Ulysses Order And Myth

For Eliot and Pound alike the novelists they found most instructive were the nineteenth-century French realist novelist Gustave Flaubert and the contemporary they saw as Flaubert's major inheritor, James Joyce (1882—1941). Although Joyce's Ulysses was not published in book form until February 1922, Eliot and Pound were reading it up to four years before, having been sent sections of the manuscript by Joyce, and also in their editorial capacities at The Egoist (Eliot) and The Little Review (Pound), where the novel was serialized until prevented under obscenity laws. Pound's judgement after reading the beginning of the book was that 'It looks to me rather better than Flaubert', and on reading episode fifteen ('Circe') he proclaimed Joyce the modern Dante: 'Magnificent, a new Inferno in full sail' (1967: 130, 189). Eliot's reaction to the same chapter was similarly enthusiastic: 'stupendous', he wrote to Joyce, 'I have nothing but admiration; in fact, I wish, for my own sake, that I had not read it' (1988: 455).

Eliot's remark captures the mixture of admiration and anxiety that Ulysses induced: he and Pound immediately realized the significance of the novel for their own literary projects. Indeed, at an early stage of The Waste Land's composition the poem opened with an account of a trip to a brothel apparently inspired by the end of Joyce's 'Circe' chapter (1971: 4—5). If Pound's prominent use of the Odyssey in the early cantos was independent of Joyce's influence (Bush 1976: 193), it nevertheless highlighted their common aims. Ulysses showed Eliot and Pound that though the twentieth-century epic would necessarily lack the shared belief structure of Dante's 'Aquinas-map', mythologies deeply embedded in Western culture could provide the same ordering function. In 1923 Eliot published one of his most famous essays, 'Ulysses, Order and Myth', which argued that Joyce's use of the Odyssey had 'the importance of a scientific discovery' in providing 'a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history'. Connecting Ulysses's paralleling of the ancient and the contemporary with that of the anthropologists and ethnologists he had studied at Harvard, Eliot announced the birth of a new form: 'instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method' (1975: 177-78).

'Ulysses, Order and Myth' is as much an explanation of The Waste Land as it is of Ulysses, drawing readers' attention to the poem's 'mythical method' which Eliot also emphasized in its explanatory notes. There he wrote that he was indebted 'in general' to Frazer's The Golden Bough, and more specifically to another anthropological work of the same school, Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance (1920), from which 'not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem' derived (1969a: 76). Weston's subject is the Christian legend of the search for the Holy Grail (the cup Christ used at the Last Supper), which she argues derives from the pre-Christian vegetation myths described by Frazer. Details vary between versions, but the main features of the Grail legend are that a knight searching for the Grail encounters an ill or injured king who rules a land wasted by either drought or war. The king and his land will be restored to health if the knight asks the correct question or questions. Weston connects the ruler of the wasteland, sometimes called the Fisher King, to the gods of vegetation myths, whose death and rebirth functioned as explanations of the seasons (Weston 1980: 19, 48).

The Waste Land does not follow the narrative structure of the Grail legend, as Ulysses follows the narrative structure of the Odyssey. Instead Eliot juxtaposes images and symbols from Frazer and Weston with literary allusions and sections of social satire to establish a continuity between the wasteland of the Grail legend and the wasteland of modern civilization, where ancient fertility rites have degraded into sordid sexual encounters. Versions of Weston's Fisher King recur throughout the poem: Shakespeare's King Alonso in The Tempest, thought by his son to have been drowned in a shipwreck, but reunited with him in the play's final act (l. 124-25); and Phlebas the Phoenician, the drowned sailor of 'Death by Water', whose nationality associates him with the Phoenician-Greek god Adonis, whose effigy Frazer and Weston describe thrown into the sea and recovered ('resurrected') as part of a vegetation rite (Weston 1980: 40, 44; Frazer 2002: 224). Yet if The Waste Land repeatedly enacts a sacrificial drowning, it is death rather than resurrection that is emphasized, and the wasteland is not returned to fertility by the end of the poem. 'Shall I at least set my lands in order?' the Fisher King asks in the final paragraph of the poem. The response is a pile of quotations, 'fragments I have shored against my ruins', disordered. The final refrain, 'Shantih shantih shantih', translated by Eliot as 'the peace which passeth understanding' is inadequate to the task of resolving these fragments, a 'way of stopping' rather than a resolution (Crawford 1990: 149).

Eliot's statements on the importance of Weston and Frazer to The Waste Land are somewhat misleading: while their work enabled him to draw together the central themes of religious and sexual sterility, the mythic framework was grafted on to the poem at a late stage, and was not part of its initial conception (Rainey 2005: 48—49). His statements suggest a more coherent poem than the one he wrote, one that corresponded more closely to his classicist ideal of the impersonal, well-ordered work of art. Pound's remarks about The Cantos have a similar ordering intention that remains at odds with the poem itself: he told Yeats that there would be 'no plot, no chronicle of events, no logic of discourse, but two themes, the Descent into Hades from Homer, a Metamorphosis from Ovid, and, mixed with these, mediaeval or modern historical characters', organized in 'a structure like that of a Bach Fugue' (Yeats 1961b: 4). Instead of a plot, which implies a narrative progression, Pound proposes a repeating pattern, in which a subject is introduced in a series of different forms (like the different voices of a fugue), juxtaposed with a countersubject, or response.

The account of world history given in The Cantos, therefore, is one structured by the descents and metamorphoses of civilizations and individuals, but these 'themes' are very broadly conceived. Descents can be a point of crisis or a test and not necessarily a fall in fortunes; metamorphoses are the moment where an ideal is realized or made permanent. Examples of such descents are the details of political intrigues in Renaissance Italy that make up the Malatesta Cantos (cantos 8—11), the founding of the American republic in the Jefferson and John Adams Cantos (cantos 31—34, 62—71) and the description of five thousand years of Chinese government in the China Cantos (52—61). Their corresponding metamorphoses could be interpreted as the building of the Tempio Malatestiano, the establishment of the Constitution of the United States and the composition of the Confucian Five Classics (Davenport 1983: 88). Pound coined the term 'subject-rhyme' to describe how 'various things keep cropping up in the poem' to forge comparisons between sections of cantos (1971: 210). Like Weston, Frazer and Eliot, then, Pound draws out the continuity between myths, legends and history, suggesting the permanence of certain ideas, emotions and beliefs. However, in accordance with his individualist politics, Pound differs from Eliot in attributing more control to individuals. So where the protagonists of The Waste Land — the typist, Lil, Mr. Eugenides, Phlebas — are victims or, at most, participants in civilization's degradation, the protagonists of The Cantos — Sigismondo Malatesta, Confucius, John Adams — make the decisions that determine civilization's course.

The attraction of myth for Eliot and Pound was that it could be used instead of narrative to bring order and unity to their long poems. Where a historical narrative would tend to suggest progression (and a romantic world view) the use of myth could present history as cyclical (a classicist world view). This went a long way towards solving the problem of form at the macro level of the poem. But it did not solve the difficulties at the micro level: how could one retain the integrity of individual experience, represented in Eliot's and Pound's early poetry by the single speaking voice, with the multiplied cast of an epic?

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