You need to compare and contrast the narrators in the story, Like how the authors want their stories told and looking at the cities pick the want opinions they want that matches with sources and book. I just need the opinions comparing and contrasting with both stories and the sources
Editor: Cynthia Rose
From: American Decades Primary Sources(Vol. 9: 1980-1989. )
Document Type: Short story; Excerpt; Work overview
Content Level: (Level 4)
About this Work
Other Names Used: Carver, Raymond Clevie;
By: Raymond Carver
Source: Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” In Cathedral: Stories New York: Knopf, 1983, 209–212.
About the Author: Raymond Carver (1938–1988), was born in Clatskanie, Oregon. He attended Humboldt State College (now California State University, Humboldt), receiving an A.B. degree in 1963, and the University of Iowa, receiving a M.F.A. degree in 1966. He was a short story writer. In addition, he wrote poetry and prose. Carver taught at Syracuse University before moving to the West Coast. His award-winning stories have been published in collections, magazines, and anthologies. Carver was married to writer Tess Gallagher. He was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Discovery Award for poetry, 1970; the Levinson Prize for poetry, 1985; and the Creative Arts Award citation from Brandeis University, 1988.
Raymond Carver published two volumes of short stories before Cathedral appeared in 1983. With this
Master short-story writer Raymond Carver often explored forbidden topics and places in his works. GETTY IMAGES. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
Master short-story writer Raymond Carver often explored forbidden topics and places in his works. GETTY IMAGES. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.volume, a new writing style emerged. The stories were more hopeful. The characters experience redemption and concentrate less on the dreariness of life than in earlier Carver works such as Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?(1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). Nelson Hathcock writes that Carver changed “the potential power in his characters, the power to reconstruct their lives through language and, in the process, arrive at some understanding or intuitive accord.”
The sparseness of Carver’s sentences and images has been compared to the styles of other great American writers of the twentieth century, namely, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and Flannery O’Connor. The angst and the heartache that characters experience when they realize just how fragile their lives are can terrorize the reader. Ordinary life can change with one coincidental event or meeting in Carver’s world.
In the title story, Bub, the narrator and an alcoholic, displays the unsavoriness of a jealous, mean man. He reveals his ignorance when Robert, a blind man who his wife once worked for, visits the house. Bub plays mean little tricks on Robert until his wife leaves them alone for a time, watching television. Bub suddenly understands that Robert can not visualize what he takes for granted as they “watch” a show on cathedrals. Through his encounter with the man, primarily through language and later “reading” a drawing of a cathedral, Bub understands blindness for the first time as he closes his eyes and tries to read the drawing with only his fingers. Whether he internalizes this lesson is left for the reader to decide.
The stories in Cathedral are connected in subtle ways but the reader does not have to read from beginning to end in order to understand the characters or plot. However, reading the entire collection enhances the understanding of Carver’s place as a fine writer.
The lonely and isolated characters that inhabit Carver’s fictional world come from his life experiences. In essays, he revealed the difficulty of his early life and marriage and the struggles that caused him and his wife to lose hope. The New York Times reviewer Irving Howe notes that the characters are “lacking an imagination, for strangeness, they succumb to the strangeness of their trouble.” Married couples often do not communicate well in Carver’s stories, or if they begin to, life breaks down and they do not know how to go on with it. Howe comments, “the commonplace is unnerving” for the both characters and reader. Carver’s brilliance as a writer is as evident in “Cathedral” as it is in the other eleven in the collection. The characters in the stories reveal more, are more human, and sometimes more humane—these are not the very spare, “cut to the marrow” stories of his previous collections. These are still not characters one necessarily wants to meet, but they are human.
Carver still portrays the suffering better than the good in life, but this collection signals the turning point in a fine writer’s work.
PRIMARY SOURCE: “CATHEDRAL” [EXCERPT]
SYNOPSIS: “Cathedral,” the final story in the collection by the same name, was first published in the Atlantic Monthly. It also appeared in the 1982 volume of Best American Short Stories. The characters in the story and the collection possess the potential for change and understanding that had not been apparent in Carver’s earlier work.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.
Saltzman, Arthur M. Understanding Raymond Carver. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
Facknitz, Mark A. R. “‘The Calm,’ ‘A Small Good Thing,’ and ‘Cathedral’: Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth.” Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 3, Summer 1986, 287–296.
Hathcock, Nelson. “The Possibility of Resurrection: Re–Vision in Carver’s ‘Feathers’ and ‘Cathedral.’” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 1, Winter 1991, 31–39.
Howe, Irving. “Stories of Our Loneliness.” The New York Times
Book Review, September 11, 1983, 1, 42–43.
Wickenden, Dorothy. “Old Darkness, New Light.” The New Republic, November 14, 1983, 38–39.
AUDIO AND VISUAL MEDIA
Carver, Raymond, and Kay Bonetti. “Interview.” Columbia, Mo.: American Audio Prose Library, 1983. Cassette.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale
Source Citation (MLA 8th Edition)
“Cathedral.” American Decades Primary Sources, edited by Cynthia Rose, vol. 9: 1980-1989, Gale, 2004, pp. 23-26. Gale eBooks, https://link-gale-com.db19.linccweb.org/apps/doc/CX3490201641/GVRL?u=lincclin_pbcc&sid=GVRL&xid=49843cb5. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3490201641
“If the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.”
“Cathedral” appeared in Carver’s collection of the same name in 1983 and has since been heralded as his “masterwork” (Boyle 119). At first glance, the story is deceptively simple, detailing the events of a single evening’s interactions between an unnamed couple and the wife’s blind friend, Robert. Information about past experiences of each of the characters peppers the text as the story progresses. The first paragraph establishes the narrator/husband’s perspective on a number of things: his wife, her friends, and, perhaps unwittingly, his narrow-minded perceptions of the world around him. The flat tone that he employs when describing events like Robert’s wife’s death add to the reader’s understanding of the two-dimensional nature of his character, a man with little or no human interaction whose ideas about people and places are developed via television and the movies: “In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to” (269). Robert’s blindness “bothered me,” explains the narrator in the first paragraph, and “he was no one I knew” (269). His ignorance and prejudice is compounded by a later statement about Robert’s dead wife: “Beulah! That’s a name for a colored woman” (271).
