In my earlier posts (on Yeats, on Keats and on Mallarmé, etc.), one theme has involved these poets’ engagement with death. The theme is, of course, a frequent one in poetry; for example, a powerful Renaissance confrontation with death is Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10 with its last line: “Death, thou shalt die.” For nineteenth and early twentieth century poets, the reach toward transcendent possibility often involves the paradoxical death of the ordinary self. For Yeats, the power of the image is to transmute the passion and suffering of lived life into art – of the “fall to earth,” and that fall involves an awareness of how death and life are intertwined; for example in “Byzantium,” the “gold mosaic” images from the walls of Hagia Sophia are hailed as “death-in-life and life-in-death. / …Those images that yet / Fresh images beget, / That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.” Even in this poem set far from Ireland, there is an affirmation of art’s turbulent connection to life, which makes sense perhaps especially in the context of a newly postcolonial culture. In contrast, the recognition of death’s role for Eliot’s imagination is another matter altogether. The difference is suggested by the opening of Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” which is an epigram from Petronius reporting, in the Greek, what the Cumaean Sibyl said: ‘I want to die.’ Eliot’s work gives form not only to the experience of death as a part of life, but also to the yearning for death.
The Sibyl’s desire to die is one part of the many layers of allusion which characterize Eliot’s poem (here we are given the Sibyl’s original Greek, which is embedded within Petronius’ Latin narrative). Eliot’s strategy – constant allusions, often in their original languages – is not simply to impede immediate comprehension; nor is the poet merely challenging the reader to join Eliot as an elitist adept in the arcana of “the mind of Europe” and beyond (by the end of “The Wasteland” we are reading the original Sanskrit words of a prayer calling for humans to “give, sympathize, and control”). Such defensive harboring of past culture is not quite the point, for Eliot does provide footnotes to elucidate his poem’s allusions, and his strategy promotes a sort of delayed comprehension, so that one experiences the shock of confusion and then the decoding clarification. Yet the elucidation give little comfort, for the sensation produced is of an echoing emptiness. It is as if a desperate force is grasping rather hopelessly for pieces of the literary past, and the reader is made to participate with the poet in struggling with the fragmentation of that past, the defeat of inherited culture in the face of the emptiness of the urban present.
The sense of multiple voices haunting at the edge of death is implicit in the initial title Eliot gave the manuscript of the poem: “He do the police in different voices,” with the deadening vulgarity of its knowing self-mockery. Part I of “The Wasteland” is made up of “different voices” or interrelated sections, all of them focused in one way or another on symptoms of spiritual death; the title itself of this part is “The Burial of the Dead,” after the funeral service in the English Book of Common Prayer. The first voice is a bitter and literate voice which takes back Chaucer’s opening pastoral image of regeneration (“When that April with its sweet showers…”): in Eliot’s vision, “April is the cruelest month…” The second series of ten lines offers a trivial, gossipy voice recounting seasons spent in aristocratic leisure. Then, abruptly, the biblical prosody of a third series of lines preaches against the stony deadness and desiccation of modern life. Stoniness here is a symptom of spiritual self-blindness and is rather the opposite of Yeats’ metaphor for the “terrible beauty” of imaginative transformation. Eliot's poetry is never more eloquent than when it inhabits a zone of deadness, whether a lifeless desert or a ring of hell or purgatory. The next fifteen lines return us to the “social” aristocratic voice of the second sequence, but now the speaker is complaining of an abortive sexual liaison (and her complaints are framed by allusions to Wagner’s “Tristan.” Then the penultimate sequence introduces a “famous clairvoyante” with her bad cold, who evokes the mythic Tarot images of death and rebirth, but debased by their modern purveyor. In the final sequence of “The Burial of the Dead,” a new voice emerges, not biblical, but bitterly apocalyptic in evoking the “Unreal City” as a hellish vision (accompanied by an allusion to Dante witnessing the limbo of souls at the entrance of Inferno): here death pervades the “crowd [which] flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” The section ends with an allusion to Baudelaire, a quotation of the last line of “To the Reader,” which bitterly indicts the ultimate symptom of the bourgeois reader’s spiritual torpor: “It’s Boredom! Tears have glued its eyes together. / You know it well, my Reader. This obscene / beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine – / you – hypocrite Reader – my double – my brother!” The poem’s subsequent Parts II through V imagine just this “yawning” for death.
In Part II, images of sex without love encompass both past and present, the “withered stumps of time;” this “Game of Chess” first takes back the mythic adoration of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra (of her, and also her own of Antony), then it dissects upper-class ennui (“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag”), and finally it deflates proletarian squalor and puts Ophelia’s “Good night, sweet ladies” into the demeaning mouth of the bartender at closing time. Part III is “The Fire Sermon,” in which disgust provides an ineffective refuge from the burning flames which are shown to constitute modern life; here the ugly vision of the Thames becomes a rescinding, through disgusted allusions, of the promise of Spenser’s “river” vision of love and Shakespeare’s “island” vision in “The Tempest;” finally the voice of Tiresias, dead and ‘foresuffering,’ takes over the vision of the loveless city, and the lines of the poem break down into short fragments which enact the poem’s statement: “I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” Part IV, the short “Death by Water,” presents the false promise of regenerative water as the instrument of drowning and despair. Finally, in Part V, “What the Thunder Said,” there is a counterpoint between images of death (“Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal”) and a tentative vision of regeneration and refuge in a sort of noble asceticism (there are the Sanskrit words of Hindu prayer as well as allusions to the myth of the Fisher King). However, the healing vision of water gives little relief. The fourth line from the end of the poem proclaims that these images are the “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” The next line is a quotation from Kyd’s Renaissance Revenge Tragedy, an upwelling of mad bloodshed and death. The penultimate line contains the aforementioned Hindu prayer, and the final line invokes three times the Sanskrit word for “the peace which passes understanding.”
Eliot’s reader hears “The Wasteland’s” piteous call for refuge, for our honoring of those fragments, both their content and their brilliant form, so influential and infectious for modern ears. Simultaneously, the reader is acutely aware of the equally piteous voice of a yearning for death, for an end to the torment of modern time. We are left to experience the tension between the two, between the call for refuge and the voice of death, and we are left wondering whether the image of that “peace which passes understanding” can endure, or is ‘achieved,’ in the poem, or whether it too is murdered by the relentless deadness, by both the desiccation and the drowning. Such is the paradox of Eliot’s poem. With great power and ambition, it enacts the dilemma of modernity, its yearning to affirm (even to affirm an ascetic or curtailed spirituality) in conflict with its awareness of the pervasiveness of death – of the self, of decadent and alienated society, of the ten million ‘Great War’ dead, and of entire structures of knowledge and community.
I hope next to post some commentary on one of Eliot's "Four Quartets" and particularly one in which he imagines a meeting with the ghost of Yeats.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and reconfigures and edits) my blogs on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulte. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]