Sunday, September 25, 2011

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Bellow followed up his huge novel The Adventures of Augie March with Seize the Day, a novella of 116 pages. Appearing simple on the surface, it takes a cue from the psychologist Wilhelm Reich. The fact that the psychiatrist's first name and that of the novel's protagonist are the same is evidence of intentional Reichianism. The novella takes place in a single day in New York's Upper West Side. The narrator is 3rd person omniscient, yet the point of view often changes and infiltrates the thoughts of the protagonist, taking on the 1st person. It therefore becomes hard to tell what is Tommy's imagination and reality. Water is a recurring motif that carries symbolic meaning.

Chap I. Tommy Wilhelm, the 44-year old protagonist joins his father Dr. Adler for breakfast at the Hotel Gloriana. Tommy and his father usually meet in the elevator, but "he was aware that his routine was about to break up and he sensed that a huge trouble long presaged but till now formless was due" (p, 4). We soon learn that Tommy has gone into a commodities investment venture with Dr. Tamkin, a psychologist. Tommy is desperate financially and yearns for the assistance of his father. Several flashbacks reveal the talent scout Maurice Venice, attracted to Tommy by his good looks in college. On film, Tommy proves to be awkward. Venice refuses to take him on, yet he lies to his parents, drops out of college, and moves to California. Actually, Venice was a fraud and involved in a prostitution racket. In many ways, Venice is a double for Tommy, a failure and a liar, a drowning man (Venice conjures canals and water). We also learn that Tommy changed his name from Wilhelm Adler, a first indication of him shedding himself from his father (his sister Catherine changes her name to Phillippa). Tommy is quick to blame others for his circumstance, yet takes credit for his own failure. Tommy believes that self-determination is impossible in his world: "there's really very little that a man can change at will. He can't change his lungs, or nerves, or constitution or temperament" (p. 24). Tommy's aversion to water is disclosed as he remembers a line from Milton's Lycidas: "Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor..." (p. 13), in which Lycidas drowns.

Chap II. We learn that Tommy has separated from his wife Margaret and his children, a fact that meets with great disapproval from his father. At breakfast, Dr. Adler hounds Tommy about his pill addiction. We learn that Tommy had a job with the WPA and had a hotel job in Cuba. Adler constantly criticizes his son for misjudgements, especially with Dr. Tamkin, who fantasizes just like Tommy. Tamkin once described an underwater suit he wanted to invent so that a man could walk across the Hudson in case of an atomic attack (p. 41). This is symbolic of the figurative "wet suit" he will provide Tommy to prevent him from "drowning." Tommy defends Tamkin's entrepreneurial spirit "Everybody wants to make something. Any American does" (p. 41). Yet Tommy's aversion to water is acute: "He used an electric razor so that he didn't have to touch water" (p. 36).

Chap III. Father and son meet for breakfast. Adler suggests that Tommy go to the baths, since water cures ailments (p. 44). But the last thing a drowning man needs is more water ! They discuss Tommy's wife Margaret, who is asking for money. It is revealed that Tommy had a lover, Olive. Adler tells Tommy that he will not "carry" him on his back and gives the same advice to his son (p. 55). Tommy and his father do not speak the same language. His father's language is too concrete, whereas Tamkin's is more poetic and attuned to Tommy's feelings. Tamkin acts as Tommy's surrogate father (Tam-kin = kin of Tom) because they share the same language.

Chap IV. Tommy has a flashback to the day in which he signed over his money to Tamkin, although Tamkin could not contribute his equal share. Tamkin tells Tommy about the duplicity of the soul: the true soul and the pretend soul. He claims that one should live in the "here-and-now. Seize the day" (p. 66). Tamkin gives Tommy a poem he has written about him entitled "Mechanism vs. Functionalism/Ism vs. Hism" (p. 75), a nearly direct translation of Reichian philosophy. Reich claimed that neurosis and imbalance arise out of the inner self (the natural) and the external world (that of monetary pressures). Tamkin posits this in terms of the real and pretend souls. Tamkin's poem is paradoxical in that it makes fun of Romantic poetry. Kiernan (Saul Bellow) says that the point of this preposterous poem is surely that Tommy's grasp of it is more grotesquely inept than even Tamkin's verse. He says to Tamkin "I'm trying to figure out who this Thou is" (p. 76).

Tamkin has some truth telling moments. "You can't march in a straight line to the victory...You fluctuate toward it. From Euclid to Newton, there was straight lines. The modern age analyzes the wavers" (p. 64). Tommy is in his "watery" state, on track to clarity. Tamkin feels Tommy must embrace the water he is drowning in to achieve rebirth. Contrast this to his father, an advocate of a straight line to victory. Bellow allows us to see books in Tamkin's home that exist in opposition or discuss opposing philosophies, e.g., W.H. Sheldon was a staunch anti-Freudian (p. 72). To add to the "naturalism" it is important to note the significance of the fact that Tommy's grandfather called him "Velvel," Hebrew for wolf. It points to Tommy's lonely howling, a Reichian animalistic trait. The last sentence of the chapter picks up the water theme: "The waters of the earth are going to roll over me" (p. 77).