The relationship between his wife and Robert, a man for whom she worked reading aloud from papers and other printed material not available in Braille, culminated in her last day in his office where he “asked if he could touch her face” (269). This simple example of human contact and the ways in which it deepened her relationship with Robert are lost on the narrator, perhaps until the very end when he experiences a similarly physical connection with the blind man. The wife’s prior relationship experience is important terms of why she stays with her husband, and why she has stayed in touch with Robert over the years. Her first marriage to a commissioned officer ended badly, as the isolation and continual relocation of military wifehood coupled a sense of being “cut off from people” caused her to attempt suicide before finally divorcing (270).
Robert’s visit clearly bothers the narrator on several levels. His discomfort with a social situation (dinner) is compounded by thinly veiled jealousy and defensiveness that belies anxieties about the state of his marriage. Before Robert arrives, the wife says matter-of-factly to her husband: “If you love me, you can do this for me. If you don’t love me, okay” (273). This exchange culminates in the wife throwing a potato at her husband who, shortly thereafter, begins drinking.
The issues in the marriage between the narrator and his wife are illuminated via details of three other relationships, the narrator’s wife and her first husband, the narrator’s wife and Robert, and Robert’s relationship with his deceased wife. The narrator relates, somewhat sneeringly, that Robert and Beulah were “inseparable” and wonders at the idea that the couple lived their lives together without Robert “ever having seen what the goddamned woman looked like” commenting “it was beyond my understanding” (271). He begins to feel badly for Beulah whom he imagines had a very dissatisfying relationship, describing, without a hint of irony, that she “could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one,” and was a woman “who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved” (271).
The narrator’s character is developed via his conversations and his narration of events, both essential to understanding his epiphany near the end. His wife notes that he doesn’t have any friends. He is continually surprised as his ideas of blindness are, one by one, demolished during his actual encounter with a blind person. His incredulity that Robert wears a beard, smokes and does not use a cane or wear dark glasses, the way he eats his food, his drinking and agreeing to smoke marijuana, all come as revelations to the husband. Robert exudes patience when dealing with the conversational blunders of the narrator: “Which side of the train did you sit on?” he asks Robert, wondering what scenic view the man enjoyed on his train trip (272). Robert’s character, described as a man who was “a regular blind jack-of-all-trades,” enjoys several diverse occupations, as well as a hobby operating a ham radio through which he communicates with others as far away as Guam and Tahiti (275). In contrast, the husband describes his job of three years as one he doesn’t like, yet makes no effort to leave.
The large amounts of alcohol consumed by all: the narrator’s drink before they arrive, the three big glasses of Scotch they enjoy when Robert enters their home, two more drinks before dinner, several drinks after dinner, and another while smoking two joints, lubricates conversation and allows the husband’s walls to come down. However, the deep problems the husband faces in actually connecting with others in a meaningful way are still present. Even after Robert agrees to try smoking marijuana with the narrator, he still “didn’t want to be left alone with a blind man” (275). The husband’s attitude does shift once his wife falls asleep and the husband says to Robert, “I’m glad for the company,” following with an internal monologue “and I guess I was. Every night I smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could before I fell asleep. My wife and I hardly ever went to bed at the same time” (276).
As the two watch/listen to television programs, Robert delivers a line of dialogue that provides the narrator with a philosophy of life in contrast to his own: “I’m always learning something. Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn something tonight. I got ears” (276). Robert appears to be the catalyst for change in the lives of both the wife and husband, by offering them an opportunity for genuine connection and/or by subtly using statements to influence the two. When the program on cathedrals begins, the narrator describes the images to Robert, and in a moment of inspiration the husband realizes, “Something had occurred to me. Do you have any idea what a cathedral is?” (277). Robert is able to respond with a laundry list of descriptive details but ultimately decides that he didn’t really “have a good idea,” urging the narrator to explain instead, valuing direct human communication over the impersonal narration of the television. The challenge of describing a building whose importance relies not only on its architecture but also on its emotionally connected function as a holy space proves difficult to the husband, who is unaccustomed to expressing any real emotions aside from bitterness and sarcasm. The husband takes on the request with a kind of obsession: “Say my life depended on it” (277), which in a sense it does. After unsuccessfully attempting to explain the cathedrals, Robert hits on a problem, asking the narrator, “Are you in any way religious?” (278). Thinking about this question, the husband confesses his lack of belief in religion, which he recognizes makes it impossible for him to fully describe a cathedral. Robert, unwilling to give up on their project, asks the husband to find some paper and draw a cathedral with him. The narrator who, for the bulk of this short encounter has repeatedly expressed distaste for Robert and a desire for him to go upstairs, suddenly roots around the house for paper, and sits on the floor with Robert, Robert’s hand over his, and begins to draw. This intimate moment in which the husband has the first real physical contact with anyone in the story initiates his epiphany; his realization that there is more to life than an unrewarding job and marriage, self-imposed isolation and views predicated on third party sources instead of real life experience.
The wife wakes up while they are drawing, unable to understand what they are doing or why. In an interesting twist, she is suddenly left out of the loop as the relationship between Robert and the narrator becomes the focus. Robert explains: “we’re drawing a cathedral, me and him,” emphasizing the connection between the two men (279). Robert instructs the husband to close his eyes and continue drawing. The narrator’s description that, “his fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now,” presents a very different persona than the narrator of a few hours ago who didn’t even want Robert in his house (279).
After they finish drawing, instead of looking at what they created, the narrator chooses to keep his eyes shut, savoring the moment and seeming to understand that the real accomplishment was not in the product but rather in the process of creating. Many critics have suggested, focusing on the husband closing his eyes and keeping them that way the husband’s epiphany comes in the form of realizing what it means to be blind. While this certainly is true, the statement fails to explore the arguably deeper epiphany of the protagonist hinted at in his last lines: “I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything,” alluding to the opening up of the narrator to new possibilities with further implications than understanding the blind experience (279).
