This is a stunning, yet profoundly baffling poem by T S Eliot. The sounds and images of the poem combine to create feelings of haunting abandonment, yet in this overwhelming sense of loss, there seems almost a luxuriation in that which seems to nearly destroy. But who is enjoying the pain and who is enjoying the representation, the aesetheticism attached to this pain?
I do not read Italian but the ‘figlia’ of the title is commonly translated as ‘young girl’, though it can also signify ‘daughter’ too in Italian. So is the subject of the poem a ‘young girl weeping’ or a daughter weeping’? And when we have decided upon which translation best fits our own reaction to the poem, then where does this leave our understanding of the narrator?
The poet seems here to be directing a scene in which another figure, a ‘daughter’ or perhaps an abandoned lover, strikes up poses or attitudes in order to give expression to their loss. The result of this slightly bizarre and theatrical encounter is this airy, elusive exploration of the role of the intellectual writer with regard to emotion. Aestheticism seems to be more important than the emotions that cause this ‘thing of beauty’. If we feel the detachment of the narrator in this way, then he seems exploitative and even sadistic. His is a cruel art. He is enjoying the possibile aesthetic gains emanating out of another’s suffering. His watchfulness is artistically predatory and without compassion.
Yet perhaps this is not so. Perhaps this is not how we read this poem? For my initial impression lingers still. The narrator seems filled with wonder at the beauty of this weeping female, and his wonder baffles himself as much as the reader. We want to undertand and yet we don’t. Isn’t this a paradox of life? John Carey brilliantly suggests that it is the ‘vague’ quality of Eliot that makes him ‘poignant’. We are grasping after something that can never truly arrive-for anyone. And when we recognise just how the beauty and perfection of the langauge and images still cannot grasp what can make life and beauty endure, then we are left with this poignant meeting of language, intellect and emotion.
It seems to be saying perhaps: This is what I saw. it deepy affected me and perhaps it always will. And I do not understand it. I can only present it. Show it.
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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