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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 13

Painting by Michele Desubleo

Painting by Michele Desubleo

This episode corresponds with the section concerning Nausicaä in Homer’s Odyssey.

In Book Six of the Odyssey, Odysseus is shipwrecked on the coast of the island of Scheria. Nausicaä and her handmaidens go to the sea-shore to wash clothes. Awoken by their games, Odysseus emerges from the forest completely naked, scaring the servants away, and begs Nausicaä for aid. Nausicaä gives Odysseus some of the laundry to wear, and takes him to the edge of the town. Realizing that rumors might arise if Odysseus is seen with her, she and the servants go ahead into town.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, Gerty MacDowell corresponds with Princess Nausicaä, Gerty’s friends Cissy and Edy represent Nausicaä’s handmaidens, and Leopold Bloom is associated with Odysseus. As in the Homeric epic, the scene takes place on the beach and is full of sexuality, which in Joyce’s book is much more overt. Essentially, Bloom masturbates as he watches the girls on the beach.

Early in the episode, Gerty fantasizes about a storybook wedding. Images of fairy tales and being swept away by her Prince Charming abound. It is implied that while she is having these fantasies, Bloom is having his own as he watches. As Gerty notices Bloom watching her, she begins to tease him and play up to his fantasy, positioning herself so he can better see her and steal glimpses up her skirt. She begins moving her leg in a manner evocative of sexual intercourse.

Queen of angels, queen of patriarchs, queen of prophets, of all saints, they prayed, queen of the most holy rosay and then Father Conroy handed the thurible to Canon O’Hanlon and he put in the incense and censed the Blessed Sacrament and Cissy Caffrey caught the two twins and she was itching to give them a ringing good clip on the ear but she didn’t because she thought he might be watching but she never made a bigger mistake in all her life because Gerty could see without looking that he never took his eyes off of her and then Canon O’Hanlon handed the thurible back to Father Conroy and knelt down looking up at the Blessed Sacrament and the choir began to sing Tantum ergo and she just swung her foot in and out in time as the music rose and fell to the Tantumer gosa carmen tum.

(pp. 359 – 360)

What is interesting about this is that while Bloom is fantasizing about Gerty and Gerty is playing up to his attentions, there is a Catholic service happening at a nearby church. This builds a symbolic connection between Gerty and the Virgin Mary. Joyce seems to be criticizing our obsession with virginity and our secret desires for those things which are pure and generally out of our reach. I cannot help but wonder how many men, sitting in a church service, secretly wondered how a statue of the Virgin Mary might look if naked, like classical Greek statuary. Probably more than would be willing to admit.

Undoubtedly, the most memorable scene in this episode is when Bloom reaches orgasm. It happens as fireworks are exploding in the sky over the beach and Joyce employs the image of a Roman candle as a phallic symbol.

She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow the cry of a young girl’s love, a strangled little cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!

(pp. 366 – 367)

It is worth pointing out that Joyce uses the word “rapture” to describe the experience. I get the impression that he is also making the connection between orgasm and a profound religious experience. The image that comes to my mind is that of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

Bernini - Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

Bernini – Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

The episode ends on a sad note, with the sound of a cuckoo clock sounding the time.

Cuckoo
Cuckoo
Cuckoo

(p. 382)

The implication here is that Bloom was made a cuckold, that his wife Molly and Blazes Boylan have consummated their affair at the same time he was masturbating and fantasizing. So while it’s easy to look at Bloom in this episode and see a pervert jerking off as he watches a young girl at the beach, you can’t help but pity him also. He seems a sad and lonely person.

I’ll post my thoughts on episode 14 in about a week or so.


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section13.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausicaa

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 12

CyclopsPolyphemus

This episode corresponds to the section of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus and his men are captured by Polyphemus, the Cyclops.

In Homer’s epic, Odysseus lands on the island of the Cyclopes (Sicily) during his journey home from the Trojan War and enters a cave filled with provisions with some of his men. When the giant Polyphemus returns home with his flocks, he blocks the entrance with a great stone and, scoffing at the usual custom of hospitality, eats two of the men. Next morning, the giant kills and eats two more and leaves the cave to graze his sheep.

After the giant returns in the evening and kills two more of the men, Odysseus offers Polyphemus some strong and undiluted wine given to him earlier on his journey. Drunk and unwary, the giant asks Odysseus his name, promising him a guest-gift if he answers. Odysseus tells him “Οὖτις”, which means “no one” and Polyphemus promises to eat this “Nobody” last of all. With that, he falls into a drunken sleep. Odysseus had meanwhile hardened a wooden stake in the fire and now drives it into Polyphemus’ eye. When Polyphemus shouts for help from his fellow giants, saying that “Nobody” has hurt him, they think Polyphemus is being afflicted by divine power and recommend prayer as the answer.

