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T.S. Eliot

By The Editors

T.S. Eliot, born on September 26th, 1888, was considered one of the twentieth century’s major poets—and not just because he wrote the poems that would become the libretto for the musical Cats. He also wrote acclaimed essays, plays, and poems like The Wasteland and Four Quartets, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

His famous “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” can be read in its entirety here, thanks to Poetry Magazine:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Download the PDF to read the rest of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”


The post T.S. Eliot appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

The Life of Forgotten Poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon

By Jessica Jacolbe

The newly published biography L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron,” written by literary critic Lucasta Miller, dives deep into the life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon. The book covers recent revelations about the poet, examining her legacy through a modern lens.

Landon was writing in Romantic-era England. She published novels and essays, but was known mostly for her sentimental romantic poetry, which appeared in literary annuals and magazines; in 1820, when she was 18, her first poem was published in London’s Literary Gazette. The following year, she published a book of poetry, The Fate of Adelaide, which sold well. Her work was attributed only to “L.E.L.,” and when her first poems were released her readers were fascinated by the mysterious poet. There was much speculation as to who the poet behind the initials might be before Landon was revealed as the writer. Literature scholar Glennis Stephenson notes that her poetry contained euphemisms for sex, allusions to passionate love, and “erotically suggestive images.” According to Stephenson, Landon purposefully created her writing persona, L.E.L., as a “poetic construction,” and was always keenly aware of the differences between L.E.L. and her actual self, even if her readers were not.

Landon understood instinctively her role as a female writer, and played with her audience’s perceptions. Through her poems’ narrators, she molded her image into what would be acceptable and appealing to the public, which in turn rewarded her with more attention. Literature scholar Jonas Cope writes, “Her interest, perhaps obsession, with the plight of personal interiority in a world of stifling fashionable exteriors makes sense when we consider that she rose to fame shortly after the ascension of George IV to the British throne.”

L.E.L. was considered a “poetess.” This gendered term for literary women of the Romantic era was a way to patronize their work as soon as it gained fame. Society and the literary critics of the time demanded a specific construction of female beauty, intelligence, and manner in which women should conduct themselves in public. Landon recognized the role of the female writer in her time and, since she needed to make a living, she took advantage. She had a keen understanding of the market and wrote what would sell. Cope goes on to write that this was why her poetry consisted of popular themes like love, death, and beauty.

Many critics argue that Landon fell victim to the literary market and only wrote to cater to a popular taste formed by the masses, never developing her own voice. Cope, however, disagrees: “[Landon] manipulates market forces to her own advantage. Doing so empowers her as a woman writer and literary entrepreneur.” Landon had agency over the work she was giving the audience and found power in it. In an 1832 article for The New Monthly Magazine, she wrote that the “best and most popular…poetry makes its appeal to the higher and better feelings of our nature.”

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Still, the public questioned her lifestyle and motives. Rumors abounded that she had had affairs and had borne illegitimate children. Scandal hounded her in London, until, as Stephenson writes,

the thirty-six year old Landon, wanting to escape scandals still simmering in London, made the disastrous decision to marry the saturnine George MacClean, Governor of the Gold Coast; three months after this she was dead in Cape Coast Castle, possibly a suicide, but more likely—and surely more appropriately—murdered.

Stephenson then acknowledges that this melodramatic reading of Landon’s death—after all, some scholars have suggested the poisoning of Landon may well have been accidental—is in line with Landon’s readers who confused her life with the drama of her poems.

How easy it is to repeat the errors of her contemporaries, to confuse Landon with L.E.L. and conclude that the poet finally became too caught up in her own myth, in her own creation, that her sordid demise was the result of a desire to live out the exotic life of which she wrote. But Landon’s work repeatedly denies us any such neat conclusions.

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The Posthumous Mystique of Thomas Chatterton

By Matthew Wills

Once upon a time, Thomas Chatterton was the famous dead poet. Chatterton (1752-1770) had already been dead for decades when he was taken up like a kind of mascot by the Romantics, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron.

For them, Chatterton—who famously killed himself a few months before his eighteenth birthday—was the quintessence of the tormented, misunderstood, starving poet who dies alone, young and unknown. He was the prototype of the teenage poète maudit long before Rimbaud.

Chatterton’s suicide fit with the Romantic sense of tragedy. That he might not have killed himself was beside the point. In his re-evaluation of Chatterton’s work, cultural historian Ivan Phillips notes that Chatterton may have died by accident, taking too much of what passed for medicine for his venereal disease. But Chatterton’s posthumous legend made it suicide, the epitome of the much more recent adage “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” This was, after all, the era of the pan-European phenomenon of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther’s fictional suicide had inspired a spate of actual youthful copycats.

