagery is more abstract and “poetic” rather than conversational. The poem seems to go back and forth between these two modes: the formal and the informal, the imagery-driven vs the snippets of conversation.
What to make of the initial images: the roots that clutch the branches that grow out of the stony rubbish? The verb “clutch” makes the roots seem hostile, threatening. The word “rubbish” is also very negative. And yet these lines make me think about how very persistent life is, how things can grow in the most hostile of environments. The narrator seems almost threatened by this persistent quality of life. He’d rather hide, hibernate, retreat from life. The imagery makes me think of Christ as the Root of Jesse as well as the recent Gospel passage about Christ the Vine: I am the vine, you are the branches, remain in me. We need roots, we yearn for roots. What does it mean when we’d rather forget our roots?
The direct address, “Son of man” is of course Biblical, especially recalling the Book of Ezekiel where it is a frequently used form of address. I think here it points toward Ezekiel 37 especially and the vision of the dry bones. In that case it is both an image of dessert, aridity and death, but it also foreshadows the resurrection when God will breath new life into the dry bones. The dry bone is an image that haunts Eliot’s later poetry. It also appears in Ash Wednesday and the Four Quartets.
“You know only a heap of broken images”. In a sense the heap of broken images is an image of the poem itself, of the fragmentation which requires the reader to sort through the heap and assemble meaning out of the brokenness. In the wake of WWI there was a deep pessimism about the state of Western Civilization, rather than having evolved to some kind of pinnacle of human achievement, a peaceful paradise, things fell apart completely, a generation was almost wiped out. Eliot’s project is to offer hope, to suggest that the way forward is the way back, the sifting through the rubble to find that which endures, that which has not been destroyed, to find the roots that will tell us who we are.
“Where the sun beats and the dead tree gives no shelter.” Desert imagery. We are in the waste land for sure. Instead of a tree of life here is a tree of death. This is the moment of crucifixion when it seems that all is lost, hope has fled. What is left if God is dead?
“and the cricket no relief” Why would a cricket give relief from the beating sun? What is the significance of the cricket? I found that in some places cricket’s chirps are thought to foretell rain. Is Eliot thinking of that kind of myth.
“and the dry stone no sound of water” More water imagery. And more rocks. I think it interesting that here it is the sound of water.
All of this imagery in this section to me is very evocative of the Psalms. Water coming from rocks, rocks seen as providing shelter. God as a rock. The tone here certainly feels very much like the Old Testament Psalms and prophetic writings.
“come in under the shadow of this red rock” I have to say the image of the shadow under the red rock is one of my favorites. I love the rhythm and sound of this line the staccato of the “d” sounds and the alliteration of “red rock”. Sometimes it’s just the sound of Eliot’s verse that charms my ear even when I can’t make head or tails of the meaning. Which really fits his theory of poetry which is that the sound comes before the meaning, that part of the meaning of poetry is the sound of it, the way it hits our ear even before we make sense of the words.
All the shadow play here. Come under the shadow… I will show you something different from either your shadow… or your shadow. Shadows represent cool and refuge on a hot day, the possibility of relief in a desert. But they also can represent fear. Is there a hint here of being afraid of one’s own shadow? Jumping at shadows? I notice the position of the shadows. In the morning the shadow is striding behind. It isn’t threatening but our of sight, obedient. But at evening the shadow rises to meet you. Dark falls, night falls and with it fear?
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”. Evelyn Waugh used this line for the title of one of his novels. It evokes Ash Wednesday: remember, man, that you are dust. This is the fear of death, the reminder of our mortality.
Why does the narrator specify that is the fear in the handful of dust is “different” than the shadow at morning or the shadow at evening? What is the difference he wants us to contemplate? Is it the difference between jumping at shadows vs contemplation of death? He wants to show us, he wants to lead us to the point where we can’t look away from death. Over and over again the narrator leads us to look death in the face, even while other voices are doing their best to avoid it.
In this passage Eliot takes on an Old Testament prophet sort of voice: reminding us of the end things, of death. When he seems to be promising relief, the shelter of the shadow under the red rock, we find that there is no comfort there after all. Only fear. But the only reason to fear death is because it represents annihilation. If death is not in fact the end but a new beginning then there is no reason to fear. This is the crux of the poem. Are we going to let fear keep us from changing, from growing, from facing the possibility of death to self?
One final thought: that enjambment that was driving me crazy, that refusal to end his sentences at the line breaks, it isn’t an accident, is it? It makes this passage relentless. There is no resting place. You are being herded, driven, rushed toward that final image, that handful of dust.
And you, dear faithful readers? What images here speak to you? What catches your eye or your ear? What do you see that I’ve missed or overlooked? (And there’s plenty I’ve missed here, don’t be afraid of pointing that out.)
