Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis in Springtime Poetry

By Tim Butler | Posted at 12:19 AM

I may have talked about this on here before (in fact, it is quite likely, since I know I've mentioned both Eliot and Chaucer together before) but I thought with my recent piece of poetry (and Brad's comment on it), I would explain what I meant about it being the synthesis of spring poetry.

Chaucer's “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales is likely the most revered piece of poetry in the English Language. The first fifteen lines form one sentence in the form of an argument. When April comes and beats back the drought of March and Zepherius starts blowing, flowers bloom and birds get so excited about singing they sleep with one eye open! When all of this happens, it is time for pilgrims to go on pilgrimages to Canterbury to where St. Thomas Becket's relics are, for he helped them when they were sick.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The Droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe course y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye, -
So priketh hem nature in hir corage:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages -
And palmers for to seken straunge stronde -
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

So, Chaucer's thesis is one of new life, healing and — really — pure, unabashed joy. To borrow from my friends in the Intertextual school of criticism, Literature is really a structure of signs and symbols. The canon of literature, which most definitely includes Chaucer, can be “accessed” by future literature to evoke additional meaning. T.S. Eliot, the twentieth century's finest poet, loves allusion. He alludes to almost anything worth mentioning in the literary canon, religious texts, and all kinds of other stuff. But, when starting out the Wasteland, he appropriately chooses to point signs towards Chaucer. Anyone familiar with Chaucer will immediately see what Eliot is doing, but not only recall “the General Prologue,” but also see that as part of the fragmenting of reality that is Eliot's vision for the Post-WWI Wasteland, this invoking of Chaucer contradicts the thesis. From the first lines of “the Burial of the Dead:”

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

This is just the very beginning of Eliot's long, enigmatic poem, but it sets an important tone. This is a poem of deconstruction: reality deteriorates ever more rapidly in the various sections of the Wasteland. I think things really culminate in “the Fire Sermon” (part three).

So, between joy and death is what? A crime of passion, at least according to the book my professor was reading. I think this makes sense, for that would be a perversion of emotion that could have been joy, and that perversion leads to death. That synthesis is what I was at least toying with in my little poem, which is much more humble (in content, in length and in every other way) than that from which it draws.

Does that make more sense?


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