capriccio: meta-rhyme

10:58 AM Posted by James Owens


The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .

T.S. Eliot
from The Waste Land


II. Rain Towards Morning

The great light cage has broken up in the air,
freeing, I think, about a million birds
whose wild ascending shadows will not be back,
and all the wires come falling down.
No cage, no frightening birds; the rain
is brightening now. The face is pale
that tried the puzzle of their prison
and solved it with an unexpected kiss,
whose freckled unsuspected hands alit.

Elizabeth Bishop
from Four Poems

Eliot’s sonnet – embedded subtly and ironically in the sordid seduction by the “young man carbuncular” of his bored typist – lends its final rhyme, years later, to Bishop’s pretty aubade. So what? Is this a reference, an allusion? An insignificant coincidence? If our reading of a poem depends on recalling the fact that two words were also rhymed (or almost the same words – kiss / unlit, alit) in another poem, by another poet --- then that is something too flimsy for criticism to catch hold of, isn’t it? Like trying to capture the shifting fog in a picture frame.

But, of course, Bishop’s poem doesn’t depend on relating it to The Waste Land. The lovers still lie together kissing, even if we’ve never heard of Eliot. That’s as it should be.

On the other hand, there is something there, I think. If you happen to have gone through a period of Eliot-obsession, this moment in “The Fire Sermon” section of The Waste Land is indelible, and "Rain Towards Morning" rhymes with it, just as the words themselves … and Bishop seems (consciously? a trivial question…) to urge a reversal…. Not only does the final word change from “unlit” to “alit” (invoking different senses of “to light”), but, whereas Eliot’s rhyme describes a movement into darkness and separation, Bishop’s celebrates the coming of light and union. Interesting, too, that in the sonnet, the change from the full-bodied rhymes of the earlier lines to the assonance of “kiss / unlit” comes as a falling off into the mundane, a marker of disappointment. But in Bishop’s poem, after the mostly unrhymed lines of the rest of the poem, the movement into assonance is a movement into song. The value of rhyme depends on context.

And so on. But it is too much weight to bind with such a fragile string. I make too much of such small things. Probably just coincidence… And yet…. So, this reading of the two poems (this reading that happens between the two poems) becomes part of “the canon inside the canon,” as they say in seminary – because it is the other poem we are really talking about, the unspoken, unwritten other poem that glimmers distantly into being when these two are brought together in the imaginary space where they lie whispering to each other….



Sorlil said...

"where they lie whispering to each other…" - this is a gorgeous image of the relation of poems to each other!

James Owens said...

Sorlil: Thank you. Yes, there is something erotic in the way poems talk to each other, their call and response, their shadings of difference within the sunlight of similarity....

sam of the ten thousand things said...

The Bishop piece is the foundation work, I think, for her great unpublished - now published - "It is marvelous to wake up together". The electrical storm, the cage as prison, the "light falling of kisses". "It is marvelous" is one of her strongest poems.

I get the connection between "Four Poems" and the section of The Waste Land. Your post made me go back to her letters to see if there was something directly mentioned, but I found nothing. She was, obviously, familiar with his work - especially the drama. She writes about seeing a couple of his plays. But, I also think her take on Eliot was filtered through the eyes of Moore. And that makes sense.

What I can see is her work in "Rain Towards Morning" is not restrained as is the wonderful sonnet section from Eliot. His works are built on restraint. The very act of binding the language and the image adds pressure to the read, and forces the moment into the open, or into view. He releases by holding back.

Bishop, on the hand, let the physical presence of the imagery - in all her works - focus as her biography. You get Bishop's life by what you see, and not by what you're told. That's what I like most about her work.

Back to your point - I think the thread is there. It's a tiny thread, but it's a golden one. No Blake pun intended.

Thanks for the post, James.

Roxana said...

i loved the two pieces, no big surprise there :-) but most of all, i like the subtle way in which you always unfold your text analysis (an even lesser surprise here :-). in the end, it doesn't matter so much where the outer-literary truth lies.

a quick note: i can't stop to ponder again what an impressive tradition this topic of the woman who is unwillingly willing to say 'yes' has. just the other day i stumbled across this unknown piece of Rimbaud:

Her clothes were almost off;
Outside, a curious tree
Beat a branch at the window
To see what it could see.
Perched on my enormous easy chair,
Half nude, she clasped her hands.
Her feet trembled on the floor,
As soft as they could be.
I watched as a ray of pale light,
Trapped in the tree outside,
Danced from her mouth
To her breast, like a fly on a flower.
I kissed her delicate ankles.
She had a soft, brusque laugh
That broke into shining crystals -
A pretty little laugh.
Her feet ducked under her chemise;
"Will you please stop it!…"
But I laughed at her cries -
I knew she really liked it.
Her eye trembled beneath my lips;
They closed at my touch.
Her head went back; she cried:
"Oh, really! That's too much!
"My dear, I'm warning you…"
I stopped her protest with a kiss
And she laughed, low -
A laugh that wanted more than this…
Her clothes were almost off;
Outside, a curious tree
Beat a branch at the window
To see what it could see.

now you can continue to make your connections :-)

James Owens said...

Sam: Thank you for such a long and thoughtful response. I was actually thinking of you when I was writing this post, knowing your love of Bishop. I agree about "It is marvelous to wake up together." This, "The very act of binding the language and the image adds pressure to the read, and forces the moment into the open, or into view. He releases by holding back" is one of the best descriptions of Eliot that I've every seen.

James Owens said...

Roxana: I agree completely --- it doesn't matter where the truth outside the poems lies. I'm not even sure that there is such a truth, or, at least, if it is very interesting...

Thank you for this graceful Rimbaud poem. Now I'm making guesses at some of the lines in French, so I can search for the original...