TS Eliot on the Metaphysical poets

The first extract in bold below was the title of one of my first essays as an undergraduate: imagine, I’d never read the metaphysicals, and there I was, having to grapple with Eliot’s modernist, post-symbolist take on the subject. The second is a central topic in literary thinking about poetry. Here’s the extract from Eliot’s piece; he retrieves Donne and the rest from the dustbin they’d been confined to by Johnson and the Victorians, but in a backhanded way. Was he right?

From T. S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921.

…The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

John Donne:

John Donne: via Wikimedia Commons

We may express the difference by the following theory: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinizelli, or Cino. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others. The language went on and in some respects improved; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the Coy Mistress.

After this brief exposition of a theory–too brief, perhaps, to carry conviction–we may ask, what would have been the fate of the “metaphysical” had the current of poetry descended in a direct line from them, as it descended in a direct line to them? They would not, certainly, be classified as metaphysical. The possible interests of a poet are unlimited; the more intelligent he is the better; the more intelligent he is the more likely that he will have interests: our only condition is that he turn them into poetry, and not merely meditate on them poetically. A philosophical theory which has entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in one sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved. The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults. But they were, at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. And this means both that they are more mature, and that they wear better, than later poets of certainly not less literary ability.

Falls the shadow: Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. Faber: 1963.

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932, which made her 31 when her only novel was published, shortly before her suicide. According to Ted Hughes she began writing it in 1961.  As a consequence of the similarities between the story of her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, and her own, it’s tempting to see it as at least semi-autobiographical. Let’s avoid that temptation.

This novel has been so widely written about – it’s often featured on the syllabus of schools and universities, and is seen as a seminal work of feminist fiction – that I shan’t give a detailed plot summary. Instead I’ll pick out a few points that interested and pleased me.

Its opening lines have become a famous example of the intriguing ‘hook’:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions.

The candid, tortured first-person narrative voice is distinctively Esther’s – the seemingly casual ‘and’ tellingly links as grammatically equivalent two events of otherwise striking difference; the syntax shows that for the narrator they’re not. That reference to the execution of the couple convicted of spying for the Soviet Union on America’s nuclear capacity (a charge still contested by many) dates the narrative 1953. It also sets up one element of the novel: the tensions and bigotry in America at that time. (Later, one of Esther’s colleagues called Hilda displays a chillingly dismissive attitude towards this execution: ‘It’s awful such people should be alive,’ she says with casual disdain. ‘I’m so glad they’re going to die.’ Esther’s own views, characteristically, aren’t explicitly given, but it’s clear she finds such views symptomatic of her fellow Americans. She refers to Hilda as speaking here with the cavernous voice of a ‘dybbuk’ – a malicious mythological spirit.)

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar cover

My Faber paperback edition of the novel

That impersonal structure – ‘they electrocuted’ -shows her sense of detachment from the events, however; she doesn’t share the paranoia, it registers less strongly, as the structure of that opening sentence reveals, than her personal sense of dislocation. This is a compelling, often terrifying narrative of an intelligent, diligently academic young woman’s decline into a depression that almost destroys her.

That second quoted sentence sounds like the callow bravado of Holden Caulfield – and there’s more than a touch of his equally distraught sense of hopelessness and disorientation in this narrative. Some early critics dismissed it as ‘girlish’, perhaps (patronisingly) misreading that naïve style, laced at times with contemporary teen slang, and the gushing, breathless ingenuousness, especially in the early, pre-institutionalised section of the novel; here’s and example, chosen at random, from p. 48. Esther has been set up with a date with a Russian interpreter at the UN called Constantin:

I collected men with interesting names. I already knew a Socrates. He was tall and ugly and intellectual and the son of some big Greek movie producer in Hollywood, but also a Catholic, which ruined it for both of us.

But this faux-naïve style is essential for the establishment of Esther as a 19-year-old trying to locate her identity and place herself meaningfully in the heedless world she’s discovering for the first time. She flirts with all kinds of personae, even considering becoming a nun at one point.

Her other equally compelling dilemma is that of losing her virginity in a world where all the men she meets are insensitively arrogant, like Buddy, the harmless but vapid student from her home town whom she considers herself engaged to, or the Peruvian thug Marco, who tries to rape her. Esther isn’t so naïve; she pegs him from the start as ‘a woman-hater’, and steals his diamond ‘stickpin’. Esther still has spirit at this point. She can even see why some women might be attracted to such misogynistic predators:

Women-haters were like gods; invulnerable and chock-full of power. They descended, and then they disappeared. You could never catch one.

This might sound ‘girlish’, but it’s perceptive and, in a sense that still resonates today, realistic. Although it maybe shows an aspect of Esther’s dwindling self-esteem, it’s also redolent of her core values. The Marcos of this world, she realises, are the same ‘they’ who executed the Rosenbergs.

In the first part of the novel we witness the cause of Esther’s problem: she doesn’t know why she’s there in the city in the coveted role as intern at a women’s fashion magazine that has pretensions of literariness. Though she can’t quite articulate it in this part of the narrative, she hates the shallow pointlessness of the work she’s obliged to engage in and the people she works with. Her ambition to write serious literature is stifled so effectively by those around her, including her mother, so ambitious (like everyone else) to mould her daughter into the Stepford Wife form she considers desirable, to realise she’s missing the signs of Esther’s distress, that she simply switches off her consciousness, loses agency. Eventually she comes to feel she’s suffocating under a bell jar, like a scientist’s specimen, and attempts suicide.

Esther avoids the company of the ‘Pollyanna’ faction in the girls’ hostel she lives in during the novel’s first section; she longs to be a rebel like her friend Doreen. But she also realises that Doreen’s idea of a good time ends with her serving as a drink-sedated groupie for a sleazy DJ. All of her female contemporaries are happily speeding into spirit-destroying patriarchal dead ends. There seems no route open for someone with her gifts and sensibility.

The second section is harrowing, the language full of images of death, fear and disintegration. Here the narrative reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Esther is subjected to a terrifying ‘treatment’ of ECT by her first psychiatrist. Later she’s moved, thanks to her scholarship benefactress, to a more humane institution where a more enlightened woman doctor finds a way of leading Esther back into her true self. Along the way we’re given frightening glimpses into Esther’s abyss:

I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.

Esther’s truly is a descent into hell. Narrated not ‘girlishly’, but with a poet’s ear and eye, as that last quotation demonstrates with its numbed, rhythmic repetitions and deceptive simplicity of structure. The reiterations and grimly cumulative ‘and’ clauses and phrases show how dangerously alluring and ubiquitous the deadening abyss appears to a lost soul like Esther – it’s everywhere she looks. This passage is similar in its barely suppressed hysteria and atrophied bleakness of tone to the desolate insight articulated in Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, ‘Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.’

 

 

 

 

Drunk as a sturdy thrush

Grandchildren just left after their annual stay with me and Mrs TD, so there’s been little time to read or post. As I get my breath back, I thought I’d add just this little Aside note.

Song_Thrush_(Turdus_philomelos)_singing_in_tree

Song Thrush (Turdus Philomelos). By Taco Meeuwsen from Hellevoetsluis, The Netherlands – THRUSH TUNE, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I read somewhere that the ancient Romans used to employ the expression ‘drunk as a thrush’ [‘turdus’ in Latin], perhaps because they had seen these birds staggering around in vineyards after gorging on rotting, fermenting grapes. (Wasps, I believe, behave similarly with apples).

In Old French this morphed into estourdi, ‘stunned, dazed, reckless, violent’ (modern French étourdi feather-brained, thoughtless). OED online (thank you, Cornwall Library Service for this free resource) adds:

Some scholars think that it is <  ex- (see ex- prefix) + turdus thrush (for the sense compare the French proverbial phrase soûl comme une grive , ‘drunk as a thrush’); some regard it as a contraction of *extorpidīre (Latin torpidus torpid adj. and n.) or of *exturbidīre (Latin turbidus turbid adj.). All these conjectures are open to grave objection.

It’s thought in some quarters that when the Normans invaded England in 1066 they were referred to with this expression, which gave rise to the current sense, as defined in OED below. I could find no textual evidence to support this link, apart from a much later translation from the Latin verses, supposedly of Archbishop Thomas of York (d. 1100), in praise of William I, the Conqueror, which contains the line ‘he who the sturdy Normans ruled…’. It would seem by Tudor times to have become a collocation when referring to the Normans.

As you’ll see, the first citation in OED is from late 13C, and makes no reference to the Norman Conquest:

II. 2.

  1. Impetuously brave, fierce in combat.

1297    R. Gloucester’s Chron. (Rolls) 7936   Þe heyemen of engelond..mid gret ost wende uorþ & mid stourdi [v.r. stourde] mode.

3.

  1. Recklessly violent, furious, ruthless, cruel.

 

It also has this meaning:

A brain-disease in sheep and cattle, which makes them run round and round; the turnsick.

The Latin name of the Song Thrush, as in the picture above, derives from the Greek legend of Philomela, in which, according to Ovid’s version in Metamorphosis, she’s raped by Tereus, and escaped by turning into a nightingale. This was much translated and adapted by later English poets, alluded to by Eliot (‘so rudely forced’, she ‘filled all the desert with inviolable voice/And still she cried, and still the world pursued’), her plaintive song ‘”jug jug” to dirty ears’). As always his allusion indirectly echoes lines from previous works, from the Tudor poet Gascoigne through Coleridge, Keats and others.

