Thursday, October 06, 2011

T. S. Eliot and Prufrock's 'Daring' Peach

T. S. Eliot
Amar Nath Dwivedi

Today's blog entry will likely interest only me, for I'm merely adding some details about a couple of scholars who have interpreted T. S. Eliot's "peach" in the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as a reference to the "forbidden fruit" of Genesis.

The text shown in the image above, T.S. Eliot: A Critical Study, is by Amar Nath Dwivedi and was published in 2003. I'm not sure that Dwivedi can be trusted as a scholar, given his interpretation of the famous "ragged claws" that Eliot has Prufrock allude to:
The reference here is to a kind of seagull having rough and rugged claws and running swiftly on 'the floors of the silent seas.' Left with no other options to console himself, the protagonist walks down the seashore dandyishly in his white flannel trousers where he can part his hair to conceal his baldness and 'risk the solaces of a peach' -- the sole forbidden fruit . . . . (page 31)
Can one trust a scholar who has mistaken a crab for a seagull? Or who misquotes the famous "silent seas" line? Or who invents -- or so I gather -- the quote about peach risk? Probably not. But I have to acknowledge the reference to forbidden fruit.

The other scholar might be more trustworthy. Young Min Hyun (현영민) -- in an article titled "T. S. Eliot's Poetry: 'Do I dare to eat a peach?'" -- tells us the following, at least in the English abstract:
T. S. Eliot's impersonal theory of poetry is closely related with his nature of a Catholic, Calvinistic, or Puritanical temperament, which became the basis of his religious and sexual imagination in his poetry. We should bear in mind that his concept of tradition expounded in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" is inseparable from his belief in the Christian dogmatic belief in Original Sin, as he explained in After Strange Gods, a lecture delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933.

Eliot interprets the Fall of man as originated in man's sexual passion which is symbolized in the act of eating the forbidden fruit in Genesis. This forbidden fruit is variously featured in Eliot's poetry as a peach in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," or a fig in Ash-Wednesday, or an apple in Four Quartets. Man should continually avoid the bodily desires not to eat the forbidden fruit. To relieve himself from the fear of His punishment, he should continually humiliate himself before God. This religious myth is accommodated to Eliot's impersonal theory of poetry which asks of the artist a continual surrender or self-sacrifice. In Eliot's poetry, women are dismissed as a temptress to be avoided. By cleansing his desires by the burning spiritual fire, man is recreated. Therefore, Eliot's ideal woman is a lady of silences in white and blue dress like Virgin Mary, a lady like Dante's Beatrice, a lady like Poe's Helen or Annabel Lee, whose beauty cannot be defiled by man's animal desires.

His poetic assimilation of his religious belief in terms of sexuality is inherited from the Puritan poetic representation of the abstract and spiritual value in terms of the concrete and sensual image, as seen in Jonathan Edwards, a last Puritan.
This sounds a little more scholarly, if a bit off about Eliot's religion -- was it "Catholic, Calvinistic, or Puritanical"? -- but since the article itself is in Korean, I can't check it on my own. Hyun's comparison of the peach to Eliot's fig and apple will bear looking into, it seems.

I might as well note K. K. Ruthven's article, "The Poet as Etymologist," in Critical Quarterly (Volume 11, Issue 1, March 1969, pages 9-37), which is not about Eliot but which offers the following obscure but intriguing remark:
The word has been potentially ambiguous ever since the peach was a 'Persian apple' (persicum malum) on account of the similarity between malum ('apple') and malum ('evil') . . . .
Unfortunately, I don't have the page number or the context since I'd have to purchase the article.

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At 10:07 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

a lady of silences (...) like Dante's Beatrice

Really?! see Purgatorio 30.55 ff.

At 10:15 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

"...His poetic assimilation of his religious belief in terms of sexuality is inherited from the Puritan poetic representation of the abstract and spiritual value in terms of the concrete and sensual image, as seen in Jonathan Edwards, a last Puritan."

" seen in Jonathan Edwards, a last Puritan."

A last puritan? What does that mean? As well the rest of the passage?

At 10:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Will do, Dario.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, I also wonder, but the English abstracts for Korean-language articles are often not well written or properly edited, and are consequently opaque.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:15 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

The suggestion regarding the significance of Eliot's peach sounds interesting.

Of course Eliot was not overly fond of Milton. Or Puritans. So as a good Anglo-Catholic he should very properly enjoy that peach, and then perhaps, if it's really necessary, think about it as he prostrates himself for a few moments of guilt and glory on Sunday? But he isn't capable of thinking of the peach the way a Puritan would, or is he? Perhaps his American puritanical peach-worried instincts were at odds with the concrete and sensual image of the Anglican alter to which he bowed and offered his humble, self-less and completely un-affected suppliance?

At 4:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've read somewhere, I forget where, that Eliot later came to an appreciation of Milton.

I know too little of Eliot to psychoanalyze him, but I suspect that those who are attracted to hierarchical religions are seeking the security of a patriarchal father who has all the answers.

But being a nonconformist, I would say that . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:15 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

I've read somewhere, I forget where, that Eliot later came to an appreciation of Milton.

Yes, I've read Eliot's 'expiatory' as well as interesting essay on Milton (published as a preface to an Italian translation of PL).

At 5:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Where can we find Eliot's expiatory piece?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:35 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

In English? Dunno. Maybe in some collection of scattered texts.

If it can be helpful, it was a lecture delivered by Eliot in 1947, two times: at first at the British Academy, then at the Frick Museum in NYC. It starts by mentioning Samuel Johnson.

Briefly summing it up, Eliot says that:

- Milton's absolutely personal language, far from being a 'con,' is a 'pro';
- it was not his fault if the poets who parroted him were so bad;
- his narrative structures are perfect;
- what matters are the whole periods, rather than the single verses;
- Milton's imagery may look weak or inconsistent, but this happens because we have to pay attention to sound, and to the impressions of light.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Dario.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I recall, Eliot's rejection of Milton was rooted in his distaste for Romantics like Shelley, although it is above all a political move. Along these lines we should consider T. E Hulme and his rejection of the Romantics, anticipating Eliot. See Hulme's "Romanticism and Classicism."

To replace Milton in the 17th century curriculum, wasn't it Eliot who proposed the so-called "metaphysical poets"--a stupid term coined earlier by the Tory apologist Samual Johnson, by which the two (Eliot and Johnson) meant 17th century Anglican high-church exponents such as Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Southwell, Herrick, Vaughan, and so on. Eliot was moving here against both non-conformity in religion and traditional liberalism in politics. In short, Eliot was a conservative of a very deep and oppressive water.

As a fascist, as a prig and as a religious conformist, Eliot is a fit mascot for English studies, for, as all of us old men know, the English department is a haven for monolithic psychic empire building, humbug, and mind control; and thus around campus English is commonly known to rank second only to Psychology as the trademark academic aviary for bird-brains, dodos, harpies and headless chickens.

Dr. J. Cornelius

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Dr. J. Cornelius, for a reasonable rant against Eliot. It put together the pieces I've always sensed were there.

As for English departments . . . I have noticed that they have a way of expanding their sense of 'expertise' to include just about everything ever written down, literary or not.

Jeffery Hodges

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