Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

Eroticism versus Mysticism in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of St. Sebastian" and "Death of St. Narcissus"

Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

Eroticism versus Mysticism in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of St. Sebastian" and "Death of St. Narcissus"

Article excerpt

T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of St. Sebastian" was written in 1914, but it was first published in Inventions of the March Hare in 1996. It was intended to be included in a collection of poems entitled Descent from the Cross. This poem, which depicts a male speaker's sadomasochistic relation with a lady, attests to misogyny and the deviant sexuality that marks Eliot's early poems. Eliot himself admits the morbidity of the poem in a letter to Conrad Aiken dated 25 July 1914. He writes: "Do you think that the Love Song of Saint Sebastian part is morbid, or forced?" (1)

In the first part of the poem, Sebastian seems to be a devoted lover, who is infatuated with his beloved and who shows readiness for sacrifice to win her heart. Sebastian is not just a slave in the service of his beloved, he is a masochist who wants to dash himself to pieces for the woman he loves: "I would flog myself until I bled./And after hour on hour of prayer/And torture and Delight/Until my blood should ring the lamp/And glisten in the light;" (2) This mentally disturbed lover seems to be madly in love with the woman. He goes ahead to her room and tries to perform acts of martyrdom and bravery to affirm his worthiness. He flogs himself till bleeding in order to show his heroism and masculinity.

The speaker's masochism and self-maiming is to win the shred of honour by being her first lover, which is akin to being a neophyte. His martyrdom seems to be for the sake of his beloved with whom he falls in love irretrievably and who arouses in him savagery. He makes herculean efforts to gain her love and dwell in her heart. His fervid desire for her impels him to vindicate a heroism that might end in his demise. Sebastian, who is in the throes of his romantic and sexual yearnings, resorts to aggression to assert masculinity. The latter, for him, is equivalent with violence.

The first lines of the poem recall to mind the famous romantic love story of Eros and Psyche, especially in its reference to the bed, the lamp, and the stunningly beautiful lady, who is given divine attributes. The title of the poem also gives the illusion of an exalted romantic love. But though he performs formidable acts of heroism, his love song, for the woman who possesses his heart, is never spelled. St. Sebastian disrupts the conventions of love, because the lovers conjoined tragically; their union ends with his death between her breasts. The speaker says; "You would take me in without shame/Because I should be dead/And when the morning came/Between your breasts should lie my head" (78). The magnetic relationship between the two lovers reaches its climax when Sebastian lays dead between his beloved's breasts, who seems to have lulled him to an eternal slumber. As in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Pruffock," there is no love in this poem and no romantic conversation issues. The woman is both weirdly fascinating and viscerally disgusting. Their embrace is a mere mechanical coupling.

In the second part of the poem, Sebastian murders his beloved to squeeze the drops of his passion. He says: "I would come with a towel in my hand/And bend your head beneath my knees" (78). Sebastian's erotic devotion is tinged with sadistic violence. The strength of his affection turns into an erotic sexual strangulation, because he fails to consummate his love with the woman. he loves madly. One might opine that his passion is a mere pretense or even an alibi for sexual violence. In fact, "The Love Song of ST. Sebastian" is a sadomasochistic fantasy of flagellation and murder. Sex is these poems is never associated with pleasure or love: it is anxious, sordid, urgent, unwanted, unfulfilled, at best masturbatory, at worst a crucifixion in a garret. So, like the other poems, in "The Inventions of the March Hare," "The Love Song of St. Sebastian" is ridden with misogyny.

Sebastian's murder of the woman he loves is reminiscentofPorphyria's lover in Browning'spoem, which is a misogynistic poem, and of Desdemona's husband in William Shakespeare's Othello. …

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