Eliot is the archetypal middleman between modernist innovation and its traditional antecedents—a role which has earned him the contempt of Williams. His earliest, most discussed piece of experimental conservatism is The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock' (1917). The poem draws upon the established precedent of Browning's dramatic monologues, but it goes further than Browning in its use of irregular form as an axis, an anchor point for a number of bizarre deployments of deictic referents; these shift the reader between a tentative awareness of the situation of the utterance and moments of individual consciousness detached from any particular pre-linguistic spatial or temporal continuum. The opening verse paragraph:
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
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.
Let us go and make our visit.
The reader who hopes that attention to textual deictics will provide a link between the enclosed sphere of the poetic and the situation of the utterance will be disappointed. The 'I' is obviously the speaking presence, but who is the 'you'? It might be us, the hearers, who are invited to join him in this peculiar journey. But we cannot be sure. He might be addressing someone else within the imagined situation of the poem; or he might be talking to himself, constructing an alter ego or situating his uneasy sense of mental and emotional division as separate pronouns. Our attempts to solve this puzzle by further examining the details of the text will create more problems. Is the simile of the 'patient etherised' supposed to refer to the sky or to the condition of the travellers (traveller)? Is the question to which they (he) will be led, 'What is it?'? Or is the speaker advising his companion (other half) not to ask what the question is? Are the streets and restaurants that lead to this unasked and unanswerable question literal and real—perhaps the question will become apparent when they/he get to a particular place—or do they represent a figurative journey through fragments of memory and consciousness?
Read on and become even more confused. The particular and locative ('my hair', 'my trousers', 'my head', 'the cups', 'the marmalade', 'the tea') are interposed with a bewildering collage of references to literature, the bible, history, nature, art and all manner of other referents that might drift through the mind, irrespective of the spatial, temporal or social conditions of the utterance.
In the broader aesthetic context we might find links between the disorientating shifts of the poem and the prose techniques of the interior monologue developed by Joyce and Woolf. But there is a difference. The interior monologue (a.k.a. stream of consciousness) attempts to realise in language the multidimensional tension between the inner and outer dimensions of consciousness—the condition of our mental and perceptual worlds prior to the ratiocinative processes of thought and conventional linguistic organisation. Eliot, although creating a similar effect, qualifies his concession to impressionistic formlessness with a persistent and self-conscious use of form—poetic form. The metrical pattern and the rhyme scheme are irregular but they are continuously present. In an important sense they replace the orderly disposition of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes as the speaker's only, albeit tenuous, link point between consciousness and mediation. Consider the following metaphor:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, 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,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep (15-22).
Which part is the vehicle and which part the tenor? The animal or the fog? By the end of this verse paragraph the speaker seems to have forgotten the purpose of his comparison. The image of this sinister creature has effectively replaced any conscious grasp upon its use as a point of comparison. The abandonment of the irregular couplets with which the poem begins seems to signal a further loss of control, but in the paragraph following this section we find that a slight but conspicuous sense of continuity is resumed with the repetition of 'panes' in the rhyme position, and off-rhyme echoes of 'leap' and 'asleep' in 'street' and 'meet'. Think again about Jakobson's model of the relation between the regular double pattern and metaphor: Eliot offers a revision of this formula by matching an irregular pattern of metre and rhyme with a correspondly uncertain control of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic chains.
Throughout the poem our only reliable sense of its status as a speech act—something which allows us to reconnect linguistic units, however fragmentary, with a controlling human presence— is found in the speaker's constant return to irregular metrical and rhyming patterns. Eliot has engaged with a tradition of poetic writing— particularly that of the metaphysicals and the Romantics —which foregrounds a tension between the imagined speaking presence and the tangible density of the text, but he has shifted the balance and the readerly focus toward a self-evident dependence upon the poetic function as affecting both the circumstances and the process of mediation. With 'Prufrock' our awareness of any real or imagined speaking presence cannot be fully detached from our sense of that presence as a poet. Eliot's message seems to be that once our grip upon the moral, social, cultural and even the spatio-temporal conditions of existence is loosened, all that is left to connect us with any consoling pattern of continuity and stability is the poetic. In short, the poet has submitted willingly to his status as a function of the text. Eliot's manifesto for modernist form is neatly encapsulated in the following statement from 'Reflections on "Vers Libre"'.
We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras even in the 'freest' verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.
He refers specifically to the need for a metrical undertow to anchor unrhymed verse, but his claim that freedom is only discernible when counterpoised with tangible form could stand as the model for his own richly diverse oeuvre.
