Monday, May 26, 2014

Just a Closer Walk with T. S. Eliot

[Reflection on "Little Gidding" by T. S. Eliot, in The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1971).]


"How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!" wrote the poet, citing his own "prim" mouth, face of "clerical cut" and "his conversation, so nicely / Restricted to What Precisely / And If and Perhaps and But" (Eliot 93).  As my friend Susan Rouse says, "I've always wanted to like him more than I do." In the early 1970s,  our teachers set him on a pedestal:  though we learned a few ominous excerpts by heart (e.g., about "the hollow men" and that sky "like a patient etherized upon a table"), we heard more about his work than we read, so that he seemed to be set apart.  I got the sense that he was too deep and dark for us, on another plane from Keats and Frost -- Shakespeare of Modernist Despair.


Studying his verse dramas shook the pedestal.  A Christian and drama major myself, I wanted to like Eliot's high-brow plays with Noel-Cowardy settings that purported to bring faith to the cynical elite, but The Cocktail Party and The Family Reunion were unconvincing both as plays and Christian apologetics. 


[Photo: St. John's at Little Gidding]
Still, a budding Episcopalian among older Anglophiles, I heard often that Four Quartets was a masterpiece of Christian poetry and philosophy, too.  When I bought the collected poems at age 23, I was sure Eliot and I were going to get along.

It was not to be.  I've known "Little Gidding" by name (without knowing what a Gidding is) and some of its final lines by heart, from "We shall not cease from exploration" to the observation that we will return where we started "only to know the place for the first time."  That fit my experience at 23, and still does, at 55.  But I have to admit that I've not yet read even one of the Four Quartets.  Whenever I've tried, Eliot's lines have been so abstract, so indirect, that I've never stayed awake long enough to make any progress.  The book has been at my bedside 32 years.


Now, at the start of summer break, martini at my side, dogs at my feet, I've relaxed and read "Little Gidding" straight through.  With a little post-poem clarification from an on-line commentary (wish those had been around when I bought this book in 1982!) I'm finding my way.   Here's what I get as I tour "Little Gidding" with Mr. Eliot, my guide:

I.
"Midwinter spring is its own season."  Not three words into the poem, I'm already nonplussed!  I forge on, and later guess that he means the winter solstice, because he mentions "the short day." 
I'm a little amused, a little nostalgic, a little touched, because I know how much Mr. Eliot loves things "in between," and juxtapositions of opposites. "Between melting and freezing / The soul's sap quivers," he tells us, and he points out that hedges now white with snow will, in spring, be white with blossoms.

But where are we?  What are we doing?  "If you came this way" from "the place you would be likely to come from," you'd find this chapel -- thankfully, I've seen a photo of St. John's chapel at Little Gidding -- where "a broken king" came "at night."  I can guess that the "broken king" was Charles I, defeated during the English Civil War, ca. 1640, and the internet confirms my guess.  

At the end of this stanza, he mentions that the place and time is "Now and in England."  At last!  Our first solid object!  Our first proper noun!    It's like an island, a great relief after a page and a half of abstractions and generalizations.

Now, here's a part that I can identify with:
...You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report.  You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
I know what it's like, to come to what Eliot calls "only a shell, a husk of meaning" and to feel what has transpired there before, and to feel the urge to honor it by prayer.  I'm reminded of a poet who came at the same experience from the angle of an unbeliever, Philip Larkin in his wonderful poem "Church Going" (see some of my thoughts on that poem here).  Eliot adds:
...And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
He's expressing something elusive, but it feels real, and it feels important.  Here is a phrase I've known since college, "the timeless moment," an intersection of now with eternity, i.e., what we experience in a holy place, or in a work of art.

II.
Now we're someplace else, I guess.  We get stanzas of four rhymed couplets each, telling us about "death of air...earth...water and fire" with "ash" in the air that "was a house."  Thanks to the commentary, I know that Eliot patrolled his London neighborhood during the German Blitz, walking through dusty air amid the ruins of bombed buildings.  So now, in England means, during the assault on a land and culture.

Mr. Eliot encounters amid the rubble a "compound ghost" who is 'both one and many," who expresses equanimity at the way the time has passed for the ghost's "thought and theory": "These things have served their purpose: let them be. /....For last year's words belong to last year's language...." (141)  The wise old ghost tells him to expect "gifts" of old age, climaxing in "the awareness / Of things ill done and done to others' harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue" (142).

This seems universal, something I've already experienced, elegantly expressed.

A horn blows -- the "all clear" or the trumpet at the end of time, or both -- and the ghost disappears.


III.
Mention of a hedgerow brings us back from London to Little Gidding, but that hedgerow is somehow the analogy for human attachment to self, detachment, and, in between -- OMG, he loves those "in betweens! -- indifference. I don't see the hedgerows that he mentions, but I do grasp the abstract observation that memory serves
For liberation -- not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.

I get that!  Love is an attachment that doesn't depend on future fulfillment for its continuation. Now, Eliot brings this thought around to one that ties I and II to III:
...Thus, love of country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent.
The places we love "vanish" and create a new "pattern," a new history.  He goes back to English history to quote Julian of Norwich's greatest hit, "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well," and to meditate on the conflict that made this little place remarkable, the English Civil War, its combatants "United in the strife which divided them," and, amusingly, on how all the combatants now "accept the constitution of silence / And are folded into a single party."  

IV.
Here, Mr. Eliot, you're a little over the top: "The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror."  I'm thinking of dove as "the Holy Spirit," and you do wrap the tongues of flame from Pentecost into your verses;  but how am I to know that here you're associating "dove" with "German war plane?"  Don't do that.

Although, on second thought, I do see that you are making a complicated connection here between purifying fire and the fire caused by the attackers.  "We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire."

I'm glad IV is so short. 

V.
Here's the part I've been waiting for:  "What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning."  I've known this part a long time.  It's true, the stuff of every graduation commencement speech.  Still, it bears saying, and it sounds more important, coming from you, Mr. Eliot.

Then, in parentheses, you insert a credo for writers, which I must endorse, about the "right" sentence
where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious...
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together... (144)
But the lines about how words lead to words now lead us to the observation (true of King Charles I and of us all) that "any action / Is a step to the block."

History, he writes, "is a pattern / Of timeless moments."

Now we're back in that chapel, where "the light fails / On a winter's afternoon."  It's a specific place and time, in the midst of war.

Finally, after a space, we get that observation about how we "know the place for the first time" when we arrive where we started.  And the poem, natch, ends where it started.  Then we get more Julian of Norwich:  "And all shall be well...."

Tongues, flame, and now tongues of flame, from Pentecost and from German planes, all tie together in the image of flame as a rose, its petals "in-folded."

Mr. Eliot, I've taken this tour with you, and I see the wisdom of old age -- though I'm shocked to realize that I'm about half a decade older than you were when you wrote this poem -- and you've shown me the inter-connectedness of the separate sections, and I draw from the gravity of the particular chapel your love for a place and the history of that place.

At last.  Thank you.

1 comment:

George said...

Beautifully done, Scott!