"A Patient Etherised": Modernism and the Legitimation of Poetry

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Summary

This article examines the social and cultural function of the criticism of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. To read the criticism of these Modernist poets is to examine the ways in which their poetry is inserted into a specific historical context and to view how poetic discourse interacts with the outside world in a manner that raises questions regarding the supposedly autotelic status of poetry. Criticism becomes for these poets a medium whereby they can speak to their reading public, and influence the reception of their work. This emphasis on the social function of criticism had an impact on the institutionalisation of this discipline as a professional pursuit. As is argued here, criticism also offered the Modernist poet the opportunity to construct narratives of legitimation for poetry inside a frequently hostile public context. For Pound and Eliot, the arguments raised in their criticism regarding ideas such as professionalism, culture, and the relationship between poetry and science were not simply interpretative statements regarding poetry, but were arguments designed to ensure the value and legitimacy of poetry in a period where these ideals were being questioned.

Opsomming

Hierdie artikel ondersoek die sosiale en kulturele rol van T.S. Eliot en Ezra Pound se literere kritiek. Om hulle kritiek te lees is om die dialoog wat ontstaan tussen hul digkuns en die historiese konteks daarvan te ontleed, en om waar te neem hoe hierdie interaksie vrae laat ontstaan aangaande die sogenaamde outonome status van die gedig. Literere kritiek is vir hierdie digters 'n wyse om hulle gehoor toe te spreek en die resepsie van hul werk te be'fnvloed. Hierdie klem op die publieke rol van kritiek het tot gevolg gehad dat die dissipline 'n professionele en institusionele gedaante aangeneem het. Hier word ook geargumenteer dat literere kritiek vir die digter die geleentheid bled om narratiewe aangaande die legitimiteit van digkuns te konstrueer binne gereeld vyandige kontekste. Pound en Eliot se argumente aangaande sulke verskynsels soos professionalisme, kultuur, en die verhouding tussen die wetenskappe en die digkuns is dan nie net analitiese opmerkings nie, maar ook argumente aangaande die waarde en legitimiteit van digkuns binne 'n historiese periode waarin hierdie ideale bevraagteken word.

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T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock" presents us with a portrait of a character who cannot make himself heard, whose speech falls on deaf ears. It is a poem about paralysis and impotence. Surrounded by terrifying and tiresome women, Prufrock cannot make himself understood. He fails to connect, verbally or physically. The patient is etherised upon the table. The sirens are silent. And nothing comes of Prufrock's silent reverie. He cannot even imagine a way to begin speaking of"the butt-ends of my days and ways" (Eliot 1963: 5). It is as if all the anxieties of a young poet, who feared that he might not be heard or might have nothing to say, are concentrated in him.

The poem forces us to ask the question: on what and whose authority does Modernist poetry make its claims on the attention of its readership? Many commentators on Modernism are likely to think this question is not worth asking, for the simple reason that, like Kant's idealised aesthetic, the Modernist poem is often treated as if it is autotelic--autonomous, and dependent only upon itself and not on an external authority acting as the arbiter of its value. But it is exactly the problem of legitimacy that haunted Eliot in 1933 when he wrote "I mean that the contemporary poet ... is forced to ask himself such questions as 'what is poetry for'; not merely 'what am I to say?' but rather 'how and to whom am I to say it?'" (Eliot 1933: 30). At stake in these problems are the value of poetry and the legitimacy of the way it speaks to a yet undetermined audience. The function of poetry, its formal techniques and its ideal audience were all problems that demanded a response from the "contemporary poet" if the value and legitimacy of Modern poetry were to be decided. …