Carver usually focuses on the microcosm of everyday life and its everyday challenges rather than the macrocosm of political and historical struggles and their effects. Although the early 80’s were rife with important historical and literary moments, Carver, for the most part, does not cite any historical happening as influencing his writing of “Cathedral.” Stull points out that “In life, art, and even death, Raymond Carver’s double, mentor, and companion soul was Anton Chekhov” (qtd. in “Biography”).This time period saw the emergence of literary trends towards experimental and what would be termed minimalist, postmodern or realist fiction, yet it is difficult to separate how the styles influenced Carver versus how Carver influenced these movements. According to Stull, “[Carver] laid the groundwork for a realist revival in the 1980s. (“Biography”).
The issues involved with alcoholism and how it can be destructive to individuals and relationships are explored in this story. The narrator’s disaffected state of being seems exacerbated by his turn to alcohol and drugs, which he uses both to provide a comfort level during Robert’s visit and as a strategy to deal with his frequent nightmares. The narratorseems more comfortable with maintaining the ‘status quo’ of a life described as pretty unsatisfying. The reader is left to question whether or not the narrator’s lack of motivation and unhappiness are caused by or are the cause of his substance abuse. As a long time alcoholic, Carver often creates characters with various addictions, specifically alcohol. The fact that Carver was finally sober when he wrote this story directly affects the ending in which he is able to imagine a kind of optimistic hope for the narrator, whereas in earlier writing his darkened vision would arguably have left his protagonist in a more ambiguous position.
Near the beginning of the story, the narratorsays Grace before they eat: “Now let us pray…pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold” (273); a sarcastic and irreverent comment that elicits a frown from his wife. The most obvious religious reference in the story is the television special on cathedrals and the shared drawing made by the narrator and Robert. The drawing project in which the husband seems to recognize that aspects of his life are empty as a result of his lack of faith in anything is central to the development of his emerging consciousness. When Robert asks him to comment on his religious beliefs, the husband replies, “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard…cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing.” (278). The superficial way in which the husband approaches his cathedral description mirrors his shallow view of the world. The fact that a cathedral is a location where people gather to share meaningful contact makes it an important symbol in the story, exemplifying yet again the ways in which either the narrator’s life is devoid of human connection or he is simply ignorant of the benefits of human connection to others.
Scientific & Technological Context
The most important technological reference in the text is to the television. The television is discussed during the initial conversation between the three characters when they compare models and whether or not they have black and white or color screens. A double-edged sword, the television certainly arguably serves a connective purpose. Much like the first radio broadcasts, television provided people with the opportunity for a shared experience in the sense that they all viewed the same images at the same time, even though they did not occupy the same physical space. However, the television, like the computer, while offering a space in which individuals can interact, excerpts human contact from this connective opportunity. Thus, throughout the story, the reader must consider the importance of both modes of connection, identifying the fact that a lack of balance can be destructive to an individual’s development of empathy, and insert its own ideas in the place of learned experience on the part of the viewers.
Carver’s early history is almost as interesting as his vast cache of stories and poetry. Born in Clatskanie, Oregon in relative poverty with a family whose members did not attend school beyond the eighth grade, Carver spent his life moving from place to place, occupying many diverse jobs including hospital custodian, textbook editor, lumber mill worker, and prescription deliverer. Carver was essentially always on the move, settling for only a few years in any one place.
Carver married 16-year-old Maryann Burk in 1957, and the couple had two children shortly thereafter. Experiencing “blue-collar desperation on terms more intimate than most American Writers,” Carver turned his life experiences and need for cash into arguably some of the best short literature of the century (Kennedy and Gioia 99). After receiving his degree from Humboldt State College in 1963, Carver continued to be plagued by personal and financial problems that restricted his writing time: “getting milk and food on the table, getting the rent paid, if a choice had to be made, then I had to forego writing” (qtd. in Charters 209).
In 1967, Carver met Gordon Lish, who published several of his stories in Esquire. Carverachieved his style of stripped down fiction through intense revision, sometimes as many as “twenty or thirty drafts” (Charters 209) and is one of the few writers who revised a published story significantly and published it as well (“The Bath” and “A Small Good Thing”). John Gardner, Carver’s mentor at Chico State, instilled the value of revision by requiring at least ten drafts of any story handed him. Gardner also gave Carver keys to his office, where in isolation he was able to “under[take] my first serious attempts at writing” (qtd. in Charters 1418).
Carver survived one failed marriage, several bankruptcies, and an alcohol addiction which he overcame in 1977, the same year he met his future wife, Tess Gallagher. His success in battling alcohol addiction was one of his great achievements, of which he stated: “I am prouder of that, that I quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life” (qtd. in Kennedy and Gioia 269). Like many authors who write realistic fiction, Carver was frequently asked if his experiences inspired his writing. Carver once responded: “None of my stories really happened, of course…but there’s always something, some element, something said to me or that I witnessed, that may be a starting place” (qtd. in Gioia and Gwynn 1750). Tess Gallagher states in the introduction to CarverCountry, that the story “Cathedral” was inspired by the visit of blind friend Jerry Carriveau to their home (Gioia and Gwynn 1750-51). According to Esquire editor Tom Jenks, the incident was almost identical to the story: “Tess had fallen asleep and then a program on cathedrals came on. The blind man had no idea what a cathedral looked like, and in the end, Ray sat on the floor with him, holding his hand, drawing a cathedral” (qtd. in Gioia and Gwynn 1751). T. C. Boyle identifies Carveras “foment[ing] a revolution in American letters similar to the effect the work of certain seminal punk bands had on the epicene of rock music of the late seventies” (119).