Previous post: And When We Were Children—Blogging The Waste Land Part 7
by Melanie Bettinelli on March 17, 2012
photo here: “Cross… Crosses… just after the sunset at the Manapadu beach, Tuticorin District, Tamilnadu, India.”
I’ve realized that my Waste Land series is going to get long and unwieldy in terms of people trying to navigate through the posts chronologically, so I decided that the best way to make them work is to link each individual post to this index post, which will be a sort of Table of Contents for all my Waste Land posts.
First, here is a link to the full text of the poem online (with commentary and hyperlinks) and here is a second version with full text and footnotes and hyperlinked commentary and cross references. The first site is, I think, more readable; but the second site has a lot of great resources.
- Blogging The Waste Land—In which I introduce the series and give a little background information
- T.S. Eliot and the Last Crusade—Blogging the Waste Land Part 2—In which I discuss the significance of the title of the poem and especially the Grail myth.
- Blogging The Waste Land Part 3—Epigraph and Dedication—Yes, it really is an entire blog post about the Latin (and Greek) epigraph and the Italian dedication to Ezra Pound.
- April Is The Cruelest Month—Blogging the Waste Land Part 4—In which we look at the first four lines. And discuss Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
- Winter Kept Us Warm—Blogging The Waste Land Part 5—In which we look at lines 5-7.
- Summer Surprised Us—Blogging The Waste Land Part 6—In which we discuss lines 8-12.
- And When We Were Children—Blogging The Waste Land Part 7—Lines 13-18
- What Are the Roots that Clutch—Blogging The Waste Land Part 8—Lines 19-30
- Fresh Blows the Wind—Blogging The Waste Land Part 9—Lines 31-34
- You Gave Me Hyacinths—Blogging The Waste Land Part 10—Lines 35-42
- Madame Sosostris Famous Clairvoyante—Blogging The Waste Land Part 11—Lines 43-46
I really want this list to make it easy to access this series and to navigate among these posts. If you have any suggestions about how I can format this list to make it easier to read and navigate, please leave me a comment below.
by Melanie Bettinelli on March 17, 2012
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
As I mentioned in the comments to my last post, I think these six lines should properly be read together with the previous five lines in the last post as a single passage. I’m breaking this down into micro chunks for the sake of keeping these blog posts to a somewhat manageable length; but I am sacrificing a certain amount of coherence by doing so. Still, fragmentation is a major theme of the poem so I suppose treating it as a series of discrete fragments is somewhat appropriate.
This particular passage, with it’s feeling of fragmentation, seems to me to be an example of the “mixing memory and desire” of the poem’s second line. Are the last two lines connected to the first four? If so, how?
The first four lines create a little drama. The narrator recalls this event from childhood, sledding with someone—her cousin the archduke?—which was frightening at the time. The narrator follows it immediately with the statement, “in the mountains, there you feel free.” Has the memory of the fear become a sort of nostalgia for the adult who acknowledges the fear but recognizes it as a childish thing? Is this fifth line, then, a longing for the freedom of childhood? The contrast between the fear and the freedom is striking. Is the sled an image of freedom? The line always makes me think of the kind of breathtaking freedom of the rollercoaster—it’s frightening but the adrenaline rush is addictive. But then maybe the mountains feel free because you are away from the metropolis with all its complications, in the mountains escaping from the emotional entanglements of daily life?
I have no idea what to do with that final line: “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.” What do the two parts—reading and going south—have to do with each other? Does reading much of the night imply insomnia or just bookishness? What is the significance of going south in the winter? How does this line fit with the preceding lines? Is the speaker fleeing responsibility by staying up too late and going south for the winter? Does going south in the winter mean fleeing from the winter that “kept us warm” earlier in the poem? Is the speaker seeking to avoid the hibernation of winter or is running away south in the winter a part of the same impulse that thinks of April as cruel? Is this meant to create an impression of someone who is rich enough to travel to escape the seasons? Does this line convey a feeling of ennui?
I think I could go crazy trying to figure out what each little piece of the poem means; but I think the technique really is meant to be like mosaic. Rather than concentrating on any one tile, you need to stand back and look at the whole picture. It is the interplay between the various tiles that creates the image. There are whole sections of the poem that I’m not sure what to do with; but I have a general feeling for the whole. Still, it is good to look at each line and ponder it. Think about the feeling and the impressions, the allusions and the way it fits with the surrounding lines.
What do you think? Who is the speaker? Is there only one speaker here or are there multiple voices? Does it matter? What do these lines say to you?
Update: In the comments below Bearing gives a good reading of the line “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter”:
I will take a stab at the line. The two pieces “read much of the night” and “go south in the winter” do not say a whole lot on their own, but together add up to an impression of denial of, perhaps fear of, the natural march of time and seasons.
