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Going after Zak's question


With my A Bedtime Story poem I off handedly said I feel the poem demonstrates that T.S. Eliot's comprehension of the Wasteland theme was all wrong. Said differently I have for long felt that Eliot misrepresented, maybe misunderstood, the source from which he drew. In that delightful way he has Zak has called me out on the claim. Here goes.

I first read Eliot almost forty years ago. Along with Yeats he was an early major influence on me, and I still can't get the music of his vers libres manner out of my head. His Wasteland poem blew me away. I still remember feeling stunned with the first reading. Eliot claimed that the source of inspiration was a scholarly work called "From Ritual to Romance," by Jesse Weston. I believe the book was published within a year of the end of WW1, amid the psychological and spiritual ruins of Europe's nation states, and which may be significant, may speak to the immediate impact it had on the scene. It would stupidly be years before I got around to reading Weston's work. When I did Eliot's uneasy hold on me almost immediately dissipated. Evaporated would be a better description for it. What I discovered is that he had gotten the theme all wrong. Either deliberately as I suspect or because he lacked a sufficient grounding in the material she had looked to highlight. A grounding I would gradually gain over a number of years.

I think I've read all the material Weston drew on. For convenience's sake I'll call it the Matter of Arthur as it is generally known. I've read the first tales to appear in France in the 12th C, and coming out of Wales. I've read the Welsh Mabinogian, a collection of related tales of so-called Romance, and which takes its name from the Welsh god, Mab: a Green Man type figure. The tale of Tristan and Iseulte too and so forth. I've also read a whole bunch of studies on the canon, probably the best of which would be Joseph Campbell's treatment of the inter-related themes. But Jesse Weston's scholarship was the first heave in how the Romances are approached. She was the pioneer, pretty much working on her own, and whose original approach changed everything.

Her thesis could not be simpler, succinctly stated in the book's title. The Arthurian legends, and all the related material coming out of Wales, pointed to ritual, what eventually devolved, as frequently happens with religious literature superceded, into romance. In other words, say, before Arthur was a king presiding over his round table of knights he was a sacred son to the Goddess, known as Sovereignty by any of her many, many names and who represented, perhaps personified, the earth. As sacred son Arthur's obligation was to keep the bond between people (the village) and Sovereignty vital, thereby insuring fertility and regeneration. In all likelihood, at some cultural level, Arthur would have been sacrificed to the Goddess, viewed as the old year, and a new Arthur, spirit of the new year, would be chosen. As I recall sacrifice might have been annual, every seven years, or every twenty-one. In Ireland the day dividing the old and new year was Samhain, pronounced Sow-wain, the last day of October.

The above is a gross simplification of everything involved in the religious rites and rituals of the ancient Celts. This religious orientation was general through out Europe. And in spite of the many facets to the religious observances it all, ultimately, had to do with regeneration following on the fallow time of the year, sometimes called the wasteland time of the year.

Weston's genius was to focus especially on one romance: the Fisher King story. The Fisher King was a mystical king who kept in his castle. He was attended upon by his servants. And once a year, I think it was on Whitsuntide, what Christianity turned into the first day of Pentacost, he held a banquet for all the lords and ladies. He would appear, robed, and what was striking about him was the spear wound in his side. It was a wound that bled perpetually and that was constantly getting dressed by his servants. And it would continue to bleed until some magical (maybe shamanical) device was used to heal it. In one story involving the knight, Percival, the still young and untried knight chances upon the castle, a castle I like to think of as the Castle of the Golden Bowl, meets up with the Fisher King, maybe at banquet time, and instead of speaking up remains silent. He later learns that had he spoken up and asked the pivitol question he would have healed the wound. In another story it is an older and seasoned Percival who again meets up with the Fisher King, asks the question and the wound heals. What is key to the ritual locked inside the romance is that when the Fisher King is healed the land is reborn and the Wasteland time of the year gives way to the regeneration of spring. It is all there in Weston's study, the book Eliot said inspired his poem. This is what I figured he missed or perhaps chose to ignore. Her study is not about the Wasteland time of the year. Her study is about the ritualistic rebirth and regeneration and returned fertility through the agency of sympathetic magic.