In the morning, the blind Cyclops lets the sheep out to graze, feeling their backs to ensure that the men are not escaping. However, Odysseus and his men have tied themselves to the undersides of the animals and so get away. As he sails off with his men, Odysseus boastfully reveals his real name, an act of hubris that was to cause problems for him later. Polyphemus prays to his father, Poseidon, for revenge and casts huge rocks towards the ship, which barely escapes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, the Cyclops is represented by an unnamed person who is presented in this section as a first-person narrator. It is therefore from the “I” perspective, a singular and myopic view of the events that unfold. The events take place within a pub, the Dublin equivalent of a cave, dark and enclosed. Throughout the episode, there are lots of puns and wordplay associated with the word “eye.”

—Ay, says I. A bit off the top. An old plumber named Geraghty. I’m hanging on to his taw now for the past fortnight and I can’t get a penny out of him.

(p. 292)

The narrator is not a pleasant person. He seems to have an issue with everyone. He is totally self-centered (focused on his I) and, in my humble opinion, kind of a jerk. But then again, we all have our own egos inside and often think things about others which we keep to ourselves.

Since Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, the metaphor of blindness appears throughout the chapter.

—Some people, says Bloom, can see the mote in others’ eyes but they can’t see the beam in their own.

Raimeis, says the citizen. There’s no-one as blind as the fellow that won’t see, if you know what that means.

(p. 326)

There is a lot of symbolism tied in to this short quote. On one hand, the narrator is blind to the opinions of others. He is solely concerned with his own opinions. Bloom is blind to the hostile anti-Semitic feelings that the people around him are feeling towards him. The people of Ireland, represented by the citizen, are blinded by their intense desire to establish a national identity. Finally, the mention by the citizen of “no-one” is an allusion to the name that Odysseus used when he fooled the Cyclops.

As the episode continues, the environment becomes more and more hostile towards Bloom. This is especially evident through the citizen, who gets so worked up he starts verbally attacking Bloom as he makes his exit from the pub with Martin Cunningham. The citizen follows him out to the street, hurling anti-Semitic insults at Bloom, who responds by naming famous Jews from history, including Jesus, which enrages the citizen even more.

—Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.

—He had no father, says Martin. That’ll do now. Drive ahead.

—Whose God? says the citizen.

—Well, his uncle was a jew, says he. Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.

Gob, the citizen made a plunge back into the shop.

—By Jesus, says he, I’ll brain the bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will. Give us the biscuitbox here.

(p. 342)

The episode concludes in a similar manner to the corresponding section in the Odyssey. As Bloom is escaping in the carriage (symbolic of Odysseus’ ship), the citizen, who is blinded by rage, throws the biscuit tin (symbolic of the boulder) at Bloom, but misses his mark.

Begob he drew his hand and made a swipe and let fly. Mercy of God the sun was in his eyes or he’d have left him for dead. Gob, he near sent it into county Longford. The bloody nag took fright and the old mongrel after the car like bloody hell and all the populace shouting and laughing and the old tinbox clattering along the street.

(pp. 343 – 344)

We are nearing the halfway mark in the novel. My next post will cover Episode 13 which in my book ends on page 382 with the word “Cuckoo.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11


 

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphemus

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section12.rhtml

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 11

Painting by William Etty

Painting by William Etty

This episode corresponds to the section in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus encounters the sirens. “In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous yet beautiful creatures, portrayed as femme fatales who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island” (Wikipedia). In Ulysses, the episode takes place inside a bar and the sirens are represented by the two barmaids, Lydia Douce and Mina Kennedy, who are very flirtatious. Joyce also incorporates themes of music and intoxication into the episode. Essentially, this is the sex and drugs and rock and roll chapter.

Joyce does something very creative at the beginning of this episode. He essentially composes an overture to the chapter. He takes snippets of text from the episode and weaves them together, creating a literary prelude of sorts. It reads like a modernist poem, and while I have not been impressed with Joyce’s poetry, I have to say that this works well for me. The actual episode begins with the word: “Begin!”

Early in the episode, Lydia and Mina are gossiping and laughing. They are immediately portrayed as sexual by their little dirty jokes.

—O saints above! Miss Douce said, sighed above her jumping rose. I wished I hadn’t laughed so much. I feel all wet.

