As part of an assignment in a course on Criticism I read an essay called “The Intentional Fallacy” (The Verbal Icon, W.K. Wimsatt). The author claims that studying the intentions of the poet or any other biographical details is totally irrelevant when judging his work. I like Wimsatt’s effort towards an objective criticism: a critic should not value a poem by Sylvia Plath or Owen because he pities their tragic personal stories…that’s a temptation to be avoided. However, the ideal of the new critics to leave aside everything that is not in the text seems to me a well-intentioned chimera: some of the very tools the poet uses –images, metaphors, etc– do not come from his text, they come from somewhere else.
Regarding allusions Wimsatt states that they should work both when we are acquainted with them and when we are not. In other words, their suggestive power should be self contained in the poem itself. Again, this is a very nice ideal but somehow impossible to achieve. True, cryptic allusions should be avoided, but asking all the charge of meaning of the allusion to be self-contained seems to be a contradiction: an allution cannot be self contained…it alludes to something external.
To justify his claim Wimsatt uses the reference to the mermaids in The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock:
I have hear the mermaids singing each to each
I don’t think they will sing to me.
He says that this might be an allusion to a verse of John Donne “Teach me to hear the mermaids singing”…this might be accurate or not. In any case it clearly does not add up to the meaning of Eliot’s poem to know it the verses are related to the one of Donne. But, what about the mermaids? Imagine for a moment you don’t know what mermaids are or what the mermaid song is supposed to do… Is somebody who does not have any reference to them able to perceive the whole meaning of the verses? I doubt it…, and you cannot blame Eliot for that.
References and allusions are one of keys I try to use when reading. I admit the connections I make might not be 100% accurate, but still I think it enriches the reading experience. For example the last verses of Prufrock:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us and we drown
Make me think along this path:
- Prufrock is in a kind of Hell: the epigraph of the words of Guido da Montefeltro, Inferno XXVII, point in that direction.
- The mermaids make me think of Ulysses.
- Ulysses + Hell = Dante (again). Dante makes me think in Chapter XXVI of the Comedy. In that chapter Ulysses drowns “until once more the sea closed over us” (Inferno, XXVI, 142). The sea closing over us of Dante is pretty similar to Eliot’s drowning
- Mermaids + the Comedy: Dante’s dream with the mermaids in Purgatorio XIX:
She then began to sing, so I could not,
except with pain, have drawn my eyes away.
‘I am’ she sang, ‘I am the lovely siren’
So full of pleasure to ear my tune
that mariners I magic in mid-ocean
And Ulysses, entranced to hear my song,
I turned off course. Rarely do those who’ve learned
my ways depart. I bring them full content.
Then Dante is awaken by Virgil’s voice… The mermaid song makes Ulysses and Pufrock fall in slumbers till their are awaken by human voices. Dante is saved and continues climbing towards salvation, Ulysses and Prufrock drown in Hell…the moral interpretation of this is too personal so I skip it.
Probably Wimsatt would say I got it all wrong, that this is not what the text says. He might be right but I won’t change the way I read and enjoy a text by shutting my eyes and pretend not to see anything outside it.