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T.S. Eliot: Some infinitely gentle and infinitely suffering thing

T.S. Eliot once said that his marriage to his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood brought about “the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land”. If one knows anything of the poem, it’s not difficult to imagine the kind of marriage it must have been. Former tutor and friend Bertrand Russell was the first to meet Eliot’s young bride in 1915, just weeks after the nuptials.  In a letter to his long-time lover Ottoline Morrell Russell described her as “light, a little vulgar, adventurous, full of life – an artist I think she said, but I should have thought her an actress.”  The letter went on: “She says she married him to stimulate him, but finds she can’t do it. Obviously he married to be stimulated. I think she will soon be tired of him. She refuses to go to America to see his people for fear of submarines. He is ashamed of his marriage and very grateful if one is kind to her.” Russell was very fond of Eliot but also and perhaps more so of Vivienne. “It is quite funny how I have come to love him,” he wrote about Eliot in another letter a little later, “as if he were my son. He is becoming much more of a man. He has a profound and quiet unselfish devotion to his wife, and she is really very fond of him, but has impulses of cruelty to him from time to time…It is a Dostoyevsky type of cruelty, not a straightforward every-day kind…She is a person who lives on a knife-edge, and will end as a criminal or a saint – I don’t know which yet. She has a perfect capacity for both.”

Interestingly enough, Vivienne – prone to hysteria and anxiety from an early age – ended up as an amalgamation of both and thereby in Northumberland Mental Hospital. The years between 1915 and 1920 proved to be the most turbulent of Eliot’s life, with speculation of Vivienne’s promiscuity and involvement with Russell propelling the dissolution of their marriage and subsequent divorce, and his father’s death in 1919 before the two had time to reconcile, Eliot had a nervous breakdown and spent three months in a sanatorium in Switzerland where he finished writing The Waste Land. Looking through the index of the panoptic Faber & Faber edition of Eliot’s Complete Poems & Plays I opened it to this most famous, and perhaps most accomplished, poem which won Eliot the Dial Award in 1922. There has been copious, exegetical commentary as to the exact meaning of The Waste Land, with some academics suggesting it to be a social criticism, a preliminary glimpse into Eliot’s post Second World War literary politics, and an astute pessimistic overview of modern-day life. While others, most notably biographical scholars, maintain the poem to be far more autobiographical, documenting that out of which it materialised. This view seems to coincide with Eliot’s own, who speaking of The Waste Land said: “To me it was only a relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” Certainly in the second part of the poem A Game of Chess Eliot seems to be borrowing from his domestic life, in the personalities of both the male narrator and his female companion, illuminating his own diffidence and Vivienne’s high-strung sensuality. The female character says: “My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me/ Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak/ What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?/ I never know what you are thinking.” She is later compared to the hot-tempered and inconsonant Cleopatra sitting on her “burnished throne.” The poet remains silent during this episode, ignoring the woman imploring him to speak, a stance Eliot took towards the end of his marriage.

The other biographically significant part of the poem, Death by Water, is thought to have been influenced by Eliot’s friendship with Jean Verdenal, a medical student he befriended in Paris, who was killed in the First World War. Eliot commemorates his friend in the opening lines: “Philibas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead/ Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell/And the profit and loss/A current under sea/ Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell.” “The Waste Land” is a lyrical jeremiad containing a myriad of somewhat obfuscatory references and quotations from literary sources, theology, philosophy and history. But Eliot was never one to make things plain as he experimented with structure, continuity and shifting perspective, using his personal emotions to give vitality to images in his work and reflect a world broader than his own. This, in turn, incensed some hardened stoics reviewing poetry at the time, as one early critic of  Prufrock and Other Observations suggested the poems in the collection to be both “bizarre” and “violent” and hailed the title poem as “idiotic”. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is perhaps one of my favourite of Eliot’s works, for its playfulness, its subcutaneous gristle and spry one-liners such as “I grow old … I grow old …/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”, “Time for you and time for me…/Before the taking of toast and tea,” and “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”, and quizzical nuances reminiscent of non-sense verse: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”, “It is perfume from a dress/That makes me so digress?” and “Do I dare? Time to turn back and descend the stair/With a bald spot in the middle of my hair.”