Chap V. This chapter opens on Broadway and jumps to stock market floor. Tamkin becomes Tommy's guide in this chapter. Ironically, memory (not the here-and-now) is the most significant action for Tommy here as he recalls feeling at one with humanity in Times Square and Margaret nursing him back to health. His internal self and the external world merge in his Times Square memory: "Today, his day of reckoning, he consulted his memory and thought, I must go back to that. That's the right clue and may do me the most good. Something very big. Truth, like" (p. 85). In the second memory, Margaret reads to him "somewhat unwillingly" (p. 90) a poem about love. The poem is about someone who thought to leave the other until they grew in love. The memory is unresolved, like the love. This chapter is not about Tommy learning to swim but more about the process, it is a path to understanding.

Chap VI. Tamkin and Tommy have lunch. Tamkin tells Tommy not to "marry suffering" (p. 98). Tamkin says his wife died of drowning, which Tommy does not believe. After visiting the market, Tommy discovers that Tamkin is missing. This chapter appears regressive in that Tommy has lost faith in Tamkin. Although this is a backward step, Tommy will have to learn to get on without Tamkin. A mirror is presented to Tommy in the guise of the blind man Rappaport, who appears obsessed with money, a mirror image that Tommy fails to see. Tommy feels threatened in a naturalist way by his surroundings, as evidenced by the beggarly violinist who "pointed his bow at Wilhelm, saying, "You!'"' (p. 100).

Chap VII. The chapter begins with Tommy using his father's language "Tamkin was on my back" (p. 105). Tommy seeks Tamkin in the Hotel Gloriana. On entering the hotel, he is recognized as Dr. Adler's son. Tommy will have to learn to be more than just someone's son if he is to come to any understanding. He then seeks out his father, finding him in the massage. His father rebukes him once again in their final confrontation. On his way to look again for Tamkin, he takes a call from Margaret, asking for money. One, two, three, he sheds Tamkin, his father, and his wife. It is only when he is left completely alone that he can piece together the puzzle. Racing out onto the street, amidst teeming humanity, he believes he sees Tamkin at a funeral. He follows the funeral procession into the church in the final scene of the book. Tommy cries with all his heart over the dead stranger, ending the novella with redeeming tears. Again, it is only through distance and separation that Tommy can achieve understanding. The dead human being gives him a rare distance. In the end, he discovers his own language: feeling, tears, and love.

Kiernan observes that the parallel with Lycidas' regenerative death is unmistakable in the last paragraph containing the lines "sea-like music came up to his ears," "poured into him," and "sank deeper than sorrow" (p. 118). Most critics read the final scene in salvific terms. The passage should be understood as mocking Wilhelm's sense of himself as a drowning man. Ironically, his role as mourner links him to Milton rather than to Lycidas - to an ignoble Milton, in fact, drowning in self-pity.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hamlet and His Problems by T.S. Eliot

Published in 1919, Hamlet and His Problems may be considered an example of "destructive criticism" in that it challenges established critical perspectives on a work of art. The essay is of greatest interest in it's formulation of the doctrine of the "Objective Correlative."

When T.S. Eliot revised his English collection Elizabethan Essays for an American edition twenty-two years after its initial publication, he made a number of serious cuts. In cutting "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca," "Hamlet and His Problems," and "Four Elizabethan Dramatists," he remarked that these essays "on re-examination embarrassed me by their callowness, and by a facility of unqualified assertion which verges, here and there, on impudence. The Hamlet, of course, had been kept afloat all these years by the phrase 'objective correlative'--a phrase which, I am now told, is not even my own but was first used by Washington Alston [sic]." Allston coined the term in 1840 in his "Introductory Discourse" of his Lectures on Art. Interestingly, these lectures were edited by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. and published in 1850. Dana was the noted author of Two Years Before the Mast and his grandson was a noted Madison Ave. architect with Murphy & Dana.

Critics of "Hamlet and His Problems" tend to treat it as a patient etherized upon a table (language from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock), from which they feel able to surgically remove the idea of the "objective correlative," dissociating it from its context. The essay itself is rarely discussed as having any bearing on Hamlet whatsoever, and has become little more than a vehicle for bringing into the critical vocabulary a conceptual formulation that has proved difficult and often unwieldy for criticism. It is surely one of Eliot's most epigrammatic, gnomically formulated pieces of literary criticism.

Eliot posits that most criticism is directed at the character Hamlet, rather than the play. He cites Goethe and Coleridge, who were not immune to this fallacy, who have substituted "their own Hamlet for Shakespeare's." Eliot claims they have imposed their personalities on Shakespeare's Hamlet. The reader may want to keep in mind that the logic and consistency advocated by Eliot are not essential to a play's success, nor to its greatness and immortality.

Hamlet and His Problems

FEW critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. And Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art. The kind of criticism that Goethe and Coleridge produced, in writing of Hamlet, is the most misleading kind possible. For they both possessed unquestionable critical insight, and both make their critical aberrations the more plausible by the substitution—of their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s—which their creative gift effects. We should be thankful that Walter Pater did not fix his attention on this play.

