21 March 2007
Undercutting the Gothic with the footnotes
Today, I'm wondering: why did T.S. Eliot attach his own scholarly supplement to The Waste Land?
Clearly, when we're reading Homer or Dante, we expect some footnotes. Rare is the reader who doesn't find references to the Bronze Age Aegean or late-medieval Florence puzzling and appreciate the apparatus of enlightenment. But Eliot chose to write as if he were already at a considerable remove from his original audience, so he had to append some pages explaining himself
Even the best informed literati of the time required the explanations. In a review of the poem in The Dial (1922), Edmund Wilson told readers they shouldn't expect to find Eliot's work "intelligible at first reading," and he proceeded to navigate his way through what Eliot was doing with reference to the notes. Edmund Wilson!
The various philistine bones in my skeleton tell me to tell Eliot, "If you can't make yourself clear to the Wilsons in your readership, you need to re-write the text."
But of course that is philistinism, and if I try to rise above those impulses I can understand how Eliot's notes aren't merely a "supplement" to the text. They have a creative interplay with the lines upon which they expound, and have become part of the text.
In "The Burial of the Dead" for example, Eliot writes of the place "where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours/ With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine."
If I didn't have the benefit of the footnotes, I would understand regardless that Eliot is referencing a Church's bell tower. The context makes it clear that the Church in question is in London, "Unreal City."
There's a footnote for this line. It doesn't tell me anything about Saint Mary Woolnoth. It simply says (of the dead sound on the final stroke), "A phenomenon which I have often noticed."
Why did he append such a note? I suspect it was simply that the poem's language sounded too Gothic, something one might encounter in a Poe story, where of course if there were Church bells they would ring with a "dead sound." Eliot wants to ground this in his living, pedestrian, reality. He wants to remind us that he has walked down that street and heard that bell, and knows what it bloody well sounds like. He wants to give us both the Gothic and the pedestrian.
He didn't want to drive away the philistines. He wanted to draw is in.
Here, by the way, is wikipedia on that Church. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mary_Woolnoth
There must be some Eliotan significance to be found in the fact that the Church is, as that article tells us, near the Bank of England.
Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.