—O, Miss Douce! Miss Kennedy protested. You horrid thing!

And flushed yet more (you horrid!), more goldenly.

(p. 260)

As the episode continues, the connection is made between music and sexual arousal. In the next passage, a tuning fork is used as a phallic symbol to reinforce the connection between music and sexuality.

From the saloon a call came, long in dying. That was a tuningfork the tuner had that he forgot that he now struck. A call again. That he now poised that it now throbbed. You hear? It throbbed, pure, purer, softly and softlier, its buzzing prongs. Longer in dying call.

(p. 264)

As Leopold Bloom sits in the bar, the combination of alcohol, music, and sexuality starts to overwhelm him. He loses himself in a flood of thoughts, memories, and fantasy caused by the environment.

Tenderness it welled: slow, swelling. Full it throbbed. That’s the chat. Ha, give! Take! Throb, a throb, a pulsing proud erect.

Words? Music? No: it’s what’s behind.

Bloom looped, unlooped, noded, disnoded.

Bloom. Flood of warm jimjam lickitup sweetness flowed to flow in music out, in desire, dark to lick flow, invading. Tipping her tepping her tapping her topping her. Tup. Pores to dilate dilating. Tup. The joy the feel the warm the. Tup. To pour o’er sluices pouring gushes. Flood, gush, flow, joygush, tupthrop. Now! Language of love.

(p. 274)

Toward the end of the episode, there is a scene where Lydia is stroking the beer tap like it is a penis. This is symbolic of the connection between intoxication and succumbing to sexual temptation.

On the smooth jutting beerpull laid Lydia hand lightly, plumply, leave it to my hands. All lost in pity for croppy. Fro, to: to, fro: over the polished knob (she knows his eyes, my eyes, her eyes) her thumb and finger passed in pity: passed, repassed and, gently touching, then slid so smoothly, slowly down, a cool firm white enamel baton protruding through their sliding ring.

With a cock with a carra.

(p. 286)

When I read Ulysses for the first time in college, this was one of the episodes that really stood out for me. Probably because I played music for so many years, I really related to the musical imagery and symbolism that permeates this episode.

Next week I will cover Episode 12 which ends on page 345 with the phrase “… like a shot off a shovel.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section11.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siren_%28mythology%29

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 2

Image Source: www.comicvine.com

Stephen Dedalus — Image Source: http://www.comicvine.com

This is a short episode, but there is a lot going on. For me, this episode sets the groundwork for the saga which will unfold throughout the book. Some of the dominant themes that stood out for me were memory, history, money, anti-Semitism, and misogyny.

Early in the episode, Stephen Dedalus’ mind wanders as he briefly considers memory. There is a sense that Stephen is haunted by memories, most likely the result of his pain over his mother’s death. I suspect that the reason for this is because often the most vivid memories are the sharpest and most painful, those which cut directly into the psyche.

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?

(p. 24)

As Stephen is discussing Pyrrhus with the class he is teaching, one of the students jokes that Pyrrhus was a pier. Stephen then follows the prompt and explores what is a pier.

—Tell me now, Stephen said, poking the boy’s shoulder with the book, what is a pier.

—A pier, sir, Armstrong said. A thing out in the waves. A kind of bridge. Kingstown pier, sir.

(p. 24)

The pier then becomes a symbol for memory. It is something solid that juts out into the sea of the subconscious. And despite the continuous crashing of the waves of forgetfulness against the pylons holding up the pier, the pier remains, just as the painful memories persist. It is also worth noting that a pier is a place where ships depart and dock, so the pier also builds the connection to the seafaring Odysseus.

As the class is dismissing, Stephen offers the following riddle to the class:

The cock crew
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
Tis time for this poor soul
To go to heaven.

(p. 26)

The students are unable to solve the riddle, so Stephen tells them that the answer is “The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.” (p. 27) This is a totally absurdist answer and has no relevance to the riddle whatsoever. I would go as far as asserting it is a Dadaist answer. I pondered the riddle for a bit and came up with my own answer: Judas Iscariot. There were originally twelve apostles, and one would assume that eleven of them were admitted into heaven, hence the ringing of the eleven bells. Judas was sent to hell, for betraying Christ and for committing suicide. The riddle implies that it is time to forgive Judas for his sins and allow his soul access to heaven. I think Joyce dropped a little hint to the riddle in the text, because on page 29, he mentions the twelve apostles.

The image of the fox reappears, but now it seems to be a symbol for a historian, a sly and intelligent creature who is obsessed with digging up the past, with scraping away the debris of time to uncover the history buried below the surface.

