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 . . .
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.
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….