Monday, July 14, 2008

Poetry Review: The Waste Land, or, The Tyrany of French

“The Waste Land,” by T. S. Elliott

“They have the Knopfaugen typical of German miniature painting of the period . . .”

I put that sentence into a term paper that I did for a class in Late Medieval Art. “Knopfaugen” means “button eyes,” a term to describe the big, black pupils of the portraits in the miniatures. These days we might call them, “Acid-eyes.” The teacher was very good, and justifiably pretty famous, but he was a little arrogant about finding the French Connection in everything he taught us. I read his scholarly articles, he dropped in French phrases all the time. He did it in class too. I didn’t get the references, my French is non-existent. In my paper I tried to put the shoe on the other foot. I can be a bitch like that.

I dropped in German words. Nothing too ambitious, just a few words that were decipherable to an educated English speaker or understandable in context. Common art-historical reference kinds of words. Predictably, the professor wrote in the margin of the paper, “I’m not sure that these German references are universally understood.” I mean, he gave me an A+, but he bitched about the German. Of course, I understood his point. I would never have included a foreign language in a paper in English except to try to make a point to the professor. He saw the problem, but I doubt if he made the connection to his casual, annoying French references.

I read “The Waste Land” the other day, and the same thing happened. Somebody who was basically very talented and worth reading pushed the envelope a little too much to prove how cool he was by including lots of French. German too. (Line twelve in English is “I’m no Russian, I’m a genuine Lithuanian, a real German.” I get that, but why should I be expected to? Don’t do me any favors, T. S., I hate to see anyone confused.) Greek, you name it, Latin, he wasn’t taking any chances. If he could work it in there he did.

T. S. Elliot is pretty cool on his own, he never really needed the French to make a point. In fact, he realized that all of the foreign references in “The Wasteland” were over people’s heads. He provided the footnoting himself so that it could be understood by most people. So why did he include all of this foreign verbiage in the first place?

And who are these people? Coriolanus, PHLEBAS, a Phoenician, thanks for the hint, but I still don’t know who that is. Philomel? A women, I can tell from context, but that’s as far as I go. The English names aren’t much better, most of them are just as obscure.

The neologisms are a little annoying too, a little “co co rico, co co rico” goes a long way.

Finally the whole thing goes to hell in a hand-basket:

Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

What is that, Italian? And something about birds? Or maybe a sex act? And then French again? And who’s Ile? Is that a person’s name? And Hieronymo, a mad somebody-or-other, is that Bosch? I do have some education. And finally, the last blind challenge, what is that, Sanskrit? Shantih my ass.

Walt Whitman was pretty cool in plain English. William Carlos Williams too. It can be done.

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