Eliot was screwed up royally. I can't think of another poetic genius as bothered in the head as he was. About the same time he read Weston's work, at least on the same cusp of time, and immediately prior to writing his Wasteland poem, he both committed his first wife, Vivian, to an asylum and he himself had a nervous breakdown. Coupling to this the spiritual malaise of those years it is maybe no wonder he would have focused on the Wasteland aspect of Weston's study only. But that was not where she ended off her work. When I finally got around to reading her I was shocked, felt betrayed, felt cheated. Also emancipated. The bastard lied to me, is how I summed it up. Or if he didn't lie he did not get it, did not comprehend what Weston was after.

I have a piece that express how I view the theme(s). It will probably end up in my morgue file of failures. But it says what I mean about what Eliot either did not or could not get.

*

For the ancient Celts, the cauldron was a symbol for the sources of life, death, and rebirth. In it was brewed the healing potion made of medicinals and charms. Ingested incorrectly, however, the potion could spell death. And the cauldron's third property was in the inspirational drink it offered, which was the drink of memory, of mystical knowledge, and of the renewal whereby the old year's spirit was made young again. The potion's recipe was, of course, hidden from all. It was hidden by the wise women who tended to the concoction, who kept the cauldron's underneath fires burning through out the year, and who saw all of what transpired through out the surrounding territory for which they were responsible. One of their members, in fact, was the Territorial Queen. And it was she who chose from the territory the special one who, once a year, would drink from the cauldron. She would mount her white horse, cross over the bridge, and she would bring back with her the one who would sip from the potion without knowing if it meant life, death, or rebirth. Apparently, no one else knew either what the issue would be, not even the mothers who knew everything. What everyone did know, however, and with the sharpness of young eyes, is that someone had to do it. Someone had to be favored by the Queen and drink from the cauldron of experience. Someone who knew it could mean death, but that it could also mean new life. And until such a one succeeded, which did not happen every year, the fields would keep sere, the lakes remain unpeopled of fish, the forests grow dark and gameless, and the village arts would go wrong no matter the efforts. Sometimes there were many who tried, year after year, and who failed. Those were the bad years when the folk became strangers, when the children were left outside, when lovers quarreled, when Great Migrations occurred, and when the Queen's whitemare became a nightmare. But still the mothers would keep the fires going and keep the cauldron brewing, since, they knew everything. The oddest part about the story is that even when the folk went seeking out other lands, they knew there were no lands where the Queen did not reside. She was, after all, the Territorial Queen, and her village was the bee hive where there was always the home feeling. And so when the time of the year came for the selected one to drink from the cauldron, the mothers who were present and the villagers who waited all knew when the serious business had been accomplished. They knew this because when the potion gave replenishment, it also gave the wisdom of the familiar, the memory in the earth, plant and sky, and the inspiration of waters. Soon surety would cross back over the bridge, the territory dance a jig, the Queen would return to her replenished places, and the chatty mothers would turn to tending their fires again. One last note. No one was a stranger anymore, at least for another year.


*

It has needed several hours and several times rifling through the morgue file to find a poem written on the Fisher King theme more or less ten years ago. (It's a fat boy that file.) The poem sucks. By my standards it is a clear failure. I remember having to expunge it from the collection to which it belonged. That was hard. But it had to go. All the same it speaks to what I figure Eliot missed in the Fisher King story.


The Chalice

The thing of the theme
is old enough so that
it may need sitting back,
to relax and pull up on
the sensual, sensible
remembering.

The one, the Fisher King,
whose unsutural wound
is dressed, cleaned, cared for by
the raven women and
silent young men.
The gash in his side,
what festers by night,
what drains by day,
the ooze, predicament,
the incontinent pain.

And the entire castle keep,
even yeoman at the plow
and milkmaids in the shed,
all of whom live for when
the spear thrust heals, since,
nothing will go right by
land, sea, or lovers' dream
until the tutelar king
is mended, made whole.

Nothing will work as it should.

