…The poet loves that someone loves his shadow: this is the poet’s pride…
All this talk of pride and stone calls to mind an aphorism from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books:
Even if one cannot hew a house out of a granite cliff, one could perhaps hew the ruins of a house out of it at no very great expense, so that posterity would be forced to believe a palace had stood there.
The poet is a constructor of ruins (would Eliot like this formulation?). He may wish to hew a house, to carve his grand project from the raw cliff of the tongue, but the expenses—solipsism, exhaustion, rejection, (madness perhaps)—are too great. Time is well spent instead on the delicate crafting of shambles. Let all who hear or read rebuild the world that was never there to begin with.
As the poet himself implies: the glory goes to whoever can scrap together the best nest. (XI:99)
Don’t be fooled by all the tiers, the terraces, the cornices. This is no complete world. Only a couple of poets climbing a pile of stones and prayers ringing in the air.
Prayer, in the marvelous phrase of the philosopher Jean-Louis Chrétien, is the wounded word. It is an act that opens a gap, that tears the subject, by putting one in a place that is other than oneself, before God. Chrétien (in The Ark of Speech) discusses the way in which the voice is the element, in all of speech, which does not belong to us. It is always out before us, circulating in the world outside of us. In prayer we offer what we do not possess. Chrétien: ‘The human voice becomes a place in which the world can return to God.’
The canto begins in medias preces—in the thick of prayer. The prideful, cowed under slabs of rock, offer their paternoster. In this way they are each an Atlas, hoisting the world up to the sun. Except it is their voices that bear the world, not their backs. The prideful must give back what they never had in the first place, and prayer is the vehicle for returning stolen goods. Another way of saying this—returning stolen goods—is giving thanks.
It is here, in Canto XI, that I sense a crucial distinction between the poet and the pray-er.
The poet offers up his carefully hewn ruins and requires posterity to contrive the palace. The one who prays, at the very first Our Father, shoulders the entire world back to God.
The poet must bring his tiresome chisel to bear (terza, terza, terza) on the granite and wait for posterity to award its laurels; the pray-er heaves the whole slab of his voice in a direct line to the One who has hewn the world and causes all laurels to brown and grass to wither.
Perhaps this is why the poet stoops down to the level of the prideful supplicant to ‘better know his state’: he wishes to return with a measure of that world-hefting humility.
I fear the poet can never pray and remain a poet.