Poetry Friday: 1942, part 3

I finish now the series on T. S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets which was begun in May; last week, I mused on the first four sections of the final quartet, “Little Gidding“, and today I’m back, as promised, to wrap up with one of the stretches of poetry I like best of the stuff I’ve read.  I’m going to share two big excerpts from this last section, and talk a little about why I love them, and why I think they successfully conclude the project Eliot has been working on, at this point, for years.  Again, more than anything else, I hope my posts are nudging you to pick up the Four Quartets somewhere and read them yourself.  There’s a lot there, and I don’t imagine that my interpretations are the only ones, or the best ones, necessarily.  Here’s one excerpt from “Little Gidding” that has always moved me:

“Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.”

The meditations on time that Eliot began in “Burnt Norton” were steps out into a larger world—he opens with the idea that “time present and time past / are both perhaps present in time future“, and the dizzying logic of that first section of Norton unfolds the possibilities inherent in time.  Time seems to burst outwards and allows us to move in all directions.  But here in Little Gidding, Eliot is drawing things back together.  I love the clarity of his focus on words here—on the idea that all of the things we write and say are limits somehow.  They mark our time, carving it up into the space before something is said and the space after it, and ultimately words and actions and everything we do will take us to mortality, which Eliot seems to envision as a great martydom, the saint beheaded or set aflame, the prophet cast into the sea and the forgotten sage whose monument crumbles to dust.  But Eliot’s phrasing avoids, for me, any sense of sorrow or loss here: he confronts death as a great tidal motion much like time, and somehow we go out and come back with the dead in a sojourn that seems to be going somewhere.  I can feel its importance between the lines.  Eliot wants us to cast loose from our temporary physical existence and see the world in a new way—through the lens that acknowledges that the frail petals of a single summer and the strong boughs that have seen a hundred summers are somehow the same.  Time is something mysterious here, malleable and able to be commanded.

I confess, I don’t know what it means that a history-less people is not redeemed from time, no more than I know what it means that history is “a pattern of timeless moments”.  But I can feel the truth in Eliot’s fading winter twilight (what a perfect and gorgeous image for this last benediction of the quartets).  England means something to him more than England the physical place or the government or society.  It was the home he looked for and found, it was a road that led him back into a past he found he could encounter, and here in 1942 it is a bulwark against dark forces and a hope that has been sustained through the lonely months when the storms of Europe raged.  “History is now and England” is a secret language that Eliot alone knew how to speak, but it resonates with me, because I think Eliot is trying to show us the great connectedness of the particulars of our lives, our hopes, our experiences, and the world of human experience.  As he said in the final section of the second quartet, “East Coker“, “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living. Not the intense moment / Isolated, with no before and after, / But a lifetime burning in every moment / And not the lifetime of one man only“.  He is trying to sustain both the delight of our particular lives and our selfhood and the wonder of the pulse of life that unites us all somehow, across time and space and every other kind of boundary.  And then he kicks it into another gear entirely:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”

This is why the Four Quartets, taken as a whole, deserves a place among the greatest of the explorer’s poems, for me: as great as Homer’s Odyssey and all those poets inspired by it, Tennyson with his “Ulysses” and Cavafy with his “Ithaca” and W. H. Auden with his zany “Atlantis”.  The journey we began in “Burnt Norton” by following the echoes through the door we did not open into “our first world” is ended here in that unexpected outcome—the echoes have led us around the great circle and we are back at the door again, but now we see it and understand what the journey was for.  Our travels have built in us an ability to understand that the one thing we knew all along is the one thing we will have to learn anew.  We started, as I said, by going through the door we did not open; we end by returning to the gate we do not know and have not remembered.  This experience is core to much of our art—when I think of the works I like best, “homecoming” is an element in many of them, especially the unlooked-for arrival, the happy shock of rediscovery.  For me, all these images begin to work together across the poems—the voice of the hidden waterfall at the source of that longest river (Time?) seems to me to be the echo that called to me through the unopened door at the beginning of these poems, and even the murmur of the children in the apple tree whose voices can barely be heard “between two waves of the sea” reminds me (maybe spuriously, but it does) of the human voices that Eliot’s anti-hero, Prufrock, thinks will wake him to drowning while he swims with the mermaids at the end of his “Love Song”, Eliot’s first great work.

