Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Eliot's Early Poetry

In his essay “Eliot’s Essays: A Bridge to the Poems” James Torrens makes multiple connections between Eliot’s personal criticism and his poetry, associations which as Walton Litz notes, the relationship between the two virtually demands. Specifically, Torrens briefly reads “Prufrock” in terms of Eliot’s essay on Hamlet, pointing to Eliot’s claim that criticism of the play ought to take a holistic approach rather than focusing on Hamlet as a character, the implication being that the poem “Prufrock” rather than the man ought to be the focus of criticism. However apt such a relation (between essay and poem) might seem, I think it relevant to point out that Torrens makes this connection largely based on comparisons and contrasts between the actual characters of Prufrock and Hamlet (48), illustrating the difficulty for critics of both Hamlet and “Prufrock” to disassociate the characters from their namesake texts. Such a treatment of the two would be even more ironic if we take seriously Prufrock’s emphatic assertion of “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” (111), though the very nature of Prufrock begs the reader to question any absolute statement he makes; and of course, Eliot's statement that the Hamlet passage may have been one of the earliest written fragments definitely indicates a potentially integral connection between the two characters.

Even so, taking Torrens (and Eliot’s) advice to look at the poetry holistically reveals some general relations between “Prufrock,” the “Pervigilium” excerpt that Eliot removed from the poem, and some of his other early works. Eliot’s predilection for circular time sequences evidences itself in a comparison of the “Pervigilium” and the “Preludes.” The latter starts at six pm, and the stanzas filter through a twenty-four hour period with particular focus on the transformation of night to day (yet without the optimism usually associated with dawn), the poem eventually “trampl[ing] by insistent feet” through the hours back to six pm. The “Pervigilium” does not complete a full twenty-four hour cycle but focuses (as does the “Preludes”) on the shifts between night and day. Starting at dusk, “when the evening fought itself awake” (10), the poem follows the speaker (who would have been and perhaps still is Prufrock ) through his paranoia in (and of?) the dark which seems about to attack him in the third stanza until dawn inadvertently saves him—when it “at length had realized itself” (25). Yet he is saved only for “Madness” (29), though he has some desire (born out of a sense of claustrophobia or suffocation?) to get to “the window to experience the world” (28), an urge similarly expressed in the “Prelude” as an “impat[ience] to assume the world” (47); yet it is a world about “to fall apart” (Pervigilium 32). Both poems thus evince this tension between not-quite-night and not-quite-day and the anxiety attendant on the instability of the transition as expressed in the speakers' angst and depicted in the putridity of the surroundings (Eliot's ubiquitous fog), particularly of the speakers themselves—“muddy feet,” “soiled hands” (“Preludes” 17, 38), and “broken boot heels stained in many gutters” (“Pervigilium” 31).

A comparison of “Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady” also reveals a number of similarities illustrative of Eliot's early poetics. In “Portrait” Chopin replaces Michelangelo as the topic of elitist and unfelt conversation, though this time explicitly spelled out instead of merely alluded to. The lady herself appears suspiciously like a female Prufrock, her “voice . . . like the insistent out-of-tune / Of a broken violin” (56-7), her hesitation evident in her constant false starts and repetition. She may in fact be one of the women of Prufrock's imaginings whose voices die with a “dying fall” (“Prufrock” 52; “Portrait” 122), though in “Portrait” the music of this singular voice is deemed “successful” (122). Eliot apparently has a fascination with paralyzed characters, Prufrock being speared to the wall with his ornate tie pin and the Lady being caught forever “serving tea to friends” (108). Also, alluding back to Eliot's preoccupation with passing time, “Portrait” begins in frozen December and cycles through the seasons back to October, the pending death at the end of the poem perhaps bringing us back to winter.

Just as a final note, “La Figlia che Piange” seems to contrast with the general grim aspect of Eliot's early poetry. Though it is not uniformly optimistic (the failure of a love relationship and contrasting night and day), yet it has a much more open feel to it aided by the flower imagery and the “weav[ing of] sunlight in [the girl's] hair” (3).

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