Four Quartets

fourquartets

I am sure that the scholarship on this work must be legion. I am sure that it has approached Ulysses levels of annotation of every line, of AS Byatt’s mockery of the Ash Factory chasing down every half illusion for a quarter century. I am sure that it is of the highest quality and that in the years to come, I will delight in pouring over every line of it and forming opinions of my own.

For now, I have read none of it. I have no idea if anything I am about to write is true, or comes anywhere close to the poet’s intentions or his feelings when he wrote it. And that’s exactly the way that I wanted it. As a wonderful fictional lady once said, Forgive its faults, forgive me…., but this time… this time it was just between me and whatever phantasms, images and impressions I have gathered. There’s time enough for me to be correct.

For now, I just wanted to be true.

Burnt Norton

Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
He saw the cities–mapped the minds–of many;
and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
adversity–to keep his life intact,
to bring his comrades back.

-          The Odyssey, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Word games. That’s probably what your first quick glance at the opening lines of this quartet would reveal. Just simplistic word reversion like the most typical Wildean wit, but taking itself so seriously that there’s no possibility of a punchline coming. It’s all nonsense isn’t it? You’re playing with me. You don’t want me here, not if your welcome mat is this:

“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.”

God, I can hear the judging starting now- pretentious twaddle, What are you even on about?, Say what you mean, Ugh- this is why I don’t like poetry I may not know much about TS Eliot, but even I know enough from my short acquaintance to know that he is famously overeducated- if there is such a thing-  I know that I don’t need another project, some puzzle to unwind-

No. Please. Stop. Just stop. Stop and read a little farther with me.

None of it could be farther from the truth. Please keep reading and give him a chance to welcome you properly, let him lead you the way it should be done, let him speak slow and measured and hold out a hand:

“… Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Toward 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…”

It’s not a word game at all. It isn’t something pretentious, something modern and new and twisted into form to dance for the sake of dancing in a new fashion. It’s the oldest thing there is- it’s an incantation, a prologue. It’s the words that break you out of whatever world you’re in and guide you into the one where you should be. Eliot starts with something gentle, something we’re used to from fairy stories and nursery rhymes from our childhood- the talking animal, the wilderness tamed in a garden that offers artificial enchantments, necessary and fenced in politely:

“And the bird called, in response to

The unheard music in the shrubbery

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting

So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern…

To look down at the drained pool.

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,

And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly

The surface glittered out of the heart of light

And they were behind us reflected in the pool

Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

 

Go, go, go said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality….”

Now we have passed into another realm and the light has changed, it has dappled around us, so now we can begin to speak of the magic underneath the reality, the blood magic that is no longer so polite, with harder words and harder truths gathered in among his continued recital, with syllables that are no longer quite so smooth or reassuring, but have begun to form, gradually, the rhythms of a chant:

 “Garlic and sapphires in the mud

Clot the bedded axle-tree

The trilling wire in the blood

Sings below inveterate scars

Appeasing long-forgotten wars.

The dance along the artery

The circulation of the lymph

Are figured in the drift of stars…”

Garlic and sapphires, a witch’s brew. “Clot,” a hard effect for a soft “bedded” tree- a modern “wire” introduced among the blood, words that are no longer so conversational, but have instead acquired the rhythms of poetry, the sounds and parts that echo off each other gently and loudly and pause only on the word where it seems eminently suitable for them to do so.

And then there’s an invocation, an incantation, where we all join hands and circle faster around the fire and jump in its shadows, speeding up in perfect unison:

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point….”

… of the turning world , never said, just understood in a blank space as the chant continues, hoping for “inner freedom from practical desire,” “by a grace of sense, a white light still and moving”.