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich is the source of, among other things, “all manner of thing shall be well”—her theology of optimism and love (and her embrace of the femininity in God) was about eight centuries ahead of her time, unfortunately for her. (Photo credit: Flickr user “rocketjohn”)

What we capture in this last sweep of our eyes and ears, beyond the waterfall and the voices of the children and the long river running to the sea, is I think almost perfect as poetry—the sense of immediacy and eternity co-existing, the complete simplicity we can gain only by submitting all things to its purpose, the gentle cry of Julian of Norwich that there is no thing that can by stumbling fail to reach the joy of its ultimate purpose.  The symbolism of the fire and rose, and the infolding Pentecostal flames into a crowned knot, is I think both easily explored (there are plenty of critical commentaries, at least) and deeply personal to Eliot.  To me it resonates backwards into the rest of “Little Gidding”—the destructive fire that made ashes of the air and swallowed the town in the poem’s second section is also (in the fourth section) the divine fire that descends from Heaven on Eliot and the “intolerable shirt of flame” that Love imposes on us (in an echo of the myth of the death of Hercules) which we cannot remove, and somehow in the end it joins with the rose in a way that does not consume it but fulfills it.  There’s an immense peace to this finale that I’ve loved since the first time I read it, I think in part because Eliot makes us so sure that there is a happy ending to this world we inhabit, and in part because he strikes the perfect level of ambiguity and obscurity for me with his poetry.  His word are at once both easy for me to identify with and hard for me to explain or interpret—in fact, the images that mean most to me are often the ones I can do the least to comment upon.

I’ll take on something less demanding next week—something maybe easier to take in all at once, and certainly something that requires less quotation and allusion from me.  I know that a lot of people aren’t as taken with Eliot as I am, and especially that Eliot’s late career move into this kind of symbolism and metaphysical musing is as unpopular with some folk who like his early work as it is welcome to me (who finds it hard to enjoy his early stuff as much as I’d like to).  I’m glad some of you have some along on this journey, though, and hope you’ve gotten something out of it.  If anybody read one or more of the quartets and has anything to say about it, I hope you’ll share in the comments: thanks!

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Poetry Friday: 1942, part 2

We’ve finally gotten to the end of a journey begun back in April (the cruelest month)—the long and winding path through T. S. Eliot‘s gorgeous and evocative poem collection, Four Quartets.  For those of you who missed earlier posts, or who need to refresh your memory, this link will take you to all of my posts on the four poems.  The final piece in Four Quartets, a poem called “Little Gidding”, is so rich with material that I’ve actually decided to divide it up into two PF posts.  This first one will deal with most of the poem, and the second post, next week, will tackle Eliot’s grand finale, which will give me a chance to reflect just a little on how all the poem’s themes weave together.

So, we’ve arrived at “Little Gidding”—just as a reminder, this is the end of a project begun well before the war, in 1936, but by 1942, Eliot is writing amidst the chaos of the war’s peak.  He and his adopted country, England, have endured the London Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and the nearly-constant threat of invasion and conquest.  The fact that we know the outcome of the war shouldn’t blind us to how inevitable surrender must have seemed in 1940-1941, when England stood more or less alone, having seen the nations of Europe fall one by one under the jackboots of the Wehrmacht.  This final poem, then, is written as the tide has just begun to turn—allies have joined the United Kingdom in this fight, the worst of the bombings are over, and the prospect of victory and peace (while still distant) begins to seem not entirely unrealistic.  I’m going to tackle a huge piece of the first section of the poem—remember, each of the quartets is divided into five sections, all of them with distinctive patterns that echo and resonate between poems, as well as between sections within each poem.  Here it is, then, an excerpt from the first section of “Little Gidding” by T. S. Eliot:

“If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”