A self-described “cigarette with a man attached to it” (Stull “Biography”), Carver died of lung cancer at the age of fifty on August 2, 1988, just two months after his marriage to Gallagher. The wedding “took place in Nevada, in the Heart of Reno Chapel, and Carver described it with gusto as a ‘high tacky affair.’ True to the tragicomic occasion, Gallagher went on to a three-day winning streak at roulette (Stull, “Biography”). One of the most oft quoted pieces of poetry by Carver is his poem “Gravy” published posthumously in All Of Us, the poem represents Carver’s attitude about his impending death. The last few lines sum up:
“I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”
Boyle, T. C., Ed. Doubletakes: Pairs of Contemporary Short Stories. Massachusetts: Thompson Wadsworth, 2004.
Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction: Stories and Authors in Context. New York: Longman, 2001. 269–279.
Charters, Ann, ed. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Gioia, Dana and R. S. Gwynn, Eds. The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction: Stories and Authors in Context. New York: Longman, 2001.
Kennedy, X. J. and Dana Gioia, Eds. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama, 4th Ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.
Stull, William L. “Prose as Architecture: Two Interviews with Raymond Carver.” Clockwatch Review Inc., 1995–96. 25 Sept. 2005.
_____ “Biographical Essay.” 1 Nov. 2005.
How do you feel about the narrator at the opening of the story? Why? Do your feelings about him change during the course of the story? Why?
Does the narrator feel like a ‘real’ character, or a caricature? What details provided in the story support your assertion?
Explain the relationship between the narrator’s wife and himself. Would you call them happy?
Discuss how the relationship between the narrator’s wife and Robert differs from her relationship to her present husband and previous one.
Why do you think the wife stays with the narrator?
Do you think religion has a significant part in the development of the story? For example, did the subject of the drawing have to be a cathedral or could it be something else?
Carver explores his style “it’s possible…to write about commonplace things and objects, using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things, a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power” (qtd. in Kennedy and Gioia 111). Where do you see this in the story “Cathedral”?
How is suspense created and sustained through this story that takes place during a few short hours one evening during a simple dinner party?
Explain what the narrator means by the last line that he “didn’t feel like [he] was inside anything”?
Where do you see the narrator’s feelings about Robert begin to shift? Why? Do you think it is only the alcohol and marijuana that forge the connection between the two men, or is it something deeper?
Is it possible for a person to have a life changing experience in the course of one evening? Do you think the narrator will change as a result of the experience with Robert, or will he remain the same?
Look at the relationships provided in the story: Robert and his wife, Robert and the narrator’s wife, the narrator’s wife and her first husband, and compare them to the relationship between the narrator and his wife. How do all the relationships in the story serve to develop the suspense and growth of the narrator through the story?
Analyze the changes in the narrator’s character as he moves towards his epiphany. Explore three or more moments that exemplify stages in his development. Discuss where you believe the epiphany is in the story and how it will change the narrator.
Dialogue is essential in this piece to both move the plot forward and provide three-dimensional portraits of each character. Choose representative quotes from each character and analyze how they clue readers in to the conflicts in each speaker’s life.
Write an essay that argues either for or against an interpretation of the narrator as an antihero.
The main action of the story involves eating, drinking and smoking. How do these actions become essential in terms of setting up a situation in which human interaction is highlighted?
“Prufrock,” “Gerontion,” and Fragmented Monologues
In the longer chapter from which this is an excerpt, I discuss The Waste Land in more detail, particularly its relation to the elegy and the centrality of Hieronymo, and go on to discuss Ash-Wednesday as a mortality ode, by contrast with William Wordsworth’s “Immortality” Ode. In the excerpt, I argue for a distinctive swerve in Eliot’s poetry from the tendencies of his Romantic precursors. I interpret the early verses, called “Preludes,” and “Sweeney Erect” by contrasting them with various poems by Wordsworth. I discuss “Prufrock,” “Gerontion,” and The Waste Land in a related way, by focusing on the typical use in Romantic poetry of several figures of speech, including prosopopoeia (or personification), synecdoche (the substituting of whole for part or part for whole), and apostrophe (address to nonhuman creatures or objects as if they were human, usually starting with “O”). Eliot’s modernist transformation of all these tropes challenges the attempt to project a human presence or to grasp a totality as if part and whole were linked within a single organism. In particular, his language challenges the projecting of voice onto the nonhuman and even questions whether voice is adequate and accurate for understanding the nature of individual humans, including poets and their readers. I also trace swerves from the tradition of the dramatic monologue in “Prufrock” and “Gerontion,” especially with regard to the continuity of the speaking voice. Instead of continuity, we have discontinuity; instead of speech, we have textualized language; instead of a scene of literal speaking to a silent listener, we have a situation that is ambiguously external or internal and that may involve address to the reader. I trace the dissolution of the self from the early poems into The Waste Land by bringing out the way the written disrupts, disfigures, and undermines voice as self, particularly in Eliot’s apostrophes, which are both strange and frequent. I argue that Eliot empties out the full-throated “O” of apostrophe and turns it into the empty or decayed mouth, suggesting mortality, but the cavernous mouth is still able to produce sounds that constitute a haunting, revealing kind of poetry in Eliot’s modernist displacement of Romantic poetic practices.—J. P. R.
Eliot begins producing alternatives to the self’s discourse in the poems he publishes before The Waste Land. He does so by using figurative language, syntax, and allusion in ways that generate a self-transforming, self-correcting, inherently differential discourse of wit, a “harmony of dissonances” in which oppositions are reciprocally defining and mutually framing. The imbricated, sometimes antithetical, implications of his styles are the equivalent of a Chinese box or a maze with no exit. They find their ultimate manifestation in the perpetually cross-referential structure of Four Quartets. As he develops alternatives to personal discourse in his poetry, Eliot repeatedly and systematically counters the Romantic, particularly the Wordsworthian, emphasis on personal emotion and feeling. The result is an antielegiac body of writing that refuses the Wordsworthian tranquility and consolation that Eliot objects to in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and in “Matthew Arnold.”
