Friday, May 13, 2011

Week 15, T.S. Eliot, Auden, Rhys

05/03. Tu. T. S. Eliot. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (2289-93); "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (2319-25).

Notes on T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Eliot is both erudite and capable of a fine comic touch, both of which qualities are to be found in this poem. Notice the funny rhymes and repetitions, as if the speaker can’t quite take himself seriously. He’s a superfluous man, and there’s no prospect of a duel or something like that putting him on the trail of a heroic end. The consciousness in the poem is going nowhere eloquently. How to communicate one’s passion? And what’s the point? The loss of power of art itself seems to be one theme referenced in this poem; notice the comic mentions of “visions and revisions” (33) and those women who keep talking about Michelangelo as if the fellow were a subject of mere gossip. The allusion to Marvell’s appeal to time is brilliant – there’s no pressure of time here, in fact “there will be time” for just about any sort of foolishness, triviality, deception and masking. There will be time for anything but truth and full humanity, or the present moment in its authenticity.* The poem even seems to ask, “well, what’s the point of laying all this predicament bare -- this inability, really, to do or even feel much of anything?” The answer we get isn’t much of an answer. The reference to mermaids towards the poem’s end, I think, is one way of saying that the poet’s task of encouraging us to transition to a state of vision isn’t going to be carried out here, today: our speaker can’t hear them singing. He’s no Hamlet, no hero, not a man who’s likely to be led beyond himself. Perhaps that’s just as well those sirens tend to lead you to your doom, you know. Only Odysseus had dealings with them, and even he had himself tied to the mast of his ship. In the end, there’s no way to emerge from the subterranean superfluity evoked by the poem: not until, “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

*To his Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell (1681)

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day....

Notes on T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

The past is altered by the present. We might consider this simply good neoclassicism—the past is a stable entity, yet it is not unattainable for us. It seems to me that for Eliot, European literature is one large lyric poem, unified like the poetry that Cleanth Brooks and other New Critics consider autonomous. Eliot means by historical sense something very different from historicism. It isn’t so much that ideas become obsolete, but rather that conditions render us unable to act or appreciate the relationship between past and present. It seems to be a perceptual problem brought on or intensified by material developments.

In fact, says Eliot, only the present can render the past intelligible. So how is this idea different from the romantic pursuit of ever-greater self-consciousness? The infinite march of reflective understanding, or the infinite regression of acts of self-consciousness—only not at the individual level.

Where does the individual poet get the ability to tap into this tradition? Well, see Matthew Arnold, who says that the man and the moment are necessary to genuine creation. Arnold says that we need a current of true and fresh ideas. Eliot seems to think that there is not such a current in his own day, so the poet becomes rather a bookish creature. The poet, that is, must be difficult in this modern age.

Eliot uses the term depersonalization. We might look at this demand of his from a few different perspectives. Northrop Frye, for example, says that Eliot is interested in eastern mysticism and religion. In such religious contexts, one achieves a sense described by the phrase “thou art that.” The terms karma and atman come to mind—karma is due to selfishness or desire, and atman is a kind of identification with the world without completely losing one’s individuality—it is a “total self.”

And of course, this is what romanticism is always trying to accomplish—recovering a lost unity between mind and nature, between an individual and all others. Well, we might also bring up Matthew Arnold, who writes about the need for disinterestedness, the ability to remain aloof from the goings-on of the world in all its self-interested frenzy. Arnold’s term refers to criticism, of course, not so much to poetry, but the point is that one needs to get outside one’s ordinary skin and achieve a certain degree of objectivity about the object of one’s attentions. Like Matthew Arnold, Eliot offers a formulation that betrays a certain pathos, a personal need to escape from personality. Notice that Eliot uses terms such as self-surrender. Perhaps his scientific metaphor of platinum covers up this romantic pathos. Indeed, we might compare his metaphor to romantic inspiration theory. The mind of the poet serves as a catalyst for language drawn from tradition and culture; tradition itself speaks through the poet. In a sense, then, this is an expressive theory—but what is expressed is not the poet’s personality but rather something much larger than himself. The poetic process is rather like the achievement in Hindu religion of “atman.” It is fair to remind ourselves that romantic theorists do not necessarily advocate simple theories of self-expression—they capture the complexities of language as a medium for spirit, and it makes sense to describe romanticism as an encounter between language and the poet, not simply as self-expression. In any case, the reward for readers is a truly new, authentic experience with art.

The poet has an experience with language and tradition, and is not simply expressing desires that flow from autonomous consciousness. Language and tradition use the poet; they express themselves through poetry. Again, it is worthwhile not separating Eliot entirely from romantic theory. Do good poets ever simply express their feelings? Oscar Wilde points out that “all bad poetry originates in sincere emotion.” When Eliot uses the term “fusion,” there is something in that term of the romantic symbol. The metaphor is scientific, but it carries theological overtones. The romantic symbol fuses things that were disparate, overcomes the gap between subject and object.

See the nightingale reference—this is a concrete image that serves as a focal point for disparate feelings. A complex, traditional literary image of this sort has the power to unify and embody otherwise disjointed feelings. So the poet is a medium who wields such images, he is not a personality that needs to express itself. His primary task is to combine images and words drawn from the literary tradition.

The New critics claim that poetic context warps ordinary or denotative meanings to suit the context of the poem. On this page, Eliot refers to emotion in this way. He rejects Wordsworth’s theory that emotion is recollected in tranquility, favoring instead a different kind of concentration. He seems to like the older or combinatorial terms of faculty psychology—for an author like Sir Philip Sidney, remember, originality was not the point of writing poetry.