Eliot takes advantage of our deep investment in these poems (by this point) and makes our journey as readers a part of the poem’s text—we began this series of poems by hearing voices in a nameless garden, and we followed them through the door we never opened, “into our first world”.  Where, then, have we come?  To a place that is not yet green with springtime, not yet blossoming with May-flowers, but we sense that will come.  Eliot, the master of the resonant phrase, ties our journey into journeys from another age: wherever we are arriving, we do so at night “like a broken king”, and that phrase is at once specific (Charles I fled to the tiny village of Little Gidding after the Battle of Naseby, in which his army was destroyed—he’d go on to be captured and executed at the end of that war) and universal (who can’t, on some level, identify with the feeling of a nightfall that found us broken and cast down from some position we once identified with?).  This arrived-at place is still hard for me to fully imagine: we have left the road, but I do not know what this “dull façade” is, nor whose tombstone I am seeing.  Like Scrooge, I think I worry on some level it’s supposed to be mine—the end of a journey in a very mortal sense.  Whatever we think we came for, Eliot tells us we more or less have to leave that behind.  The goal is less important to him than something else—is this like Cavafy’s “Ithaca”, where the journey is its own reward?  I don’t quite think so.  Eliot is just acknowledging a truth about journeys—that on some level we cannot possibly anticipate or understand what we were really traveling for.  Either our real purpose is hidden from us by the distance we feel from our own selves—whatever moves us to get on the road is buried too deep to make sense of—or else the purpose has become something else in being reached.  I like the way he talks so matter-of-factly about being here at “the world’s end”.  This is not the only place where the world ends—it ends in many other places, some perhaps more exciting or alluring than here, some perhaps less.  This is different from them in only one key way, but perhaps it’s the only one that counts: this is the “nearest” place.  It is the place closer to us than any other.  That very mundane fact strikes me as weirdly significant.

English: Little Gidding Church, near to Little...

Little Gidding Church—whatever the village meant to Eliot, this is the place he chose to tie in to the poem we’re grappling with (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then Eliot starts to push us about this whole journey we’ve been on, and what it means that we are arriving somewhere.  It doesn’t matter, he tells us, where we came from.  Not how hard the journey was, how slow the going, or how carefully we planned our path.  It is time for us to set down “sense and notion”.  We think we have come here—where are we? doesn’t the importance of that rise as we read? and yet I feel certain he wants to delay that reveal for good reason—to act in various sensible ways.  He anticipates our desire to start cataloging things and organizing them, to document the world around us, perhaps, or to walk away nodding meaningfully at how important this all has been.  And he tells us to give up something instead—that composure of the student and the critic that holds us at a distance from what we are observing.  Instead, Eliot asks us to humble ourselves.  He does not ask us to pray, but he insists that we kneel in acknowledgement that we have come to a place where prayers are answered, where prayer is not the rote mumblings of the pious or the careful supplications of the needy.  Whatever these prayers are, he suggests that they are wordless, unconscious, the wild soundless expressions of something in us that is neither mind nor order.  And in this place, by some means Eliot does not bother to explain (perhaps he cannot), we hear the voices of the dead who will tell us what we cannot know in, to use Eliot’s chilling phrase that sets my hair on end, “the communication of the dead [that] is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living”.  We have met them in a moment that is outside of time.  We are here in England—in Little Gidding itself, perhaps, a tiny village in Cambridgeshire—and yet we are also nowhere.  We have stepped outside of the world into somewhere that never existed, and always will.