Someone who reads much of the might must be using artificial light. He or she is in a way refusing to accept the natural progression of light into darkness and then back into light again, that comes from the turning of the earth.
Someone who goes south for the winter is, likewise, trying to escape the natural progression of change of seasons. So this is someone who is taking refuge in the power of modern technology, and of personal wealth (that is how you can afford to go south for the winter—most people can’t) to escape the natural condition of the human person, which is to experience darkness at nighttime, and to experience the change in seasons.
I think I would be reading too much into these individually if they stood alone, but because they are juxtaposed, and in the same speaker, we are forced to say, “this is the kind of person who is afraid of the dark, and afraid of the cold.” This is a person who prefers to feel less of all strong sensations, because, so insulated, he or she is sheltered from the scary ones.
Previous post: Summer Surprised Us—Blogging The Waste Land Part 6
by Melanie Bettinelli on March 03, 2012
It has now been more than a month since my last Waste Land post. Eeep! I was planning to devote more time to them this Lent but so far have been distracted by other things. I’ve been sitting on this post for far too long so I’m just going to throw it up even though I don’t feel like I’ve said much.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
This eighth line marks a distinct turn in the poem. And not only the obvious one from winter to summer; but also a turn of tone and of speaker. It always surprises me a bit. (get it? surprises?) The first seven lines are so elevated. They exist in a kind of no-man’s land of poetic abstraction. The subject of the first sentence is “April” of the second sentence is “Winter” and there is no clear referent for the direct object, “us” so that it feels like a sort of generic “us”. But the “us” in line eight doesn’t feel generic at all. We aren’t sure who it is that was surprised by the summer; but we know where they were: Munich. The Starnberger See is the Bavarian capital Munich’s nearest lake. We aren’t sure who they are, this group of people who stopped in the colonnade and then moved on into the Hofgarten; but those actions are much more specific and rooted in a particular here and now.
Suddenly we’ve gone from death into the midst of life. We are no longer contemplating the cruelty of April and the paradox of winter. Now we are glimpsing a group of people, surprised by a summer shower, taking shelter, talking and drinking coffee. This is cosmopolitan, multi-lingual Europe of the upper class, if you’ll pardon a glance ahead to the line about “the archduke my cousin”. The commentaries I’ve seen spend time trying to pinpoint the identity of the speaker. Is she a particular Marie? A member of the Bavarian royal family? Is her cousin the archduke Rudolph whose life ended in an apparent murder-suicide or is he Franz-Ferdinand whose assassination precipitated the first World War? I’m not sure I care very much about the speculation. Is there just one speaker here or are there several? In any case Marie is the first of many speakers in the poem. Or if you will return to the original title and the idea of “doing the police in different voices”, she is the first of many “voices” that the poem puts on.
The line in German here translates as: “I’m not Russian at all, I come from Lithuania, a true German.” It is the first of many lines in the poem that are untranslated from a variety of languages. (I don’t really count the epigraph and dedication, where an untranslated quotation raises few eyebrows.) Are the foreign languages there to merely seem impressive, erudite, and Continental? Is Eliot just showing off? Are they meant to be confusing and obfuscating? I don’t think so. Are they pointing to something more? Do they serve to heighten our awareness of fragmentation? Do they have something to say about the fragmentation of the literary tradition? About the increasing rootlessness of a modern people who no longer feel connected to their own history and traditions? Do they point to the Tower of Babel?
I’m still not sure what to make of this passage and the one immediately following. I have more questions than answers. One of the things that I am sure this project will highlight for me is exactly how fragmentary my own grasp of the poem is. There are many lines and passages that fit nicely into my mental map of the poem but there are many irritating bits that refuse to fit. It’s like one of those jigsaw puzzles with thousands of pieces. you always have a little pile at the side of the table that you aren’t sure what to do with.
What do you make of this bit of summer? Of Marie and the Hofgarten and the German speaker?
Photo credit: Hofgarten by siegertmarc, on Flickr
by Melanie Bettinelli on January 30, 2012
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Winter kept us warm… There’s a paradox for you. That paradox leads me to the paradox of Christ: unless a grain of wheat shall fall upon the ground and die… Christianity is always a paradox, always a mystery. Life meets death and like Eliot’s Magi we aren’t certain if we’ve witnessed Birth or Death. Where are Chaucer’s pilgrims going? Chaucer points us to the holy martyr. To a tomb, a place of death, the place of martyrdom. A Martyr embraces death, knowing that death of the body is the birth of eternal life in heaven.