Everyone too knowing the cure.
Some stranger must come.
Some errant bold enough
to step out of himself,
to enquire within.
How simple it seems, what
clearly remains the riddle.

One more clue there is to give,
and wasty wants be damned.
When she is served in feast hall,
her Golden Bowl,
there is replenishment.

Terreson

Last edited by Terreson, Jul/24/2010, 4:55 pm
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Christine98 Profile
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Re: Going after Zak's question


Tere,

Thank you for this overview. Well told and well worth knowing. I've decided to do to some studying on my own; especially re: Arthur and The Fisher King.

I don't get your argument with Eliot. How is it not possible that he read Weston and was inspired to create something of his own--something which incorporated the Waste land, the unhealed wound--but broke faith with the assurance of rebirth. Doesn't he begin with, April is the cruelest month?

Well the more I write, the less I know what I'm talking about. I love Eliot but I never even began to understand the Waste Land. Now I want to read it again.

Chris

Last edited by Christine98, Aug/3/2010, 6:27 pm
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Terreson Profile
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Thanks for reading, Chris. And I am glad the telling works for you. As for Eliot, simply enough I felt betrayed, misled. Maybe I took him too personally, which is something I tend to do with all poets who influence me the most.

As for the material nothing can replace reading the tales themselves. So much there. Probably the best known treatment would be Malory's 16th C work. But it is also the most garbled, getting everything wrong, viewing the stories from the wrong perspective, certainly not conveying what Weston found. Chretein de Troyes introduced the material to the continent in the 12th C. He did a good job of keeping to the originals. And the Welsh Mabinogion is downright magical. If you really get into the lore, hands down Joseph Campbell's analysis is the best. To give a single small idea of how much wealth there is to find Jung called the magician, Merlin, the archetypal son to the Great Mother. Happy reading.

Tere
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Re: Going after Zak's question


Just remembered something. The Matter of Arthur originated in Wales. But the ancient Irish also had a similar body of literature, what at first would have been considered sacred literature only also to devolve into tales of Romance. The themes are similar, central theme of regeneration the same. And as with the Welsh material there is commerce between people and and supernatural beings who come from the otherworld. For example, a sid, in Gaelic pronounced she, has become a hillside where one can have contact with faery people. Anciently it was a doorway or an entrance in the side of a hill leading down into the otherworld. More than one tale tells of marriages between humans and supernatural beings. More than one tale centers around a Goddess figure involved in the affairs of the upperworld. And again, at its root, the texts are sacred stories: religious in nature.

Funny story here. There has been a visitor from Ireland at work. A young beauty ever so easy on the eyes and who knows Gaelic. (Be still oh my beating heart.) Silly, excitable me I bring in one of my books of ancient Irish tales which has a glossary of Gaelic words, mostly name places. Looking to share I was. She could have cared less about the book and the stories and all. Not at all relevant to her Ireland. Object lesson: this is how the memory gets lost. But she, being a biologist, did have her favorite poets, which struck me as pretty typically Irish. So maybe not all is lost.

Tere
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Zakzzz5 Profile
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Re: Going after Zak's question


Terreson,
Thanks for posting this, for taking the time to write it. It represents a lot of knowledge and thinking. Like Chris, I'm still a little hazy about the argument with T.S. Eliot. I periodically look at Eliot because, like you, I was stunned when I first read his material.

Your treatment of the dynamic of the myths, the pre-romantic and romantic treatment of the heroes and so forth is good, but maybe a restatement of the major disagreement with Eliot would help Chris and myself and anyone here who is still interested. You probably need to hit some of us dorks between the eyes with a baseball bat so we can absorb this.

Having said that, I may be responding too quickly before allowing the material you've posted here to sink in. I'll be thinking about it and probably go over it again soon. I'm curious how some of our friends on the other site feel about this, about the history. You know, our friends who write what some call post-modernist poetry, material that eschews, or otherwise, pushes the mythical material off the main stage.

