Hotel Window (1955), Edward Hopper
“II. A Game of Chess”:
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
'Jug Jug' to dirty ears. (6)
The endnotes are immense. One has to contend with Ovid, John Lyly, Richard Barnfield, George Gascoigne, Milton, Virgil, Dryden, Matthew Arnold:
[II] 98-104 sylvan scene … by the barbarous king | So rudely forced … the nightingale | Filled all the desert with inviolable voice … “Jug Jug”… stumps: TSE’s Notes refer to Ovid, Metamorphoses VI 424-674. […] Ovid, tr. Golding: “so barbrous and so beastly was his thought … by force bicause she was a Maide | And all alone he vanquisht hir … barbrous … my voyce the verie woods shall fill … He tooke her rudely … […], Metamorphoses VI 655-711. The tale is also told in the Pervigilium Veneris. Williamson 140 points to John Lyly:
What Bird so sings, yet so dos wayle?
O t’is the ravish’d Nightingale.
Iug, Iug, Iug, Iug, tereu, shee cryes,
And still her woes at Midnight rise.
Campaspe V I, Trico’s song
[…] Richard Barnfield: “Fie, fie, fie, now would she cry; | Tereu, Tereu, by and by”, An Ode (“As it fell upon a day”) 13-14. The Golden Treasury prints this as The Nightingale. […] George Gascoigne:
In sweet April … I walked out alone,
To hear the descant of the Nightingale”…
Orphœus harpe, was never half so sweete,
Tereu, Tereu, and thus she gan to plaine…
Hir Iug, Iug, Iug, (in griefe) had such a grace…
But one strange note, I noted with the rest
And that saide thus: Nêmesis, Némesis
The Complaynt of Phylomene (1-6, 74-75, 86, 93-94)
sylvan scene: TSE’s Notes refer to Paradise Lost IV 137-42:
over head up grew
Insuperable hight of loftiest shade,
Cedar, and Pine, and Fir, and branching Palm,
A Silvan Scene, and as the ranks ascend
Shade above shade, a woody Theatre
Of stateliest view.
[…] Virgil: “silvis scaena coruscis” [a background of shimmering woods], Aeneid I 164. Dryden: “a Sylvan Scene | Appears above, and Groves for ever green”, Aeneid I 233-34; “A Sylvan Scene with various Greens was drawn”, Palamon and Arcite 619. […] For Cowper’s “sylvan scene, see note to [II] 94-109. sylvan … nightingale … inviolable … still … pursues … ears: Arnold: “Still clutching the inviolable shade … silver’d … where none pursue … or listen with enchanted ears, | From the dark dingles, to the nightingales”, The Scholar-Gipsy 211-20. (7)
No, I confess I did not hear any of these voices the first time, or indeed any of the times, I’d read The Waste Land. More grievously, I’d heard and still hear the wrong nightingale – not Ovid’s or Arnold’s but Keats’s (which is, to say the least, one of the most glaringly irrelevant low-lying nightingales on offer). I may have even, somehow, managed the outlandish feat of hearing the wrong desert (that of Shelley’s Ozymandias, one of the most glaringly irrelevant low-lying deserts on offer). If A Game of Chess is about the story of a woman’s high-strung nerves and fears, then Keat’s lyric reverie about poetic inspiration and death, and Shelley’s sonnet about the futility of human endeavour as it crashes against eternity and the sublime, are both entirely not called for. Knowing Eliot’s dense allusiveness, and knowing his infamous dictum that “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”, but armed only with a schoolboy’s toe-dipping knowledge of the Romantics, one can see why I’d gone so far from the madding crowd of correct echoes. (In fact, Eliot felt particular consternation at Keats’s nightingale: Keats’s Ode, says Eliot in Tradition and the Individual Talent, “contains a number of feelings which have nothing particular to do with the nightingale, but which the nightingale, perhaps partly because of its attractive name, and partly because of its reputation, served to bring together”.) (8) As a thirteen-year old confronting Eliot for the first time, I might have been pardoned, or at least let off on probation, for not hearing the dense interweave of echoes centring around Ovid’s tale of Philomela (Eliot’s own notes, which I would have perused, merely state “99. V. Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI, Philomela.”). Compounded by a rudimentary prejudice towards reading only “the words on the page”, and therefore neglecting the allusion to Ovid, my errors became manifold.