Then we get back to the part everyone knows, the Our Father that we know we will be reciting in many languages without needing to know what the person next to us is saying before too long. It’s recited with a driving intensity, a continuous beat, but softly, softly:

 “Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future

Only through time is time conquered…”

And he has us now. We’re moving with him wherever he needs to show us- his rhythmic, circular structure is quickly interrupted by a slideshow of striking imagery delivered immediately on the other side of the rabbit hole:

“Only a flicker over the strained time ridden faces….. Distracted from distraction by distractions… Tumid apathy with no concentration… Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind that blows before and after time…  fingers of yew be curled… After the kingfisher’s wing has answered light to light, and is silent the light is still and the still point of the turning world…”

And see, there, he keeps it controlled, he brings us back on-point, on the path, so we don’t go too far into someone else’s fancies, but stay inside a tightly controlled series of opposites that blend.

We end, once again, in seeming simplicity, moving en pointe, delicately, half-inch by half-inch across a tiled floor filled with eggshells, as Eliot lays out our problem and our hopes for us:

“Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being.

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight.”

And…. There you are.

Where is that? Tell me, please. For myself… nowhere near where I started from, in the strict physical sense, but everywhere that I dream. Everywhere that I escape to in music and film and art. Everywhere that is too intense to live all the time, but which gives the beauty and the impetus to the everyday that we seek out between the cracks. This is falling through those cracks to that place.

This section should be read over opening orienting shots and montages that lead us into quiet end credits. It should be read calmly from an audiobook out of the radio in Wallander’s solitary Sweden, it should be sung throughout the opening five minutes of Melancholia- Wagner’s got nothing on it. It should be read like a prayer from the pulpit and turned into a Gregorian chant. It’s the words that should fill the silence when you look at a truly great landscape for the first time and there’s all that space just sitting there.

This section is the key, the rusty key to the garden gate that we haven’t found in years.

***

East Coker

“For the spell is older than experience. For the tale is older than the record.”

- Marina Tsvetaeva

After an opening section so determined to transport us, to translate us to somewhere else strange and yet entirely familiar in ways we would not expect, it makes sense that our next subject is history. We invoked the muse and now we must give her something to sing about- so then this moves into the other oldest kind of tale- the epic poem, the historical chronicle beautifully told:

“Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended.

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires

Old fires to ashes and ashes to earth…

Houses live and die: there is a time for building

And a time for living and for generation

And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane

And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots…”

Rot, decay, recycle, reuse, begin again in the same pattern, mourn the loss and preserve the monuments… there’s a roundup of historical notions, negative and giving all round up into one. The time passing sense in a straightforward stanza, nonetheless placing us in the here and now, “leaning against a bank while a van passes/And the deep lane insists on the direction/Into the village, in the electric heat/Hypnotised.”

But Eliot is true to his slippery relationship with time and takes us back and beyond those more common reasons for “history,” for the record of materials put together in pleasing fashion to be remembered, as a record of man’s industry and the rise and fall of civilizations, back to something more elemental and essential- the slippery nature of chronological time when all the timeless things are what matter

“In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire….”

I don’t have to go on- you know where it’s going. Pure Catholic paganistic fascination- perhaps. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is only ruin lust carried over into the middle of the twentieth century after a horror show that forced it back into the front and center, but that’s not all of it. It’s still about time, and it’s even more so about Eliot rejecting history itself as complete bullshit. Experience doesn’t get you a goddamn thing, and no one is going to learn from it the next time- especially not you- you’re too old to profit from it:

“There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience

The knowledge imposes a pattern and falsifies,

For the pattern is new in every moment

And every moment is a new and shocking

Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived

Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.

In the middle, not only in the middle of the way

But all the way, in a dark wood in a bramble…”

What is the use, he asks, of history? History is nothing, not next to myth. Not next to the story. Not next to the eternal things that I can stop telling you about five lines in because you can fill in the rest.  History will teach us nothing and the democracy of death will take us all after which it will mean nothing to God who you were.