Eliot, on the other hand praises Robrtson and Stoll, who tried to shift the critical focus of Hamlet to a right direction by pointing out the genesis of Shakespeare's play from his predecessors: "Hamlet is a stratification."

Two recent writers, Mr. J. M. Robertson and Professor Stoll of the University of Minnesota, have issued small books which can be praised for moving in the other direction. Mr. Stoll performs a service in recalling to our attention the labours of the critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 1 observing that they knew less about psychology than more recent Hamlet critics, but they were nearer in spirit to Shakespeare’s art; and as they insisted on the importance of the effect of the whole rather than on the importance of the leading character, they were nearer, in their old-fashioned way, to the secret of dramatic art in general.

Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know. Mr. Robertson points out, very pertinently, how critics have failed in their “interpretation” of Hamlet by ignoring what ought to be very obvious: that Hamlet is a stratification, that it represents the efforts of a series of men, each making what he could out of the work of his predecessors. The Hamlet of Shakespeare will appear to us very differently if, instead of treating the whole action of the play as due to Shakespeare’s design, we perceive his Hamlet to be superposed upon much cruder material which persists even in the final form.

Eliot goes on to examine the play from a historical perspective. Eliot argues that the revenge motives in the earlier plays are dramatically justified, but in Hamlet, there is a failure in establishing motive of the character. Eliot maintains that Shakespeare made certain changes from Kyd's play, but these changes were far from convincing.

We know that there was an older play by Thomas Kyd, that extraordinary dramatic (if not poetic) genius who was in all probability the author of two plays so dissimilar as the Spanish Tragedy and Arden of Feversham; and what this play was like we can guess from three clues: from the Spanish Tragedy itself, from the tale of Belleforest upon which Kyd’s Hamlet must have been based, and from a version acted in Germany in Shakespeare’s lifetime which bears strong evidence of having been adapted from the earlier, not from the later, play. From these three sources it is clear that in the earlier play the motive was a revenge-motive simply; that the action or delay is caused, as in the Spanish Tragedy, solely by the difficulty of assassinating a monarch surrounded by guards; and that the “madness” of Hamlet was feigned in order to escape suspicion, and successfully. In the final play of Shakespeare, on the other hand, there is a motive which is more important than that of revenge, and which explicitly “blunts” the latter; the delay in revenge is unexplained on grounds of necessity or expediency; and the effect of the “madness” is not to lull but to arouse the king’s suspicion. The alteration is not complete enough, however, to be convincing. Furthermore, there are verbal parallels so close to the Spanish Tragedy as to leave no doubt that in places Shakespeare was merely revising the text of Kyd. And finally there are unexplained scenes—the Polonius-Laertes and the Polonius-Reynaldo scenes—for which there is little excuse; these scenes are not in the verse style of Kyd, and not beyond doubt in the style of Shakespeare. These Mr. Robertson believes to be scenes in the original play of Kyd reworked by a third hand, perhaps Chapman, before Shakespeare touched the play. And he concludes, with very strong show of reason, that the original play of Kyd was, like certain other revenge plays, in two parts of five acts each. The upshot of Mr. Robertson’s examination is, we believe, irrefragable: that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so far as it is Shakespeare’s, is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son, and that Shakespeare was unable to impose this motive successfully upon the “intractable” material of the old play.

Eliot then claims the play is an artistic failure. Shakespeare failed to impose a dramatic order. Eliot relates it to another great failure, the Mona Lisa, creating more controversy !

Of the intractability there can be no doubt. So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others. Of all the plays it is the longest and is possibly the one on which Shakespeare spent most pains; and yet he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed. The versification is variable. Lines like

Look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill,

are of the Shakespeare of Romeo and Juliet. The lines in Act v. sc. ii., Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting

That would not let me sleep…
Up from my cabin,
My sea-gown scarf’d about me, in the dark
Grop’d I to find out them: had my desire;
Finger’d their packet;

are of his quite mature. Both workmanship and thought are in an unstable condition. We are surely justified in attributing the play, with that other profoundly interesting play of “intractable” material and astonishing versification, Measure for Measure, to a period of crisis, after which follow the tragic successes which culminate in Coriolanus. Coriolanus may be not as “interesting” as Hamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success. And probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the “Mona Lisa” of literature.

The grounds of Hamlet’s failure are not immediately obvious. Mr. Robertson is undoubtedly correct in concluding that the essential emotion of the play is the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother:

[Hamlet’s] tone is that of one who has suffered tortures on the score of his mother’s degradation.… The guilt of a mother is an almost intolerable motive for drama, but it had to be maintained and emphasized to supply a psychological solution, or rather a hint of one.

This, however, is by no means the whole story. It is not merely the “guilt of a mother” that cannot be handled as Shakespeare handled the suspicion of Othello, the infatuation of Antony, or the pride of Coriolanus. The subject might conceivably have expanded into a tragedy like these, intelligible, self-complete, in the sunlight. Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art. And when we search for this feeling, we find it, as in the sonnets, very difficult to localize. You cannot point to it in the speeches; indeed, if you examine the two famous soliloquies you see the versification of Shakespeare, but a content which might be claimed by another, perhaps by the author of the Revenge of Bussy d’ Ambois, Act v. sc. i. We find Shakespeare’s Hamlet not in the action, not in any quotations that we might select, so much as in an unmistakable tone which is unmistakably not in the earlier play.