Even in this brief passage, hearing voices in Eliot can be a matter of keen ethical importance. Hearing now the Lyly, the Barnfield, and the Gascoigne, I might begin to correct my previous trespasses. “Cried” is the crux. “And still she cried… ‘Jug Jug’”: “cried” no longer an arbitrary marker of some kind of vaguely strong emotion, as I’d carelessly presumed, but dripping with grief: “Hir Iug, Iug, Iug, (in griefe) had such a grace”. And not just generic grief, painful though that is, but specifically the grief of being violated: “O t’is the ravish’d Nightingale. |Iug, Iug, Iug, Iug, tereu, shee cryes”. A violation and a grief so mortal one can only (half)express it in seemingly broken, incomprehensible cries: “Fie, fie, fie, now she would cry; | Tereu, Tereu, by and by”. In some ways, despite being bereft of human voice, Philomela’s nightingale-song expresses (the inexpressibility of) grief in ways human words cannot.
Hearing these voices now, one begins to see the ethical finesse of Eliot’s manipulations. Not “Iug, Iug, Iug” or “Iug, Iug, Iug, Iug”, but merely ‘Jug Jug’: the broken cry broken even further; the lament curtailed of expression curtailed even more. And dispossessed of the commas, the “Iug, Iug, Iug, Iug,” that might each be individually dragged out in voicing the Early Modern verse becomes in Eliot’s rendering something darkly comic. Those commas restored a kind of dignity to Philomela by giving her space to cry freely. “Hir Iug, Iug, Iug, (in griefe) had such a grace”: the “Iug, Iug, Iug” rebels hard against the encasing iambic pentameter, and in this line almost wrenches the metre entirely away in its opening iamb-spondee before restoring it in the last three iambs. “Iug, Iug, Iug, Iug, tereu, shee cryes”: this line of five onomatopoeia breaks free of the surrounding verse, arresting the slightly lilting, cantabile quality of the iambic tetrameters preceding it into a prolonged, dragged out series of wawls. The effect is not merely one of simple juxtaposition, in which the impulse of the metre throws into relief the protractedness of the cries, and vice versa. More acutely, in Lyly and Gascoigne, the birdlike laments, assisted by the commas, get to demand of their poems space and time by usurping the metre; Philomela, for all her lack of human speech, can perform her lament. In Eliot, removing the commas opens the floodgates to bathos by allowing “‘Jug Jug’” to be read briskly. Here, “‘Jug Jug’” does not wrench space from the long, loping, domineering alexandrines and pentameters that precede it; ‘Jug Jug’ almost squeaks to a pathetic, bathetic halt. Comedy infringes brusquely upon tragedy as the wail metamorphoses into childish babble. In the face of the woman’s fears, one might not commiserate but giggle.
And if the Early Modern writes could almost circumvent the problems associated with mimesis (‘Iug’ was standard onomatopoeic/notational convention for birdsong, and as direct a representation of it as is possible given the limitations of expressing birdsong in a series of graphemes), Eliot’s audience and audiences thereafter are displaced from these conventions and cannot quite hear the nightingale. Eliot reaches back to Early Modern conventions of birdsong to write a lament that is incomprehensible to most readers not familiar with this fact: the woman indeed cries “‘Jug Jug’” to dirty ears”. Her fears and anxieties hide in plain hearing. We hear, but do not hear, or understand. That “ ‘Jug Jug’ ” is in inverted commas puts the woman at further removes, as if pointing out her temporal displacement from a historical context that could understand her laments, and as if robbing her of her own voice by making her not cry but merely quote (and quote men, for that matter).
Knowing this, one begins to see a complex series of double operations at play in the passage. “Inviolable voice”: inviolable, but not unviolated. Philomel’s voice rings pure but only because of what impure violence Philomel has been put through. And an inviolable voice that is not a voice at all, but birdsong. Eliot then further problematizes the matter by subsequently violating her voice anyway with his “‘Jug Jug’”. The woman, then, at the centre of A Game of Chess is quite fraught. Eliot both allows her to voice her despair but only in a way that is arcane and bordering on gibberish, not to mention cut with something nearing farce. If he gives her the dense network of allusions that, if unearthed, gives more substance to her lament, he also forces her to ventriloquize somewhat voyeuristic or opportunistic male visions of her plight. If her voice is secure from harm, it is a cold comfort for the harm she has been through. If her voice is a voice, it is because she (not to put it too lightly) has lost her voice. Philomel and the woman increasingly elusive.
