Summer Surprised Us—Blogging The Waste Land Part 6

Hofgarten

It has now been more than a month since my last Waste Land post. Eeep! I was planning to devote more time to them this Lent but so far have been distracted by other things. I’ve been sitting on this post for far too long so I’m just going to throw it up even though I don’t feel like I’ve said much.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

This eighth line marks a distinct turn in the poem. And not only the obvious one from winter to summer; but also a turn of tone and of speaker. It always surprises me a bit. (get it? surprises?) The first seven lines are so elevated. They exist in a kind of no-man’s land of poetic abstraction. The subject of the first sentence is “April” of the second sentence is “Winter” and there is no clear referent for the direct object, “us” so that it feels like a sort of generic “us”. But the “us” in line eight doesn’t feel generic at all. We aren’t sure who it is that was surprised by the summer; but we know where they were: Munich. The Starnberger See is the Bavarian capital Munich’s nearest lake. We aren’t sure who they are, this group of people who stopped in the colonnade and then moved on into the Hofgarten; but those actions are much more specific and rooted in a particular here and now.

Suddenly we’ve gone from death into the midst of life. We are no longer contemplating the cruelty of April and the paradox of winter. Now we are glimpsing a group of people, surprised by a summer shower, taking shelter, talking and drinking coffee. This is cosmopolitan, multi-lingual Europe of the upper class, if you’ll pardon a glance ahead to the line about “the archduke my cousin” The commentaries I’ve seen spend time trying to pinpoint the identity of the speaker. Is she a particular Marie? A member of the Bavarian royal family? Is her cousin the archduke Rudolph whose life ended in an apparent murder-suicide or is he Franz-Ferdinand whose assassination precipitated the first World War? I’m not sure I care very much about the speculation. Is there just one speaker here or are there several? In any case Marie is the first of many speakers in the poem. Or if you will return to the original title and the idea of “doing the police in different voices”, she is the first of many “voices” that the poem puts on.

The line in German here translates as: “I’m not Russian at all, I come from Lithuania, a true German.” It is the first of many lines in the poem that are untranslated from a variety of languages. (I don’t really count the epigraph and dedication, where an untranslated quotation raises few eyebrows.) Are the foreign languages there to merely seem impressive, erudite, and Continental? Is Eliot just showing off? Are they meant to be confusing and obfuscating? I don’t think so. Are they pointing to something more? Do they serve to heighten our awareness of fragmentation? Do they have something to say about the fragmentation of the literary tradition? About the increasing rootlessness of a modern people who no longer feel connected to their own history and traditions? Do they point to the Tower of Babel?

I’m still not sure what to make of this passage and the one immediately following. I have more questions than answers. One of the things that I am sure this project will highlight for me is exactly how fragmentary my own grasp of the poem is. There are many lines and passages that fit nicely into my mental map of the poem but there are many irritating bits that refuse to fit. It’s like one of those jigsaw puzzles with thousands of pieces. you always have a little pile at the side of the table that you aren’t sure what to do with.

What do you make of this bit of summer? Of Marie and the Hofgarten and the German speaker?

Photo credit: Hofgarten by siegertmarc, on Flickr

Next Post: And When We Were Children—Blogging The Waste Land Part 7
Previous Post:Winter Kept Us Warm—Blogging The Waste Land Part 5

Master Index of Waste Land posts.

9 Responses to Summer Surprised Us—Blogging The Waste Land Part 6

  1. In Need of Grace March 5, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    A very happy birthday to her! Your children are getting so big and they are all beautiful. Really. Good job, Mom!

  2. Kathryn March 5, 2012 at 1:28 am #

    Four! I love four. Many happy returns, Queen Sophie.

  3. Lydia March 5, 2012 at 2:12 am #

    Happy birthday to Sophie! She’s such a beautiful girl.

  4. Daria Sockey March 5, 2012 at 3:16 am #

    Happy Birthday to the Queen of the Birds. May her subjects serve her well.

  5. Katherine March 5, 2012 at 7:42 am #

    Time goes by too fast. Happy Birthday to Sophie!!!

  6. The Sojourner March 6, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    Happy birthday to Sophie!

  7. JOHN KEW August 16, 2018 at 2:58 pm #

    I’m afraid you understand nothing of the poem. You need to understand the context of 20th century upper class sentiment towards Slavs and Jews – the same viewpoint that brought the Nazis to power. It is overridden by the mental fragility and lack of assurance that reflects the period and Eliot’s own circumstances.

    • Melanie Bettinelli August 16, 2018 at 11:51 pm #

      Wow! That comment was needlessly combative and condescending.

      I’ve been pretty clear in these posts that I’m not here to explain the poem, but to feel my way into it, to ask questions and to seek answers. But while I agree that it would certainly be useful to know more about “the context of 20th century upper class sentiment towards Slavs and Jews” I believe that a text should also be able to stand being read on its own merits by a reader who is not highly informed about the historical context of the writer.

      I will grant that while I am not completely ignorant of the history of the 20th century and various tensions etc. there are nuances which I miss, not being a historian of that era, only having a moderately well-informed knowledge. But to say that I therefore “understand nothing of the poem” assumes that the poem can be distilled into a commentary on the 20th century upper class sentiment towards Slavs and Jews. But the poem is so much more than that. It’s a poem about faith and doubt, about modernity, about the Western tradition and the place of the modern man in that tradition, about post-war Europe, about sexual sterility, about the Grail myth and the Fisher King…. I think I know a little bit about the poem and understand parts of it very well indeed. Parts of it I’m still fumbling towards a greater understanding of. Alas, you comment did not actually shed much light on my reading of the poem, since you chose to make it into a personal attack instead of a conversation between two lovers of Eliot’s poetry who can share knowledge and understanding in a mutually beneficial manner.

      What’s amusing to me is that my blog post is full of disclaimers about my lack of knowledge, so it’s not like I’m claiming to be an expert or to trick the reader. I started off with a disclaimer about how I thought my post didn’t actually say much: “I’m just going to throw it up even though I don’t feel like I’ve said much”. I end with another disclaimer about my fragmentary knowledge of the poem: “I’m still not sure what to make of this passage and the one immediately following. I have more questions than answers. One of the things that I am sure this project will highlight for me is exactly how fragmentary my own grasp of the poem is. There are many lines and passages that fit nicely into my mental map of the poem but there are many irritating bits that refuse to fit. It’s like one of those jigsaw puzzles with thousands of pieces. you always have a little pile at the side of the table that you aren’t sure what to do with.” So given that context your tactic of throwing my ignorance in my face seems to be incredibly dense… almost like you didn’t actually read or comprehend what I wrote….

  8. A. Monymous October 30, 2018 at 4:49 am #

    Hi Blogger, this persons comment was just rude. People can get away with being rude on the internet, so rude people dof it. I wouldn’t take it to heart and certainly no need to defend yourself. I was surprised to see this rudeness here although it and worse proliferates in other places online. Thanks for your analysis anyway

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