Finally, Eliot uses a term (Objective Correlative) which would draw the attention of the critical community and goes on to put a solution through this. Eliot feels Shakespeare made use of the concept successfully in Othello and Macbeth, precisely not the case in Hamlet. Shakespeare could not project ant external elements or events which would fitfully reflect his inner world and could not present external events or elements which would justify his terrible mental anguish. According to Eliot, Hamlet's case is over-reaction. "Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her." In other words, Eliot made the point that in the "Closet Scene," when Hamlet confronts Queen Gertrude, his mother, in her bedchamber, his words demonstrate an animosity and a vindictiveness for which the audience is totally unprepared. There is a greater inconsistency than Hamlet's attitude toward his mother - it is Hamlet's almost total lack of concern for his loss of the Kingdom of Denmark.

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. If you examine any of Shakespeare’s more successful tragedies, you will find this exact equivalence; you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him. And it must be noticed that the very nature of the données of the problem precludes objective equivalence. To have heightened the criminality of Gertrude would have been to provide the formula for a totally different emotion in Hamlet; it is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.

Finally, Eliot takes up the case of Hamlet's Madness and tries to refute conventional wisdom by arguing that Hamlet's madness "is less than madness and more than feigned." Eliot assigns the genesis of the drama to an unknown state of mind of the creator and hopes for exploration on the part of the Contemporary Literature Scholars and critics to solve "an insoluble puzzle."

The “madness” of Hamlet lay to Shakespeare’s hand; in the earlier play a simple ruse, and to the end, we may presume, understood as a ruse by the audience. For Shakespeare it is less than madness and more than feigned. The levity of Hamlet, his repetition of phrase, his puns, are not part of a deliberate plan of dissimulation, but a form of emotional relief. In the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art. The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known; it is doubtless a study to pathologists. It often occurs in adolescence: the ordinary person puts these feelings to sleep, or trims down his feeling to fit the business world; the artist keeps it alive by his ability to intensify the world to his emotions. The Hamlet of Laforgue is an adolescent; the Hamlet of Shakespeare is not, he has not that explanation and excuse. We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know. We need a great many facts in his biography; and we should like to know whether, and when, and after or at the same time as what personal experience, he read Montaigne, II. xii., Apologie de Raimond Sebond. We should have, finally, to know something which is by hypothesis unknowable, for we assume it to be an experience which, in the manner indicated, exceeded the facts. We should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself.

Note 1. I have never, by the way, seen a cogent refutation of Thomas Rymer’s objections to Othello.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot's first important poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, appeared in Poetry in 1915. He first drafted the poem in 1909 while a student at Harvard, and at the time he signed it T. Stearns Eliot. Paralysis, the incapacity to act, has been the Achilles heel of many famous literary characters, notably Hamlet. Eliot parodically updates Hamlet's paralysis to the modern world.

It is a song of a being divided between passion and timidity. The poem starts with action, an invitation to go, and moves to inaction. The poem is a monologue, spoken by "I" who is presumably Prufrock. He talks to a "you", who appears to be a companion, maybe a woman. The poem builds from strain to tension, to a relaxation of tension, to a cessation of all action. Prufrock does not dare to seek love for fear of disappointment. He is consciously unheroic, witness his own comparison of himself with Hamlet. The epigraph heightens Prufrock's frustration. It refers to the torture of Guido da Montefeltro in the eighth circle of Dante's Inferno. Prufrock lives in a world of fantasy and daydreaming. The epigraph reads: If I thought that my answer were to one who ever could return to the world; this flame should quake no more; but since none ever did return alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer thee. The passage implies that the lovesong itself is not sung in the real world. It is an interior monologue. In the Inferno, the hero descends into the nine successive levels of Hell - suggesting the lowering of height and expectations. Prufrock sweeps reader on a downward ride - skyline to street life to down the stairs at a party and eventually the sea floor. Prufrock is descending into his own Hell, and he brings the reader with him for safety - just as Guido da Montefeltro tells Dante in his story in Hell only because he thinks Dante will never resurface and tell others about it.

The poem opens with a command to the self (you) to accompany the physical him (I) to a distant "room." The object of the journey is to declare his love to a lady. The opening image of the patient suggests Prufrock's view of himself as helpless - etherized. Here Eliot deploys the objective correlative (see my blog on Eliot's Hamlet). The objective correlative is the use of objects, symbols or descriptions in art by which certain emotions are invoked. Lines 2,3 evoke helplessness, entrapment and impotence. The "one-night cheap hotels" suggest fruitless unsatisfying sexual relations in the past. The "sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells" suggest cheap jerry-built (sawdust) places with shell ashtrays. Arriving at the "room," he finds the women discussing Michelangelo, a figure to who Prufrock cannot aspire. The fog "that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes" evokes feline movement - the "cat" goes down from the high windowpanes to the "pools that stand in drains,' lets soot from the chimneys fall on its back, then leaps from the terrace to the ground. The cat does not enter or penetrate the house. Prufrock's prude-in-a-frock effeminacy emerges through the cat.

