Comparison Contrast of Debussy and T. S. Eliot Essay

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T.S. Eliot and Paul Verlaine

The late nineteenth century Symbolist movement in literature was first identified as the primary origin of twentieth century Modernism by Edmund Wilson, in his 1931 work Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930. Wilson's study ranges widely enough to cover the Modernist prose of Proust and Joyce in addition to the experimental prose-poetry of Gertrude Stein, but he makes a particularly strong case for the origins of Modernist poetry in the Symbolists. Wilson, in defining Symbolist tendencies in poetry, is not uncritical in his assessment:

The Symbolists themselves, full of the idea of producing with poetry effects like those of music, tended to think of these images as possessing an abstract value like musical notes and chords. But the words of our speech are not musical notation, and what the symbols of Sym-bolism really were, were metaphors detached from their subjects for one cannot, beyond a certain point, in poet-ry, merely enjoy color and sound for their own sake: one has to guess what the images are being applied to. And

Symbolism may be defined as an attempt by carefully studied means a complicated association of ideas repre-

sented by a medley of metaphors to communicate unique personal feelings. (21-2).

There is perhaps no better illustration of Wilson's description of Symbolism in poetry (for better or for worse) than Paul Verlaine's short lyric "Clair de Lune" from his series Fetes Galantes, where the "idea of producing with poetry effects like those of music" was sufficient to inspire a canonical piano work by Debussy.
In attempting to evaluate Wilson's thesis about the emergence of Modernism from Symbolism, though, the inevitable comparison must be T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." I hope to show that the critique Wilson makes about the limitations of musicality is, to some degree, anticipated but refuted by Eliot's great Modernist elegy.

To some degree, approaching Verlaine's lyric in translation is bound to be unfair (although Eliot himself was sufficiently fluent in French to compose several of his early lyrics entirely in that language) -- the following literal translation hardly captures the chiming rhymes of the original quatrains:

Your soul is the choicest of countries

Where charming maskers, masked shepherdesses,

Go playing their lutes and dancing, yet gently

Sad beneath fantastic disguises.

While they sing in a minor key

Of all-conquering love and careless fortune,

They seem to mistrust their own fantasy

And their song melts away in the light of the moon,

In the quiet moonlight, lovely and sad,

That makes the birds dream in the trees, all

The tall water-jets sob with ecstasies,

The slender water-jets rising from marble.

Shorn of the musical quality the poem has in French, we can see here that Wilson's comment elsewhere in Axel's Castle that Symbolist poetry resembles nothing so much as English Metaphysical poetry of the early seventeenth century was….....

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