T. S. Eliot and the Extended Chiasmus

Today’s Quote is a short poem by T. S. Eliot. It is the closest I have come to finding an embodiment of internal mirroring, or of the so called chiasmus.

A chiasmus, pronounced /kʌɪˈazməs/, from the Greek word meaning crossing or diagonal arrangement, is a figure of speech that repeats two ideas or grammatical structures in inverted order.

At its simplest and silliest it adds no meaning:

He dreams of success, and of success he dreams.

(Although, there are examples where this special case of chiasmus, also sometimes called antimetabole, is made to work to splendid effect; an oft-cited example is John F. Kennedy’s United Nations Speech in 1961, when he said: Mankind must put an end to war—or war will put an end to mankind. It’s clever, and it’s not something you come up with on the spot.)

Beyond the simplest inversion, chiasmus can use parallel word pairs to add meaning:

Loving is a celebration of life, just as living is a celebration of love.

Or it can pun on different meanings of a word:

The novel must be written, but also the writing must be novel.

At its most advanced, an extended chiasmus can invert ideas and images on a larger scale. Here is the poem; see if you can spot a chiasmus or two.

Eyes That Last I Saw in Tears by T. S. Eliot

Eyes that last I saw in tears
Through division
Here in death’s dream kingdom
The golden vision reappears
I see the eyes but not the tears
This is my affliction

This is my affliction
Eyes I shall not see again
Eyes of decision
Eyes I shall not see unless
At the door of death’s other kingdom
Where, as in this,
The eyes outlast a little while
A little while outlast the tears
And hold us in derision.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Clever, imperfect symmetry that allows for a sense of progression from one side to the other.

Here are a few instances of chiasmus that I noticed.

I see the eyes but not the tears
This is my affliction

This is my affliction
Eyes I shall not see again

Conceptually: he sees the eyes, this is his affliction, then he says this is his affliction that he shall not see the eyes again. Also, in terms of word order: I see — eyes vs eyes — I see. 

Next:

The eyes outlast a little while
A little while outlast the tears

The word order implies the symmetry, considering eyes and tears to be related.

There are a couple of other places where chiasmus could be argued, locally, but on a grand scale, the whole poem is mirror symmetric in a quirky, wonky way across the line break. The poem starts with Eyes that last I saw in tears, and ends with the idea that the eyes may be seen again (holding us in derision). In the first stanza, there’s deaths’ dream kingdom, in the second, death’s other kingdom.

I will not foist on you an interpretation of the poem, but, for a moment, think about those eyes, whose eyes are those? The eyes of a lover, a friend, of a conscience, of a deity? Privately, I am guided by the observation that I dominates throughout the poem, only for us to appear in the final line. What do you make of that?

What is at the core of the Quote?

Chiasmus, alliteration, rhyme, anaphora.

Alliteration and rhyme are best seen in the nouns used:

Eyes, tears, vision, division and decision and derision, death’s dream kingdom and door of death’s other kingdom, affliction and while.

Anaphora is the figure in which the same words begins consecutive clauses (in this case eyes.).

With the formalities out of the way, I indulged in a visual feast. Allow me to share it with you. Here are the nouns from the poem. Notice how the figures discussed above manifest themselves once the other sentence parts are removed.

Eyes that last I saw in tears
Through division
Here in death’s dream kingdom
The golden vision reappears
I see the eyes but not the tears
This is my affliction

This is my affliction
Eyes I shall not see again
Eyes of decision
Eyes I shall not see unless
At the door of death’s other kingdom
Where, as in this,
The eyes outlast a little while
A little while outlast the tears
And hold us in derision.

What about the verbs? There are surprisingly few, and they too show us the symmetries, as well as, the visual theme and the temporal component.

Eyes that last I saw in tears
Through division
Here in death’s dream kingdom
The golden vision reappears
I see the eyes but not the tears
This is my affliction

This is my affliction
Eyes I shall not see again
Eyes of decision
Eyes I shall not see unless
At the door of death’s other kingdom
Where, as in this,
The eyes outlast a little while
A little while outlast the tears
And hold us in derision.

Notice that the verb hold (independently of its idiomatic context) has a tactile component, but also denotes stasis, a lack of change in time. And, if you remember, hold is succeeded by us, the only plural pronoun in the poem. Therefore, the poem starts in the singular past, moves through the singular present into the singular future, to outlast time within the grasp of a plural, in derision.

All four images today cut from a photo by delfi de la Rua.


Reading & Listening Recommendations

  1. Collected Poems 1909–1962, T. S. Eliot. Because how could you not.
  2. T. S. Eliot reads his The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock on SoundCloud. Because it’s only 4 minutes 34 seconds, and it’s him reading it. It’s an experience.
  3. A detailed biography and bibliography of T. S. Eliot found on poetryfoundation.comBecause, to quote Northrop Fyre (the same way he is quoted in the biography): “A thorough knowledge of Eliot is compulsory for anyone interested in contemporary literature. Whether he is liked or disliked is of no importance, but he must be read.”

