Language Games

Baudelaire's use of the word 'hieroglyphic' here and Mallarmé's comments about the imperfections of all languages are representative of changes in thinking about language during the nineteenth century. Both poets are drawing attention to the gap between language and experience (what we think or sense), a gap that was generating great interest among linguists and philosophers as knowledge of the relationships between different languages, especially ancient languages such as Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphics, increased. Detailed comparisons of languages highlighted what we might call the materiality of language, its existence as a system, a set of rules and patterns, rather than a transparent or natural means of expression. This will sound familiar to readers of structuralist theory, and indeed structuralism grew out of this shift in nineteenth-century linguistic research: Ferdinand de Saussure (1857—1913) delivered the lectures that now make up the founding text of structuralist theory (Course in General Linguistics) from 1907—1911, the early years of modernism. Eliot and Pound had direct experience of the new emphasis in linguistic thought from their university studies: Eliot studied Sanskrit, Pound studied Romance languages. Hulme's study of mathematics is relevant here too: mathematics, after all, is also expressed in a language whose signs and symbols are as arbitrarily assigned as letters and words.

The early poetry of Eliot, Hulme and Pound is preoccupied by this gap between language and experience. Like the symbolists, they draw attention to the limitations of language, at the same time as attempting to overcome those limitations. For example, Eliot's best-known early poem, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' (written 1910—1911, published 1915), takes the failure of communication as its subject matter. In the first stanza, Prufrock walks through a cityscape at dusk (a typical symbolist scenario), where the details of the scene are represented in terms of language: streets are 'muttering retreats / of restless nights in cheap hotels', that 'follow like a tedious argument'. But what are the streets 'saying'? Something important: they 'lead you to an overwhelming question', but Prufrock and Eliot stop short of framing the question itself. The stanza ends: 'Oh, do not ask, "What is it?" / Let us go and make our visit'. The comic effect of these lines, created by their relative shortness in relation to the previous lines, the neatness of their rhyme, and their unstressed endings (is it / visit), dismisses language and replaces it with action: Prufrock leaves the street and enters the social world of the drawing room. The drawing room, too, is defined by language ('in the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo'), but this repeated couplet seems to describe the 'wrong' kind of talk: the social, superficial chat of an unflatteringly generalized group of women (contrasted with the particularized Prufrock and Michelangelo). Language has become separated from experience: the overwhelming question cannot be asked here (1969a: 13).

While Eliot had found the distinctive voice he displays in 'Prufrock' by 1910, Pound's poetry experiments with a range of styles and voices for much longer. Two styles predominate: the first was modelled on the poetry of aesthetes such as William Morris (1834—1896), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828—1882) and Swinburne, and focussed on the portrayal of beauty. The second, rougher, more vigorous, style was modelled on the poetry of the medieval troubadours and Robert Browning (1812—1889), and often takes the form of a dramatic monologue. For most of his career, Pound allowed only the poems in the second category to be republished, calling the others 'stale cream-puffs' (1965: [7]). From 1911, however, Pound's own voice begins to become more distinct and 'The Return' (1912), for example, contains elements of both youthful styles. Yeats described this poem as 'the most beautiful poem that has been written in the free form' (Carpenter 1988: 174), though Pound stated that it was actually a version of a classical metre known as Sapphics, after the ancient Greek poet Sappho, also used in English by Swinburne. Though usually interpreted as concerning the relationship of ancient gods with the modern age, the poem begins by drawing an extended analogy between the return of the gods and the poem's own metrical experiments: 'see the tentative / Movements, and the slow feet', Pound writes, 'The trouble in the pace and the uncertain / Wavering!' (1990: 74). What Pound is doing here is using rhythm to describe the scenario itself. He uses a combination of long vowels and punctuation to keep the pace of the stanza slow, but he also interrupts it with that three-syllable staccato 'tentative' at the end of the first line, which holds us just a little too long there, so that we're made to enact the word itself. Rather than simply describing the hesitant return of the gods, then, Pound reproduces their movement: he manipulates the poem's rhythm to close the gap between language and experience.

Pound appears to have only begun to read the symbolists seriously in 1912, though his close study of Browning provided some of the lessons Eliot had learned from Laforgue. Hulme, however, had encountered the work of the symbolists as early 1905 or 1906, and from 1908 he published short free verse poems in imitation (1994: 57). 'Autumn' (1909) evokes the mood of an autumn night through two sharp images: the moon is 'like a red-faced farmer', the stars have 'white faces like town children'. Though not as accomplished as either Eliot's or Pound's poems, it shares the precision of their writing and distrust of language: Hulme's speaker tells us that he 'did not stop to speak, but nodded' to the moon — he is as taciturn as Prufrock (1994: 3).

We can see the aestheticist and symbolist heritage of these poems in the way they evoke meaning without recourse to description. None

Dramatic monologue. A poem presented as a speech by a fictional figure to an (unspeaking) listener, often at a moment of crisis. As in a theatrical monologue, the speaker's character is revealed not only directly (through what the speaker says), but also indirectly (through how it is said, and what is not said). Much rests, therefore, on the reader's interpretation. The form is associated particularly with the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.

of the poems lends itself to simple summary of content, there is no 'story' to tell; yet they all convey a mood, a tone, through the combination of experiments in rhythm and striking images. We may not know what Prufrock looks like (apart from that he is slightly bald), but the images he presents of himself, 'formulated, sprawling on a pin', or transformed into 'a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas', evoke his social alienation more vividly than straightforward description could (1969a: 14, 15).

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