Even at the start of his publishing career, the character of Eliot’s poetry suggests that the writing process involves neither the self nor an individual, personal voice and that its results need not conform to nineteenth-century poetic forms, including the dramatic monologue and the elegy. The transforming of the dramatic monologue occurs most obviously in “Prufrock,” “Gerontion,” and The Waste Land. In The Waste Land, Romantic images and strategies, including the nightingale, prosopopoeia, and apostrophe, are put to use in ways that deter the reader from taking the poem’s language to be the voice of a self. Its echoes of Romantic writing are combined with reverberations that present poetry’s origin as different from voice. The Romantic echoes are also transformed by Eliot’s turn toward an antithetical tradition, revenge tragedy. In Ash-Wednesday, the Romantic echoes are taken up into an incantatory, impersonal group discourse in an arrangement keyed to Wordsworth’s “Immortality” Ode, which Eliot’s poem in many ways reverses. Eliot’s refusal to mourn and to be comforted becomes clear when his poetry is compared to Wordsworth’s.
“Rhapsody on a Windy Night” has already provided one example of Eliot’s early resistance to Romantic conventions concerning poetry as inspired personal utterance. Many of his other early poems also fragment psychologized language and in related ways subvert conventions of Romantic writing. “Preludes” is probably the most pointedly anti-Romantic and, in particular, antielegiac of the early poems. It initiates Eliot’s long series of poetic rejections of the elegiac tradition, which reaches one culmination thirty years later in “Little Gidding” 2 when the compound ghost forbids nostalgia and mourning. Along with its musical and temporal meanings, “Preludes”’s title echoes the title of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which Eliot transforms by pluralizing. The title encourages a reading of Eliot’s poem against the implied background of Romantic poetry, especially Wordsworth’s. Like “Rhapsody,” “Preludes” evokes and turns from Romantic precursors. The brief, discrete physical descriptions of urban scenes in “Preludes” differ greatly from the longer presentations of nature in The Prelude. And they are antithetical to Wordsworth’s portrayal of a majestic cityscape in “Composed upon Westminster Bridge.”
Since only the last of Eliot’s four “Preludes” is longer than a single stanza, it is possible to read the short second and third verse paragraphs of that final prelude as reflecting on the entire sequence. In some published versions of the poems (including CPP but not CP), these concluding stanzas are set off from the earlier ones by indentation, and in all versions the shifts to first person and to the imperative mood set the two closing stanzas apart from the earlier ones. In the penultimate stanza the deictic character of the phrase, “these images,” which can refer to the poetic images that compose “Preludes,” invites a self-reflexive reading:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
infinitely suffering thing (CPP 13)
In their diction, the lines echo various passages in Wordsworth’s poetry, including the statement in the third stanza of “Elegiac Stanzas” that “I could have fancied that the mighty Deep / Was even the gentlest of all gentle Things” (Wordsworth 373, l. 12).
The “Elegiac Stanzas” provide a clear example of the poetic strategies and the attitudes that Eliot wrote against. Central elements of this and other Romantic poems, including ekphrasis, apostrophe, personification, and the optimistic consolations of elegy, are taken up and transformed when Eliot produces texts that emphasize attitudes radically at odds with the “patient cheer” of Wordsworth’s final stanza. In Wordsworth’s poem, the experience of discontinuity, specifically the death by water of the poet’s brother, leads to the expression of a loss that is bound up with consolation. Reflecting on the deluded attitudes he held before the death, Wordsworth’s speaker says:
So once it would have been,—’tis so no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanised my Soul. (Wordsworth 374, ll. 33-36)
The earlier attitudes, which have been presented in several stanzas, include prominently the belief in various continuities and harmonies. Those continuities are emphatically discarded in, among other details, the rhyme of “no more” with “restore.” The apparent acceptance of discontinuity, however, is countered by a recompense, itself a form of restoration. The consolation is reflected in the other rhymes, which report that the speaker has found a “new control” for his “Soul.” The seemingly radical discontinuity and disorder are, in fact, balanced and contained by a controlling order and power that the experience of loss makes recognizable.
In the second half of “Elegiac Stanzas,” the humanizing of the speaker’s soul is extended to the painting, which is the ostensible spark for the poem, and to the scene within the painting: the sky, the sea, and Peele Castle in a storm. That extension occurs through apostrophe and personification, recurring elements in Romantic poetry. When the speaker says “O ’tis a passionate Work,” whose spirit is both “wise” and “Well chosen,” he is referring to the painting, whose artist, Sir George Beaumont, has exercised intelligent control in making the right aesthetic choices. At this point, the ekphrasis provides a way to understand the poem containing the references to the painting, a poem whose author presumably exercises a similar control and expertise in evoking verbally the same intelligent, creative spirit that rules the painting. But that spirit also informs the scene. As Wordsworth presents it, the spirit is not limited to art since it involves all the scenic elements, the castle, the sky, and the sea, including “That Hulk which labours in the deadly swell.” Consequently, the apostrophe restores the power whose irretrievable loss was announced a few stanzas earlier. The life that has been lost in the brother’s drowning is transferred figurally to the personified castle, which preserves continuity because of its endurance. The castle has a face, a “look with which it braves, / Cased in the unfeeling armour of old time,” the ravages of the storm, which do not affect it. That look and face are visible in the painting but also in the poem, whose “humanised” speaker brings the elegy to a close by affirming hope’s continuance: “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn” (Wordsworth 374, l. 60). “No more” has become, mournfully, “yet once more” yet once more in a history of repetition that includes [John] Milton’s “Lycidas.”
