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Eliot's "The death of Saint Narcissus" and Herberts "Affliction" (I) by Sidney Gottlieb Among the many verses that T.S. Eliot originally planned to include in The Waste Land but dropped or radically revised following Ezra Pound's advice is "The death of Saint Narcissus." This poem exists in two forms: a heavily corrected draft (which I will focus on) and a further revised version prepared for publication in Poetry in 1915 but not published until 1950 in Poems Written in Early Youth.y Eliot's Narcissus is "a dancer before God" (1. 17), and his life in the desert is in some ways an imaginative triumph: the quickly metamorphosing visions that fill the central part of the poem are momentarily stunning. But because he is motivated by a sensuous indulgence in suffering, his martyrdom is one of selfishness, not devotion, and his spiritual quest is a failure, ending "With the shadow in his mouth" (I. 39). This poem has been generally neglected, but Lyndall Gordon suggests very persuasively that "It is crucial to see 7"ne Waste Land, indeed all of Eliot's subsequent work, in the context of this early story of an aspiring saint," written during a time when the "consuming issues" of his life were "his longing for metamorphosis, his vision and loss of vision, and the avidity of his religious emotions."2 The contemporary sources for "The death of Saint Narcissus" have been identified. Grover Smith notes the similarity in diction to T. E. Hulme's "Conversion," from which Eliot may have drawn "the walking, the cloth, the stifling, and the river."3 Smith goes on to say that the pattern of rapidly shifting transformations of self is common in early Welsh and Irish bardic literature. I would add that Eliot may very well have had in mind such a poem as Yeats's "The Song of Wandering Aengus," which despite obvious tonal and thematic differences envisions a similar metamorphosis involving a tree (or at least a "hazel wand" from a "hazel wood"), a fish, a young girl, and an HERBERT AND ELIOT55 old man filled with sexual desire.4 Smith further suggests that Eliot owes the first element in the transformation, the tree, to two poems by Pound, "The Tree" and "A Girl," both of which describe a kinaesthetic sense of a tree growing. Another much earlier poem, however, may be a crucial part of the allusive background here. In the final version of "The death of Saint Narcissus" each stanza focusing on a transformation begins confidently — "First he was sure that he had been a tree . . . Then he knew that he had been a fish . . . Then he had been a young girl" (II. 21, 24, 28) — and this underscores the saint's self-satisfaction and indulgence. The phrasing in the draft is more tentative — "First he wished that he had been a tree . . ." — suggesting the instabilityas well as the power of desire and recalling a key line from George Herbert's "Affliction" (I): "I reade, and sigh, and wish I were a tree; / For sure then I should grow / To fruit or shade" (II. 57-59).5 At this point near the end of Herbert's poem, the speaker is confused but well-intentioned and sincerely interested in being useful to God; significantly, the tree image clearly echoes Psalm 1 on the good man, Beatus vir— "And he shalbe like a tree planted by the watersyde: that will bring foorth his fruit in due season" (Book of Common Prayer, v. 3). In this regard, Eliot's allusion is ironic: Narcissus' tree is an emblem of self-involvement, not service. But in general Saint Narcissus and the speaker of Herbert's poem have a great deal in common. "Affliction" (I), as the title suggests, is filled with scenes and images of intensely felt suffering: "My flesh began unto my soul in pain, / Sicknesses cleave my bones; / Consuming agues dwell in ev'ry vein, / And tune my breath to grone" (II. 25-28). Unlike Narcissus, this character does not revel in physical misery, but Herbert shrewdly notes the dangerous temptation that "I should too happie be / In my unhappinesse" (II. 49-50). Most important...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 54-56
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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