Our sentimental friend the moon

I’m not sure why ‘Conversation Galente’ by T.S.Eliot has not come to mind before. Appearing in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) this is a moon poem that knows its past. T.E.Hulme’s moony effort is, surely, an influence (I’ve not checked, but the link between them would doubtless be Ezra Pound). I would also rather like Yeats’s poem ‘Balloon of the Mind’ to be in there somewhere:

Balloon of the Mind

Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.

This may be wishful thinking, although the Eliot’s poem is composed about the same time: Yeats’s poem is published in book form in 1919. They are both poems about difficulty of self-control: though the will-o-the-wisp presence of the legendary benign ruler Prester John does nothing to prevent the self-control of Eliot’s poem nearly disintegrating. Most obviously, even in its title, Eliot’s verse refers to its French origins. Any number of Jules Laforgue poems with their spoken asides, sombre ironies, and moonlit pierrots lie behind the tone and tenor of this apparently world-weary, woman-weary jesting dialogue. And something in this poem’s bones knows well that such conversational jests and sallies are an echo of the middle ages’ gestes and sallirs,* the kind of jesting gestures of devotion in vocalized verse that got troubadours or trouveres into such trouble.

Mary Binder 1918

It seems fitting to look into the dusty back room of this poem, as not only does it come from the pen of an inveterate borrower, who noted in his essay on ‘Philip Massinger’ that ‘immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different’ (The Sacred Wood, 1920); not only this, but the theme involves the inevitable borrowings and cliches of art and the still more inevitable borrowings of speech, typified here by a replayed, desiccated conversation at sour cross-purposes. The very words of the poem themselves seem weighed down by being already spoken, rehearsed on some other night, some other century, burdened all the more as they take on a kind of desperate lightness. Notwithstanding all the hot air the balloon of this conversation barely gets off the ground.

And what could be more cliched than the moon? Excepting perhaps  a work of art about it. Chopin’s Nocturnes or perhaps Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ take a turn only to find that even that most affecting art, music, can ‘only body forth vacuity’. Schoenberg’s moon-drunk Pierrot Lunaire might have something to say here. Mind you, no one in the poem really listens: the conversation is a joust of unerring unhearing pretension whose misogynist flavour is not allayed by its finicking politeness — ‘you, madam’ — or by the sense that the woman takes on the traditional female aspect of the fickle moon, who is thus perhaps obliquely addressed in the final stanza.

What then can we rescue from what comes dangerously close to a self-obsessed affectation of indifference? A sulky adolescent behind slammed door nonetheless complaining that the world does not appreciate him? This is perhaps what an (unsigned) TLS review of Eliot’s first book meant to convey: ‘the fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry‘. But they do, and we must salvage something. We are left with the feeling that these mad poetics might be serious, as understood by that last strangely penetrating question. The poem speaks from the edge of madness. The balloon of the mind is stretched almost to burst. Our speaker knows he will not be heard, but desperately speaks his despair and incoherence in language that has gone dead. At least, being poor, borrowed, and battered, the language he speaks seems to know its deadness. This is little comfort though if he speaks, as he seems to, for a whole culture. If he is mad, this is distressing, and all our indifference pitiable; if he is not mad then language and culture teeter on the edge of meaninglessness. The pierrot figure may not be wearing his costume in this poem but he plays the fool; on the other hand, he is not joking.

Conversation Galante

I observe: “Our sentimental friend the moon!
Or possibly (fantastic, I confess)
It may be Prester John’s balloon
Or an old battered lantern hung aloft
To light poor travellers to their distress.”
She then: “How you digress!”

And I then: “Some one frames upon the keys
That exquisite nocturne, with which we explain
The night and moonshine; music which we seize
To body forth our own vacuity.”
She then: “Does this refer to me?”
“Oh no, it is I who am inane.”

“You, madam, are the eternal humorist,
The eternal enemy of the absolute,
Giving our vagrant moods the slightest twist!
With your aid indifferent and imperious
At a stroke our mad poetics to confute—”
And—“Are we then so serious?”

* a geste is a heroic deed, an act, and thence a story or song about one, later an idle tale; a sally is a sortie, a military term from Fr sallir, to leap. Both then were once in deadly earnest.

~ by thebicyclops on February 18, 2015.

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