There are large contrasts between the figures, images, and attitudes Wordsworth uses in “Elegiac Stanzas” and in his other poems and the ones that Eliot uses in his poetry through Ash-Wednesday. While Wordsworth sees a man in armor within a well-ordered composition, in “Preludes” Eliot sees old women in vacant lots. While Wordsworth employs a painting to suggest a controlling presence that makes hope and consolation possible, in part 2 of The Waste Land and in “Sweeney Erect” Eliot uses paintings quite differently. In the depiction of Philomela, as we have seen, there is no suggestion of hope or consolation. The rude forcings there differ sharply from the words and attitudes of “Lycidas” that Eliot echoes in order to counter. “Sweeney Erect” is in part a parody of “Elegiac Stanzas,” beginning as it does with the work of a different Beaumont (Francis, co-author with John Fletcher of The Maid’s Tragedy) from the painter of Peele Castle, and using a rugged, rocky shore and stormy sea as the context for a debased, modern scene. Instead of “this huge Castle, standing here sublime” like a man in armor, Eliot gives us “Sweeney addressed full length to shave / Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base / … / … the silhouette / Of Sweeney straddled in the sun” (CPP 25-26). Some details of the ekphrastic scene in “Sweeney Erect” return in aspects of The Waste Land’s final section. At the end of The Waste Land Eliot evokes rather than a castle with a face a ruined chapel and a ruined mouth. While Wordsworth finds a “spirit” in art and in nature, Eliot sees waste and vacancy. Later, in Ash-Wednesday, by contrast with the continuity of hope and of mourning that Wordsworth affirms, Eliot finds no cause to hope and no cause even to mourn; Wordsworth’s embers from stanza 9 of the “Immortality” Ode have turned to ash in Eliot’s “mortality” ode.
The contrast between Wordsworth’s informing “spirit” as a presence and the lack of that presence in Eliot’s poems emerges in the two poets’ differing uses of the word “thing,” which occurs in the penultimate stanza of “Preludes.” It occurs as well in “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” where it pertains to the relation of inorganic to organic substance and to the relation of something once living but now dead to a presence that is a continuing, living “spirit.” When Wordsworth uses the word thing in the plural in the third stanza of “Elegiac Stanzas,” the predication of extreme gentleness suggests that the thing in question is something living, in fact, a living spirit. Eliot’s brief focus on an “infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing” carries momentarily the same implication, which is typical of Wordsworth’s writing.
But Eliot does not rest with that implication, which he calls up in order to deny. What is being denied can be clarified by considering another passage from Wordsworth about “things,” the following well-known statement from “Tintern Abbey”:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (“Lines” ll. 93-102)
The depth of Eliot’s challenge to Wordsworth emerges in his use of the word “thing” to refer not to what Wordsworth’s “spirit … impels” but to the spirit itself as something that is not wise, sublime, or well-ordered. This change forms part of Eliot’s rejection of Wordsworth’s optimism, expressed, for instance, at the end of “Elegiac Stanzas.” That rejection is evident in the final stanza of “Preludes”:
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
The figures in the closing stanzas reverse Wordsworth’s in a way that typifies Eliot’s undermining of logocentric attitudes, including the notion that the “presence” of a “spirit” both inhabits and transcends material things.
In the lines from “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth uses metaphor, the aligning of “presence” with “motion” and “spirit,” to suggest a synecdoche, the spirit’s presence in “all things.” Since the lines attribute a consciousness to the entire universe, they provide an example of prosopopoeia as well as synecdoche. In Eliot’s version, the words “notion,” rather than “motion,” and “fancies” indicate the source of a different movement, one localized in the speaker’s mind rather than general in the universe or “in the mind of man.” The implications of curling and clinging are also reduced by their echoing the close of the third prelude, in which a woman has “curled,” meaning uncurled, papers from her hair and in which she “clasped” the soles of her feet in soiled hands. Like Wordsworth, Eliot humanizes the universe, which he pluralizes as “worlds,” but he does so in a way that is limited by the bounds of mortality and mutability. Eliot accomplishes his un-Wordsworthian humanizing by using a simile that compares the universe with the decrepitly human, “ancient women,” and with an emptiness, “vacant lots,” rather than identifying it with a “presence.” It evokes vacancy rather than plenitude. The simile still attributes humanity to the universe, but it reverses prosopopoeia, since the aspect of the human involved is not consciousness as spirit but something mortal and subject to decay.
The longer, better known poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Gerontion,” counter the conventions of Romantic poetry in related ways. The celebrated simile at the start of “Prufrock,” for instance, in which the evening is compared to “a patient,” is an instance of prosopopoeia. As at the end of “Preludes,” the figure’s Romantic implications are blunted since the patient’s “etherised” condition removes mental awareness from the figuration. More obviously than is the case in “Preludes” and “Rhapsody,” in the later poems Eliot transforms the conventions of the dramatic monologue. Even though this transformation has been noted by many critics, it is worth emphasizing briefly, since these poems are sometimes still read as examples of the self’s discourse within the tradition of the dramatic monologue. They are, on the contrary, examples of the undermining of both that discourse and that tradition. While it is not entirely accurate to say that the dramatic monologue originates with Victorian poets as a reaction against Romantic poetry’s emphasis on lyric utterance, the form does become important in the nineteenth century because it provides an alternative to the Romantic lyric. Finding that alternative insufficient, Eliot modifies the dramatic monologue in ways that undercut the impression of a person speaking in a specific scene. He does that in one way by not providing the kind of determinate details about a situation and a person that would enable the reader to link the language readily to a personality or a voice. As Hugh Kenner says of Prufrock, “we have no information about him whatever” (Kenner 35).1 Some aspects of style in both “Prufrock” and “Gerontion” do give the impression of a voice, but other aspects vitiate that impression in a fashion that differentiates them from Victorian dramatic monologues. Stylistically the poems counter that impression automatically because of the writing’s heterogeneity.