The exact idea behind the poem is somewhat ambiguous but speaking about it Eliot once said that the male narrator was a dramatic creation of a man of about 40, and partly reminiscent of himself. This seems to be one of the most autobiographical of Eliot’s admissions, who was intransigently reticent about his life. Interestingly, it reveals a somewhat different facet to Eliot’s personality than that of a studiously ascetic and taciturn bard with too much pomade in his slicked-back hair, as the narrator “pinned and wriggling on the wall” vacillates over his decisions and the postponement of the “overwhelming question”, finding it impossible to express his love to his paramour. According to some critics, the point of calling the poem a Love Song lies in the irony that it will never be sung – something Eliot himself knew quite well in regard to his own unconsummated love affair with a young Bostonian woman by the name of Emily Hale. Eliot fell for Hale in 1914 before leaving for Europe, a separation which he curiously predicted in La Figlia che Piange describing Hale as the “girl with golden hair” clutching flowers to her bosom in a “pained surprise” at the thought of her beloved departing. Hale also makes a cameo in The Waste Land as the “hyacinth girl” providing a fleeting moment of light, in an otherwise forlorn setting, when Eliot says: “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not/Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing/Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” Eliot corresponded with Hale intermittently until 1956 when he ceased contact after she gave his letters to Princeton University Library. In the time he did write to her, he noted that every poet starts from “his own emotions”, which is precisely where Eliot’s work commenced and concluded despite his advocacy of the “Impersonal theory of poetry”. This notion is further confirmed by Eliot’s own admission that: “A writer’s art depends on the accumulated sensations of the first twenty one years of his life.”  Eliot’s were influenced by both Hale and his upbringing, first in St Louis where he was born in September 1888, and later New England the setting of East Coker penned during Eliot’s early 20s. It documents his fledgling interest in writing, which he notes in the following lines: “So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years/ Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres/Trying to use words, and every attempt/Is a wholly new start and a different kind of failure.” The poem goes on to convey the transitional nature of life, highlighting the fact that every moment is an end and a beginning and each points inevitably to the other. This idea is captured beautifully in the following lines: “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older/The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated/Of dead and living…In my end is my beginning.”

Eliot’s Complete Poems & Plays is a sympathetically assembled chronological catalogue of his poetic and other works and contains his five plays, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and his Collected, Arial, Unfinished and Minor poems. Among the latter is the first Eliot poem I have ever read called The Eyes that Last I saw in Tears. This was the poem that sparked my interest, with the following lines: “Eyes that last I saw in tears/Through division/Here in death’s dream kingdom/The golden vision reappears/I see the eyes but not the tears/This is my affliction.” In retrospect, perhaps, I was struck by the potency of the words rather than their meaning and only later, after reading The Hollow Men and The Waste Land, realised the poem, like the latter two, was themed around spirituality and man’s desolate voyage into its bathypelagic depths. The Hollow Men, the “lost violent souls” of “Shape without form, shade without colour/Paralysed force, gesture without motion/Those who have crossed/With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom” entreat the reader to “Remember us – if at all – not as lost,” and inhabit a sort of no-man’s land: “Between the desire/And the spasm/Between the potency/And the existence/Between the essence/And the descent” where “Falls the shadow.”  This poem seems to have sprung from the same creative mood that produced The Waste Land, a mood that also defines Ash Wednesday yet in a more direct and self-reproaching manner. Ash Wednesday is distinguished by a sense of complete hopelessness, the speaker’s voice resigned to it, for he has no desire for anything. The poem, originally dedicated to Vivienne, reads like an act of contrition particularly when the speaker says: “And pray to God to have mercy upon us/And pray that I may forget/These matters that with myself I too much discuss/Too much explain/Because I do not hope to turn again/Let these words answer/For what is done, not to be done again/May the judgement not be too heavy upon us.” It is perhaps no surprise that Eliot agonised over his failed marriage, for he set out to make Vivienne “perfectly happy” and felt as if he had failed.