'Whispers of Immortality' (from Poems 1920) is, in metrical terms, a regular and traditional poem consisting of eight four line stanzas, rhyming at the second and fourth lines. But in all other respects it is a bizarre and finally incomprehensible assembly of references and images. The first four stanzas identify Donne and Webster as the subjects, and it is only through our broader awareness of the tendency for their work to foreground the tangible and often uneasy physicality of the human condition that we can make sense of the syntax. For example, Donne is described as finding 'no substitute for sense' and at this point we are uncertain of whether 'sense' refers to physical sensation or linguistic meaning. But when we read on to clarify this localised semantic problem we encounter only deeper rifts between semantics and continuity. Beyond what sort of 'experience' is Donne 'expert? Is the 'anguish of the marrow', 'the ague of the skeleton', a form of morbid anxiety? And if Donne could find 'no substitute for sense', but 'no contact possible to flesh' could 'allay the fever of the bone' he would seem to be a rather sad embodiment of uncertainties and contradictions. At least he would were he not identified as John Donne, a person whose poetry is celebrated (by Eliot particularly) for its ability to negotiate such tensions and ambiguities. In short, to understand the first half of the poem we need to invoke the cultural code; to displace the intrinsic peculiarities of the text onto our extra-textual knowledge of the two writers. In the second half (the poem is divided enigmatically by five dots) the cultural-deictic foci of Donne and Webster are replaced by the well endowed figure of Grishkin (who may well be Russian and who occupies a maisonette), a Brazilian jaguar, a marmoset (origins unknown) and a cat. We know nothing of this peculiar ensemble beyond what we are told in the poem. The declarative, insistent pattern of the verb phrases in the second part is a close copy of the first part, but because the relationship between the noun phrases of the former is so enclosed, so immune from any particular contextual frame of reference, we find ourselves unable to close the gap between what the language does and what it is actually about. The tangible physicality of Grishkin (she is fat, possibly sensual, and she relates, at least syntactically, to the instinctive determinants of the natural world) might well be a preparation for the unphysical imagery of the closing stanza, and we might, by invoking the concept of syntactic-poetic cohesion, suggest that 'our lot' (the human condition?), 'dry ribs' and 'metaphysics' reconnects part two with part one—Donne was a metaphysical whose anxious contemplation of the human condition involved the 'ague of the skeleton', 'the fever of the bone'. We might, but we would be left with a join-the-dots pattern of fragments and references that depend for coherence more upon the interpretive acumen of the reader than upon a verifiable intrinsic structure. The only persistent textual pattern that links the parts to the whole of the poem is its adherence to a regular metrical form. It is almost as though Eliot, in 'Whispers' and 'Prufrock', is seeking to reverse the traditional relationship between the poem as contextually rooted speech act, particular to a given set of circumstances and inferred feelings, and the poem as a continuation of the langue of stylistic conventions and techniques generally regarded as the poetic. The poet and the speaker/persona become united not because of the reader's ability to transcend the poetic and relocate the speech act in relation to other non-poetic discourses and pre-linguistic situations, but because the poet and the speaker achieve unity in their use of poetic technique. In 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1919) Eliot declares that:
The poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.. .The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.
This is a complete overturning of the Imagist manifesto that emotion, experience, expression should cut through the arbitrary barriers of the 'medium', and it is the premise that governs Eliot's entire poetic output. Its closest counterpart in literary linguistics will be found in Jakobson's 1935 lecture (in Czech, recapitulating the insights of his colleague Tynjanov) on the concept of 'the dominant'.
The dominant may be defined as the focussing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components. It is the dominant which guarantees the integrity of the structure. [Throughout literary history] the elements which were originally the dominant ones become subsidiary and optional. a poetic work [is] a structural system, a regularly ordered hierarchical set of artistic devices. Poetic evolution is a shift in this hierarchy.
The element of the structured system which dominates all of Eliot's poetry is the formal, conventional dimension of the double pattern.
The Waste Land, that presiding monument to modernism, is a collage of perspectives, voices, snatches of German poetry, Hindu and Christian scripture, allusions to Goldsmith and Marvell, juxtaposed with visions and sounds from 1920s London. 'These fragments have I shored against my ruins' says the speaker at the end of the poem (Tiresias? The Fisher King? Eliot? Everyman?); and the only point of stability for the reader of this ahistorical multicultural assembly is the means by which the fragments have been so desperately 'shored'. The dominant, ever-present element is the poetic line. The famous opening verse paragraph reproduces the Shakespearean/Miltonic device of the blank verse contra-rejet. The line structure is governed by the anxious foregrounding and splitting of verb phrases. The 'breeding', 'mixing', 'stirring', 'covering' and 'feeding' shift us uneasily between the literal and the figurative notions of spring and life. Throughout the rest of the poem we are shifted through four centuries of metrical history, and it is only through the presence of these concessions to tradition that the purely modernist texture of the free verse sections can begin to signify. Eliot inscribes what Jakobson calls 'poetic evolution', the 'shifts in the hierarchy' within a single text. The Waste Land unsettles the protocols of naturalisation. In order to make sense of the stylistic and referential complexities of a text we need to identify (or in reader-response parlance 'construct') a speaking presence and it seems that Eliot's poem refuses to allow the unstructured and diverse patterns of signification to come to rest upon a stable moment of fusion between contact, context, message or code. But there is a unifying element that allows us to situate the text as the creation of a speaking presence who can only be the anxious, erudite poet of the early 1920s. Who else would be able to display such an authoritative command of the types of line-syntax relationship developed from Shakespeare to the free verse revolution? Read the text carefully and you will find that not only are there echoes of blank verse technique, the irregular ode, the quatrain and the heroic couplet; there are also permutations of all four categories of free verse method. I use the term 'permutations' because no single device remains immune from some form of infusion from some other element of the modernist or pre-modernist langue.
In section III, 'The Fire Sermon', one part begins as an echo of the Imagist pattern of structure determined by impression.
The river sweats Oil and tar The barges drift With the turning tide Red sails
But gradually, perhaps addictively, the speaker begins to allow the poetic langue—in this instance a very irregular rhyme scheme—to impose upon the impressionistic fragments.
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Down Greenwich reach
The poetic line is the 'dominant', the organising principle of the text, something from which the speaker seems unable or unwilling to detach himself. The two lines that were rewritten by Pound, echoing the juxtaposed pattern of 'In a Station of the Metro',
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn (60-1)
reemerge almost as a refrain, Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon .. .Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna London Unreal
In each case the ability of the line to isolate and stabilise fragments of thought, memory and mediation against the incursions of anarchic multi-signification becomes evident.
Was this article helpful?