What is Eliot after?  You really ought to read the whole poem to reach for it, but here are a few musings from me, based on having read and re-read this poem with real fascination for many years now—it was the first of the Quartets to catch my eye, and is still my favorite.  The poem is, I think, rich with images of death and resurrection—this is a work that is fascinated by what it means for life to end, and what hope we can draw from the idea of stepping beyond it.  I imagine that seeing England drawing itself back from the brink is a part of this, although this is also a topic that fascinated Eliot in general.  As “Little Gidding” unfolds, Eliot narrates the collapse of the four elements of medieval science—earth, air, water and fire all “die”—and confronts his own mortality in a dialogue with an unnamed “master” who pronounces an end to his “lifetime’s effort”.  Eliot begins to play with time, memory and history: he overlays scenes and images in what I’d call a “montage” if he were a film-maker, and deals at some length with what it would mean to literally turn back time (to unring a bell, at one point) and what it means that we cannot.  The world Eliot sees in the poem’s brief but haunting fourth section is a world aflame.  We cannot escape the fire, he tells us—we can only go through it, either the fire that will unmake us into ash or the fire that refines and cures us until we emerge from it as something new.  If this isn’t a man trying to do for the world via poetry what Stephen Hawking wants to do for it via physics, explaining our experience and our condition in something like a Grand Theory of Everything, I think it feels very like it at times.  And the genius of Eliot (for me) is that I think he gets awfully close: certainly large portions of “Little Gidding” feel deeply perceptive and incredibly important to me, even (and perhaps especially) those images that I can’t entirely understand.

He goes on to weave together a lot of these images into the staggering fifth and final section of the poem, and I’ll deal with that next Friday.  In the meantime, I hope you’ll look for a copy of it—just Googling “Little Gidding” will turn up copies aplenty, if you don’t have it in print handy—and give the poem a read.  I’d love to talk it over with some of you in the comments, both here and on next Friday’s post.  It’s one of my favorite passages of poetry, and one that I think yields a lot of messages depending on what symbols you choose to deal with, and how you tackle them, so the more voices that can chime on on any part of this, the merrier I will be.

Poetry Friday: 1941?

As I turn now to a poem from the year 1941, I can hear some of you saying, “But wait, James, the whole point of these year-driven poems on Fridays is that you’re immersing yourself in the year of the Pulitzer-winning novel you’re reading, and right now you’re still in 1940 with The Grapes of Wrath!  You can’t move on yet, can you?”  Well, first of all, thank you for your continued visits here on Fridays for poems—I like the chance to share poetry with you and hear what you think.  Secondly, I was feeling the same way you were about moving on, but then I realized two critically important things: A) The Grapes of Wrath is incredibly long and I’m starting to run out of poems from 1940 that I feel have something useful or interesting for me to reflect on right now, and maybe more importantly, B) there was no Pulitzer-winning novel in 1941, so if I stick with the current Poetry Friday schedule, I’ll have to leap over all the poems of 1941.

Sail Rock, off the coast of Maine

Sail Rock, off the coast of New England, similar in appearance/location to the Dry Salvages (Photo credit: Albert Theberge, NOAA)

Not only does that seem like a bad idea in principle, but in actual fact it would pose a major problem for us, since you and I have been making our way slowly through T. S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets, and the third of them, “The Dry Salvages”, came out in 1941.  So I’m throwing aside my scheme for a week or two, and as I finish up John Steinbeck‘s immense and engrossing novel, I’ll hit a couple of the poems of 1941, starting with Eliot’s piece.  Two little pointers: the poem is named for a group of islands called “The Dry Salvages” off the coast of Massachusetts, and the last word in the title is pronounced to rhyme with “assuages” or “enrages”.  With that said, let’s dive into an excerpt from the first section of this five-section poem:

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite,
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
          The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees.
          The sea howl
And the sea yelp, are different voices
Often together heard: the whine in the rigging,
The menace and caress of wave that breaks on water,
The distant rote in the granite teeth,
And the wailing warning form the approaching headland
Are all sea voices, and the heaving groaner
Rounded homewards, and the seagull:
And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
Whem time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
Clangs
The bell.

The whole of this third of the four poems is consumed by water—the theme of time that Eliot maintains, bobbing like a pennant in the wind as it weaves above and then inside the verses, is fused here with a really elemental interest in water.  The first section opens with a contemplation of the river as a strong brown god, forgotten by humanity, neglected and overlooked but there beneath our great cities.  What I really like about the excerpt I chose, then, is how that image of the divine and moving water is immediately fused with us—Eliot and you and me—and it takes us back in time to these primitive creatures of the deep and a lost world that resonates with some of the symbols and images he’s been playing with since the beginning of “Burnt Norton” several years ago.  The sea is incredibly powerful—it gives back what we have lost (but these things return to us shattered, irretrievably changed), it grabs material things like earth and rock and the rigging of ships and uses them as a means to project its voice, its unceasing motions sound the buoy-bell and mark out time, but not our time.  That fascination with time continues here in “The Dry Salvages”, and I think it’s really fruitful for Eliot here.

