Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words

By Mutlu Konuk Blasing | Go to book overview
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Chapter 5


It is impossible to say just what I mean!

T. S. Eliot

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T. S. Eliot

T. S. ELIOT'S EARLY WORK poses the generic double question of the lyric: what can ensure that the subject does not reduce to a set of “lyric” gestures, postures, and rhetorics, and what is to guarantee that the sounds of words do not reduce to meaningless acoustic events or, at another level, to formal mannerisms? The overdone rhymes of multisyllabic Latinate words in “Prufrock,” for instance, are formal mannerisms that mock their author even as they serve him to ridicule the social conventions, mannerisms, and “measures” of his speaker's milieu. Eliot speaks of a “great simplicity” that would ensure the subject in language; but it is “only won,” he writes, “by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort, or by both. It represents one of the most arduous conquests of the human spirit: the triumph of feeling and thought over the natural sin of language.”1

For Eliot, Ronald Bush suggests, the “natural sin of language” meant rhetoric: words cannot express feelings without reducing them to rhetorical gestures in ready-made formulas.2 Eliot certainly engages rhetoric in this sense; his dramatic personae, histrionic performers watching themselves act, present just this problem. But “sin” is a big word, and Eliot is speaking of a struggle of the “human spirit.” Further, “natural sin” suggests something other than rhetoric or even a postlapsarian language of exile: it suggests a sin that is innate, of the very body of words. The association of sin with the flesh thematically pervades Eliot's work in general, and if we keep in mind this sense of sin, we can better engage the question of lyric poetry in early Eliot.

The “failure” of language in the dramatic poems is sometimes a matter of the slipperiness of meaning. In “Portrait of a Lady,” for example, “friend” can mean an acquaintance, a soul mate, or a lover; it is an empty social counter. This knowledge about the social currency keeps Prufrock from “saying” what he “knows”: “Would it have been worth it, after all,” to “say” “I am Lazarus


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