The Orphic Voice : T. S. Eliot and the Mallarmean Quest for Meaning

University dissertation from Uppsala : Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

Abstract: This thesis explores certain common denominators in the work of T. S. Eliot and the French symbolist poets. The point of departure is the poetic credo of Stéphane Mallarmé–his "Orphic explanation of the Earth," and my main argument is that the "Orphism" of Mallarmé can also be found in Eliot, and that the work of these poets in this respect reflects similar artistic ideals. This means, in more concrete terms, that Mallarmé’s use of language–his stretching of referential functions in order to create an esoteric "word-music"–finds an echo in the poetry of Eliot. By relating these poets’ work to an "Orphic" literary tradition, emanating from classical religious poetry, but also from the writings of Plato, Heraclitus and others, we can retrace an ancient conception of poetic creativity, dating from a time prior to what Mallarmé has called the "déviation homérique" of Western literature. Armed with an analytical model deriving from these ancient texts, this study emphasizes a certain shamanistic quality in Eliot’s work, in some ways reminiscent of the oral and semi-literate traditions of the Antique world. Using close reading as operative strategy and focusing on the mimetic/non-referential aspects of the language (sound values, metrical patterns, incantatory effects), the study suggests a more intuitive, "modal" approach to Eliot’s work, intended to present a view of him which is different from the notion of an erudite and predominantly cerebral author. It is against this background–in accordance with the poetic credo of Mallarmé–that the reader is invited to see the work of Eliot as emanating from the primaeval source of poetic expression from which, in Archaic times, the song of Orpheus sprang.

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