Whatever Chatterton’s cause of death, when he died he “left behind a massive body of ‘acknowledged’ poems, letters, sketches, dramas, and essays, and an only slightly smaller body of poems, letters, sketches, dramas, and essays purporting to be by (or translated from) a cast of historical figures […].” Many of these forgeries were said (by Chatterton) to be written by a fifteenth-century monk named Thomas Rowley, so they’ve been called the “Rowley poems” ever since.

Phillips notes this divide in Chatterton’s work: “authentic but dull on one side, forged and fascinating on the other.” The reams of Chatterton’s work under his own name “have rarely been anyone’s concern,” but the fakes caused “learned dispute and extravagant enthusiasm (though precious little critical analysis) almost before the author was cold in his workhouse lime-pit.”

After all, this was the eighteenth century, the “golden age of literary forgeries” calling upon an imagined past, using that imagined past to create new traditions. The Ossian poems were the most famous of these. Even Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1749), the first Gothic novel, purported to be a translation of a text from a sixteenth-century Italian named Onuphrio Muralto.

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Chatterton didn’t merely write a few pseudo-medieval poems. He forged entire manuscripts. These, writes Phillips, were “forgeries in the strictest sense, reproductions of nothing, they are ready-mades that were assembled but never found, neither copies nor—according to any traditional understanding—originals.” The precocious Chatterton’s fake oeuvre is made up of “distressed parchment, singed and sooty, waxy, ragged, ink-blotted, fragile.” Philips goes on to describe them as “complex tactile and visual objects which revolt against print culture because they are both chimerical—they are forgeries of things which never existed—and unrepeatable.” Modern spellchecking software, he suggests, would melt down when tasked with Chatterton’s work.

“Rarely in print, infrequently read, critically untended,” Chatterton was almost all myth for the Romantics. Wordsworth, who was born the year Chatterton died, apostrophized him as “the marvelous Boy/ The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.” Then the reputation-tidying Victorians got their hands on him. He was “cleaned up by the Victorians, all but cleared away by the twentieth century.” Yet Phillips finds Chatterton’s body of ersatz Medievalism surprisingly relevant in our own age. In Chatterton’s pre-modern work he finds both modernity and post-modernity, and a fascinating example of “the cultural force of forgery in general, and a uniquely adaptable politics of style.”

The post The Posthumous Mystique of Thomas Chatterton appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

Ruth Page, the Ballerina Who Danced Poems

By Erin Blakemore

During World War II, art was a balm to homefront audiences desperate for a distraction from the war and eager to fill their inner worlds with strength and courage. It’s no wonder, then, that people loved to see Ruth Page perform. The influential American ballerina wasn’t performing beloved ballets. Instead, as dance historian Joellen Meglin documents, Page performed Dances With Words and Music: an ambitious hybrid of dance and spoken poetry.

According to Meglin, Ruth Page was an independent spirit with a knack for marrying emotion with pragmatism. Meglin documents how Page, along with her dance partner Bentley Stone, interpreted the poems of Dorothy Parker, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, Ogden Nash, and others, reciting their poetry while performing choreography on stage. When Stone was drafted into World War II, Page choreographed and performed the show herself.

She performed using a hybrid of classical and modern dance techniques. The show included both lighthearted and serious poems, and she also performed a kid-centered version that focused on poems written just for children. Page, who was already an influential figure in ballet at the time, took her show on the road, primarily performing to groups of women in “awful” facilities. Her performances mixed and matched poetry based on the anticipated audience, and she tested different poems while on the road. “The biggest hurdle for Page seems to have been getting key people to believe that her danced-poems experiment would result in a sustainable new performance format,” Meglin writes. Page focused her performances on Midwestern and Southern locations, where audiences were thrilled to have a New York dancer visit.

Not every review was positive. Meglin tracks the ways in which critical reviews echoed those lobbed at the very poets whose work Page interpreted. Meglin sees Page’s performances as a way of “feminizing” the poems’ meanings. By literally embodying the poets’ words, Page pioneered a new way of interpreting poetry.

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And she did so during a time that was difficult for women performers. World War II had removed male figures, and their sometimes necessary support, from the American stage. The self-reliant Page figured out a way to sustain a career during a hard time for dance. She also gave women in the audience an outlet and a chance for self-reflection, Meglin notes—creating a kind of “victory garden” she could tend herself.

Page went on to specialize in choreographing Americana-style ballets that are still being performed today. In her 1991 obituary in the New York Times, she was celebrated as a “proudly American choreographer”—a dynamo for whom Dances With Words and Music was just one moment in a long and ambitious life.

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