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'T. S. Eliot's Coriolanus' (Journal of the T. S. Eliot Society - May 2017)

'T. S. Eliot's Coriolanus' (Journal of the T. S. Eliot Society - May 2017)
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  1   T. S. Eliot’s Coriolanus: ‘Mandarins’ to ‘The Blameless Sister of Publicola’   ‘o mother’   ‘Coriolan’ (1931 -32) ‘There’s no man in the world/More bound to’s mother,’   Coriolanus  5.3.158 –  9. In his ‘Hamlet’ essay of 1919, T. S. Eliot famously declared Coriolanus  , along with  Antony and Cleopatra  , to be ‘Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success’ ( CP2  , 124). In 1961, he affirmed that Coriolanus was one of his favourites ( TCTC  , 19). Unsurprisingly, there are numerous references and inferences to the play   as well as various recastings of its Roman hero throughout Eliot’s  published and unpublished works. These include the poems ‘Mandarins’ (1910),   ‘A Cooking Egg’ (19 1 8), ‘Ode’ (1920), The Waste Land (1922), ‘Ash - Wednesday’ (1930), ‘Coriolan’ (1931 -32 ), ‘Little Gidding’  (1942) and ‘The Blameless Sister of Publicola’ (1959); prose essays ‘Rhetoric and Poetic Drama’  , ‘Hamlet and his Problems’  (both 1919), ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’ (1927) ; in addition to the verse drama The Family Reunion (1939). As with all his Shakespearean allusions, Eliot’s Coriolanus condenses and channels an array of contemporary concerns, context and material that he contended with — public and private, social and personal. Furthermore, the character encapsulates moments of crisis,  breakdown and change in Eliot’s own poetic, political, sexual and spiritual dilemmas, throughout his life. This article examines Eliot’s Coriolanus across the breadth of his works and uncovers the latent fascination with the maternal contained within them. In this way, I show the appearance and non-appearance of the figure to be intrinsically related to, and representative of, lifelong changes and important events in the Eliot mother-son relationship moving through four phases. I contend  2   Shakes peare’s Coriolanus stimulated Eliot in a specific way whose truth only came to light to him in the 1930s, and which he surmounted in the 1950s in his marriage to Valerie Fletcher. Two main strands of criticism have speculated upon the significance of Shak espeare’s play and its protagonist in Eliot’s writings. On the one hand, Eliot’s Coriolanus is a historical commentary on the various political anxieties and predicaments taking place in America and across Europe in the 1910s through to the 30s (Hawkes; Kirk; Reeves; Matthews). On the other hand, he is a public ruse for a deeply personal dilemma (Bollier; Childs; Corcoran; Lamos; Scofield). For Neil Corcoran, ‘Eliot makes Coriolanus an element of his own imaginative self- conception’ (104). Eliot is regularl y attracted to Shakespeare’s figure ‘as a profoundly disturbing instance of the radical twining together of public action and private motive, and as a man attempting to be “author of himself” but in fact everywhere constrained by having been ‘authored’ by another’. Indeed, like Shakespeare’s fatherless ‘man - child’ (1.3.17) who is ‘More bound to’s mother’ than any other man in the world (5.3.159), Eliot’s Coriolanus indicates a continuous, problematic struggle to form male identity based upon an Oedipal principle of masculinity that requires dissociation from all that is culturally regarded as feminine, female or maternal. In both Shakespeare’s tragedy and Eliot’s works, the crux of the Coriolanian dilemma is that patriarchy deems a son’s  manhood rest upon separation from and repression of a mother to whom he is devoted and indebted. The absence of a strong paternal identification exacerbates this predicament. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue’s two volume edition of The Poems of T. S. Eliot (2015), the continu ing release of Eliot’s letters, in addition to the   ongoing publication of the complete prose, mean that critics can examine Eliot’s lifelong interest in Coriolanus  and the development of his Coriolanus more fully and accurately. Thus, the full implications of the evolution of Eliot’s Coriolanus r egarding the ambivalent mother-son nexus can finally be discussed . Jason Harding’s important essay ‘T. S. Eliot’s Shakespeare’ (2012) notes three distinct phases in the long arc of Eliot’s Shakespeare: ‘the first ma rked by the iconoclasm of the avant-garde provocateur which, in due course, was obliged to give way to the  3   imperative to accommodate the greatness of Shakespearian tragedy to Christian belief, before a final period in which the practising dramatist sought to do justice not only to the “ musical ”  but the “ dramatic ”  excellence of Shakespeare’s verse’ (161). Likewise, there are three distinct phases in the development of Eliot’s Coriolanus: first, the stoic adolescent that appears in ‘Mandarins’ (1910), second,  the tortured male figure emergent in the late 1910s who culminates in the ‘broken Coriolanus’ of The Waste Land (1922) and, third, Eliot’s mid -career Coriolanus from the mid-1920s to the late 1930s who is considered and rendered from the perspective of a committed Anglo-Catholic. Yet, I believe that there is a fourth phase. There is an elderly and more convivial Coriolanus in the late ‘The Blameless Sister of Publicola’ (1959 ) — recently published by Ricks and McCue —  , which has not received critical comment. By considering this additional phase, this article provides a more comprehensive and truer account of Eliot’s Coriolanus  than previous examinations.  