Myth, allusion, gender, in the early poetry of T.S. Eliot
Cattle, Simon Matthew James
T.S. Eliot's use of allusion is crucial to the structure and themes of his early poetry. It may be viewed as a compulsion, evident in even the earliest poems, rather than just affectation or elitism. His allusions often involve the reversal or re-ordering of constructions of gender in other literature, especially in other literary treatments of myth. Eliot's "classical" anti-Romanticism may be understood according to this dual concern with myth and gender, in that his poetry simultaneously derives from and attacks a perceived "feminised" Romantic tradition, one which focuses on female characters and which fetishises, particularly, a sympathetic portrayal of femmes fatales of classical myth, such as Circe, Lamia and Venus. Eliot is thus subverting, or "correcting", what are themselves often subversive genderings of myth. Another aspect of myth, that of the quest, is set in opposition to the predatory female by Eliot. A number of early poems place flâneur figures in the role of questers in a context of constraining feminine influence. These questers attempt, via mysticism, to escape from or blur gender and sexuality, or may be ensnared by such things in fertility rituals. A sadomasochistic motivation towards martyrdom is present in poems between 1911 and 1920. With its dual characteristics of disguise and exposure, Eliotic allusion to ritual and myth is itself a ritual (of literary re-enactment) based on a myth (of literature), namely Eliot's "Tradition". Allusive reconfiguration being a two-way process, Eliot's poetry is often implicitly subverted or "corrected" by its own allusions. Thus we are offered more complex representations of gender than may first appear; female characters may be viewed as sympathetic as well as predatory, male ones as being constructed often from representations of femininity rather than masculinity. The poems themselves demonstrate intense awareness of this fluctuation of gender, which appears in earlier poems as a threat, but in The Waste Land as the potential for a rapprochement between genders. This poem comprises multiple layers of re-enactments and reconfigurations of gender-in-myth, centring upon Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. The Waste Land's treatment of myth should not be seen as merely reflecting a passing interest in anthropology, but as the culmination of concerns with myth and gender dating back to the earliest poetry. The complex interrelation of the two aspects leaves it unclear whether Eliot's allusive compulsion derives principally from a concern with mythologies of literature or from a concern with mythologies of gender.