He is pulling apart time into many pieces—what kind of time does the sea have; what does it have to do with us?—and I love the idea of one time being older than another, as in the case of the young time kept by the watch and the clock (which seems fairly obvious) but then stretching out to remind us that time has ticked away since before there were human beings to lie awake in it and worry.  The association of time with anxiety is really powerful there, and I like it—how much of our anxiety has to do with time, after all.  Will we be too late?  Will we have the money we need before the day the bills are due?  Will I live to see another sunrise, to see another Christmas?  And the brilliance of Eliot, for me, is that he unpacks all our words about time and forces us to wrestle with them.  What is that time between midnight and dawn, the fretful passage where we cannot trust our memories or believe in the future we hope will come to us?  That time that, as he says so simply and yet so truly, stops and is never ending.  He captures the experience I feel I’ve had so many times—the lying-awake and feeling like a person out of time, someone trapped in a moment and also languishing there for lifetimes.  And then ringing the section to a close is that bell, moved by the swelling wave that Eliot ties into the primal waters, the seas over which the Spirit moved when all else was without form and void.  A stirring beginning to the piece.

As usual, I’ve only shared a short portion of the poem, and I’m hoping you’ll track down a copy and read the rest of it—Eliot digs deep into the ideas he begins here, asking what it means for some things to be endless (is there such a thing?) and tying that reflection into his musings on death and mortal finality.  He weaves in, over and over, imagery of the sea and the shore, the feeling of traveling by water and how it changes us.  He reaches out more explicitly to religious imagery: to God, to the Queen of Heaven who protects the sailors, to Krishna who urged all journeyers onward to their end.  Ultimately, again, Eliot is considering how all these things—material being and mind and time—intersect in us and in the idea of incarnation.  “The Dry Salvages” ends with him nudging us further towards an answer.  He is still talking about only “half-guessing” at the realities he describes, but it’s clearer and clearer that he doesn’t mean to stop at that.  “Little Gidding”, which is only a couple of years away from us, will bring these themes together and allow Eliot to emerge more directly and tell us what he means.

Unaddressed by me, I should note, is the passage of actual time and its relationship to the poem—Eliot began this poem in a pre-war Europe, but this particular section is written while England is besieged and on the verge of being overwhelmed.  I don’t know how much of Eliot’s feelings about the future of the world (from the vantage point of England during the Battle of Britain) play into his statements about time and mortality, but I think there’s a lot of ground for fruitful speculation there.

I’m hoping you’re enjoying this slow walk through Eliot’s long poem—I certainly am.  It’s making me more aware of sections I’d neglected in previous reads, and making me more in love with the poem than I originally was (and I liked it a lot, initially).  I think this particular section works especially well for me in reminding me of a lot of the philosophical passages in Melville’s Moby-Dick, where Ishmael makes a lot of symbolic sense of the ocean and the sea creatures and humanity’s relationship to all of it.  I hope it works for you on some level, and that you’ll speak up about your thoughts.

Poetry Friday: 1940, part 2

English: St. Michael's, East Coker, Somerset T...

St. Michael’s in East Coker, where Eliot’s family came from, and where his ashes are buried. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been four months since I began our intermittent look at one of the 20th Century’s greatest poems—T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.  In one of my posts on the poems of 1936, I devoted my attention to the opening stanzas of the first of the quartets, written in that year—“Burnt Norton” captured the imaginations of more than a few of you, and since then I’ve been anticipating “catching up” with Eliot’s poem and getting to dig into the next section.  Here we are in 1940, and it’s time to ponder the second of the quartets, which is entitled “East Coker”.  This time, rather than drawing from the first section of the quartet, I’ve skipped forward to Eliot’s summation in the end of the fifth section, since I think there’s a lot of meat on the bones there, and I’m hoping it will further inspire some of you to give the whole thing a read.  This is an excerpt from section V of “East Coker”:

“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”

Eliot’s fascination in the quartets with a few powerful images—time, love, the idea of home, etc.—continues here, and I love the phrases he turns.  In “Burnt Norton” he opens by inviting us into a garden of metaphor, into “our first world”, and here he seems to clarify what he’s interested in: for me, at least, the notion of home being “where we start from” identifies a little more clearly what he means by “our first world”.  Eliot likes to surprise, and I find it surprising (but also intriguing and maybe true) that as we age, the world grows, not more familiar, but more strange.  Time starts to burst open again here, as it did in “Burnt Norton”—each moment contains, not merely a moment, but a lifetime.  And not merely a lifetime, but an age of the Earth, something that happens on the scale of geology (the “old rocks”).  And then suddenly the poem is homely again; we are pulled from that kind of epic abstraction back to an evening with lamps on side tables and photo albums open in our laps.  What is he doing to us?  What is he doing to time and place?  I am confused but not letting go.

He shifts then to one of his other great themes—Love—and says something I feel sure is true: that love is (at least in some ways) most itself when we are detached from the here and now.  “East Coker” plays with love in many senses . . . in another famous passage from earlier in the quartet, he tells his soul to be still and “wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing.”  I don’t know what that means, other than that in all of these phrases I get the sense that the way to gain love is to lose it; the way to find it is to give up the chase.  Eliot tells us at one point that we “must go by the way of dispossession . . . what you own is what you do not own.”  There’s something powerful and real locked up in there, and I don’t know how much of it I can give words to, even though I feel I understand him.

The last portion of “East Coker” is reminiscent for me of another famous English poem—Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s “Ulysses”—where old men decide to explore on, and “smite the sounding furrows”.  I think that’s intentional, but unlike Tennyson’s Greek hero, Eliot isn’t restless and purposeless in this desire for adventure.  He’s not taking to the seas again to escape the “still hearth” and “barren crags”, like Ulysses—instead, he wants a deeper communion.  With whom?  With what?  We are not yet told.  Only we are told that he must pass (and we must pass, if we continue on with him) “through the dark cold and the empty desolation,” through, in that most evocative of phrases, “the vast waters of the petrel and the porpoise.”  What waters are these?  The waters over which the Ruach brooded in Genesis, the formless and the void?  The waters at the edge of old maps, ribboned with sea serpents, pouring endlessly over all sides of the world?  He is imbuing this journey, and this sea, with something symbolic, but I’ll confess I can’t settle on a specific image.  I only know that it moves me.

There’s a lot more to “East Coker” that I can’t get into—there’s an enormously important series of allusions to Dante (Eliot describes himself as being “in the middle way”, and there are direct references to purgatory, etc.), for example—because it’s too big, and because I want you to read it.  Even the last line (“In my end is my beginning.”), which I want badly to try and unpack, is too much for the scope of a blog post.  Eliot is tying up all of “East Coker”, which begins with the line “In my beginning is my end,” and which plays more than once with the notion of ends and beginnings.  Eliot’s engaged in something really valuable.  We’ll be back with him and the last two quartets before long—probably before 2012 is out.  In the meantime, I hope you’ll ponder his words, and share your thoughts in the comments below.

Poetry Friday: 1936, part 2

This is, as I mentioned in my last 1936 PF post, an incredible year for poetry.  Another beauty I can’t let escape notice is “Burnt Norton”, the first of what would come to be (in about a decade) a set of poems by T. S. Eliot called the “Four Quartets”.  In them, Eliot reflects at length about an incredible variety of topics, drawing together issues he previously explored in poems like “The Hollow Men” and “The Waste Land” into a solemn but hopeful reflection on time, mortality, and purpose.  Each piece of the quartet carries its own delights, and I’m sure I’ll ponder them as they surface one at a time (the rest of them in the 1940s, during the war).  For now, let’s take a run at the opening lines of “Burnt Norton”, and Eliot’s first wrestle with the idea of time, a topic he returns to throughout the set:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
                                       But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
                                       Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