There’s a unique anthropocentric quality to Eliot’s work, reflecting a radical break from tradition and a reformation of poetic verse by use of unconventional diction and rhythm based on cadences of speech rather than poetic structure. Eliot picked up poetry while at Harvard studying for a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and doing research in preparation for a PhD in Philosophy. There he learned Sanskrit, read Dante, the Elizabethan and metaphysical poets, John Donne, Jules Leforgue, the French symbolists such as Gérard de Nerval, and began to write poetry himself. His early verse such as Portrait of a Lady follows in the classic tradition of 19th century portraiture akin to that of Lord Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning and Gabriel Rossetti. Portrait of a Lady was described by one of Eliot’s friends, Conrad Aiken, to be about Adeleine Moffatt, an elder woman who “lived behind the State House in Boston and invited selected Harvard undergraduates to tea”. Eliot reportedly attended one or more of her gatherings and in creating the “Lady” appears to have drawn on his memories. The poem is a descriptive monologue which portrays the Lady both as wizened and pitiful and her visitor as a somewhat supercilious naïf, yet subtly the derision in which he holds her is turned upon himself. The two converse of friendship, with the Lady taking the lead and dejectedly declaring: “But what have I, but what have I, my friend/To give you, what can you receive from me?/Only the friendship and the sympathy/Of one about to reach her journey’s end.” The idea of death both opens the poem when the visitor likens the Lady’s parlour to “Juliet’s tomb” and ends with him insouciantly contemplating his reaction should the Lady drop dead and leave him “sitting pen in hand”. All the poems in the collection detail Eliot’s development into a radical innovator of modern expression with a knack for turning classical, historical and philosophical questions into new melodious apothegms.

Eliot always spoke in his own singular voice, representing the literary individual, a device which underpinned his work. Explaining his modus operandi, he once said: “I have tried to write of a few things that really have moved me.” Reading his Complete Poems & Plays I was reminded why his best known works, such as all of the aforementioned, as well as Gerontion (I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it/Since what is kept must be adulterated?), Hysteria (As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved/in her laughter and being part of it, until her/teeth were only accidental stars with a talent/for squad-drill) and The Naming of Cats (The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter/It isn’t just one of your holiday games/You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter/When I tell you, a cat must have three different names) remain timeless, enduring, inimitable. But I also discovered several of Eliot’s poems seldom remembered, one of which is Preludes. The poem, apparently loaded with philosophical and religious references, is one I read without these prejudices and could relate to more than any other, most notably to its evocations of mornings  with “faint stale smells of beer” and all the “muddy feet that press/To early coffee-stands,”and especially to the desolation captured in the third stanza when Eliot says: “You tossed a blanket from the bed/You lay upon your back, and waited;/You dozed, and watched the night revealing/The thousand sordid images/Of which your soul was constituted;/They flickered against the ceiling/And when all the world came back/And the light crept up between the shutters/And you heard the sparrows in the gutters/You had such a vision of the street/As the street hardly understands/Sitting along the bed’s edge, where/You curled the papers from your hair/Or clasped the yellow soles of feet/In the palms of both soiled hands.”

The world described here seems entirely familiar, the sense of boredom in despair and the ritual of everyday speaking directly to my own personal experiences and making intelligible the idea of “some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing”. My reading of the poem is perhaps entirely erroneous, but I think this is the trick with Eliot’s work that in relating his own experiences he managed to capture those of others. Which leads me to conclude something that I wasn’t entirely convinced by when I began reading his collection, namely that Eliot was right in saying that “what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author.” 


Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop: “Together till life’s end”

It must be almost five years ago that I read Robert Lowell’s letters, and ever since then I have been meaning to read his complete correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop. I was given Words in Air several years ago for my birthday and only just recently finished the colossal tome. It is now impossible, at least for me, to think of one poet  without the other, or write about them in that vein, as their friendship, which lasted three decades, survived wars, revolutions, failed marriages, breakdowns and supernumerary love affairs and influenced both their lives and their work more than any of the other tribulations. The two were bound by an ineffaceable connection fortified by a “love that was more than love”, which Lowell once surmised in a letter by saying: “You and I are simply one”. Albeit their love never took form in a physical sense, Bishop was the only constant female fixture throughout Lowell’s life, and for his part, he envisaged the two of them together, “till life’s end”.