The "works of days and hands" refers to Hesoid's "Works and Days." Distracting himself with the "fog" he persuades himself that he has timer to "prepare a face." His recurrent thought of the women leads him to speculate about their reaction to his physical self. He is aware of his baldness and thinness. He feels his first sense of doubt "do I dare disturb the universe?" The tedium and monotony of his life is clear. He has "measured out his life with coffee spoons." He rejects the eyes and recoils from the horror of being "pinned" down and dissected like a grasshopper. "Sprawling on a pin" refers to practice of pinning insect specimens for study. He rejects the arms, yet dwells on them in an erotic context. He reveals his insecurity again and again in the repeated "how should I presume." Prufrock has a disorder sense of time, witness "evenings, mornings, afternoons." A few lines later, Eliot uses the word "presume" in its latinate meaning - anticipate - rather than its vernacular usage - to undertake without clear justification. In the climactic passage, he mentions the only possibility for him, to descend the stairs and leave the room. Prufrock feels he should have been "a pair of ragged claws," an allusion to Hamlet, in which Hamlet mocks Polonius "for yourself, sir, should be as old as I am, if, like a crab, you could go backward" (2.2.205-206). The crab image of Prufrock adds to the cat and insect.

S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats5
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,15
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,20
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;25
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go35
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—40
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare45
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,50
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—55
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?60
And how should I presume?
And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress65
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets70
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…
I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Prufrock, in his reverie, refers to the afternoon, quickly correcting himself to evening, as sleeping peacefully. His reverie reaches a climax as he refers himself to John the Baptist. A dancing girl, Salome, requested the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter from KIng Herod. Being beheaded may be a sign of being unmanned. He immediately denies the dignity of the comparison "I am no prophet." He considers himself the butt of a "footman," who symbolizes death. Prufrock has confessed his cowardice to himself. The poem moves towards the closing image of drowning. From this point, Prufrock speaks of what would have happened had it not been too late. The fear of being revealed causes him to rationalize his failure.

"Squeeze the universe into a ball" refers to Andrew Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress." In the poem, the speaker urges his lady to have sex with him while they are still young and alive - "Let us roll all our strength, and all / Our sweetness, up into one ball. / and tear our pleasures with rough strife / Through the iron gates of life," suggestive of phallic penetration of the hymen. Yet Prufrock deludes himself into thinking he has plenty of time left. Marvel's protagonist is in a hurry, Prufrock is not, so the reference oozes with irony.

. . . . . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!75
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?80
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,85
And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,90
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—95
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,100
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:105
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,

That is not what I meant, at all.”

In this final section, the tone changes gain, there is no more overwhelming question. He cannot even compare himself with Hamlet (literature's other great indecisive man), but rather with Polonius, a sometime wise "Fool." The lack of "I" in front of "Am an attendant lord [Polonius]" bespeaks of Prufrock's lack of ego. Prufrock echoes Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" in "nor was meant to be."

He resolves to retreat to the beach, his white flannel trouser bottoms rolled up, pathetically approximating a bohemian style, an attempt to ward off death. He concerns himself with questions no more momentous than "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Parting his hair behind may hide the baldness. Eating a peach is as near the forbidden fruit as he dares to approach. The peach has long been a symbol for female genitalia. His anxiety about eating a peach has everything to do with his feelings of sexual inadequacy.

The mermaids who tempted Ulysses will not sing to him. His conception of them has been a delusion. He is recalled to reality by the voices in the drawing room, and he awakens from his reverie too late. Prufrick switches from his first-person singular narration to first-person plural in the last stanza - for his final plunge, he wants to make sure that we, his Dantesque listener, accompany him into his self-pitying Hell. The concluding two three-line stanzas act as a sestet (six lines). Petrarchian sonnets complement the opening octet with a sestet. This is Eliot's final mock-allusion to yet another Renaissance artist (after Dante and Michelangelo). Petrarch unrequitedly mooned after his love, Laura, but Prufrock does not even have an attainable ideal love.

. . . . . . . .
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,115
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …120
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.125
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown130
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1922. Ultimately, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Mary Karr, in the introduction to The Modern Library edition says the boundary between 20th century verse in English and it's 19th century predecessors came down with an axe swoop and the blade was T.S. Eliot's "Waste Land." Some believe The Waste Land to stand alone with Joyce's Ulysses as the greatest works of modernist literature. William Carlos Williams said the poem "wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it." Karr also admits it is the gold standard for difficulty. She says "I've been as guilty as any critic or academic of invoking the poem in essays and lectures as a voodoo mojo to vanquish the lesser spirits of my own intellectual insecurity."

Karr explains how to read The Waste Land. Treat it like a first date - only if you fall in love do you make a study of the beloved. The poem is a collage, with disparate pieces assembled to create in readers the kind of despair that infected Western Europe after WW1. Chemical weaponry had broadened the War's scope. Airplanes could fly over and dismantle troops. The glory of dying for one's country was a thing of the past. Karr views the poem as a vaccine against the horror it describes by injecting a nonlethal dosage.

