‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’
-Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.
I’m intrigued by the image of the hyacinth girl but for some reason this passage has me stumped. I feel like I’ve hit a wall and can’t move forward. I’ve been stuck on it for a month now. All I have is questions and no answers. It’s a puzzle and I can’t seem to find a way in. So I’ll just pose questions—and perhaps a few thoughts as they come to me—and then wait to see if anyone can help to find a path through this passage.
Here we have another image of “memory and desire”. First, a speaker who remembers a moment in the past when the person she is addressing gave her hyacinths. The “first” suggests an ongoing relationship and hyacinths being bestowed on multiple occasions. Who is the “they” who called her the hyacinth girl? What is the significance of that title? Then in the next lines it is unclear if the speaker has changed. If the speaker is the same; perhaps she has shifted to an interior monologue instead of direct address? Or have we switched perspectives and are now hearing from the “you”? The “yet” seems to signal some sort of shift. The image of the girl (or is it the giver of the hyacinths?) with arms full and hair wet seems to be an image full of life, full of love; but strangely complicated with the inability to speak, to see, to know. In an indeterminate state, neither living nor dead.
And then that interesting image: “Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” Is this the blindness of looking into a light that is too bright so that it blinds the vision? Is it some sort of mystical experience? Or has the speaker become paralyzed because the possibility of intimacy is too frightening?
The final line returns us to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde: Oed’ und leer das Meer. Translation: “Desolate and empty the sea.”
In this scene Tristan lies on his deathbed, waiting for Isolde to appear. Her healing arts are his only hope for recovery. Wikipedia’s summary:
Kurwenal has brought Tristan home to his castle at Kareol in Brittany. A shepherd pipes a mournful tune and asks if Tristan is awake. Kurwenal replies that only Isolde’s arrival can save Tristan, and the shepherd offers to keep watch and claims that he will pipe a joyful tune to mark the arrival of any ship. Tristan awakes (“Die alte Weise – was weckt sie mich?”) and laments his fate — to be, once again, in the false realm of daylight, once more driven by unceasing unquenchable yearning (“Wo ich erwacht’ Weilt ich nicht”). Tristan’s sorrow ends when Kurwenal tells him that Isolde is on her way. Tristan, overjoyed, asks if her ship is in sight, but only a sorrowful tune from the shepherd’s pipe is heard.
I found this allusion particularly helpful in perhaps shedding light on what has gone before. The shepherd announces that the sea is empty and desolate: things look hopeless for Tristan for Isolde has not come. Yet in the next line Tristan awakes, recognizing the tune the shepherd is playing, He asks where he is and Kurwenal rejoices that he has been restored to life. However, this rejoicing is premature. Later in the scene Tristan dies with Isolde’s name on his lips. Tristan is home once more; but is not able to fully enjoy his homecoming. Instead, he has only come home to die. Later in the scene when Kurwenal rejoices that Tristan will recover, Tristan counters with a different vision of his fate:
Is that what you think?
I know differently
but I am not able to tell you.
Where I awoke,
there I was not,
but where I was
I cannot tell you.
I did not see the sun,
nor did I see land and people;
but what I did see
I cannot tell you.
where I had been before I was
and where I am destined to go,
in the wide realm
of the Night of the world.
But one certain knowledge
is ours there:
How did I cease to perceive it?
did I call you,
driving me on anew
towards the light of Day.
The one thing that I remembered,
a warm and ardent love
drives me from the terror of Death’s bliss
to see the Light,
which, deceiving, bright and golden,
still shines about you, Isolde!
(Kurwenal, in the grip of terror,
hides his face. Tristan
gradually raises himself up)
in the realm of the Sun!
In the shimmer of Day
To see her,
The crash that I heard
now once more it stands
the sun’s beams
have burst it open;
with wide open eyes
I had to emerge from Night
to seek her,
to see her;
to find her,
in her alone
has it been granted to Tristan.
Alas, there now rise up
pale and fearful,
Day’s wild urgings;
baleful and deceiving
rouses my mind
to deceit and folly!
with your light!
Will you for ever
be witness to my anguish?
Will it burn for ever,
which even at night
kept me from her?
When at last,
when, oh when
will you extinguish the spark,
that I may know my fortune?
The light – when will it be extinguished?
So many of the motifs from the Wasteland’s lines appear here, in the lines that follow the one Eliot quotes that I can’t think that Eliot means us to hear the echoes: In Tristan speech we also see memory and desire. Tristan is also a speaker who is not fully living or dead, his are eyes that fail he also has lost the ability to speak. His speech is full of images of light and of death. So is Eliot’s speaker in these lines that are bracketed by quotations from Tristan und Isolde meant to be Tristan? Or is he or she a modern echo of Tristan?
These lines certainly suggest a tragic love. And the operatic lovers who are moved more by magic than by natural passion, who are caught in a web of adultery and deceit, tie in with Eliot’s themes of defying nature or running counter to nature and of love which is somehow disordered and unfulfilled.
So maybe I’m not as at sea as I first thought. I think once again the allusions help to crack open Eliot’s imagery. Once again they are a sort of Rosetta stone. If we dig into the source material and look at the whole of it and not just the few lines Eliot quotes, then certain patterns become more apparent. I do think that Eliot wants us to do more than look at the few lines he quotes. His method is to use those lines to draw in the whole of the text, to allow that text in its entirety to inform our understanding of The Waste Land. The purpose of the allusions is to create resonances certainly, to inform our reading of his text; but I think it is meant to work the other way as well. I think that our readings of Eliot’s source texts is meant to be shaped by Eliot’s poem. We the readers are the wounded king (or the wounded knight or the wounded Tristan, I guess in this particular passage). As Eliot describes the wounded inhabitants of The Waste Land we are meant to recognize ourselves: Surely we too are wounded, we too are waiting for healing, wondering what can possibly save us.
We are meant to be drawn in to interact with the source texts in a more active way, to begin to use them in an act of architecture, to begin to shore up our ruins with the fragments, to allow the literature itself, the richness of it and the depths of it, to work on us, to be an antidote to the illness we are suffering from. The Waste Land is more than just a diagnostic, telling us what is wrong. It is also a prescription and if we allow Eliot to guide us, we will begin to take our own journey toward wholeness through the healing medium of poetry—not just Eliot’s poetry but the poetic tradition, our heritage, our roots, which we have forgotten, lost touch with.
(Oops a bit of a digression away from this particular passage and into thinking about the poem as a whole. But then it’s not a bad idea to go back and look at how the part relates to the whole when you start to get stuck, is it?)
But back to the passage.
I wonder if Eliot uses hyacinths specifically, rather than some other flower, to reference the myth of Hyacinthus, the youth who was beloved by Apollo and to whom after his death the god gave new life as a flower. I’ve seen it suggested that the story of Hyacinth is a metaphor of the death and rebirth of nature. I wonder if it is referenced in Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which Eliot attributes as his source for much of the Grail myth material he incorporates. Is that stretching it? Given how fond Eliot is of classical mythology and the epigram about the Sibyl, perhaps not.
Well, it seems I’ve found a lot more to say about this passage than I thought I would at first. Amazing how a bit of research can give you new insights. It’s getting a bit long and rambling so I think I’ll just publish what I have and see what you, my lovely readers, think about the hyacinth girl.