We should mention imitative theory—the poet does not imitate but rather serves as a catalyst for the past, for tradition. Repetition is not the goal, but rather a scientific version of poetic creation comes to the forefront. It is as if Eliot is trying to achieve a balance between neoclassical respect for culture and modern faith in “making it New,” with a trace of romantic creative pathos thrown in for good measure. Eliot does not assume that tradition is simply stable, so pure imitative theory would not make sense for him. I don’t think he would agree that we can simply point to touchstones, as Matthew Arnold would call them.

Eliot calls emotion impersonal, and he means that emotion is embodied in the poem and sustained by its contexts. Up to now, we have listened to Eliot offer advice to the poet, as many poet-critics have done. But let’s ask at this point where the reader fits into Eliot’s scheme. The implication of what I just said about emotion getting embodied in an image or in the poem is that the reader, like the poet, must go out of himself and be willing to engage in a certain kind of transaction with language. So reading a modernist poem like The Waste Land turns out to be a very difficult endeavor.

W.H. Auden. "In Praise of Limestone" (2435-36); "The Shield of Achilles" (2437-38); "Poetry as Memorable Speech" (2438-41).

Notes on W. H. Auden

"In Praise of Limestone" (2435-36)

This conversational, pastoral poem is directly about Florentine landscape and the endurance of Mediterranean civilization and history made by creatures of perishing flesh, bone, and blood, but Auden universalizes his and others’ relationship to the rock in question, and in the end it turns out to be a poem relevant not only to the lovely Florentine landscape but also to his own north-England native region, Yorkshire, which itself shelters beautiful limestone formations. Yes, limestone – the impressionable rock seems so suitable to “inconstant” man, so suitable to the products and processes of imagination. It isn’t for those who see life as more solid, more otherworldly-tending, and who expect too much, but for those whose ties to the land remain strong, who stay in love with what Sidney called “the too-much love earth.”

"The Shield of Achilles" (2437-38)

Ekphrasis (from ekphrazein, to speak out, to call an inanimate object by name; or, more recently, to describe a visual work of art in literature) is the relevant term for this poem. Homer created pathos with his ekphrastic shield passage in book 18 of The Iliad, and the shield itself depicted the universe in microcosm. Auden's poem has to do with the death of heroism in modern times, to be replaced by regimentation and blight. Even imagining the heroic seems beyond the poem's urchins and "boots,” and what place is there for Thetis and Achilles in the modern world?

"In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (2429-31)

How a poet becomes a text, is disseminated into the world’s stream of language, words. So what is Mr. Yeats’ significance now? "Poetry makes nothing happen," but it is still a "way of happening," suggests Section II, and “survives / In the valley of its saying.” Section III expands on that thought in a way that I think goes beyond the usual formalist claims about the insular richness of poetic language that it might at first seem to indicate. The world’s an unforgiving place, but in the long run, it “Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives” (50). To sing of humanity’s unsuccess is still necessary, and to sing of its success as well: poetry can lead us to seek justice and other good things, and persuade us again that the best emotions and affinities are permanent in us, and worth expressing. It need not run into the street shouting at us lessons in morals and politics to have its greatest impact.

“Poetry as Memorable Speech” (2438-41)

Leave it to Auden to get to the heart of the matter. His formulation looks back to Shelley’s fine words about the first poets being clear perceivers and purveyors of “the before unapprehended relations of things” in rhythmic, passionate speech. Anybody who tries to learn something knows that Auden is right about how we make things stick: we remember what has an emotional charge for us. That’s perhaps why some foreign words you’re trying to learn stick like batter on an unbuttered griddle, and others slip away like water. And of course it’s why some kids can remember infinitely many baseball stats but somehow can’t be bothered to do their mathematics homework.

Good poetry connects emotionally with a person, and is not simply “memorable” in the rote sense but in a deeper one: it’s generative of insight: “The test of a poet is the frequency and diversity of the occasions on which we remember his poetry” (2439). Both on big occasions and in little, seemingly insignificant ones. Honestly, I think you could say much the same of excellent prose, even of certain works of culture criticism by Ruskin, or Carlyle, or Wilde, or any other great prose writer, even though we don’t often read their work aloud – it isn’t strictly “speech,” but it’s memorable all the same.

Auden certainly demands that a poem be “a well-made verbal object,” but he isn’t very fond of high-art conceptualization that separates poetry from the flow of life. Neither is he satisfied with the older theories about poetry as individual expression: “a universal art can only be the product of a community united in sympathy, sense of worth, and aspiration” (2440). Well, Matthew Arnold had said as well that for great art, you need both “the man and the moment,” or the results would be less than ideal. Auden ends his piece by addressing rather directly the concern of lots of C19-20 artists and appreciators of art: the average bloke, influenced by scientific discourse and utility-saturated modernity, tends to demand that art make itself immediately useful. No can do, Auden declares: but it can quicken the imagination and spirit in preparation for making the decisions that need to be made. As critic Kenneth Burke put it a bit less elegantly than Auden but still insightfully: literature is “equipment for living.”

Jean Rhys. "The Day They Burned the Books" (Norton Vol. F, 2356-61) and "Let Them Call It Jazz" (2361-72).

Notes on Jean Rhys

I haven't yet found time to post notes on this author.