Expect Eliot's text to be disorienting as battle. The narrator keeps changing through the stanzas. The poem's made of bits and overlays snatches of speech and songs - just as cities were. We see a sibyl pronouncing in Greek her longing to die. We hear an Australian drinking song. We hear Dante's language and pub chitchat. Homer's blind seer Tiresias acts as voyeur, a wacky clairvoyante makes the scene with a bogus tarot pack.

In order to add some length to the 433-line poem for book presentation, Eliot added notes that have generated an antlike industry of Ph.D. candidates for generations. Eliot dropped these notes like bread crumbs to entice and/or intimidate critics. Karr describes grad students looking to source the notes as comparable to dogs loping after any thrown Frisbee.

I have included the complete poem below in red and have interspersed comments within the text.

The Waste Land

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis

vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:
Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.

[The epigraph in Latin and Greek is from Petronius Arbiter's Satyricon. In the story, Sybil asks Apollo for as many years of life as possible, but forgets to ask that she keep her youth. The Latin and Greek translates to "For once I saw with my own eyes the Cumean Sybil hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she answered 'I want to die.'" Already, before the first verse, we have a key theme of rebirth after death. For Sybil, death alone offers a means of escape. The Sybil's predicament mirrors what Eliot sees as his own: he lives in a culture that has decayed and withered but will not expire. He is forced to live with reminders of his former glory. Of course, this tees us up for the major theme of the first chapter: death. The first chapter consists of 4 vignettes, each from the perspective of a different speaker.]

The title comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. 1st vignette: The opening line is famous and is curious. Those familiar with Chaucer’s poem The Canterbury Tales will recognize that Eliot is taking Chaucer’s introductory line from the prologue—which is optimistic about the month of April and the regenerative, life-giving season of spring—and turning it on its head. Just as Chaucer’s line sets the tone for The Canterbury Tales, Eliot’s dark words inform the reader that this is going to be a dark poem. Knowledge of the better things in life (love, rebirth) that are represented by Spring causes deep anxiety in the mind of the narrator living in a post War era. "Memory and desire" mix in a very forlorn fashion. In the first stanza, the narrator, an aristocratic woman. Marie, clings to life through her memories, the Starnbergersee (lake in Munich), sledding with his cousin, etc. The Hofgarten memory precipitates a flurry of grammar, including the German phrase which translates as "I'm not Russian at all, I come from Lithuania, a true German." This line is nonsensical, as Lithuania is not part of Germany. Yet, eerily, this line anticipates Europe's identity crisis nearly a century forward.]


APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
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, stammaus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’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.

[2nd vignette: The second stanza continues to look into the past, after describing the waste land as "stony rubbish." "Son of man" evokes Ezekial 2.1 and Ecclesiastes 12.5. Eliot constructs a sort of dialogue between the son of man and a higher power. THe narrator is desperately seeking for a sign of life ("what are the roots that clutch, what branches grow ?"). Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, an Arthurian tale of adultery and loss, is evoked in the German lines, culminating in "Where do you wait?" This scene is where her love begins. In the story, Isolde overhears Tristan singing this song, bringing ruminations of love promised. Wagner was the first modernizer of opera. The narrator changes, now it could be Eliot himself, pining for the hyacinth girl (maybe his ex wife Vivienne), yet he is rendered impotent ("I could not speak and my eyes failed.") by his love for her. Limbo is described by "neither Living nor dead." Tristan und Isolde is evoked once again, but now speaks to the tragedy of love lost ("Looking into the heart of light, the silence."). The German translates as "Desolate and empty is the sea" as told to Tristan as she waits for the return of Isolde's ship.]

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.
Frisch weht der Wind
Heimat zu,
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
“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.
Ödund leer das Meer.

[3rd vignette: The next stanza shifts the view forward, through the clairvoyante, Madame Sosostris, a character from Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow. She is a tarot card reader, but not playing with a full deck. In this stanza the narrator becomes the Phoenician sailor. Eliot makes up some of the tarot cards, like the one-eyed merchant - the Lady of the Rocks is Da Vinci's "Madonna of the Rocks." She sees a forbidden scene on a blank card, telling the Sailor to fear death by water. A key theme is reiterated "I see crowds of people walking around in a ring," going nowhere. The stanza ends with her asking the narrator to leave a message for her client, Mrs. Equitone.]

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(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 here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am 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.

[4th vignette: This final stanza describes a burial procession. Unreal City (Paris for Baudelaire) is from Baudelaire's poem "Seven Old Men." The first few lines are rich with alliteration with the "n" sounds predominating and evoking discordant noise. "A crowd flowed over London" is from Dante's Inferno, in an apocryphal instant where the real world becomes a vision, "I had not thought death had undone so many" is from Canto 3 (evoking the Gates of Hell), "Sighs, short, and infrequent, were inhaled" is from Canto 4 (Limbo). The denizens of London remind Eliot of those without any blame or praise who are relegated to the Gates of Hell, and those who were never baptized and who now dwell in Limbo. The narrator recognizes a friend from the War - Stetson. Mylae refers to the 1st Punic War ! No matter, the point is that all wars are the same. This is echoed in the preface to Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal - "hypocrite reader - my likeness - my brother," viz all men are the same.]