Adolescent Coriolanus Donald Childs cites Eliot’s ‘Ode’ (published in  Ara Vos Prec in 1920) as heralding the first appearance of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in his works. He sees Eliot’s Coriolanus as an outer arrangement of the inner psychodynamics of the ambivalent mother-son relationship, indicating a changing awareness and exploration of Eliot’s own ‘mother - complex’ (136). However, Childs crucially ignores Eliot’s juvenilia poems and so misses the antipathy towards maternal authority and desire detectable in these earlier writings. As Ricks and Corcoran note, Eliot’s first allusion to Coriolanus is not in ‘Ode’ but in his unpublished ‘Mandarins’ (1910)— a series of poems that observe and sardonically berate a variety of mandarins caught up in vacuous triviality and perfunctory service. Eliot composed ‘Mandarins’ whilst at Harvard, at a time when his mother, Charlotte, was expressing her desire for him to succeed in his literary work where she had failed. The first ‘Mandarins’ poem implies the first part of Coriolanus  , in which the protagonist uses his opposition to the common populace to define himself and fend off his vulnerability:  4   Stands there, complete, Stiffly addressed with sword and fan: What of the crowds that ran, Pushed, stared, and huddled, at his feet, Keen to appropriate the man? Indifferent to all these baits Of popular benignity He merely stands and waits Upon his own intrepid dignity; With fixed regardless eyes —  Looking neither out nor in —  The centre of formalities. ( P1  , 243) Here, there is a hint of the discontent Coriolanus experiences at the false mask of ceremony he must wear in subservien ce to his mother Volumnia’s controlling wishes and design. Despite Coriolanus’ haughty pose as a self - sufficient phallic ‘hero’, he has in fact been ‘framed’ by his mother’s desires (5.3.62-63). He is a virtual automaton in thrall to maternal domination and unable to ‘author’ a true male self (5.3.36). At the end of this sketch, Eliot’s Coriolanian figure displays an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and uncertainty about the idealised role assigned to him: ‘A hero! and how much it means; / How much —  / The re st is merely shifting scenes’.   Like ‘Mandarins’, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915)  is another striking instance of ambivalence toward the maternal in Eliot’s early works. In the poem, Prufrock is a male hysteric caught between being and doing, the social world and the private self, reason and passion: ‘Do I dare?’, ‘And how should I begin?’ ( P1  ,   6-7). His fear is a fear of being stuck, ‘deferential’ (9) and committed to duty and the desires of others. It is a fear of an unfulfilled life and of coming to old age and death having not acted out of one’s own passions. Like Hamlet, Prufrock’s desire is ‘pinned’ (7), made passive and reduced by women. The poem recalls the genteel Boston society and the women’s organisations that Eliot would have known  5   through his mother. For example, there is the repeated and seeming involuntary interpolation of a fragment of maternal aesthetic in Prufrock’s interior monologue as he walks through the city: ‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’ (5  , 6). These moments hint of resentment against the cultural inheritance and female environment that Prufrock has apparently had to comply with and under which he has had to hide his true self; an affront more obviously demonstrated by the poem’s srcinal t itle ‘Prufrock among the Women’ ( IMH   , 39). In an echo of John the Baptist, who was decapitated at the demand of Salome and her mother, Prufrock sees his ‘head (grown slightly bald) brought / in upon a platter’ (8) — implying male feminisation at the hands of female power. Considering Prufrock’s capitulation into maternal waters at the poem’s end, there is more than a hint of Laforguean irony in his earlier remonstration —‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’ (9). Eliot’s references to Hamlet and concern with its hero ’s familial problems continue into the early 1920s. However, Eliot notably attends these references with readings of Coriolanus and appearances of its protagonist — alongside, against, or as if in place of the earlier tragedy. For instance, Coriolanus makes a conspicuous appearance in ‘A Cooking Egg’ (1919), placed in ‘Heaven’ next to soldier - poet Sir Philip Sidney and ‘other heroes of that kidney’ ( P1  , 38). Coriolanus is a man of action to aspire to, in contradistinction to Hamlet the man of inaction. Eliot had also featured Coriolanus  on the syllabus for a tutorial class in Modern English Literature in 1918, with emphasis on analysing Shakespeare’s maturation through the development of his plays. Furthermore, ‘“Rhetoric” and Poetic Drama’   (July 1919) heralds Coriolanus’ late speech, ‘If you have writ your annals true’ (5.6.113), and not Hamlet’s speeches  , as example of an enlightened vision where a character ‘ sees himself    in a dramatic light’ ( CP2  , 68, emphasis in srcinal). 1  Yet, prose works ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ and ‘Hamlet and his Problems’, both written in 1919,  are most complementary 1   Coriolanus’ dying speech is a moment of revelation that gives us ‘a new clu e to the character, in noting the angle from which he views himself’  ( CP2  , 85). Eliot reiterates Shakespeare’s mature achievement in Coriolanus   in ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’ (1927) and ‘The Development of Shakespeare’s Verse’ (1937).
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