10 responses

  1. I looked up your discussion of the zeugma, but did not see a place to comment there, so I am doing that commenting here. Perhaps I read too quickly, but my sense is (and coming at the matter from French), the zeugma can go further than the examples you offered. Below I will copy from the French Wikipedia site. I think that even without a knowledge of French, or with help from Google Translate, you’ll see what I have in mind. The citations are telling. E.g. Gide: The sellers of drinks and of love. De Maupassant: Against her closed shutters Madame Massot knits, locked up in her room and in her deafness. It is the incommensurability of the two nouns that makes the figure dynamic. The French Wikipedia site stresses “two disparate terms.” Cordially, William Eaton, Montaigbakhtinian.

    Le zeugma (du grec ancien ζεῦγμα / zeûgma, « joug, lien ») est une figure de style qui consiste à faire dépendre d’un même mot deux termes disparates qui entretiennent avec lui des rapports différents, en sous-entendant un adjectif ou un verbe déjà exprimé. Il s’agit donc d’une forme d’ellipse. On distingue le zeugma syntaxique, quand le terme non répété est utilisé dans le même sens que déjà exprimé [« Il croyait à son étoile et qu’un certain bonheur lui était dû. »
    — André Gide], du zeugma sémantique, où le terme occulté est utilisé dans un sens différent de celui déjà exprimé [« Les marchands de boisson et d’amour. » — Guy de Maupassant. « Contre ses persiennes closes, Mme Massot tricote, enfermée dans sa chambre et dans sa surdité. »
    — Roger Martin du Gard]. Cette dernière figure, appelée également attelage, associe le plus souvent deux compléments d’objet, l’un de sens concret et l’autre de sens abstrait, pour un effet humoristique voire ironique. Il est proche de la syllepse de sens, de l’hendiadys, de la concaténation et de l’anacoluthe.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you very much for taking the time to make such a delicate point.

      You are entirely correct that zeugma covers the cases that you suggest, including “two disparate terms”.

      On my page Definitions: figures of speech, I include two separate figures, zeugma, and a type of zeguma called syllepsis. In particular, I say that zeugma is A figure by which a word is made to refer to more than one other word in the same sentence. A syllepsis is a type of zeugma, where the governing word is applied in different senses. I then link to syllepsis on the same page where I give examples similar to the De Maupassant and Gide.

      Syllepsis

      /sɪˈlɛpsɪs/

      Etymology: Greek, to take alike

      A figure by which a word is made to refer to more than one other word in the same sentence, either by being applied in different senses, or by being applied incorrectly in some instances. A type of zeugma.

      (1) She took the pill and his life. (literal and metaphorical meaning)
      (2) He staggered through the night and the task. (literal and metaphorical)
      (3) My dog and my brother is going for a walk. (grammatical incongruity)

      I understand that my choosing to make this distinction between zeugma and syllepsis may not be in keeping will all sources — primarily because all the sources do not agree. Some sources cite that the two terms are synonyms, some define them slightly differently. When I wrote “my” definitions I was following “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth, and Silva Rhetoricae (an online repository for all the rhetorical figures you can think of), where under zeugma, there is a comment: “Zeugma is sometimes used simply as a synonym for syllepsis, though that term is better understood as a more specific kind of zeugma: when there is disparity in the way that the parallel members relate to the governing word (as a vice or for comic effect).” Had I been following Lanham’s “A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms”, of the three examples above, only the last one would have been a syllepsis, and the other two would have been a zeugma; the literal/metaphorical vs grammatical incongruity is where Lanham draws the line between the two terms and avoids overlap.

      I’m not sure how these terms are treated in French; however, if you try looking at the English version of the French page Zeugma (stylistique), which is the one you quote, I believe, then you will see that it is titled “Zeugma and Syllepsis” and that it delineates the various types of zeugma and syllepsis. I haven’t studied the page, as I’d gone directly to the books on rhetoric.

      I hope my answer helped clarify the examples and definitions. If not, could I answer any further questions?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent!!!!… I haven´t heard of chiasmus and now I am thinking also of another great poem by Eliot: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. I can now recognize how this poetic device could appear there too. Great analysis. Truly interesting …. best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, great to hear you’re already looking for the next chiasmus. I’m forever stalking figures of speech in the wild. 🙂
      Haven’t checked in “Prufrock”, but wouldn’t be surprised if it did occur.
      Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So much to consider here, so much that is new. I love the wonderful terms created to describe such careful usage of language: chiasmus, anaphora… Your visual skeletons are fascinating. It raises the question that I often wonder about with poetry and music in particular: did Eliot create, make decisions, make word choices deliberately in order to achieve the word dynamics and the meaning of the poem? Or are they a natural consequence of his innate gift and of the meaning and effect he set out to create?

    The reading by him is superb! If I ever get to read the biography, which I would certainly like to do, I may well find the answers to those questions I’m posing!

    Thanks again for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think it’s a bit of both (deliberate choices and innate gift, or better put: gift honed deliberately). But you’re right, perhaps this was analysed in detail elsewhere.

      This post was so much fun: I had a general idea of what I’d find, but then I discovered so much more … It’s nice to hear you enjoyed the exploration as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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