Thanks for taking the time to post this important thought. Zak
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Terreson Profile
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First off, Zak, your third paragraph makes for a bit of synchronicity. In an exchange with another on line poet also familiar with the other boards you mean said something very similar to what you just said, certainly identical in questioning. How indeed would they view stuff? What relevance would they find to their own aesthetic slant(s)? What would, what I think of as, the lore mean to them? Would it mean anything at all? Of course I can't know. And any response I make would end by mostly demonstrating my own bias. I do know of one poet, consciously, perhaps self-consciously avant garde who has taken me to task more than once for the attention I give to all the oldy and moldy stuff. Maybe she is right. I figure there is a 50/50 chance I am right. So I guess the choice ultimately comes down to a gamble, perhaps more to a matter of predilections. On my side of the divide there is the demonstrable proof that more than one great "movement" in the arts, more than one great stride forward (whatever that might mean in art)has come as a result of dipping back into the past. Fact. The Renaissance would not have come about without the intense studying of ancient Classical art forms and techniques. Fact. The ultra Modernists of Picasso's generation would not have, I would argue could not have, come to what they came to without a thorough study of so-called Primitive art from Africa, Oceania, even pre-Greek Mediteranean artists. To me this is a no brainer, not even worth the debate. The record is clear and unequivocal.

But how does the case of painting and sculpture relate to poetry's case? How I came to the Welsh material, as well as to the Irish, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon was the consequence of a decision based on a hunch made decades ago. The wager was this: if I want to strike for originality I need to go back to the earliest possible roots of literature. I've said it before. When age-mates were reading the likes of Bukowski, Lang-Po was not even a gleam in some poet's eye yet, I was reading the likes of Homer, Archilochus, Sappho, Anglo-Saxon poetry, the ancient Welsh and Irish lit, and, pivitally, the Troubadors. (It is so lost to the record that Dante begged, borrowed, and stole from the Troubadors, or that he considered one poet in the tradition especially a better poet than himself.) But I am getting long winded. Sorry.

It all comes down to a hunch. Ain't nothing in poetry that amounts to painting by numbers. Just a hunch and a gamble. I will say one thing however. That long ago decision resulted in a by-product, and a rich one at that. It's the lore, the canon, the poetic traditions shelved inside this pointy head of mine. If I am wrong this at least is the cupie doll consolation prize.

So I don't know how they see it and I can't. Indicators suggest they view the concerns dismissively. To which I say while walking away: that's cool too.

More briefly. About the Eliot quarrel. Read back to back Eliot's Wasteland poem and Weston's study. I know you and Chris know the poem. But read it again anyway so it is fresh, then read Weston. Unless I am wrong the question that will come to you is: How in the world did he get that from this? He said he did. Maybe I missed something.

Tere
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Christine98 Profile
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I read "The Waste Land" between yesterday and this afternoon. Immediately following the poem are Eliot's Notes On "The Waste Land":


"Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston's book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston's book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble."

I've read the poem a number of times and never paid much attention to that note. Wonder what he meant by "the plan" of the poem.

Chris
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Terreson Profile
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In the same paragraph, Chris, Eliot also says:

"To another work of anthroplogy I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies."

Without getting too arcane the three figures of Adonis, Attis, Osiris, were all sacrificial victims, the purpose of which sacrifice was to ensure vegetative regeneration in an agriculturally based society. Sir Frazer had as the starting point for his Golden Bough thesis the sacrifice of the Oak King at Lake Nemi, in Italy. The point of his study was to demonstrate that a pre-Christian fertility religion had once been in place.

So this is the intellectual framework within which Eliot's poem operates, at least nominally.

Tere
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Katlin Profile
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Hi Tere,

I've never read Weston's book. Why I'm not sure, but I will check it out now. In "The Waste Land" I always thought Eliot was more interested in describing the wasteland scene than he was in depicting the potential for resurrection, which he touches on at the end of the poem. IMO, "Four Quartets," my favorite Eliot poem, is a more comprehensive rendering of the themes he touched on in "The Waste Land." Perhaps it took him some time to fully process the material?

Eliot was screwed up royally. I can't think of another poetic genius as bothered in the head as he was.

