O quam te memorem virgo ...
by Sam Alexander
"La Figlia Che Piange" (“young girl weeping”) is the final poem in T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). This short (24-line) poem describes a lovers' parting, but its speaker plays a curious dual role. He not only describes his lover and the feelings aroused by remembering her, but also directs her– as he would an actress in a film, to borrow an analogy from Denis Donoghue: the mood of the first stanza is not indicative but imperative, and the first five lines all begin with strong commands: Stand; Lean; Weave; Clasp; Fling. The man who gives these instructions is portrayed as one part embittered lover, one part fastidious aesthete:
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. (1-7)
The speaker appears to have initiated the break with his lover (hence her "resentment"), and yet also to be dubious about the depth of her pain at their parting (hence the irritated qualification "fugitive"), but all of this emotional content is subordinated, in the first stanza, to the goal of creating an aestheticized impression. This song-like stanza is itself, at least superficially, the most aesthetically pleasing in the poem. Its metrical variation is less wild than that of the other two: it is divisible into two three-line sections in which a three-foot line is embraced by two longer lines (approximately 5-3-4; 5-3-5; 4). The rhyme scheme of the first six lines (ABA CBC) matches this embraced structure, while the ballad-like refrain in the last line– which has already appeared in line three, and which disappears for the rest of the poem– links the stanza together by rhyming with the first end-word ("stair"). And the reader is prepared for this refrain by the quick, skipping meter in the last four lines, each of which contains anapestic substitution.
If the first stanza aims to make art out of the lady who is the subject of the poem, the second is oriented toward its speaker, who now performs a striking act of self-duplication. Much as J. Alfred Prufrock seems to divide his consciousness into "you and I" in the first poem of this volume, the speaker now splits himself into an "I" who narrates the farewell scene and a "him" who participates in it. Through this manipulation of pronouns, he seems to be continuing the struggle to achieve control over an emotionally charged situation:
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. (8-16)
The struggle mastery is evident not only through the pronominal "splitting" described above, but also in the compulsive repetition of this stanza, in which almost every line is linked to another (or to two others) through the use of the same syntax and initial word.
The two exceptions to this rule of initial repetition are significant. The first, line 13 ("I should find"), is the shortest line in the poem, and rhymes only internally with "mind" in line 12. These differences mark an important shift, since it is in this line that the third-person "him" gives way to an "I" who is both speaker and actor. In the same breath, the "would" of the first three lines– a conditional indicating volition and the hypothetical– gives way to "should." With this new modal, the setting shifts from the past and imagined to the present and actual: "should" refers to an obligation felt by a speaker deliberating on how to act in an unfolding situation– even if his deliberation is not genuine. We learn that he is being sarcastic in the buildup to the second non-repetitive line (line 16, "Simple and faithless..."). In this final alexandrine, the meter swells along with the emotion and the speaker gives vent to the irritation which he has so far tried to contain.
The third stanza shifts to the past indicative, the tense and mood used to describe a remembered event:
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.
At this point, it seems clear that the speaker remembers his former lover not in any of the formal poses prescribed in the first stanza– standing, leaning, clasping, or flinging– and not in the handshake he suggests as a leave-taking ceremony in stanza two. He remembers, instead, her turn away from him: a simple gesture, indicative of pain for which he may be responsible. It is a gesture, at any rate, that he relives in memory with a self-punishing persistence mimicked by the repetitiveness of his verse ("... many days / Many days and many hours"). The speaker's regret climaxes in the alexandrine in the center of the stanza ("And I wonder how they should have been together!").
This line also reintroduces the removed, third-person perspective, and in the process marks the final turn of this remarkable poem. In the last three lines of the stanza, in which the verse finally settles down into regular iambic pentameter, the speaker not only regains poetic control; he expresses the ultimate in pure poetic sentiment (expressed memorably by William Butler Yeats in "Words"): gratitude for the loss of love that has enabled his verse. Artifice and distance win out over "genuine" emotion here: it is surely significant that the last line of the poem, and of this early volume so memorable for its creation of masks, rhymes on "pose."
The poem's title also hints that its emotional content is more constructed than "expressed." Grover Smith has noted that "La Figlia Che Piange" is the name of a stele that one of Eliot's friends urged him to look at on his visit to a museum in Northern Italy. Eliot never found the tablet, however, so his own "La Figlia Che Piange" is a poem about a nonexistent (or at least an unseen) subject. As Smith points out, this helps to explain the poem's epigraph: an address to a mystery lady (from Aeneas's greeting of Venus disguised as a huntress in the Aeneid), which translates, "Maiden, by what name shall I address you?" By presenting his poem as an ekphrasis for a an artwork he had never seen, Eliot suggests the importance to his early poetry of being able to identify imaginatively with a fabricated mask. In this sense, "La Figlia Che Piange" is a dramatic illustration of his famous declaration in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that "[p]oetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." The fact that the speaker Eliot uses to escape from his personality is in this case also a poet, and a poet who is only half capable of subjugating his feelings, underlines the importance of the second half of Eliot's statement: "But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."
1. Donoghue, Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot (New Haven: Yale UP, 2000), p. 69.
2. In Yeats's poem, the speaker muses at what might have been had his beloved (Maude Gonne) been able to "understand" him or reciprocate: "... who can say / What would have shaken from the sieve? / I might have thrown poor words away / And been content to live."
3. Smith, T.S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974), p. 27.
5. The full text of "Tradition" is available at bartleby.com: http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html.