chapter  1
21 Pages

“The Death of Saint Narcissus”: A Poet’s Cautionary Tale

THE DEATH OF SAINT NARCISSUS” STANDS OUT-STYLISTICALLY, THEMATICALLY and intellectually-from Eliot’s earlier juvenilia. More primitive in form and polish than its highly rhetorical precursors, the playful freeverse poem describes, in detail, Narcissus’ sadomasochistic sexuality, equating religious “worship” with solipsistic vampirism. Meandering, composed of longer, unmetered lines and shorter, haphazard stanzas, “The Death of Saint Narcissus” is light years from the gynephobic set pieces of “Nocturne” and “Circe’s Palace,” or the rhetorical preciousness of “Spleen.” It provides a breath of fresh air to conclude Poems Written in Early Youth-if nothing else, its difference marks it as a turning point in Eliot’s poetic attention and it introduces images and ideas that Eliot returns to throughout his career. The poem previews, for instance, the characteristic tone and rhythm-the infamous “tom tom” beat-that Eliot develops in “Portrait of a Lady” and refines in his drama. “The Death of Saint Narcissus” serves as the boundary between Eliot’s juvenilia and his established poetic career-even as the border between waning romanticism and what we now call modernism.