Maybe so, but without further explanation, this isn't an assertion I'm ready to take at face value. I ain't from Missouri, but I could be. emoticon

Last edited by Katlin, Jul/28/2010, 2:36 pm
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Terreson Profile
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Katfriend, it was Steven Spender, a contemporary and friend of Eliot's, who was an early one to take note of Eliot's messy head. To Eliot the enemies of (a Christian) civilization were some of the modern physicists involved in both the relativity theory and quantumn mechanics. Eliot could never bring himself to recognize Goethe's genius, the universality of which everyone since Goethe has given witness to. Spender actually says Eliot's fear of anything dark was or bordered on the pathological. This included people with dark skin. And you bet I find a rascist tone in some of his poetry, rascist, not just anti-Semitic. Finally, his second wife, Valerie, a woman who was first his secretary and lover for over ten years, told Spender just how much time, attention, and patience it needed for her to get Eliot over his basic distrust of women in general. For me the final fit comes with Eliot's play, "The Cocktail Party", in which he, in my view, needlessly, gratuitously kills off, murders, a teenage girl. Jung would have had a field day with that one: poet needing to kill off his own anima. Oh. And I think I remember Eliot's father was a wealthy banker, or maybe a wealthy merchant. I know his father was wealthy and who disapproved of T.S.'s removal to England and to poetry. I figure Eliot's youthful rebellion haunted him for the rest of his life. I know you know he was, for many years, a banker. Kind of odd, yes?

I would never deny Eliot's poetic genius. And I could bring to the table a number of poets of genius who were murderers, thieves, rapists, mercenaries, and worse. But I am pretty much satisfied that Eliot, one of the four greatest poets working in 20th Century English, was bonkers and whose pathology informs his poetry. And actually that, as you say, his poem focuses only on the wasteland aspect of Weston's thesis kind of supports what I am saying.

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Jul/28/2010, 6:39 pm
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Katlin Profile
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Hi Tere,

I should have been clearer about what I wanted more of an explanation about:

"I can't think of another poetic genius as bothered in the head as he was."

More bothered in the head, more bonkers, than any other poetic genius? You may be right; I'm not very familiar with the pathology of most poetic geniuses. My bad, I guess.

FQ was the first major poem I read and loved, but I was only 18 at the time so what did I know?

Last edited by Katlin, Jul/28/2010, 6:49 pm
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Terreson Profile
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Kat, maybe I've told this story before. Eliot was listening to Beethoven's "Four String Quartets" while composing his Four Quartets poems. I remember picking up on it in a very pre-conscious way. Then I read Spender's take on Eliot. He had heard it too and Eliot admitted that it had been on the turn table while making the poems. Perhaps the next time you read the quartet, read it with Beethoven in your ears. Hands down it is Beethoven's best. Hands down it is Eliot's best.

Tere
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Katlin Profile
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Tere,

Yes, I remember you telling that story. The rhythm in the poem is one of the things I loved best. Now I know why.

FYI to anyone interested: I found a link to Weston's book here:

http://www.knowledgerush.com/kr/biography/712/Jessie_L._Weston/

You can read it there or copy it for free.
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I tell you. You Tube fits perfectly for old roues on a late Saturday night at home and keeping out of trouble. What an archive it has become. Anybody else remember the British group, Pentangle, from the late sixties? Of course you don't. Ya'll are too young for such stuff. I was sure into them. And the song I remember best of all is an old, old ballad they put to music. I must have listened to it a dozen times in succession last Saturday. Was whistling it at work today.

It speaks to the theme of how, in lit., Ritual can go to Romance. The vestigial evidence could not be clearer of the old fertility religion in which Sovereignty chooses her Consort brought forward in ballad. Enjoy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uNn2TDDru0&feature=related

http://ftp.fortunaty.net/com/sacred-texts/neu/eng/child/ch100.htm

(Child was an anthologist and folk lorist of the 19th C.)

Tere
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And here we go again. John Barleycorn by the rock group, The Traffic. If Barleycorn is not the spirit of harvest, maybe August Eve, I don't know what is. From Ritual to Romance.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8maB3e_GuQ&NR=1

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

Tere
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