04 September, 2009

T.S. Eliot's Dramatic Lyric

The quality of T.S. Eliot’s lyric strikes me as essentially dramatic, which is a rather strange characteristic for lyric poetry, a genre that – according to many literary critics – is notable for its lack of what we think of as drama. (Sharon Cameron: “Unlike the drama, whose province is conflict, and unlike the novel or narrative, which connects isolated moments of time to create a story multiply peopled and framed by a social context, the lyric voice is solitary and generally speaks out of a single moment in time”) You can have conflict in ordinary lyric, certainly, but not necessarily in the sense of a multiplication of persons in mutual conflict; yet this is precisely what you could argue that Eliot is doing in, say La Figlia Che Piange, and certainly in The Waste Land.

There is certainly continual conflict deriving from the uncertainty, ambiguity, and thematic tension of each poem. Furthermore, the strong rhythmic thrust to all his verse (a rhythm that is not regular but rather that follows the natural rhythms of speech, correspondingly changing its force when the emotion of the utterance changes) enhances this dramatic quality, giving it a real-world feel and also increasing the dramatic tension and sense of conflict.

But one of the most striking aspects of this dramatic quality (in the world of lyric poetry at least) is the multiplicity of voices in poems such as The Waste Land. Note in the Wasteland alone the variety of voices which make themselves heard: Tiresias, Mr. Eugenides, the Cockney, Marie, and so on. And as in traditional theater, it's in these conflicting voices that the conflict of the poem is expressed. Are these voices merely diffractions of Eliot's own narrative voice, expressing by their very existence his own internal conflict? Or are they meant to be heard as the voices of conflicting forces in society?

In Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot asserts the poet's need to sacrifice his own personality to the "collective consciousness" of his culture/tradition. Maybe for Eliot his poetic voice and his personal preoccupations can be conflated with the conflicts and contradictions of his own society: in voicing them as a single author, yet with many voices, he is perhaps reemphasizing that any society is essentially unified into one cultural entity. Yet the "collective consciousness" of one as divorced from its roots as he considered his own society is necessarily fragmented. Indeed, for Eliot, modern society is suffering not merely from a fragmentation of its thought, but from a fundamental schizophrenia rooted in the successful deterioration of a unified, objective sense of identity. Modernism's success in stranding modern culture without a tradition in which to find its meaning has created a void in the face of which individuals can either despair or desperately attempt to create their own meaning and identity.

Lack of cultural unity due to abandonment of tradition is precisely what Eliot is reflecting in his "cubist" method (of The Waste Land )of stranding cultural references as individual images that do not so much have a coherent meaning when juxtaposed as they provoke an emotional response of disgust with the emptiness of modern society (one cannot perhaps, even term it modern "culture") and elicit a desire for the type of meaning that a sound tradition (literary, philosophical, and -in Eliot's later poetry especially - religious) could provide. This is at least part of the explanation for the sense of alienation (again, often to the point of schizophrenia) of much of the rest of his poetry, though in most it is not as dramatically and jarringly expressed as in The Waste Land.

This sense persists in his post-conversion poetry, yet one does not get the sense that the alienation is so personal for Eliot any longer. In his adoption of the European and the Catholic traditions, he has a place, an identity, a more or less comprehensible role in time. The lack of cultural unity/identity manifests itself now as a societal malaise which the world around him suffers, but to which he now possesses the answers.

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