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 King William
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson!
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?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh 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!

[The second chapter derives it's name from Thomas Middleton's play. Chess is the quintessential game of The Waste Land - interactions are reduced to movements on a checkered board. The 1st stanza refers to Cleopatra (viz Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra). Of course, Cleopatra suffered a failed love affair. Eliot loves Shakespeare as the first modern dramatist. This may also be a reference to Eliot's ex wife Vivienne. The stanza refers to the rape of Philomela by King Tereus in the "sylvan" woods from Ovid's Metamorphosis. Tereus cuts her tongue out to keep her quiet. She and her sister murder the King's son and feed him to the king. Philomela is turned into a nightingale.]


The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out 80
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion;
In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Flung their smoke into the laquearia,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carvèd dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.
And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms
Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.
Footsteps shuffled on the stair,
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.

[The next stanza is a good example of the revolutionary use of common language, a discussion between a neurotic wife and a recalcitrant husband. The husband refuses to speak despite her whining insistence that he do so.]

“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.
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

“What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?
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.

[The next stanza describes a squalid pub scene at closing time (HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME). Lil is urged to fix herself up before Albert returns from the War. Lil claims the cause of her ravaged looks is from medications for an abortion ("it's them pills I took, to bring it off"). This section constitutes a loose series of phrases connected by "I said(s)" and "she said(s)," perhaps the most poetically experimental section of the poem. The lower class vernacular resists poetic treatment. This section refutes the prevalent claim that iambic pentameter mirrors normal English speech patterns. The rhythms of lower class London speech give way to words of Hamlet's Ophelia to Claudius.]

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said,
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said,
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be alright, but I’ve never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

[The title of this section is taken from a sermon given by Buddha. In short, the central theme of the next stanza is sex and the dangers of lust. The nymph references are from Spenser's Prothalamion. Images of modern life abound - handkerchiefs, cigarette ends. Leman refers to Lake Geneva - the phraseology comes from Psalm 137.]


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. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

[The legend of the Fisher King is central to Eliot's masterpiece. He has been wounded in the genitals and his lack of potency is the cause of his country becoming a dessicated waste land. Heal the Fisher King and the land will regain its fertility. Only the Holy Grail can reverse the spell. A prior crime or violation serves as cause for the Fisher King's malady. The rape of a maiden may lie at the root, hence Eliot's allusion to the tale of Philomela. We see this legend invoked below, as the narrator becomes the Fisher King. "My brother's wreck" is language taken from both the Tempest is blended with Parzival. Ancient mythology of Actaea and Diana from John Day's Parliament of Bees, is recast as Sweeney and Mrs. Porter. The French is from Verlaine's Parsifal sonnet.]

A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse.
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.
But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Et, O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!

[Below is another reference to the rape of Philomela ("so rudely forc'd") by Tereu (Tereus)]

Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d.

[Below the "one-eyed" merchant had been named by Sosostris the clairvoyante. The Cannon street Hotel was known in its day for homosexual trysts, as Eugenides was offering the narrator. The currants are symbolic of infertility, dessicated versions of once fertile fruits.]

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants
C. i. f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a week-end at the Metropole.

[The next stanza sees the narrator take on the role of Tiresius, the blind prophet who has lived both as a man and a woman, and is therefore "throbbing bwteen two lives." This Peeping Tom observes a tryst between a typist (pun on the idea that she's just any old type of woman) who is so poor she cannot afford a bed ("on the divan are piled (at night her bed)"). The young man, like Tereus, is full of lust. At the conclusion, she states "Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over," confirming that absence of love in empty lust, portending sorrow. There is an interweaving of tenderness("caresses" and the word "lover") and violence ("assaults at once" and "His vanity requires no response") in the scene. The stanza ends with words from Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield.]

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives

Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at tea-time, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house-agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronizing kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

[The music transports the reader back to the city, opening with another line from the Tempest. Eliot describes a bustling bar on the Thames.]

“This music crept by me upon the waters”
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City City, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street, 260
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold. 265

[The next stanza quotes Wagner's Die Gotterdammerung, in which maidens upon the Rhine, having lost their goldm sing a song of lament: "Weialala leia / Wallala leialala." Then, a quick allusion to Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, in an amorous encounter. Eliot is doing something here quite profound, antithetical to the legend of the Fisher King. For political reasons, QEI was required to represent herself as constantly available for marriage (to royalty from countries with whom England may have wanted an alliance) - out of this need came the myth of the Virgin Queen. This is the opposite of the Fisher King - to protect the vitality of the land, QEI had to compromise her own sexuality; whereas in the Fisher KIng story, the renewal of the land comes with the renewal of the Fisher King's sexual potency. The twisted logic underlying QEI's public sexuality mirrors and distorts the Fisher King plot and further questions the possibility for renewal, through sexuality, in the modern world.]