A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.

(p. 28)

The second half of this episode focuses on Stephen’s interactions with Mr. Deasy, the schoolmaster. I personally found Deasy to be a most disdainful character and he could easily be called Mr. Queasy, since he kind of made me feel sick. He is self-righteous, obsessed with money, brazenly anti-Semitic, and misogynistic.

Deasy lectures Stephen on the importance of money, emphasizing that money is power. He then tosses in a quote by Shakespeare to back up his assertion, but Stephen catches the irony of the fact that it was Iago who Deasy quoted, and Iago is not a model character.

—Because you don’t save, Mr Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don’t know what money is. Money is power, when you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.

—Iago, Stephen murmured.

(p. 30)

Shortly afterward, Deasy launches into an anti-Semitic rant. He employs the same inane arguments that have fueled anti-Jewish sentiment for years: that the Jews control the government, the banks, the press, and so forth. He then accuses the Jews of being the cause of society’s decline.

—Mark my words, Mr Dedalus, he said. England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.

(p. 33)

After Stephen attempts to defend the Jews against Deasy’s accusations, he says something that really struck a nerve with me:

—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

(p. 34)

On one level, this is an expression of the connection between memory and history. Stephen’s past haunts and torments him, and try as he may, he cannot free himself from his personal history. But there is also a larger issue here. Our society is formed based upon human history. Whether we remember the past or forget it collectively, it doesn’t matter all that much. We are still the products of our collective past. If you wanted to apply a Jungian analysis, you could also argue that our collective consciousness is tied to our collective history, and we are bound to it, unable to free ourselves. It’s kind of a dark rabbit hole to start going down, and for one who has always viewed history in a positive light, this casts a shroud over my long-standing views on the value of history and memory.

Next, Deasy launches into his tirade against women. During his rant, he mentions Helen of Troy, which serves to tie the scene in with the Homeric motif.

—I am happier than you are, he said. We have committed many errors and many sins. A woman brought sin into the world. For a woman who was no better than she should be, Helen, the runaway wife of Menelaus, ten years the Greeks make war on troy. A faithless wife first brought strangers to our shore here. MacMurrough’s wife and her leman O’Rourke, prince of Breffini. A woman too brought Parnell low. Many errors, many failures but not one sin. I am a struggler now at the end of my days. But I will fight for the right till the end.

(pp. 34 – 35)

As I read this again, I couldn’t help wondering how Stephen felt hearing this, especially with the pain of his mother’s death still fresh. He does not react to it, other than signaling he is ready to leave. I suspect he is hurt and angry, but because he is financially broke and struggling, and needs the work, he is afraid to speak out. I feel for Stephen. He is in a terrible place.

The episode concludes with Deasy making a joke about the Jews.

—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?

He frowned sternly on the bright air.

—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.

A coughball of laughter leaped from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm. He turned back quickly, coughing, laughing, his lifted arms waving to the air.

(p. 36)

For me, this is the key setup for what is to come. There is a similarity between the Jews wandering in the desert and Odysseus traveling the seas. Both are wanderers attempting to return home, but can’t. It is also important to note that Leopold Bloom (who correlates to Odysseus and will appear soon in the story) is Jewish.

The next episode concludes the first part of the book. If you are reading along, I expect to have my thoughts on Episode 3 to be up in about a week. Read on!

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Starting James Joyce’s “Ulysses”

Ulysses

So as I mentioned in a recent post, I am now beginning Ulysses, arguably the greatest modernist novel ever written. I am going to go fairly slow, probably one section/episode every week or every other week. My idea is that if any of you want to read along, you will be able to do so. I will post my thoughts after each section and hopefully generate some discussion via the comments section.

I read Ulysses while in college. I took an upper-level course which was just Ulysses. All we had to do was complete the book and write a couple papers along the way. When I finished, I felt like I had accomplished the literary equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. There were times when I loved it, and times when I felt like tearing out pages and burning them. In the end, though, I’m glad that I persevered.

Alright then. Off we go. For those who are interested, here is a link to the Sparknotes for the text (this will probably be helpful). Next weekend I will be posting on the first episode, which in my copy ends on page 23.

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Traveling in England and France

So, I know what you’ve been thinking: “It’s been a long time since Jeff posted.” Well, that’s because I was traveling in England and France with my family. I have to say, I had an amazing time. Now, I could write about my travels, but this is Stuff Jeff Reads, not Places Jeff Visits. That said, I did poke around in some interesting bookstores and picked up a couple books.

