Eliot, Kipling and Intertextuality

Those familiar with T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’ will know that many of its lines echo earlier writers. For example,

But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring

recalls Marvell’s

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near

Indeed, Eliot helpfully provides notes to the poem identifying his sources, and he writes in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ that:

. . . the most individual parts of his (the poet’s) work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.

This is a special case of what Julia Kristeva, drawing on the work of the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, has termed intertextuality, to refer to the ways in which all utterances form part of a ‘chain of speech communication’. Bakhtin himself used the term heteroglossia to describe the way in which the language we all use is made up of voices and texts associated with different contexts and different social groups. Bakhtin also introduced the notion of double-voicing, in which language is recycled and used in new contexts. ‘The Waste Land’ illustrates this explicitly in the section entitled ‘A Game of Chess’, where the dialogue includes this example of speech in a London pub:

If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.

The scene ends with the landlord calling time, but the speech ends with a nod to Ophelia’s speech in Act IV, Scene v of ‘Hamet’:

HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that, in recently reading the first volume of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography ‘An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist’, I came across these lines from Kipling’s ‘The Long Trail’:

There’s a whisper down the field where the year has shot her yield,
And the ricks stand grey to the sun,
Singing: ‘Over then, come over, for the bee has quit the clover,
And your English summer’s done.

Readers of Eliot might find it has a familiar ring. Remember the opening of ‘Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat’?

There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying “Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start.

Similar metre and syntax. It can hardly be a coincidence.

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3 Comments

Filed under Language, Literature

3 responses to “Eliot, Kipling and Intertextuality

  1. KathrynM

    Well, sure. And MacAvity is pretty clearly Moriarty.

    Like

    • Indeed, and the lines

      ‘And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty’s gone astray,
      Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,’

      recall ‘The Adventure of the Naval Treaty’.

      Like

      • KathrynM

        Yup.
        I’ve always wondered about the Pekes and the Pollicles, which has a very strong flavor of Kipling; but I’ve never been able to pin it to a particular poem. “Belts” seems likeliest but they share nothing in terms of rhythm or rhyme scheme.

        Like

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