The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails 270
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach 275
Past the Isle of Dogs.
Weialala leia
Wallala leialala
Elizabeth and Leicester
Beating oars 280
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold
The brisk swell
Rippled both shores 285
South-west wind
Carried down stream
The peal of bells
White towers
Weialala leia 290
Wallala leialala

[QEI now speaks of birth in Highbury and lost virginity in Richmond and Kew, knowing her people expect nothing of her.]

“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.“ 295

“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. 300
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.” 305

la la

[We revisit the Punic War and end on the somber futile note of "burning" referring to Buddha's sermons. All of man's struggles are futile. There will be no resurrection, as we will learn in the final stanza.]

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest 310


[The title, a recurring theme, fulfills the prophesy of Madame Sosostris. The most formally organized section of the poem, it consists of four pairs of rhyming couplets. This section rebuts ideas of renewal and regeneration. Phlebas just dies - that's it. Phlebus is not resurrected or transfigured.]


Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea 315
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, 320
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

[The final section is dramatic in imagery and events. The first half builds to an apocalyptic climax. The "unreal" cities of Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, and London are destroyed. A decaying chapel is described, suggesting the chapel in the Holy Grail. A cock crows and the rains come. No heroic figure arrives to claim the Grail.]


[The initial imagery is from the crucifixion of Christ. The garden is Gethsemane. Agony is torture and execution. Thunder of Spring is the earthquake following crucifixion. Significantly, Christ is not resurrected here - "He who was living, is now dead." Release comes from the random call of a barnyard animal.]

After the torch-light red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying 325
Prison and place and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience 330

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink 335
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit 340
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mud-cracked houses
If there were water 345
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring 350
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock 355
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together 360
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you? 365

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only 370
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London 375

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings 380
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

[The scene shifts to the Ganges. Eliot draws on the traditional interpretation of "what the thunder says" as taken from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Hindu fables). According to these fables, the thunder (God delivering to his disciples) "gives," "sympathizes," and "controls" through its "speech." The meditations bring about a sort of reconciliation, or a chance to test the potential of the modern world. A Fisher King-type figure is shown sitting on the shore preparing to put his lands in order, a sign of his imminent death or abdication.

Eliot fails to find signs of giving - he links "Datta" with a description of lust. Is this the primary sin of man ? Yet Eliot concedes "By this, and this only, we have existed." Baudelaire argues that evil actions are better than none because they prove existence, better than inaction, which signifies nothing. Is this an antecedent for Existentialism ? Man's lustful deeds are "not to be found in our obituaries," they remain intangible. For once, Eliot suggests the value of a "moment's surrendor" of giving up control for one fleeting instant, no matter the consequences. Is "an age of prudence" worth the trouble ?

Next comes sympathy - "dayadvham." Eliot asks the reader to show compassion for lustful men and women. "I have heard the key" refers to Dante's Inferno, in which Count Ugolino starves to death after being locked in a tower for treason. Eliot implies that individuals are so caught up in his or her own fate, only thinking of the key to his or her own prison, oblivious to anything but ethereal rumors of others. The allusion to Coriolanus completes the cycle: a Roman who turned his back on Rome. Eliot asks us to acknowledge their pain.

Finally, control ("beating obedient to controlling hands") - "damyata." Control implies a series of domineering relationships and surrendors to the self. Yet he evokes the upbeat "Gaily to the hand expert with sail and oar," like the boat upon which Isolde hears the sailor's song. We have returned to the beginnings of love, the promise of a joyful future. "Your heart" may be a reference to Eliot's wife Vivienne, suggesting that romance may be rekindled, although "would have responded" implies a negative, a token of what might have been, and not what is.

In this decayed hole among the mountains 385
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one. 390
Only a cock stood on the roof-tree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves 395
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
DA 400
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed 405
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
DA 410
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours 415
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded 420
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands

[Eliot tempers the hope of the previous lines with the evocation of despair.]

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order? 425

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

[After more Dante, an excerpt from Nerval involving "Le Prince d'Aquitaine" points to a crumbling tower - "la tour abolie." The narrator is still attempting to stave off destruction "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." Fragments is such an apt word to describe the poem's form. "Ile fit you" comes from the archaic word "fit" - section of a poem. Eliot makes it a verb, he creates art in the face of madness. "Hieronymo's mad againe" is a reference to Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedie, a 16th century text in which Hieronymo lapses into insanity after his son is murdered. The brutality and violence of man come to mind. What became of generosity, sympathy, and control ? Eliot repeats the Eastern dictum: "Datta, Dayadvham, Damyata." These three words hold out the promise of salvation. The benediction "Shantih shantih shantih" is a blessing, putting to rest the sins and faults that have preceded it. Interpretations of "The Waste Land" as unrelentingly pessimistic do little justice to the hopefulness of these last lines. Eliot implores Western and Eastern religious traditions to posit a more universal world view. Eliot serves up a global vision of the world as wasteland, awaiting the arrival of the Grail that will cure it of its ills. The poem suggests that Grail is still within reach.

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins 430
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih