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In the Shadows: Popular Song and Eliot's Construction of Emotion

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 11, Number 3, September 2004
pp. 449-467 | 10.1353/mod.2004.0053

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Modernism/modernity 11.3 (2004) 449-467

Popular Song and Eliot's Construction of Emotion

David E. Chinitz

I should say that the mind of any poet would be magnetized in its own way, to select automatically, in his reading (from picture papers and cheap novels, indeed, as well as serious books . . .), the material—an image, a phrase, a word—which may be of use to him later. There might be the experience of a child of ten, a small boy peering through sea-water in a rock-pool, and finding a sea-anemone for the first time: the simple experience (not so simple, for an exceptional child, as it looks) might lie dormant in his mind for twenty years, and re-appear transformed in some verse-context charged with great imaginative pressure.
—T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism
         the music
Will be motion and full of shadows.
—Wallace Stevens, "Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz"

Sad Strains

The "Shadow" that falls in The Hollow Men "Between the emotion / And the response / . . . Between the desire / And the spasm" thwarts sexual consummation in a land where "Lips that would kiss / Form prayers to broken stone." Neither emotion nor desire is absent; indeed, the hollow men "trembl[e] with tenderness" at night. But the Shadow interposes, and desire is spent in obscure and ineffectual religious rites (CPP, 57-8).

Eliot's poetry is full of such frustrating shadows, though not all are quite so portentous. The waiter in "Dans le Restaurant" recounts his sexual awakening with a young girl with whom he once took shelter from the monsoon rains under "Les saules trempés, et des bourgeons sur les ronces" ("The sodden willows, and buds on the brambles"). He gave her flowers and tickled her, but the rendezvous was spoiled by the arrival of "un gros chien" ("a large dog"), which frightened the boy. The girl, aged by a few years, makes a similar appearance in "La Figlia che Piange," "[h]er hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers" (CPP, 20). She resurfaces in The Waste Land, wet and vital as before, and wooed again with a gift of flowers. The assignation, now relocated to the hyacinth garden, is derailed this time by the boy's metaphysical impotence:

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
[CPP, 38]

It is the spiritual vacuity of the waste land that casts its nebulous shadow here between the emotion and the response. The trysting tree, so lush in the tropical setting of "Dans le Restaurant," stands "dead" nearby and "gives no shelter" in The Waste Land (CPP, 38). And the interfering dog is still hard on the boy's heels, threatening now to dig up a corpse recently planted in the garden. I will return later to the significance of this moment. Meanwhile note the similar congeries of images in a quite different poem, Ash-Wednesday, where the speaker, reduced by leopards to a pile of bones, serenades his Lady under a juniper-tree, offering (ironic?) praise for the death of love in "the Garden / Where all loves end" (CPP, 61-2). Still later, in The Family Reunion, Harry Monchensey and his putative love interest, Mary, recall their childhood meetings in a "hollow tree in a wood by the river," now the locale of Harry's "only memory of freedom" (CPP, 248). A false hyacinth girl, Mary enters this scene of recollection bearing an armload of greenhouse flowers (CPP, 244). Between her and the brooding Harry fall the shadows of the Furies, of his deceased, yet relentlessly present wife, and of Time.

So many trysts under so many trees and in so many gardens; so many shadows to blight the outcome! The pattern saturates Eliot's oeuvre. Yet the matrix in which Eliot's hapless assignations gestated lay to a large degree outside the corpus of high culture in which scholars have generally sought out his sources. Eliot...

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