The first bookstore I visited was The Tiny Book Store in Rye, which is in southern England. Rye is a beautiful old city and was home to Henry James. Going there is like stepping into a different century. Here is a picture I snapped in the cemetery.

RyeCemetery

Anyway, while perusing the Tiny Book Store, I came across an old, hardcover copy of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Since I had never read this before and I was in James’ hometown, I figured I would buy it. It has now taken its place in my stack of books waiting eagerly to be read.

My other book purchase was at the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

This was one of the most amazing bookstores I have ever visited. This bookstore has a rich history and served as a central gathering point for writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound. In addition, James Joyce used the bookstore as an office. While I was weaving my way through the crooked aisles of books, I chanced upon Turning Back the Clock, a book by Umberto Eco which I had never heard of before. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It’s now keeping Turn of the Screw company atop my dresser.

TurningBackTheClock

So, while I have your attention, I thought it would be a good time to give you a heads-up on what I am planning for the near future. I mentioned the connection between James Joyce and the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. Well, I’ve decided to reread Ulysses, beginning in a couple weeks. I plan on going slowly and posting my thoughts after each chapter. If you are interested in reading (or rereading) what is arguably the greatest modernist novel ever written, you are welcome to do so along with me. I’ll be posting when I begin the book, for those who wish to follow along.

Until then, happy reading!!

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“Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot – Part 2 of 4: East Coker

FourQuartets

In my previous post, I looked at the first of the Four Quartets: “Burnt Norton.” The second poem in the collection is much darker than the first and offers a bleak view of modern society.

The poem is structured in a circular style. The first and last lines of the poem are mirror reflections of each other. The poem begins with “In my beginning is my end” and concludes with “In my end is my beginning.” So from a basic structural view, Eliot is challenging the reader to read the poem over multiple times, but I also see deeper symbolism. In the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, when you are born, your consciousness is separated from the Divine Consciousness and your connection is severed. Likewise, when you die, your consciousness is reunited with the Divine until it is time to be reborn again, as part of the eternal cycle.

The overall theme of the poem is that modern humans, with all our science, technology, and money, are essentially destroying ourselves and the world in which we live. It really doesn’t seem like there is much hope for us. In the poem, Eliot offers only one possible path by which to save ourselves, and that is through Christ.

In the opening stanza, Eliot sets the tone for the poem, evoking images of a crumbling society while incorporating references to Ecclesiastes, thereby letting the reader know that our world is in decline and the only chance for salvation is through biblical wisdom.

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

As the poem continues, we are provided with a view of life during a simpler time, before we became slaves to science and technology.

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie

A dignified and commodiois sacrament,
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,

(Lines 25 – 34)

The imagery here makes me think of a pagan ritual. Villagers are gathered together and partake in rituals celebrating the union of man and woman. I would even venture to suggest that Eliot is likely depicting a Beltane ritual, where the symbolic sexual union of man and woman evokes a sympathetic type of magic resulting in the fertility of the earth. I also love the shift in language to an “Olde English” style. It is almost like reading Chaucer.

The Dance by Matisse

The Dance by Matisse

After this pastoral section, the poem takes a darker turn. We are presented with a prophecy, one in which astrological signs and omens point toward the inevitable destruction of humanity.

Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.

(Lines 58 – 67)

The following lines impacted me the hardest. Here, Eliot describes the root of our demise, the rich and powerful who view the world as theirs and seek to exploit the planet and all those who dwell upon it, dragging us along with them on the path to destruction.

O dark dark dark. They all go dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

(Lines 101 – 111)

These lines terrify me. They could have been written today. As I look around at what is happening to our world, I see a handful of people taking the rest of us along with them to the grave. And when we reach that point of collapse, there will be no one left to bury the dead. We will decay along with all our creations and everything that we built. Ultimately, we will succumb to ourselves.

But Eliot sees one chance for us to save ourselves, and that is through the acceptance of Christ’s teachings. He sees Christ as a healer, able to cure our societal ills and disease.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fevered chart.

(Lines 147 – 151)

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Near the end of the poem, Eliot writes: “As we grow older the world becomes stranger.” This is true on two levels. On a personal level, as we mature we no longer live the lives of simplicity that were ours as children and youth. On a societal level, our culture and society changes as it ages. Technology and science have replaced our wonder at the mysteries of life and existence. As a result, we find ourselves strangers in a strange land, in a world that becomes stranger and less recognizable with each passing day. It is a sad possibility that one day we may awaken into a world which is completely unrecognizable to us. I hope that day does not come.

Look for Part 3—“The Dry Salvages”—soon.

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