In this first stanza I recognize the moment of spiritual crisis when the soul begins to awaken to a realization that it is being called to rebirth and renewal. There is such a huge chasm that separates the sinner from grace—or so it can seem—and death stands in the way. The only way to achieve new life is to embrace the cross, to accept death of self. And that death can seem so terrifying. I don’t want to die to my self. I’m comfortable with the present me. Sure, maybe there are some grimy sins I’d like to get rid of… but only if it doesn’t hurt. Easier to forget the whole question of faith, God, salvation. Easier to lose yourself in the entertainment of the present moment. Put off the day of reckoning as long as possible. But then comes the pesky spring, calling you to awake, beckoning you to set forth from your comfortable home, to go on a pilgrimage, to embrace the road, the journey, knowing that it will lead you to the grave, the cross, the place of martyrdom. There is no other way but the Way.
covering earth in forgetful snow I love that forgetful snow. Here again we have the theme of memory. What have we forgotten? Why are we cut off from the past? What have we lost? What needs to be remembered and recollected?
feeding a little life with dried tubers. It is that phrase that always makes me think of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters at this point in the poem. It’s not a favorite painting of mine. So dark and dreary. The faces feel rather like caricatures instead of real people. It makes me think of period illustrations of Charles Dickens’ works. And yet… I also have the distinct feeling that Van Gogh loved these people that he’s painted. His brush reveals no scorn for them. Likewise, Eliot’s poem always seems to have a deep compassion for his characters, small souled though they may be.
Also, I love that word, tubers. Such a firm, earthy word. Roots. There are more roots to come in the poem. Roots that clutch, roots that feed. Roots are hidden but so important. And I suddenly think of the O Antiphons, O Radix Jesse. Do the roots deliberately point us to Christ?
The enjambment continues and here the verbs, covering and feeding… I get a feeling that winter is a mother, caring for her children. In fact, now I notice that all of the verbs are very domestic and maternal: breeding, mixing, stirring, covering, feeding. I’m not sure where to take that, just an observation.
I started this post almost two weeks ago. But this flue has had us in its nasty grip for almost that long as well. Now that sickness is slowly letting go its hold, perhaps I can pick up the pace a little bit. We’ll see. Motherhood is never dull.
Previous post: April Is The Cruelest Month—Blogging the Waste Land Part 4
by Melanie Bettinelli on January 17, 2012
Believe me I was tempted to do a blog entry on the title of the first section, The Burial of the Dead—but I know there is someone out there saying: Get on with it already! How many blog entries can you post before you even get to the first line of the poem?! So I’ll let that go with a note that the title of this section is from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which begins
I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. John 11: 25-26.
Keep those words in mind as you read because I believe that the the motif of resurrection is as strong as the theme of death. No, this is not a poem of despair; but the hope is there even if it is tentative and elusive.
And so at last we begin. The poem opens with one of my favorite lines in any poem:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
In that first sentence there is a lot to unpack. First, is the reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which begins:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
10 That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15 And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
Ok, ok. I just had to stick it in in the Middle English because I took a class in Medieval Poetry in college and we had to read selections of The Canterbury Tales and all of Troilus and Criseyde in the original and so that’s how it always sounds in my own memory. But I’ll be nice and give it to you in a contemporary English translation:
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.
In Chaucer April pierces March’s drought with sweet showers. Eliot seizes on that verb “pierce” and in his poem April is cruel not sweet. Eliot’s narrator is a sort of negative image of Chaucer’s—where Chuaucer rejoices in Spring’s abundant life which culminates in a longing for pilgrimage and renewal, Eliot’s narrator focuses on death and longs for winter’s sleep. He doesn’t want memory and desire to be aroused. He fears change and clings to his small comfortable life.
The confluence of lilacs and death calls to mind Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d, another poem that sings about the return of spring and of a journey. In Whitman’s poem the journey is that of Lincoln’s corpse:
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
Why does Eliot choose this poem to allude to? I think very likely it is that image of the coffin and the journey of the corpse. But also other thematic parallels come to mind. Memory is a theme in Whitman’s poem, the way the lilacs’ yearly blooming stirs up the memory of Lincoln’s funeral in the previous April. There are more allusions to Whitman’s elegy to come—a major figure in Whitman’s poem is the thrush, which will appear in The Waste Land as well.
So much for the first sentence. As you can see it is packed. But put aside the allusions to Chaucer and Whitman for a minute and enjoy the music of the lines as well. It can be tempting to get so caught up in the treasure hunt of tracking down Eliot’s allusions that I forget to appreciate the lyrical quality of the words themselves.
I love the enjambment. The emphasis is on the verbs: breeding, mixing, stirring.
I think that’s enough to chew on for now. Tell me what you think as you read these opening lines.
Previous post: Blogging The Waste Land Part 3—Epigraph and Dedication
Next post: Master Index of Waste Land posts.”>Winter Kept Us Warm—Blogging The Waste Land Part 5