Jordan life for the speaker, since it exists

Jordan Lampo

English 126

December 12, 2017

The
Pros of Prose

The practice of
writing in prose is the practice of the living speaking to the living. Poetry,
in turn, is the practice of the living talking to the dead. Is associating a
memory with the dead an implication of a weakened overall memory, while
associating a memory with the living an implication of a criticism?

Section three of “Little Gidding”
starts with a claim regarding the three stages of spiritual development
according to the speaker: attachment to people and things; detachment from people and things; an indifference to such
temporal and material things, and a devotion to the spiritual and eternal. This
creates an allusion to Saint John of the Cross that although sin is a
commonplace among mankind, it is still possible to overcome one’s failings and
attain spiritual wholeness. This message can only be passed to those who can
learn from it: this section of Eliot’s Little Gidding proves that Prose is the
living speaking (in this case, advising) this living.

The speaker starts section three
by explaining the three ways of living a life: being drastically attached to oneself,
to material things, and to other persons; being drastically detached from
ourselves, from material things, and from other persons; or the realization of
a middle ground between these two extremes, becoming indifferent to both
attachment and detachment in a way that makes the living resemble dead people.
That is why these three ways of living life must be explored in a continuous
sense; those currently alive are living a life that is just as committed to
external values as that of the dead. This third depiction of indifference seems
to be the best mode of life for the speaker, since it exists to “resemble the
others as death resembles life, / Being between two lives,” and the rule
of thumb for this poem is: if something overcomes an opposition and does not
take sides, it is probably the correct path to decide upon (III.5-6).1The poet declares that attachment, detachment, and
indifference are all related; all three look alike but indifference comes only
through the exercise of memory to create abstractions. 

By allowing
us a way to bypass the realities of our world, the dead open up a spiritual symbol
of freedom. But by advising the living through prose to change their outlooks,
Eliot is claiming that while
“history may be servitude/ History may be freedom,” the renewal of such a
history is no longer a distant memory, but a recalled love for a passion
(III.13-14). And so Eliot advises the living to take advantage of their lives,
to not treat them with indifference, but with the polar opposites of attachment
or detachment.

The speaker argues that the purpose of memory is “for
liberation” from time and desire, and to move forward in life (III.8). In other
words, one might love a larger picture such as the “love of a country”, but
this sort of love fosters first with a love of ourselves (III.10). Eventually, one
learns to “find that action of artificial love to be of little
importance” (III.12). This brings us back to the lesson of humility that
the speaker keeps going on about in this poem; while we learn that the concept
of love cannot be attained without first loving oneself, it can never be
defined as having “little importance,” or an indifferent concept (III.12).

Since prose is the living
speaking to the living, if this were written in a poetry style, the impact of
Eliot’s argument would not be as powerful. Out of all of the Four Quartets, “Little Gidding” uses
language patterns that most closely mimic the rhythms and feelings of everyday
speech. The diction is, as Eliot always is, intellectual and loaded, but is
blissfully unaware of the repetition of the same vocabulary words in such a
short amount of writing. If “Little Gidding” were written as a poem, there
would be no room for repetition to represent a human voice. Instead, it would
be a portrayal of the living speaking to the dead. This is a form of attachment
that comes as a result of prose, of speaking to the living. This is a concept
that Glück understands and uses in her poetry.

Louise Glück spends a lot of time writing about memory of
those who have passed on. As a poet, and as poetry standing to mean the living
speaking to the dead, this is expected of Glück. An example of her speaking to
the dead is found in her poem “The Wild Iris.”

With seven stanzas of different lengths, and many white
spaces to separate one stanza of thoughts from the next, there is written in
time to think about what is being said in each line of the poem, and how one
line relates to the one directly preceding and following it. These white spaces
that come between stanzas allow a chance for the reader to question the deeper
meaning in physical silence, an opportunity that you have when you are dead because
that is the only time that a person can experience true “silence.”

An example of this can be found at the immediate start of
the poem:

 

            At the end of my suffering

            there was a door.

 

            Hear me out: that which you call
death

            I remember.

                                                            (The
Wild Iris.1-4)

Line 3 lets the word “death” be followed with only a white
space. Such enjambments, or the practice of leaving physical spaces on the page
without putting punctuation to cap off a sentence or a thought, draws attention
to what is being said, but also emphasizes what is not being said.

It is important to remember that the reading of poems should
not be done as autobiographies. That is, the author of the poem is not necessarily
always the speaker. With that being said, “The Wild Iris” is narrated in the
first person, using “I” to address the speaker, and “you” to speak to the
audience. But who exactly is the targeted audience? To quote Glück’s
“Persephone the Wanderer,” “that is the wrong question” (Persephone the
Wanderer.63) In order to find out which member of the dead Glück is addressing,
one must first decide who is speaking.

While it is said that the speaker may be similar to Hamlet
who thinks that “it is terrible to survive/as consciousness,” or as Persephone
who returned from the underworld in Hades’ grasp to “find a voice,” the most
compelling evidence points to the assumption that the speaker is, in fact, the
nominal Wild Iris (The Wild Iris.8-9, 20). Seeing as the Iris is a perennial
flower, meaning that it dies each winter only to replant itself the following
spring, the poem supports the flower “finding a voice” each time it returns
to the earth (The Wild Iris.20).

If such were the case, and the flower were the speaker of
the poem, would it then make sense to associate “buried consciousness” with the
circle of life, or life after death? The speaker could, after “it was over”, “speak
again” (The Wild Iris.18) This could mean that the speaker has experienced death
and was reborn into mortality, or that the speaker had experienced death and
passed to the immortal afterlife, finding the ability to “speak again” after
the spiritual experience of the afterlife (The Wild Iris.18). After all, the
speaker does believe that “whatever/returns from oblivion returns/to find a
voice” (The Wild Iris.19-20).

The dead can
offer us only a “symbol” that is left open for interpretation and exercise of
the imagination. By allowing us a way to bypass the realities of our world, we
are allowed to assume validity from irrational things, like a flower standing
as the speaker of a poem. But by conversing with those who are dead through poetry
to change the memory of them, Glück is suggesting that the dead exist only as a
memory that is left to shape the future of the re-collector. One can change their outlooks
on life and reshape memories during a lifetime, but once death has occurred,
memories are solidified for the person who has passed. There is no chance of
redemption, of future actions reshaping past occurrences, nothing. And so while
Eliot advises the living to take advantage of the days they have left, Glück is
claiming that the dead must make an impression that will last on those that
they leave behind once they are gone.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Glück, Louise. Poems 1962-2012. Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 2012.

 

Trapp, J. B., et al. The Oxford anthology of English
literature. Oxford Univ. Press, 2002.

 

1
All citations from T.S Eliot’s “Little Gidding” are cited from:

Trapp, J. B., et al. The Oxford anthology of English
literature. Oxford Univ. Press, 2002.