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Sweeney at the Ambo

It is part of human nature for men to want to be heard; and while not all men enact this innate possibility of being, many do, and many have longed to, but not had the means.  Thus, with the advent of modern democracy came the right to free speech, which has often been celebrated and in many cases sapiently exercised.  Yet freedom is in all cases a double-edged sword, for it is easy mutilated into the enemy of liberty, license: a man is just as free to pursue the bad, being whatever he wants for himself, as he is the good, whatever is best for himself.  In the case of free speech, undoubtedly more good would come of it were the majority of the populace rightly educated not merely in how to speak, but in how to think; as it is, free speech can only be as good as that which goes into those who speak, and the average person is, sadly, educated very poorly.  And yet, despite such poor education, the capability of the average individual to publish his opinions freely, in a way that is available to everyone, has never been as easy as it is today: enter the age of the internet.  Again, this freedom can be good—indeed, Veritatis Praeco humbly attempts usage of the medium—but it can also be quite bad.  On the internet, anyone can be a painter, a rock star, a minor celebrity; everyone has the chance to pretend that he is an artist.  But what happens when someone attempts to be an artist without having any artistic talent?  Quite simply, he produces a piece of bad art.

Thus, when someone tries to make a name for himself through the internet as a critic, without having a keen critical eye, he is apt to producing bad criticism.  Such is the case with Dan Schneider, proprietor of the website Cosmoetica, which offers essays, literary and film criticism, and poetry written by the proprietor and his associates.  Who Mr. Schneider is, how he was educated, and what compliment Roger Ebert once gave him is irrelevant to the focus of this essay: namely, showing how Mr. Schneider’s criticism is undermined by the arrogance with which he approaches his subject.  One of the features on Cosmoetica is a section, “This Old Poem,” in which Schneider “re-writes” and thereby “improves” certain poems—many by talented and highly reputed poets—that he considers overrated.  Whether or not such can still be considered to be the same poems at all, for the sound-structure of a poem’s words and the particular signification achieved by the specific ordering of words is the construct through which the poem itself exists, is an interesting debate which will, however, not be taken up here; for regardless of whether or not the poem may continue to exist in a different, revised version or format, Mr. Schneider falls far short of producing such replication—to do so would require something he is lacking.  The revisions Schneider offers are based upon his critical interpretations of the poems.  However, a valid interpretation of any poem requires an accurate perception of the poem itself and a comprehension of what is being said, a task at which Schneider habitually fails.  This is blatant in Schneider’s take on T.S. Eliot’s subtle work, “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service.

A poem composed of eight stanzas typographically divided into two halves, containing sixteen lines each, Schneider reduces the tightly-woven work to a mere twelve lines in three stanzas, and effective eviscerates its meaning in the processes (the entirety of the “This Old Poem” entry can be seen here).  Looking at Schneider’s analysis piece by piece would be tedious and fruitless; he attempts to look at the poem line by line and construct some sort of meaning from an aggregation of the pieces.  The first stanza he claims is representing the delivery of a sermon to a distracted crowd, where the preacher is attempting to corral the wandering interests of the people.  He proceeds by stating that the second stanza postulates that the self-emasculated (literally) Origen was produced by “a lot of ecclesiastical nonsense.”  No analysis, but only a description of what is stated (the religious work of a painter), is offered for the third and fourth stanzas; similarly nothing more than a translation is given for the fifth and sixth stanzas.  The seventh stanza, which describes the hermaphroditic activity of bees, is taken as referencing the “layety.”  Another translation is offered of the eighth stanza, concerning the discomfort of Sweeney, Eliot’s “everyman” character, with the intellectual aloofness of the clergy.  The conclusion at which Schneider arrives is that the poem is claiming that “the Church is filled with effete foagies.”

Not only is this interpretation methodologically unsound (see “Hermeneutics and Continuity” in the forth-coming print issue of Veritatis Praeco, to be online in February 2010), but it, lacking any insight to the poem’s essence, fails to adequately discern even the particulars, and consequently fails to note the construction whereby the whole is achieved.  Criticism of such a poem, in which assertions concerning its meaning are made, can only be valid if first the poem itself is understood.  Contrary to Schneider’s flaccid interpretation of “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” as a critique of the clergy, the following interpretation will show that the poem is, in fact, better comprehended as an observation of the disconnect, the chasm of non-communication, between the metaphysical mind of the cleric and the sensuous mind of the common man.

