Stand on the highest pavement of the stair

Here we are reading TS Eliot’s “La Figlia que Piange”, which translates as “The Girl who is weeping”. Although the title is in Italian, the poem’s text is in English (Eliot is unusual in that he also wrote poems in French, quite proficiently). Eliot is in very many twentieth century poetry collections, and rightly so, as his poetry really seemed to move the needle in terms of language, references, eclecticism and poetic craft. However, sometimes I find that the balance between language and sensibility is too much weighted towards inventive use of words, leaving the emotional impact obscured.

But this is a poem where I don’t get that reaction, where emotion and feeling are conveyed. It is one of Eliot’s simpler poems, both in structure and language.
La Figlia che Piange
O quam te memorem virgo …
Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.
Source: Prufrock and Other Observations (1917)

From <;

For me, this poem captures the mystery of a moment, a mystery which will never be elucidated, but which will live on in the poetic imagination. The girl, with flowers in her hair, standing at the top of some steps, crying, is what the observer sees. The poet imagines the girl’s lover having left her, in a state of distress and hurt. Can he step in and comfort her? No, because that would destroy the spell of the mystery, but the last stanza points the way to immortalising the moment through imagination and poetry.

The simple descriptions and straightforward language make the power of this moment even more compelling. It is a fragment of life but still a powerful source of poetic inspiration.

The Poetry Dude


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