I’m going to skip ahead a few chapters in the Intro To Poetry textbook (7th ed. Kennedy) to the chapter on Symbol (unless you really want a long, drawn-out discussion of Iambic Pentameter – yeah, me neither).
The opening to this chapter is quite interesting. It talks about conventional symbol versus literary symbol. A conventional symbol is something that has simply bubbled up through mass subconscious of our culture. Symbols like a four-leafed clover which is considered lucky or a black cat which is considered unlucky. Some conventional symbols are more consciously driven by the culture at large like a flag or the state bird. An apple might be chosen to represent my state’s agriculture given that it is the predominant product of it. The same can be said for the salmon.
A literary symbol is a symbol that can only be derived from the story it was created in. An example is Melville’s white whale in the book Moby Dick. It’s a symbol for the devil, or an obsession that leads to one’s own downfall. It can also be a symbol for the evil other, that which we don’t try to understand, we just try to destroy. In other words, it can mean a lot of different things most of which you read your own interpretation into. That is the second definition of literary symbol. It has some interpretations that the author has lead you to (white whale equals bad and obsession), but then there are many depths in which you can read into it subjectively. Is the whale evil or is the obsession?
In Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “the Raven” a bird stumbles into the study and this warns the narrator of some impeding foreboding. But Kennedy points out “does the bird mean death, fate, melancholy, the loss of a loved one, knowledge of evil?” The list could actually go on.
In Eliot’s poem, “the Boston Evening Transcript”, the poet likens the readers of that paper to “a field of ripe corn” they sway as the wind blows on them. They symbolize those people who are dried and desiccated, who have little substance. The Transcript itself becomes the symbol of everything lifeless and waning, “When evening quickens faintly in the street,/Waking appetites of life in some/And to others bring the Boston Evening Transcript.” So when evening comes for some, it brings a party and for others (the boring ones) it brings this paper.
It’s kind of a flat monotone poem – boring – and perhaps that’s intentional to highlight the lifelessness of the readers of this paper which was famed for only reporting on the lives of the rich in Boston, most of the pages were dedicated to the obituaries.
La Rochefoucauld was an entertainer in Parisian society who had many cynical critiques of Louis XIV. While his people were out living the life of bohemians, the rich, aristocratic, the bourgeois were safely tucked in their silken, goose-down filled, lace-trimmed (gold trimmed) beds. The rich would grow richer doing very little with their days, while the poor worked hard and starved. The rich would admire the poor and their strong sense of character, but have little idea why they were so resented. Perhaps they needed to build a little character of their own.
I don’t know who Cousin Harriet is, she must be one of the clueless readers of the Boston Evening Transcript who don’t understand why the poor struggle so (life is so very easy – when you have rich relatives) or why they envy and hate her. She’s never done anything to them. Oh, to be so lacking in imagination, must be a nice luxury to have.
The Boston Evening Transcript
by T.S. Eliot
The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
When evening quickens faintly in the street,
Wakening the appetites of life in some
And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to La Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the end of the street,
And I say, “Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript.”