Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Eliot's Early Poems

I had previously read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but after reading the Hulme essay I thought about it a bit more as a dramatization of the conflict he discussed, particularly in relation to the issue of Romanticism and the infinite. By contrasting Prufrock with Romantic concepts such as the mermaids and the universe (at least to the extent of assuming it can be disturbed), I interpreted Eliot as emphasizing the greater sense of grounding that Hulme endorsed. In the context of the other 1917 poems, I also noticed a particularly urban sensibility that I hadn’t really noticed in Eliot’s work before (except in The Waste Land), though it didn’t seem as prevalent here as in the other poems from this period (I guess to again emphasize Prufrock’s isolation; he also struck me on this reading as resembling Leonard Bast, who maybe would have had the same kind of dilemma in his encounters with the Schlegels).

With the other poems, especially “La Figlia che Piange,” it seemed like he was trying harder to apply his “Tradition and the Individual Talent” ideas in a way that could work with everyday social interactions, rather than just in relation to literary tradition, since I interpreted this poem as mainly being about the narrator’s wish to understand the female subject in some poetic way (based on “the sunlight in your hair,” and “a gesture and a pose”) that wouldn’t be clouded by an emotional response (maybe embodied by the man, and contrasted by the narrator’s distance from both), though it also seems as though the narrator’s hope for his leaving her to “stand and grieve” may also be a sign of his/her (though I assumed the narrator was male, given the woman’s role as subject to a particular kind of gaze) desire to use emotion as fodder for the imagination without wanting to experience it firsthand. The major difficulty I had with reading these poems was that after seeing Tom & Viv, it was sometimes tempting to read Vivienne’s troubles into his poems (particularly with ones like “Hysteria” and “Cousin Nancy”), though I tried not to. But another point that struck me was just how female-centered many of these poems were, since I’d thought of Eliot’s perspective as being such as masculine one. I wasn’t always certain of the significance of the female figures, but they mostly reminded me of the approach to women’s changing roles detailed in Howards End, with “Cousin Nancy” coming across as a suggestion (or maybe just Eliot’s hope) of how Nancy’s New Woman proclivities could still not entirely dismantle the authority represented by “Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith” (though I wasn’t sure if their authority would then reflect what Eliot may have considered more truly “modern” ideals, like the more English ambitions of the Wilcoxes, or just traditional values under fire, like Christianity), while “Aunt Helen” reminded me more of Ruth Wilcox, as an account of the passing of a more naturalistic and aristocratic symbol of classical Englishness. “La Figlia che Piange” seemed distinctive in this regard, since the female subject of this poem seemed more like Eliot’s attempt to find a Muse-figure for himself (though I don’t know what the title translates to, which I imagine would make a difference).

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