05 August 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/32


Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.

     Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the humming-bird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

     Are become unsubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place

     What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger –
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye

     Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

     Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.

This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.

T S Eliot

The narrator of this poem is usually taken to be Shakespeare's Pericles, slowly coming out of his long stupor of mourning when he realizes his beloved daughter Marina (so named because she was born at sea, during a terrible storm) is not in fact dead; fate and circuitous circumstances have returned her to him, and she stands before him, recalling his life to him.

The Latin tag means "What place is this, what region, what area of the world?" and comes from Seneca's tragedy Hercules Furens (The Mad Hercules); Hercules speaks the line as he comes out of the trance-like madness induced by Hera, during which he has killed his wife and children. Both Pericles and Hercules are emerging from a thick psychological fog towards knowledge of their offspring: Hercules, tragically, that he has killed them; Pericles, happily, that his daughter still lives. The use of apropos Latin tags, particularly from Ovid or Seneca, was frequent among Elizabethan/Jacobean dramatists, so Eliot's use of the device helps connect his poem to its source material.

As the poem opens, the world around the speaker is both specific and disembodied; he sees the waters and land and rocks around him, but doesn't know where exactly they are; it is not pine trees but their scent that comes to him, and not the woodthrush but its song, and even that comes through a fog.

In the second stanza the worldly, courtier-like concerns (glittering like hummingbirds, greedy and vicious like dogs, bestial, smug, and unthinking) emerge in his memory, along with the realization of their sterility and futility (the echoing line-ending refrain of "meaning / Death") are blown away in the third stanza (wind, breath, fog) into a purer realization of what is most important in this man's life; as we move into the fourth stanza, Eliot uses rhyme to link Pericles's growing awareness of his newly blessed consciousness (grace) and his surroundings (place) to something beautifully human and beloved (her face), which moves in and out of focus, both unbearably far and unbearably near – this separate young human he helped create.

Then comes one of those really Eliot-sounding couplets, with ambiguous moments of small daily intimacies recalled from the deepest levels of consciousness – the deepest sleep, where transhuman spirits dwell; the primal waters, the womb-like sea, flow through this whole poem.

The speaker suddenly comes to a vivid awareness of his immediate surroundings: the becalmed ship he built, now badly in need of repair. The "garboard strakes" that are leaking are "the first range of planks adjacent to the keel"; in addition the sails and rigging are rotting. The poem balances the earlier refrain of Death with an appropriately less regular answer of Life: "this life / living to live"; "my life for this life." Although Pericles is re-awakening to life through the return of his lost daughter, he is also aware that his age must inevitably give way to her youth; the ship he built, now holding him as it slowly decays, is like his aging body, the vessel of his spirit. He is reconciling himself to the ultimate loss of his daughter; she will live "in a world of time beyond me" and he resigns his life for her life. There will be new ships, and someone else's hope, directed towards the lasting shores and islands. The poem's closing lines echo and subtly alter the opening, and Pericles's exclamation/question O my daughter gives way to My daughter, which thanks to flexible syntax might be a further, more intimate address to her but could also function as the direct object of "calling" in the second line of that stanza: the seas, the shores, the islands and ships and the woodthrush, could now all be calling the next generation, in the person of Marina, towards their own adventures, until they too give way to the next wave.

I took this poem from The Complete Poems and Plays by TS Eliot.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I meant to comment last week and forgot to until this week's Poem of the Month came up.

What an astonishing poem! I cannot remember whether I'd ever read it before, although I read some of the big Eliot poems in high school and college. It is truly wonderful, in so many ways.

(Nice new look, by the way.)

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the poem -- it's pretty amazing. I sent it to V when her daughter was born (because of a similarity in the name) but I'm not sure I'd looked at it since then (that was, oh my God, thirty years ago). When I re-read it I realized that the opening had really sunk into my mind but that I'd mostly forgotten the rest. Yes, it's just astonishing -- Eliot had this weird deep intuitive sense of powerful rhythm, and when to rhyme.

And thanks, glad you like the new look! I might still tweak it some, but I thought it was past time for a renovation. I was going to try to put a second picture up there, but decided I liked the split into green.

Lisa Hirsch said...

It is wonderful, and it reads beautifully out loud, which I know because I just had to read it to Donna. She was also surprised that it was Eliot.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I've never tried reading it out loud; I'm glad to hear it works so well that way -- I guess that makes sense, given its inspiration by a dramatic work. I'm curious why Donna was surprised that it was Eliot -- maybe it seems too tenderly paternal for him? The couplet in the middle about "whispers and small laughter" sounds to me as if it could be from The Waste Land, but I guess I can see why the rest of it wouldn't necessarily conjure up Eliot in someone's mind -- it's hard for me to say, since I've associated it with him for so long, which is why I'm curious about her reaction.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I can't speak for her, but I associate Eliot with a cooler and less beautiful writing style. I would not have thought of him as a poet whose work would sound so good read aloud, plus there's the extremely beautiful nature imagery. I think of him as an urban, city-oriented poet.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I see. Those are interesting points. I think I pretty much think of Eliot in a similar way.