for the Masses:
When T.S. Eliot reviewed the Hogarth Press edition of Gertrude Steins Composition as Explanation in January 1927, he blasted Stein as "ominous," someone who is "going to make trouble for us," and "of the barbarians." What exactly did Eliot see in Steins writing that led him to perceive her as such a threat to modern literature?1 One element of the answer can be explored by comparing the use of repetition in Steins writing with a figure one perhaps would not expect, the seventeenth century British Reverend Lancelot Andrewes. In his 1926 essay "For Lancelot Andrewes," Eliot extols the literary merits of Andrewess sermons, focusing in particular on the relationship between repetition and memory: "In this extraordinary prose, which appears to repeat, to stand still, but is nevertheless proceeding in the most deliberate and orderly manner, there are often flashing phrases which never desert the memory" 2 (FLA, 22). In stressing the relationship between repetition and movement forward, Eliots description of Andrewes sounds remarkably similar to how one might describe Steins own style. Indeed, several poets who were Eliots contemporaries did just that. Writing in 1926, the same year as Eliots essay on Andrewes, Marianne Moore judged that in Steins writing, "Repeating has value then as a way to wisdom."3 Four years later, William Carlos Williams would refer to Steins "very apparent repetitiousness" as "the final clue to her meaning."4
What is it in Andrewess use of repetition that sets him apart from Stein? Two selections from Andrewess sermons which Eliot cites as exemplary cases of repetition shed light on their differences. Eliot thought enough of the first to (mis)cite it in "Gerontion":
In this line, Andrewes uses the classical trope of antanaclasis, repeating a word while subtly bending its meaning away from the previous signification. Here Andrewes shifts between several different meanings of the noun "word." Since Andrewes originally preached this line as part of his 1618 Nativity Sermon before James I, one can infer that his use of "word" refers to the problem of the Verbum infans, the question facing Mary and Joseph of what to name the baby Jesus, expressed more clearly in Andrewess original phrasing "the Word without a word."5 Yet the spatial paradox of Eliots adapted "The word within a word" suggests other possible meanings, evoking the classical idea that each word is composed of both a sound component and a semantic component, what the Stoics called the signans and signatum of the signum, and Saussure the signifier and signified of the linguistic sign. As the sound component is necessarily external by virtue of its material audibility, "word within a word" would seem to point to the internal, hidden "meaning" within the sign. "Unable to speak a word," however, shifts the signification again to the sense of "word" as articulated soundthe Stoic signans or Saussurian signifier. In Andrewess skillful hands, antanaclastic repetition is no game, but rather serves the serious purpose of reminding the members of the church, and especially the king, that mortal language can never encompass the true spiritual meaning of the divine logos. Repetition is the only literary trope available to Andrewes capable even of approaching the unspeakability of the holy word.
And yet if T.S. Eliot admired Lancelot Andrewess use of antanaclastic repetition to the point of including it in his own poetry, then why could he not stomach its use by Gertrude Stein? An example from "Sitwell Edith Sitwell," one of Steins portraits printed along with the lecture "Composition as Explanation" in the volume Eliot reviewed, offers a revealing comparison with Andrewes. Her titles shift from the imperative to the proper noun sense of "Sitwell" sets the mirthful tone of Steins text, where she plays with antanaclasis throughout. The following line is a typically exuberant example:
Like Andrewes, Stein repeats a noun multiple times within her sentence. But the meaning of Steins "table" does not necessarily bend in exactly the same manner as Andrewess "word." Steins antanaclastic repetition has a distinctly grammatical orientation. In her repetitions of the noun "table," she makes no attempt to explore different significations of "table" as a noun; her verbal play does not take place at the level of the signified. Steins table is just that, a table. Her writing explores the range of grammatical uses possible for the morpheme "t-a-b-l-e." In this sentence, for example, Stein places "table" alternately in the position of subject ("Table table to be,") verb ("to table,") and predicate ("to see table"). Table serves as the object of a preposition ("to table"); as the object of a verb ("to see table"); and as the object of a personal pronoun ("table to me"). It is only these grammatical combinations which suggest alternate significations in different contexts, such as a childs birthday wish ("Table table to be") or the movement of a social butterfly at a dinner party ("table to table to table").
What Steins portrait utilizes that Andrewess sermon does not is sound as a device to throw the signifying chain forward. In this sentence, she lets rhyme prompt her next move, as "to be" leads to "to see" and "to me." Homonymic punning also prompts the reader to hear meanings not dictated by denotation or convention, as "table" easily slides into "to be able," with "table to be" hinting at the wishful "to be able to be." If Andrewes repeats to the point where he is "unable to speak a word" to show the impossibility of language to ever be commensurate with the mysteries of faith, then Stein repeats in order to reveal the heuristic pleasure of wordplay. The greatest joys in her writing are discovering new possibilities for how words can create meaning. Steins play turns antanaclasis into paronomasia, uncovering unnoticed links between sound and meaning. Her repetition works in the spirit of Puttenhams elegant definition of the Latin trope of repetitio: "When we make one word begin . . . and lead the dance to many verses in suit."7 Steinian repetition explores the phonic pleasures of the signifier, not the spiritual gravity of the signified.
But how is this different from what Eliot commends in Andrewess use of language? A different repetitive device Eliot highlights in Andrewes helps illustrate the difference:
Here Andrewes plays off the permutations of the verb "to accept," moving from its participial adjective ("accepted") to its verbal adjective ("acceptable") to its verbal substantive ("accepting") to its adverb ("acceptably"). Andrewes comes as close as a writer in an uninflected language like English can come to polyptoton, the Greek trope of repeating a word in different cases or inflections for poetic effect. Yet Andrewes uses the repetitive force of polyptoton not to impress aesthetically but to persuade. He plays on "accept" only within the teleological framework of a hortative subjunctive clause, established by the sentences opening "Let us then make..." Because Andrewess polyptoton is firmly subordinated to his sentences hortatory push, it does not function as play but as a means to reinforce meaning, in this instance to convince his listener to accept divine grace. And what does Eliot admire in Andrewess writing but that "he will not hesitate to hammer, to inflect, even to play upon a word for the sake of driving home its meaning"? (FLA, 23) Eliots very insistence on the possibility of "driving home" a words meaning implies that each linguistic sign possesses a univocal identity, one immutable signification which the writer reveals. Linguistic play, figurative language, rhetoric, matter only to the extent that they add force to meaning.
Steins writing does not establish the same hierarchy of meaning over play. A series from "The fifteenth of November" shows how she uses polyptoton differently from Andrewes:
In playing with variations of the verb "to play," Stein jumps from past perfect to present conjugated form, then continues by sliding assonantly from "plays" to "says" to "access." Present and past perfect are reversed in the second sentence, leading to the shared sibilant endings of "access" and "impress." Stein works with language not as an ideal but as an actuality. Language is something with which we play; we have access to it; we may impress; we may acquiesce; we may make mistakes. Is this all that her sentence says, however? Is it just a phonic game? While sound is one factor connecting Steins verbs, it does not overrule signification. Thinking of the context in which Stein wrote "The fifteenth of November," this passage could refer to Stein the writer who plays with language, gains access to an important editor, impresses him, gets him to acquiesce and publish her, and then feels that she has made a mistake. Or was it he who made the mistake? The passage could also have a darker undertone of sexual violence, as a person who plays, gives someone else access, and acquiesces sexually, can realize later that they have made a mistake. Steins exploration of phonetic interplay does not reject that language has meaning, but rather challenges the possibility of ever being able to "drive home" one univocal meaning. Repetition shows the impossibility of ever achieving perfect linguistic closure, no matter how skillfully the rhetorician may hammer at it.
In trying to understand what T.S. Eliot looked for in a writer at the time he reviewed Gertrude Stein in January 1927, his 1926 essay on Lancelot Andrewes is one invaluable piece of evidence. A second, and the clearest illustration of how Eliot saw his own writing at this moment, is his January 1927 Enemy response to a review of his own poetry, I.A. Richardss reading of "The Waste Land" in his "A Background to Contemporary Poetry" article. Richards complimented Eliot on what he considered to be the "two considerable services for this generation" Eliot offers in "The Waste Land." The first was Eliots unique ability to capture "a perfect emotive description" of the modern state of mind after science has neutralized our natural emotional responses, the moment, in Richardss metaphor, when our "thirst for the life-giving water . . . seems suddenly to have failed."8 To Richards, "The Waste Land" alone among poems spoke to the desiccated, dissociated state of modern feeling.
While Eliot was honored by Richardss praise, he strongly protested its logic, for Richards credited Eliots power to match description and emotion to a "complete severance between his poetry and all beliefs." Though he agreed with Richardss diagnosis of the threats to poetic sensibility in the modern world, Eliot did not accept that conscious dissociation of poetry from belief was the cure, but rather the very crisis which modern poetry must confront. In his response to Richards, Eliot explained his disagreement:
Eliots essay on Andrewes and his response to Richards are two of the best illustrations of his mindset at the time he reviewed Stein. Shortly after he expresses his admiration for Andrewess ability to use style to "drive home" meaning, he condemns a writer who uses nearly identical stylistic techniques, yet who refuses to direct them toward semantic closure. At the same time he declares that poetry can never be separated from belief, he must confront a writer who makes no pretense to believe in anything except that writing should go on, and certainly does not accept that modern writers can live "parasitically" on the "minds of the men of genius of the past." That her writing does not turn to the past but works exclusively in the present is perhaps her greatest violation of what Eliot believed was important in literature. Because she is a writer offering other aspiring writers a new explanation of how to compose, Gertrude Stein threatens the literary tradition itself. By introducing a new writing logic based on the transitive parts of speech, phonetic affinity, rhythmic and syntactic flow, and the constant movement forward of repetition, Stein creates the foundation for a counter-tradition which will not define itself according to the principles of the existing "ideal order." And if Gertrude Steins remarkable achievements with repetition in "Sitwell Edith Sitwell," "The fifteenth of November," and her entire body of work teach us anything, it is that repetition is not to be feared, but to be celebrated as creation itself.
1 T.S. Eliot, "Charleston, Hey! Hey!" The Nation & Athenaeum, 29 January 1927. Eliots title is a reference to Rose Macauleys "Im Gona Charleston Back to Charleston," from her Catchwords and Claptrap, one of the four books he discusses in his review along with Composition as Explanation, John Rodkers The Future of Futurism, and Basil de Selincourts Pomona: or the Future of English. [back to text]
2 T.S. Eliot, "For Lancelot Andrewes" in For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on style and order (1928; London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1970) 22. Cited in the text as FLA. [back to text]
3 Marianne Moore, "The Spare American Emotion," Dial 80 February 1926, 156. [back to text]
4 William Carlos Williams "The Work of Gertrude Stein," first published in Pagany 1, no. 1 January-March 1930; reprinted in Selected Essays (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1954), 118. [back to text]
5 Eliot misquotes Andrewess original phrase, "the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word." [back to text]
6 Stein, "Composition as Explanation," in Composition as Explanation (London: Hogarth Press, 1926), 47. When cited in quotation marks, "Composition as Explanation" refers to the text printed in the Hogarth Press edition; when cited in italics, Composition as Explanation refers to the volume itself; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page number and abbreviated CE. [back to text]
7 George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. A. Walker and G.D. Wilcock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936), 198. [back to text]
8 I.A. Richards, "A Background to Contemporary Poetry," The Criterion III:12, July 1925, 520. [back to text]
9 T.S. Eliot, "A Note on Poetry and Belief," The Enemy I, 1927, 16-7. [back to text]
BIO: Edward Lintz is a graduate student in the Comparative Literature Department at Yale University. He is writing a dissertation on Gertrude Stein's reception in England, France and America. Forthcoming articles will appear in Comparative Literature and Avant-Garde Critical Studies.