Eliot is grappling with a concept so abstract and impossible that I think we are tempted not to engage with the poem at all—we can set it aside as being “too deep” or “too artsy” or whatever we use to distance ourselves from it.  But I’m hoping to encourage you to try resting with the words on your mind a little, and seeing if they start to awaken some understandings for you: I know I’ve had to do that with this poem, and that it becomes more rich every time I return to it over the years.  Eliot begins with the very simple idea—that we are creatures bound by time, and that time is a strange thing.  There are all these ties that bind the past, present and future together.  And the past and future are really only ideas we can confront in the present—now is the only time in which you ever live, or ever can.  Eliot calls it, later in this quartet, “the still point of the turning world”.

We are not conscious of time in this way, normally—our memory, and our ability to imagine, allow us to live in the past and the future very happily for hours at a time, maybe even our whole lives.  Eliot is calling us out of our reverie into a very serious contemplation of where we really are.  What might have been and what actually has been are the same in one way—we access them only through our minds, only through the lens of the present in which we live.  And words are caught up in this, too.  Eliot tells us about footfalls, about a rose-garden we did not enter, and in our minds these images appear and echo.  Do we see ourselves opening the door we did not open (an image that resonates enough with me that I wrote a poem about it, although not consciously in homage to Eliot)—if we see that, who is it we see?  Where is that me, opening that door, and when does he open it?

I know, I know, this is getting a little too fanciful for you.  But Eliot is trying to evoke things not easily expressed, and the images will come tumbling out of us if we linger near him.  Are we willing to take up his invitation—to follow these echoes of memory and time where they lead, into the garden we never enter?  He suggests we will enter the first gate with him, into our first world.  Our first world—what is that?  Where is it?  I find the phrases powerful and almost threatening without knowing why.

I like poems that do this—poems that work on me slowly, sometimes over decades (as this one has), maybe never to be fully understood but always in the act of opening, like a flower.  If you’ve never read the “Four Quartets”, I hope you’ll take them on: they’re easy to find (online and in print), and you can easily skim past what isn’t striking you right now to dwell on what does.  For me the light in them began in the last one, “Little Gidding”, and is only now reaching “Burnt Norton” in a way that illuminates it, and still only in part.  Or, if the poem just isn’t speaking to you, sit for a moment, sometime soon, and dwell on the idea of time and memory.  I find it almost endlessly rewarding, and I expect you will too.

A poem for Shrove Tuesday

Today is a day many call “Mardi Gras”, a day of beads and feasts, of revelry, of song.  But it is also—for me, it is mostly—Shrove Tuesday, the day for shriving, for making shrift in some personal sense.  It is a day for emptying ourselves a little of our lives so that the next 40 days can fill us with something new.  It is the day that the palms of Palm Sunday 2010 will be placed in the embers to be changed into 2011’s Ash Wednesday ashes, a reminder that so much of what we cherish is fleeting, that so much of what we long to hold on to cannot be held forever.  Even if you come from another faith tradition or experience, I hope you can touch something familiar in what I’m saying—the idea that some parts of our life should be set aside for reflection, that part of who we are is who and what we lose, and that even our dark hours on the earth are a part of our time which, when we see them properly, have about them their own strange loveliness.  So today’s poem is an excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s incomparably rich poem The Four Quartets, specifically the fourth section, entitled “Little Gidding” — this passage takes part of Part III and Part IV.  I don’t know if it will reach you, or intersect for you with what I’ve been talking about, but I offer it in the hopes that it will:

Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.
If I think, again, of this place,
And of people, not wholly commendable,
Of no immediate kin or kindness,
But of some peculiar genius,
All touched by a common genius,
United in the strife which divided them;
If I think of a king at nightfall,
Of three men, and more, on the scaffold
And a few who died forgotten
In other places, here and abroad,
And of one who died blind and quiet
Why should we celebrate
These dead men more than the dying?
It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

A Poem for Ash Wednesday

Actually, a portion of a poem—T.S. Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday”, which is too long to reproduce here in full (but I encourage you to go looking for it).  Below, I offer part VI of the poem, and wish you a blessed Ash Wednesday:

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.