Many lines of “Gerontion,” including the opening ones, are conversational in character: “Here I am, an old man in a dry month, / Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain” (CPP 21). But the poem provides no continuing determinate scene or narrative within which such lines can confidently be placed, though there are sporadic indications of possible scenes and narratives. The relatively disjointed quality of both “Prufrock” and “Gerontion,” especially the lack of good continuity between the verse paragraphs, makes it hard to ascribe the language to a speaker, even one who is in the kind of extreme situation mentally or physically that is sometimes portrayed in dramatic monologues. Instead of being located, grounded in a referential way, the language, which is full of dislocations, tends to float; it refuses to be tied to a limiting scene or to a limited meaning. The conversational language is not sustained, for instance, in the lines that follow the opening ones in “Gerontion”:
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought. (CPP 21)
We find out where this “I” was not and what it did not do, not where or what it is in any positive sense. The passage gives rise to questions that it does not answer and that are not answered elsewhere in “Gerontion.” Stylistically, both the sequence of negatives and the repetition of “fought” at the end of the sentence indicate the composed, written character of the lines rather than the spontaneous utterance of an “I” with a personal voice.
The difficulty of maintaining the illusion of an “I” who speaks becomes greater as “Gerontion” proceeds, for example, in the fifth stanza with its sequence of sentences beginning with the verb “Think,” which continues into the next stanza. The sentences may be in the imperative mood. Or the subject of an indicative verb may have been omitted. The grammatical indeterminacy disturbs the statements’ coherence in ways that resist resolution. The language pertains not to a character whose name indicates that he is a person but to one who is named artificially. Like a figure in a medieval allegory whose name points to a concept that is abstract and general rather than personal and individual, Gerontion is not a person but one among many possible incarnations of the meaning of his name in Greek, “little old man.”
In “Prufrock” there is not as much grammatical disturbance but more indication through rhyme and through repetition of phrases that the language does not represent a conversation or a meditation that might be understood in realistic terms. As Loy D. Martin has suggested, the poem’s language represents Prufrock’s “inner non-speech” (Martin 234). The impression of something internal, however, as well as the impression of speech, is strongly countered by the language’s artificiality. Prufrock’s language is not only not necessarily speech, it is also not necessarily internal, as well as not necessarily external. The Popean rhymes, such as “ices” and “crisis” (CPP 6), are especially clear indications of the poem’s written, constructed character, as are the disjunctions between some of the verse paragraphs. Repeated end rhymes and internal rhymes also give the language a studied quality that marks it as something fabricated, though its artificiality is not that of the poetic conventions Eliot and Pound sought to overturn. The style’s obviously crafted rather than ostensibly spontaneous quality is as evident in “Prufrock” as it is in the poems in quatrains Eliot published later along with “Gerontion.” In the sixth verse paragraph, for instance, Eliot repeats the end rhymes so frequently that they call attention to themselves despite the irregularity of the verse, especially when he repeats words. In seven lines, there is no alternation in the two rhymes used: dare, stair, hair, thin, chin, pin, thin. The twelve-line stanza also includes the triple repetition of “Do I dare” and the internal rhyming of “decisions and revisions.” The style’s artificial quality might not be so noticeable in a poem with more narrative continuity to distract the reader from the language’s texture. In the context of the relatively discontinuous sequence of the stanzas and together with the ambiguous calling up of a silent listener in the poem’s first line, “Prufrock”’s repetitions and other incongruities sometimes create a humorous effect that distinguishes it from its Victorian precursors.
The complications of “Prufrock” involve from the poem’s beginning epigraphs a more direct transformation of the dramatic monologue than does “Gerontion” when the pronouns that “I” uses suggest the presence of an unspecified listener. In many dramatic monologues the listener is also not specified, and the reader is invited to take over the role of listener in a one-sided conversation. In “Prufrock,” however, it is not clear whether a real conversation is being dramatically presented, whether the “I” is having an internal colloquy with himself, or whether the reader is being addressed directly. The “you” that is “I”’s counterpart stands in two places at once, both inside and outside Prufrock’s mind and inside and outside scenes that can with difficulty be imagined based on the minimal details provided. The reader’s situation resembles the position of the viewer of Velásquez’s “Las Meninas,” in which a mirror invites an identification with the observers of the scene depicted in the painting while the painting’s geometry indicates that the illusion of that identification can be sustained only by ignoring obvious details. Reader and viewer stand both inside and outside the frame of an illusion that cannot be sustained.
Two epigraphs from Dante precede and follow the poem’s title, one for the entire volume that takes its name from “Prufrock,” the other for the poem itself, which stands first in the volume. Together they suggest the oscillation and indeterminacy of Prufrock’s position and the reader’s. In the first epigraph, Statius mistakes Virgil’s shade for a “solid thing” and forgets momentarily what he himself is and can do. In the second, Guido da Montefeltro predicates his address to Dante on the opposite mistake, that Dante is not human and cannot carry his words further. Like Statius and Guido, the reader who tries to pin down the indeterminate identities and locations of “you and I” in the poem will always be mistaken. What is taken for a shade or a figment may be flesh and blood, and what is taken for living flesh may be only a figment in a perpetual instability that marks “Prufrock,” like “Rhapsody,” as the transforming end of a sequence of poems to which it can be said to belong but some of whose implications it subverts. The subversion occurs largely through the removal of those referential, seemingly stable elements of scene and character that contribute to making the illusion of hearing a personal voice in poetry possible.
Eliot’s particular transformation of the dramatic monologue in “Prufrock” depends on the character of the pronouns “you” and “I,” which linguists call “shifters” because they are mutually defining and depend for their meanings on the pragmatic context of the discourses in which they occur.2 Instead of naming something unchanging, these pronouns indicate positions that can be variously occupied. Eliot makes perplexing use of them in some of his best-known poems. In this regard, “Prufrock” is an early anticipation of the Dantesque dialogue of one between the ghost and the poet in “Little Gidding” 2, in which the relation between speaker and listener is one of doubling, oscillation, and, indeterminacy. Though the poems differ substantially, at times both straddle the boundary between monologue and dialogue. In “Little Gidding” the single and the dual voices are taken up into a polylogue because of polyphonic, intertextual qualities of style. As in The Waste Land, multiple allusions combined with indeterminate pronoun references create perplexing effects that resist being taken as voice.