Many have viewed Bishop’s life and career, independently of Lowell, through her longstanding relationship with Lota Soares, her “secret problem” with drink, and “the smallest of oeuvres”, a mere 70 poems which saw her status elevated to one of the greatest “20th-century poets” on par with the likes of “T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden”. Even more ascribed this framework of interpretation to Lowell, whose canon burgeoned with fervid alacrity and gathered readership with every volume while Bishop’s remained exclusive compendious and obscure. But for me the two poets have almost always been intrinsically linked together, not only through a lifetime of letters and personal histories but also by an incomparable “conjunction of the minds,” parallel and infinite. Bishop was an alcoholic, Lowell a manic depressive; both were consumed by their craft and an unshakable “dry loneliness,” often finding solace in one another and the thought of freeing themselves from the manacles of social-reality and people’s “universal good-will” by fleeing to Paris or Italy to spend their “declining years”.

The two wrote to one another with great verbal finesse and enthusiasm, whether about their mutual friends, commenting on the deeds and misdeeds of Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Ezra Pound, Allan Tate, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and many others; their work and intertwining artistic endeavours; their lives tinctured by disorder and early sorrows, and everything from the profound to the everyday. Lowell always had the capacity to incite antagonism in orthodox strongholds but was a brilliant, indefatigable, talker and incredibly amusing despite his obdurate frankness. His letters are full of incisive wit, elation, ecstasy, disillusionment, despair, sympathies and admonitions, genuinely vernal raptures, occasional bouts of malice and capricious episodic ellipses, transections, changes of tempo and grammatical errors. Lowell begins one letter with the following: “I was just making my bed (if you could call it “making”) when I became aware of a dull burning smell. ‘God, I must have left a cigarette burning.’ I rush into my other room; no cigarette. Absentmindedly I feel in my pocket. There, a lighted cigarette in holder consuming a damp piece of Kleenex. The pocket was also stuffed with kitchen matches. Oh my!” To which Bishop replies in her customary linguistic lambency and unique vernacular of jocularity: “I am mailing you a SAFE if not particularly aesthetic ashtray – I got two of them a while ago. They’re the only ones I’ve ever found that will really hold the cigarette while you write or scratch your head, and yet if you forget it, the cigarette automatically goes out…I was going to give one to Lloyd Frankenberg for Christmas, but they didn’t come in time and now you’re going to get it instead.”

Elizabeth Bishop was introduced to Robert Lowell in January 1947, at dinner party in New York hosted by Randall Jarrell. An exceptionally reticent woman with a, “round face and very thick, unruly, greying hair,” Bishop felt immediately at ease in Lowell’s company and the “backward and forward flow” of supererogatory correspondence commenced immediately, ending only with Lowell’s death in the late 70s. When Bishop wrote the innate shyness which beset her in public was cast aside and thus Lowell was one of very few people cordially inaugurated into this very private woman’s inner life and imagination. Shortly before his passing Lowell wrote to Bishop, “you [have] always been my favourite poet and favourite friend,” and the feeling was wholly mutual. Reminiscing about Lowell looking a “bit rumpled and unkept” with a “large smear of ink across his chin,” Bishop simply concluded that she “loved him at first sight”. In the early years of their friendship the two passed through a shifting and ambiguous phase of mutual attraction, which never developed into anything other than a near proposal of marriage on Lowell’s part during a “long swimming and sunning Stonington [Maine] day” in 1948 when Bishop disclosed to Lowell otherwise uncharted key aspects of her early life.

Almost a decade later, after a manic “harsh frenzy”, Lowell recalls that day, saying: “…our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that it would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept. Yet I wanted it all to have the right build-up. Well, I didn’t say anything then…I was so drunk that my hands turned cold and I felt half-dying and held your hand. And nothing was said…I wanted time and space, and went on assuming, and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you. Really for so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things…Let me say this though and then leave the matter forever; I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can’t cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I had used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

Neither Bishop nor Lowell mentioned the matter again, but their correspondence moved forward year by year. Lowell would send fresh batches of poems in wait of critique from his “unerring Muse,” but the letters were equally and mutually influential in both their individual artistic development and their personal lives. They emerge in a swirl of vividly-recorded quotidian experiences, full of impromptu snapshots drawn from the casual, peculiar, maudlin and happy domestic moments. Such moments punctuate the letters throughout, their tone often wry and witty but always and consistently sympathetic and longing, and of a literary genre in themselves. The interchange records an unfolding intimacy, a colloquial brilliance and a wealth of literary and social history of the American poetry scene and its outstandingly talented mid-century generation. But above all, they unveil a remarkable connection between two lives inexorably linked together till death, which came to Lowell in a form of a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1977 and two years later for Bishop who died of a cerebral aneurysm. Their legacy remains characterised by two people who wrote exclusively to and for one another until the “imperfect end”.