T. S. Eliot

To deal with the first things first, let the initial four lines be examined.  Taking a hint from the poem’s title, the first half of the poem appears to be the content of a preacher’s sermon: the first quatrain his introduction.  Two questions should be asked by the inquiring critic: first, who could be considered the wise suppliers of prolific offspring of the Lord? and second, what is to be found on the windows of the place in which a sermon, namely a church, would be delivered?  The answer to both questions is the same: saints, so long as “polyphilogenitive” is taken in a spiritual, and not a physical sense.  The significance of the opening words of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word,” is not without ambiguity; in Greek, they read “En arche en o Logos;” in Latin, “In principium erat Verbum.”  Interestingly enough, in both ancient languages, the word translated into English as “beginning” (arche and principium) also means principle, as in that which makes other things to be as they are.  Eliot was well versed in both and, regardless of whether or not it was his intent, the linguistic roots of the Scripture reinforce the notion that the saints, whose spiritual fecundity the preacher is praising, have their roots, their inception, in Christ.

Moving on to the second stanza, one encounters again, the line “In the beginning was the Word,” (the beginning of a stanza, the end of a stanza; the alpha and the omega), followed by three lines which describe the mystery of the Incarnation and the Hypostatic Union—those things that are beyond even the deftest minds to fully comprehend, those things that sapped Origen, who willfully castrated himself, of his connectivity to this world and the things temporal.  Read literally, and by itself, it would seem that this stanza could be interpreted as indicating that Origen was driven crazy by the subtleties and nuances of the doctrines of faith and the questions of their reasonableness.  However, taken in the context of the poem as a whole, this seems out of place, and the interpretation proffered earlier in this paragraph is more fitting.

The third and fourth stanzas offer a description of a painter’s portrayal of the Baptism of Christ (of the Umbrian school—likely Raphael or Perugino); the work, the poet says, shows the wilderness surrounding the river as “cracked and browned,” doubly meaning that the painting itself is worn, fading.  In contrast, “through the water pale and thin / Still shine the unoffending feet.”  Christ, despite the ephemerality of this world and the failure of its attempts to create something permanent, continues unblemished, unending.  Christ, in the world is not of the world, a message corroborated by the painter setting above the other two persons of the Trinity.

The next three stanzas of the poem, which come after a typographical division, are abstract, and difficult. Superficially, the first two seem a mockery of the sacrament of penance, the third an attack against the heterosexuality of the supposedly emasculated, effeminate clergy.  This seventh stanza of the poem, however, is actually the key to understanding the whole; for what is the “blest office of the epicene”?  One may interpret the epicene to be referencing a total emasculation or a hermaphroditic quality; in describing the activity of bees, which receive pollen from the male organs (stamens) of flowers and deliver them to the female organs (pistils), it would logically reference the hermaphroditic.  But what would the clergy be transporting?  What hermaphrodism is had by the clergy?  What do they bring to the Divine, but the sinner’s penance, his “piaculative pence”?  What else do they bring to the penitent but the mercy of God?  Is not the hermaphrodism of the cleric a dual functionality in this world and in the sphere of the transcendent?

Of course, the final stanza, in which Sweeney, who is T.S. Eliot’s everyman, his undereducated proletarian, shifts “from ham to ham,” can now be seen rather ironically.  Sweeney does not understand the sermon of Mr. Eliot at his Sunday morning service.  The masters are masters of subtle schools; they are controversial, they are widely learned and erudite in that which they know; Sweeney is not.  He is merely sitting in the pew, uncomfortable, bored, the sermon sailing over his head—much like Eliot’s poem eluded the interpretative capabilities of Mr. Dan Schneider.

Perhaps this interpretation is flawed, faulty, and colored by religious, spiritual bias; perhaps it is realized only in the consciousness of those who desire poetry to have meaning and who respect poets of true linguistic comprehension.  Yet re-reading each poem, in light of the final analysis, it seems only more reasonable: the preacher speaks of the “sutlers of the Lord,” who consider and attempt to represent the transcendent, the divine, who lose some of their vitality in this passing world by contemplating the mysteries of the immutable world; he speaks of the “blest office of the epicene,” the hermaphroditic preacher who stands both partly in this world and partly in the next, passing between one world and the next, delivering man’s penitential prayers to God and God’s mercy to man.  All this, Sweeney cannot comprehend; and yet, in Schneider, who is merely a representative of a pseudo-intelligentsia, can be seen not merely Sweeney, but Prufrock and a Hollow Man as well; uncomprehending, full of “high sentence, but a bit obtuse,” and—though he thinks himself shouting theatrically from a secular ambo set upon the world’s new stage—he is hidden behind the curtain, merely whispering “quiet and meaningless;” his is a voice that will not resonate in the eternal.

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