Elegy and Revenge, Voice and Writing, Echo and Echolalia in The Waste Land
The dissolution of the self is presented in The Waste Land, as it is in “Prufrock,” through fragmented language and shifting pronoun references. The resulting undermining of voice in the poem is especially marked. Eliot also goes considerably further in The Waste Land in subverting nineteenth-century poetic traditions bound up with the determinate, personal self when he transforms the elegy and the lyric as well as the dramatic monologue. Rather than continuing the elegiac tradition in The Waste Land, Eliot subverts it. He calls up the vegetation rites that some scholars feel stand behind the structure and the conventions of elegy, but in so doing he creates a background against which his poem’s nonelegiac character can be measured. The Waste Land challenges the traditions and attitudes of pastoral elegy in its title and in prominent references to Hieronymo, a character from revenge tragedy.
* * *
In The Waste Land Eliot specifically evokes writing’s potential for undermining voice and self by using styles of speaking and even apparently lyrical language in ways that involve disfiguration and the loss of speech and that reveal the poem’s written, constructed, rather than spoken, spontaneous character. The frequent instances of direct address, especially those including apostrophe, emphasize the act of speaking that is a central element of lyric poetry. But the discontinuities created by rapidly changing contexts and by the shifting pronoun references decompose the impression of voice as soon as it is created. Because of the poem’s pervasive fragmentation, that impression can even be said to be decomposed before it is created; voice occurs in The Waste Land always in the context of writing. The citations and allusions that permeate the poem make it impossible to maintain the illusion of voices speaking as somehow different from writing. Even though apostrophe as a rhetorical device emphasizes the vocal character of language, Eliot counters the vocal effects by embedding them in allusion, as he does also in later poems, such as “Marina”; for example, in the stanza concluding part 1; in the imitation of ragtime songs in part 2, “O O O O,” where the O’s are also a version of “nothing,” which is mentioned one line earlier; in the lines in part 3 from the ballad about Mrs. Porter and her daughter; and in the line quoted right after them from Verlaine’s sonnet “Parsifal”: “Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!” (CPP 43). Immediately following that citation a counter to the vocative is provided when Philomela’s tongueless utterance is reiterated as “jug” six times.
The single apostrophe in The Waste Land that seems to be an uncomplicated representation of voice, the one in part 3 beginning “O City city,” is only slightly less thoroughly undercut than the other apostrophes because it is longer than they are and appears to contain no citations. It is, in fact, relatively short, only seven lines, and the figuring of the City as a human presence occurs amidst many countering elements in the poem. The citation about music from The Tempest that precedes the apostrophe and the highly allusive singing and speaking of the Thames-daughters that follow it provide a context of writing that modifies the vocal effect. The notes also work to undercut the relief suggested in these positive-sounding lines, since the note for line 264 indicates that the Church of Magnus Martyr was likely to be demolished, fated to be defaced and disfigured like much of the rest of the City. As a space, the cavernous interior of the church, its “Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold” (3.265), is more than matched by the “decayed hole” of part 5; its mouthlike space, filled with “white and gold,” is placed within the context of various ruined mouths mentioned before and after it.
Because of its quoted, repeated, and ritualized character, like some of the language of Ash-Wednesday, the apostrophe to the “Lord” at the conclusion of part 3 creates the impression of group rather than individual utterance. But even that impression is complicated by a truncation that, like the fragmentation of prayer at the end of “The Hollow Men,” disrupts the continuities of self and voice. At the end of part 4, the presenting of Phlebas’s fate as an exemplum includes a vocative “O you,” but this apostrophe asks the listener, a general one rather than an individual, to recognize the fact that everyone who lives will die, in effect, that the fate of everyone is the loss of life and of voice that Phlebas has suffered. “O swallow swallow” at the poem’s end works a similar reversal of apostrophe’s calling up something living and capable of speech, since, as the note indicates, it alludes to tongueless Philomela’s story. The apostrophe is also linked to the allusion to mute Hieronymo, because his line includes a “you” that completes the pattern of “Oh” followed by “you” begun at the end of part 1 and repeated by “O Lord Thou” and “O you” in the conclusions of parts 3 and 4. By the poem’s end, apostrophe functions to call up not voice but other texts, other parts of this text, and the physical, though tongueless, production of sounds. In part 5, by means of rhyme and other repetitions of sound, “O” is taken up into a mad, tongueless artist’s name, “Hieronymo,” into the reiterated no’s of the second, third, and sixth stanzas (six occurrences), into the repeated word “only” (seven occurrences), and into the onomatopoeic rendering of a bird’s call, not the Romantic nightingale’s or even the thrush’s but the homely, nonvocal rooster’s: “Co co rico co co rico.”
The repetition of the long “o” nineteen times in part 5 before the final stanza in “no,” “only,” and the rooster’s call might not be remarkable if repetitions of the sound were not clustered even more insistently in the poem’s last verse paragraph. It occurs there at least nine times within five lines: ascose, foco, Quando, O swallow swallow, abolie, Hieronymo’s. The densest clustering occurs in the line “Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow” (l. 430), the second half of which involves a multiple chiasmus. It would be tempting to claim that this half-line is exceptional in The Waste Landand that it presents a compact instance of multiple chiasmus that is unusual, perhaps unique, in the history of English poetry. Such a claim would be mistaken. The phrase, “maternal lamentation,” from the fifth verse paragraph of part 5 (l. 368), for instance, is equally compact and just as complex phonologically. In The Waste Land, the unusual and strange become usual.
* * *
The O that might represent a whole and the living mouth as source of voice has become in part 5 a hole that is not only empty but mutilated or decayed, and that hole is the context of the poem’s whole, the locating of language in a wasted space that in Ash-Wednesday is “the hollow round of my skull” (CPP 61). In an earlier poem, “Sweeney Erect,” that, like part 2 of The Waste Land is ekphrastic, Eliot presents the mouth, “This oval O cropped out with teeth” (CPP 25), as implicitly a hole in a skull subject to decay. The stanza in which this line occurs alludes to the encounter with the decayed visage of Rousseau in Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life”:
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