Gérard de Nerval: Even though he asked for criticism he deserves nothing but praise

It has recently occurred to me that to be really great at the art of writing one must be afflicted by either love or madness. Gérard de Nerval was afflicted by both, and yet his greatness eluded widespread acclaim. Although apotheosised by the likes of T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Théophile Gautier and Andre Breton, he remains almost unknown and eclipsed by the stentorian voices posterity bestowed on his own admirers.

Gérard Lebrunie, later known as Gérard de Nerval, published 12 books before the age of 20, including a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust which garnered a compliment from Goethe himself who confessed: “I have never understood myself so well, as in reading your translation.” Nerval peaked early and continued to do so intermittently throughout his brief life between manic whirls of insanity and subsequent institutionalisations. He wrote poetry and prose, collaborated on plays with Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, helped Heinrich Heine translate his poetry into French, founded a performing arts periodical and travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East documenting the milieu of each place with the insightful precision of an expert cicerone. At home, among his Jeune-France literati friends of 1830s Paris, Nerval was known as a nocturnal flâneur and is said to have walked about the streets with a live lobster on a length of a blue ribbon while singing verses to himself. Reading the introduction to Les Chimères, a collection of seven of Nerval’s most acclaimed sonnets published by Menard Press, I learned a wealth of autobiographical information essential to the understanding of these works.

Writing about Nerval, French critic Eugene de Mirecourt said: “Gentle as a lamb, timid as a young girl Gérard never spoke of himself. He blushed when anyone spoke of his works with praise. He thought himself the humblest and the last among the combatants in the great arena of letters.” And it seems that he was, for his clothes were always said to be inconspicuous and his manner free from the affectations of a dandy or a Bohemian. Forever kind, gentle and modest, Nerval never permitted himself to impose on his friends, not even towards the end of his impecunious life when he slept in common lodging houses and bedsits for the homeless. On 26th January 1855, Nerval was found hanging in the sordid rue de la Vieille Lanterne. It is generally believed that he committed suicide.

Born in 1808, Nerval was entrusted to a great-uncle in the bucolic rural region of Valois, while his father, a surgeon with the Napoleonic army, worked in Germany. His mother died, when he was two years old, assisting her husband on his tours abroad. After Napoleon’s defeat Nerval’s father, Dr Lebrunie, returned to Paris. Nerval joined him there in 1816 and lived with him until 1834. After short travels around Italy and the Provence, Nerval returned to Paris that same year and fell in love with a small-time theatre actress Jenny Colon. He founded a review, La Monde Dramatique, devoted largely to her praise and for a while Colon was the cynosure of Nerval’s life, although his feelings were unreciprocated. Eventually, Colon married a musician and died some years later in 1842. Colon’s hex on Nerval never ceased nor did his profound infatuation. He etherealised and panegyrised her in his work and reveries in various guises as unattainable embodiments of ideal femininity, as the belle morte, and the reincarnation of his first love Adrienne, who also died. Speaking about his feelings for Colon with some retrospection, Nerval said: “Nothing is more dangerous for people of a dreamy disposition than a serious passion for a person of the theatre; it is a perpetual lie, a sick man’s dream, the illusion of a madman. The whole of life becomes attached to an unrealisable chimera which one would be happy to maintain at the stage of desire and aspiration but which fades away as soon as one wants to touch the idol.”

