Richard Dawkins mocked certain evolutionary naysayers for deploying what he called ‘the argument from personal incredulity’. With this in mind, I am always reluctant to criticise a literary work using what might be called ‘the argument from personal stupidity’: ‘I don’t understand this poem therefore there is something wrong with it’. And indeed there are things about this piece that I much admire, especially the hauntingly melodious third stanza. I just can’t help wishing that the poet had made it a bit clearer what is actually going on here and why.
To deal first with the title and the epigraph. ‘La Figlia Che Piange’ (The Woman Who Weeps’) is the name of a stele that Eliot once went to look for in an Italian museum. He never found the tablet, which sets the tone for the poem’s mood of aesthetic detachment: this is a construction of what might have been rather than a reconstruction of what was. This sense of unreality is reinforced by the epigraph ‘O quam te memorem virgo’ (‘Maiden, by what name shall I address you?’), which is from Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, from the scene where Aeneas meets, unbeknown to him, the goddess Venus disguised as a huntress.
So the poet sees, or imagines, a woman standing at the top of a flight of stone steps. There is something ethereal about her, a creature like the sunlight that he enjoins her to weave into her hair. At first she is holding a bunch of flowers, and he tells her to clasp these to her, but then changes his mind and imagines her throwing them to the ground, presumably in a fit of pique which goes with her pained surprise and the ‘fugitive resentment’ in her eyes.
The pique and resentment are explained in the second stanza, in which the poet pictures a parting between this woman and a man whom one assumes to be her lover. There is a curious shift within the stanza from third to first person, as if the poet were having difficulty in admitting to himself that he is himself the lover and the one doing the imaginary dumping in this imaginary relationship. I don’t know why the woman’s resentment is described as ‘fugitive’, unless the implication is that the woman will soon have other admirers and will forget him
The third stanza is then one of regret for that parting. Imaginary the whole encounter may have been, but at some level of memory or dream the poet has made a choice, and that choice comes back to haunt him with a sense of perennial loss. I wonder if there is a parallel here with Edward Thomas’s poem ‘That Girl’s Clear Eyes’ where the poet has a transient encounter with a woman that comes to nothing, but then confesses that all he wanted anyway was to savour the moment without any actual human involvement: ‘Nor until now could I admit/That all I cared for was the pleasure and pain/I tasted in the stony square sunlit…’ So is Eliot’s too a poem about preferring the exquisite potentiality of a relationship to the complex and demanding actuality?
This is all a bit rarefied for my taste, and so it is that for all its fine touches I find, as so often with Eliot’s work, that there is something posed and artificial about the piece, such that it remains for me a poem under glass, that I can admire intellectually but not engage with emotionally. It would be interesting to know what others make of it.
La Figlia Che Piange
O quam te memorem virgo …
Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.