On another level, the play of euphemism and ambiguity jarring against outright descriptions of violence complicates the ethics of the entire vignette. “Rudely forced”: where “rude” can mean the mild “Unmannerly, uncivil, impolite; offensively or deliberately discourteous” (OED 5a), or the slightly stronger but still effete “Devoid of, or deficient in, culture or refinement; uncultured, unrefined. Also in stronger sense: uncivilized, barbarous” (OED 4), or the more brutal “Not gentle, violent, harsh; giving out unkind or severe treatment; marked by unkind or severe treatment of people or living things” (OED 2) (though even here the ambiguity is preserved: “not gentle” is a far cry from either “violent” or “harsh”). “[F]orced” on its own would be clear enough. But collocated with “Rudely”, Eliot both accentuates it while tempering it behind the possibility that Philomel’s “change” (itself a word heavily euphemistic and straining to carry the full weight of its import) was just somewhat uncalled for; rudely forced rather than rudely forced. “Barbarous” also seems to prevaricate in its precise pitch of accusation: on the one hand just “uncultured, uncivilized, unpolished”, but also “rude, rough, wild, savage. (Said of men, their manners, customs, products.)” (OED 3). And its latent meaning of something not savage but merely discordant, unmusical, or just simply annoying – “Like the speech of barbarians; harsh-sounding, rudely or coarsely noisy” (OED 5, italics mine) – dovetails so neatly with “rude” – “Unpleasant to hear; discordant, harsh, unmusical. (OED 8) – that Philomel’s entire rape, especially as it is set in that pastoral “sylvan scene”, can begin to seem like another banal inconvenience. And yet it so clearly is not. Surely in the face of the polished, unperturbed smoothness of “change” and stateliness of the Virgilian-Miltonic-Drydenesque “sylvan scene”, the words “barbarous” and “forced”, whatever their ambiguities, maintain their connotations of violence?
Eliot’s coup here is in making the reader uniquely complicit in Philomel’s alienated grief. On the one hand, we might be beguiled (if we did not know the story of Philomel) into thinking that just some minor inconvenience has befallen, and therefore fail in our duties to sympathize with her. On the other, even if we do know the tale of Philomel, Eliot forces us to fail to sympathize with her. Tapping into all the latent meanings of “rudely” and “barbarous” forces us to recognize that, actually, to grasp Philomel’s, and the woman’s, plight would not to be grasp her plight at all. She must remain distant, misunderstood. We must not make sense of her story for her story to make sense. In a stunning move, we, just like Philomel and the woman, are placed in an impossible, untenable position.
And if Eliot rigs the game against the reader as well on some level, reading Ricks’s and McCue’s edition allows us to fall into a special kind of guilt. (9) We might have gone one idly failing to realize the Elizabethan echoes of Eliot’s words, but having seen the endnotes, we begin to realize that it is our ears that are “dirty”, that have been complicit in misunderstanding both Philomel and the woman in A Game of Chess. (After such knowledge, what forgiveness?) Reading the passage again, knowing what we know, we are forced to shoulder the burden of holding in equipoise our knowledge of the allusions summoned by “‘Jug Jug’” while realizing that our initial ignorance is both our failure and our duty. Empson, again: “Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can't be solved by analysis.” Life and, indeed, reading Eliot. Take away Philomel’s voice and she is given a new one; take away her story and her alienation and she is not restored but erased. The reader is trapped. (O limed bird that struggling to be free art more engaged)
What happens when I don’t quite hear the voices Eliot wants me to hear? What happens when I do begin to hear the voices I’m meant to be hearing? Is the answer a kind of moral impasse, or even failure, either way? How did we get here?
(6) The Waste Land, ll. 97-103; The Poems of T.S. Eliot, p. 58
(7) The Poems of T.S. Eliot, pp. 627-9
(8) The Poems of T.S. Eliot, pp. 541-2
(9) If you’ve already circled the “us”s or the “we”s in red, this is just to say that the “we” refers specifically to you and me. In any case, if criticism is an act of leading the reader by the hand to follow my response to materials quoted in the essay (and therefore shared between us), “we” is sometimes a defensible, if not felicitous, pronoun.