Often regarded as a precursor of the Symbolists and the Surrealists, Nerval was one of the first writers to explore the subconscious or as he called it the “overflowing of dreams into real life.” Remembered for his vivid delineation of illusory mental states and for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision, Nerval presented images in his works that originated from varied yet syndetic sources such as mythology, religion, illusion, hallucination and the occult. His themes were dominated by several continual personal obsessions and his greatest creative energy was fuelled by the insanity that beleaguered him for much of his adult life. Les Chimères draws on a wide scope of orphic influences most notably Greek mythology, medieval folklore, alchemy and symbolic lore. The collection opens with El Desdichado, which was composed in a “state of supernaturalist reverie” and denotes the wistful tone of the anthology with the opening lines: “I am the brooding shadow – the bereaved – the unconsoled/Aquitaine’s prince of the doomed tower/My only star is dead and my astral lute/Bears the black sun of melancholy.” Nerval makes clear from the start that it is “we the living who walk in the world of phantoms”, referring to himself as the “bereaved” and Colon as his “only star” who is indeed dead in every sense except the poet’s memory and imagination. Nerval travelled to the Middle East shortly after Colon’s passing and upon his return to Paris was institutionalised several times. Noting that his increasingly disarrayed psyche impeded his work, he once wrote: “I set off after an idea and lose myself; I am hours into finding my way back…I can scarcely write 20 lines a day, the darkness comes about me so close.”

The Les Chimères collection first published in 1854 is intensely personal, unique as madness itself, and possesses all the elements later seen in the works of the Symbolists. The second sonnet called Myrtho is more apocryphal than the first, thus the notes in the back-pages are eternally helpful. Myrtho stands for an image of classical antiquity, a “divine enchantress” and follower of Bacchus, the narrator is a disciple of both, “a son of Greece” who addresses Myrtho: “In your cup too I drank of ecstasy/And in the furtive flash of your smiling eye/When at the feet of Bacchus you saw me pray.” The poems waver among reasoned deliberation, vision, spiritual mysticism and implacable despair. The delicacy and subtlety of the “rime riche” is melodious without exertion. And despite first impressions of mystery the meanings slowly ferment in the mind, emerging in distinctive lucidity. In Anteros, for example, Nerval exclaims: “You ask why I have so wrathful a heart/And on pliant neck an untamed head/A descendant of Antaean blood/ I hurl spears back at the conquering god.” Clearly assuming the role of Anteros, the avenger of unrequited love and twin brother of Eros, he voices his personal experiences of unreciprocated affection (“wrathful a heart”), madness (“untamed head”) and its effects upon him described as “Cain’s ruthless flush”. There are also other connotations in the mythical allusions to gods and associative religious meanings but I have read the collection from my own perhaps somewhat parochial perspective, drawing parallels between Nerval’s life and its impacts on his work.

The poem I read and re-read and chose as my favourite is one that’s most open to interpretation. It is also one that’s been said to be the most highly influential in the craft of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlain through its fluid rhythm, repetitions and echoes, foreshadowing the styles of both poets. Artemis is something of a vision which appears to have occurred to Nerval beyond, if not against, his will. Unlike most Romantics, Nerval did not make his poetry a slave to beauty nor a vessel through which to extemporise it, focusing instead, if subconsciously, on capturing something that’s volatile and intangible without losing its mystery or charm. In Artemis Nerval seems to be addressing the concrete and the ethereal, “the only one or last lover”, saying: “Love who loved you from cradle to brier/She whom I alone loved, loves me tenderly still/She is death or the dead one…O rapture! Woe!/The rose she holds is the rose mallow.” Death and love are closely intertwined with the beloved dead as Nerval laments loss while lauding “the saint of abyss”, and the inevitable end. The obscurity of all the sonnets reflects Nerval’s state of mind, which he described in La Reve et la Vie: “I then saw vaguely drifting into form, plastic visions of antiquity, which outlined themselves, became definite, and seemed to represent symbols, of which I only seized the idea with difficulty.” And to some extent the reader is faced with that same difficulty, but I think the notion that “often in the obscure being, dwells a hidden God” is rather fitting in regard to Nerval’s work, even though he never would have conceded to it, as he once said: “It will be my last madness to believe myself to be a poet: let criticism cure me of it.” Fortunately his call was never answered, because even though he asked for criticism he deserves nothing but praise.

Seminal Lines

“As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles.”

Hysteria – T.S Eliot

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