Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Nur Wer Die Sehnsucht Kennt

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Nur Wer Die Sehnsucht Kennt

Article excerpt

The article examines the nature of Eliot's lyricism, having first suggested that all lyricism is "an expression of desire, a reaching out for an unattainable fulfilment." It takes note of the fact that although Eliot has written lyric lines of incomparable beauty, he did not produce a body of lyric poems. His lyricism seems to break out, as though stifled, rather than to constitute the raison d'etre of his work. The article relates this to the belief expressed by Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that the poet escapes from rather than "expresses" his own personality, which, in turn, would seem to reflect two ideas of Bradley: the first being that all reality is experience and all experience one, and the second that experience is of three orders, immediate, relational, and transcendent. Although much of Eliot's poetry reflects "relational experience," a nostalgia for "immediacy of experience" permeates Eliot's work. If we examine his lyric imagery, we find reference almost always to his early life, to a past that he has left behind. The poet's "first world" creates his "rose garden," the immediate experience to which he turns and returns. It was only during his last years with his marriage to Valerie, that his abiding loneliness, his hunger for the lost simplicity of his early life, was seemingly assuaged by a happiness akin to that "immediate experience." The effect upon his verse was of dubious merit.


Many years ago, while teaching a course on Eliot, I had the students read Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and then write an essay entitled "On first looking into Eliot's The Waste Land." Recently, teaching the course again, I had occasion to "revisit" Eliot. I came to see that what constituted for me his poetry's appeal was the nostalgia to which it gave voice for an entire generation to which I belong. When all the issues and allusions of The Waste Land which so preoccupy the first reader were all but forgotten, it was its lyricism which remained with us and "echoed in our minds" expressing, like all great poetry, "what cannot be expressed."

Perhaps all lyricism is the expression of desire, a reaching out for an unattainable fulfillment, addressed for the most part to someone who would seem to possess the promise or at least the possibility of restoring the soul to the fulness of being. The lyric has been defined by Mill as "the utterance that is overheard," by Joyce as a "cri de coeur;" it has been spoken of as the silent soliloquy revealing the landscape of the mind. However defined, the recognition of its essential quality persists, which is the need of the poet to speak from his solitude. That Eliot felt this need and possessed great lyric power is, of course, beyond the need to contend, but it is also evident that the corpus of his work contains few poems that one would label in entirety "lyric;" no sonnet series, no pourings out of his heart to the beloved, nor to the reader for that matter. Instead we have lines, passages of a beauty incomparable in modern verse, but they are passages embedded in a scaffolding of allusion and reference camouflaging the poet's solitude, or so ordered as to engage the mind in universal questions rather than to express individual experience. There is always the hidden smile or stifled cry as though the lyric lines escape, break out, rather than deliberately express his feeling. The early poems provide instances: Prufrock recalling "sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown" and "mermaids" singing who, he thinks "will not sing" to him; the young man in Portrait of a Lady who keeps his counsel,

   Except when a street-piano, mechanical and tired
   Reiterates some worn-out common song
   With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
   Recalling things that other people have desired (20)(1)

or in Preludes

    ... fancies that are curled
    Around these images, and cling:
    The notion of some infinitely gentle
    Infinitely suffering thing (23)

imprisoned in a sordid city block. …

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