 

Mayhem, maiming, ravens and rapine: some etymology

When I began this blog nearly two years ago it was with a notion of writing about the world of words and literature in general. Subsequently my early posts were on a range of topics, from reviews of Javier Marías’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy to unusual vocabulary in Eliot and Byron (orioles, becaficas) to strange engravings in obscure nineteenth-century Portuguese travel books about west Africa. In the last year, though, most of my posts have been book reviews.

I never intended this blog to become just another book-review site – though such matter will always dominate what I write, in keeping with what I’m reading at the time – but I’d like to maintain an element of novelty and surprise.

Today then I came across an entry in an old notebook – which is where several of my early posts originated – about Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I felt inspired, and looked out a couple of reviews I’d saved. From there I returned to Burton’s book-length Preface, and an hour later had still not written a word. A little ironic, really: it’s a book that arises from what its author ruefully describes as ‘an unconstant unsettled mind’, liable to ‘rove abroad’, ‘taste of every dish and sip of every cup’ —  it’s a ramble, in other words, through everything to be found in an early seventeenth-century library – and I find myself no nearer to a line of critical approach than I was when I set out.

So I’m going to plunder another entry in the same notebook. I hope to return to Burton some time soon. This enables me to do something I’ve not done on this blog for a long time: look at some words and anatomise them.

Before I start, a word about other forthcoming projects. I’m reading Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, and making pretty slow progress in an intriguing novel that’s clearly influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, and therefore can’t be read quickly. I also received in the post the other day my copy of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Laughing Monsters. So those two should keep me occupied here for a while.

The first word that I want to examine is MAYHEM. The OED’s first entry for it as a noun is:

  1. ‘Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence; an instance of this. Also fig. Now hist.‘ Its first citation is from the Rolls of Parliament in 1447. I was surprised to see that its more familiar use

‘Orig. U.S. Violent behaviour, esp. physical assault’, is first cited here:

  1. ‘1870   ‘M. Twain’ in Territorial Enterprise 20 Jan. 1/1   This same man..pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.’ Its next citation is from a report in the Times from 1930 of ‘brigandage…mayhem and murder’ in New York ‘and its vicinity’. Plus ça change…Next is
  2. ‘Rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder. Freq. in to cause (also make) mayhem . Also fig.’ First cited:

1976   Daily Mirror 15 Mar. 24/4 (caption)    Without wishin’ to cast nasturtiums on your worm—I feel he’s not goin’ to make much mayhem today.

 

It derives from Middle English maheym ‘maim’, from French legal usage maihem, itself derived from Anglo-French mahain or mahaim, originally signifying a ‘lasting wound or bodily injury’; and ‘Subsequently: an injury to the body which causes the loss of a limb, or of the use of it; a… mutilating wound’. Its ultimate etymology is ‘uncertain’:  ‘Compare post-classical Latin mahemium, maamium… mayhem, maiming (from late 12th cent. in British sources), Italian magagna defect, infirmity (late 13th cent.).’ Other sources claim it’s akin to Germanic meidem, gelding, ON meitha, to injure.

 

Corvus corax: the raven (Wikimedia Commons)

Next is RAVENOUS. This apparently derives from OF ravineus, equivalent to ‘raviner’ – to RAVEN, ie take by force; this derives from vulgar Latin rapinare, from earlier Latin rapina, plunder. OED has this: ‘Compare Old French ravineux, ravinos, rabinos rapid, impetuous (late 12th cent.)….’ This produced English ravin, an act of rapine or robbery, plunder, pillaging (first cited c. 1325).

 

How did it come to mean what it does now? Here’s the OED again:

 

  1. ‘a) Originally: (of an animal) given to seizing other animals as prey; predatory; ferocious. Later: (of an animal or person; also of the appetite, hunger, etc.) voracious, gluttonous.’ (First cited ?1387). Here are the first two citations of its now customary primary meaning:
  2. ‘Exceedingly hungry; famished.’ Citations:

‘1648   T. Stephens tr. Statius  Thebais v. 131   Hircanian tygers so the herds inclose, In Scythian plaines, whom morning hunger does Rouse up, and th’ ravenous whelps roare for their paps.

1719   D. Defoe Farther Adventures Robinson Crusoe 201,   I got up ravenous.’

 

The name of the large corvine bird ‘raven’ appears to come via a different, Scandinavian-Germanic route; in its various forms it was spelt hrafn (OI), hraben (OHG), etc., maybe reflecting an imitation of its guttural call.

And that’s it for today. Probably more than enough etymology for one post.

 Picture credit: “Corvus corax ad berlin 090516” by Accipiter (R. Altenkamp, Berlin) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg