Exploring The Waste Land - Commentary

William Empson on Eliot's ambiguity
Line 77

William Empson in his book Seven Types of Amibiguity writes "In second-type ambiguities two are more alternate meanings are fully resolved into one." In his second chapter he provides an example of using a word so that it could be either a participle or a verb. He then writes "Mr. T.S. Eliot provides a good example of this trick" and reprints the part of The Waste Land from line 77 to line 93. Empson then continues:

What is poured may be cases, jewels, glitter, or light, and profusion, enriching its modern meaning with its derivation, is shared, with a dazzled luxury, between them; so that while some of the jewels are pouring out light from their cases, others are poured about, as are their cases, on the dressing-table. If referring to glitter, poured may, in any case, be a main verb as well as a participle. There is a more trivial point of the same kind in the next line, where glass may stand alone for a glass bottle or may be paired with ivory ('vials of glass'); and unstoppered may refer only to glass, or to vials and glass, or to vials of glass and of ivory; till lurked, which is for a moment taken as the same grammatical form, attracts it towards perfumes. It is because of this blurring of the grammar into luxury that the scientific word synthetic is able to stand out so sharply as a dramatic and lyrical high light.

The ambiguity of syntax in poured is repeated on a grander scale by

Unguent, powdered, or liquid--troubled, confused,
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air . . .

where, after powdered and the two similar words have acted as adjectives, it gives a sense of swooning or squinting, or the stirring of things seen through heat convection currents, to think of troubled and confused as verbs. They may, indeed, be kept as participles belonging to perfumes, to suggest the mingling of vapours against the disorder of the bedroom; for it is only with the culminating drowned that we are forced either to accept the perfumes as subject of a new sentence, or the sense as an isolated word, perhaps with 'was' understood, and qualified by three participles. For stirred, after all this, we are in a position to imagine three subjects as intended by these; perfumes, sense, and odours (from which it could follow on without a stop); there is a curious heightening of the sense of texture from all this dalliance; a suspension of all need for active decision; thus ascended is held back in the same way as either verb or participle in order that no climax, none of the relief of certainty, may be lacking to the last. and indubitable verb flung.

Source: Empson (pp. 77-78).

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