I love that with the greatest of poets, the greatest of writers, touched by even a hint of Catholicism (and it may not even be all they possess- and it is not at all with Eliot- eastern religions and paganism and doctrinal protestant preaching brimstone is all in there)…. it all comes down to love. It’s all a nursery rhyme in the end, a catechism to remind us:

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting,

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing

Whisper of running streams and winter lightning

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy…”

 

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

 

It’s NEVER more complicated than that. History couldn’t possibly matter less next to that, but we get lost in it, we forget the essentials, we get too bound up with the van and the electricity and we forget the mystery- for a man like this, the Mystery.

Don’t you see? All that matters is

“The houses have gone under the sea.

The dancers have gone under the hill.”

And we’ll never recover from that.

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

 

The Dry Salvages

First Voice

‘But why drives on that ship so fast,

Without or wave or wind?’

 

Second Voice

‘The air is cut away before,

And closes from behind.

 

Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!

Or we shall be belated:

For slow and slow that ship will go,

When the Mariner’s trance is abated.’

-Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Sea, The Sea… there is no framing needed for this section other than that. There’s no formal structure other than the seafaring tale. It’s a brilliant choice for two opening sections so bounded by ancient, formal rules and so immediately engaged with discourse, with human speech and record and sound, to free itself by taking to the waves.

Eliot wanted to put us back in touch with the Mystery in the last section- to make use remember what is wild and untamable and untouchable and unforgettable- and being forgotten. He lived through a time that was broken and broken again until it seemed all the threads had been cut and we began again, Modern Man, anew, without history to bind us, of course.. but without history to steady us and steer us and embrace us close.

He wants to give us back what matters- the threads that, we have to realize, can never be cut, the things that will always continue, whether we like them or not. Experience is bullshit and aging is a lying thief, but continuity and recognition is there, and will always be there, despairingly. And what better place to realize that than The Sea, The Sea:

“Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing

Into the wind’s tail, where the fog cowers?

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless…”

It is not all irredeemable, though, not if you can live through it and realize that you might have

“had the experience but missed the meaning

and approach to the meaning restores the experience….

Past experience revived in the meaning

Is not the experience of one life only

But of many generations-not forgetting something that is probably quite ineffable:

The backward look behind the assurance of recorded history,

over the shoulder, towards primitive terror…”

But we don’t do that. We live in experience, our bodies connect the moment with what is happening and we process it through our senses the way we were meant to do and we can only say what our senses told us a moment later and our brain is often quite left out- we cannot gather data as we experience the world in that half-way.:

“For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning,

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music,

While the music lasts. There are only hints and guesses

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action

The hint have guessed, the gift half understood, is

Incarnation.”

And so return to the sea, breathe deeply and remember the Ancient Mariner- remember the things that last and then step away again and try to remember what it was that mattered to you before.

Little Gidding

Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Prologues have epilogues, especially in Eliot’s tightly circled world where stanzas and refrains return, straightforward or twisted to read between the lines of the poetry.  The chant rises again and the images return for us to drink in and for us to remember how we got here at the start. Funny, the chant sooth-said us enough to walk us down the path into somewhere new, to forget the cultivated home that we came from, and upon returning, he reminds us that there was once a garden that we came from with an empty pool where the birds spoke and the surface “glittered out of the heart of light.”

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallejuah that we’ve found it again, as inevitably as we would have, that we can now step into the circle around the bonfire and join hands with the others as easily as if we always knew how, Pater Noster and blessings of the gods. Of course it is the gods and the mystery he’s on about once again, but it isn’t even that so much as it is the image of that, it is the essentials, dying and being given back to you once more- earth, water, air, fire. There’s not a van in site and I don’t know what electricity is. History is still bullshit, and don’t be deceived that just because you’ve made it to the end into this kaleidoscope of beauty that I give you, into this repeating waltz of glory- don’t be deceived that we have found the place where this all happily wraps up in a bow. All we have found is the way that it always was, and we can join in, for a moment, at least:

    “We shall not cease from exploration

                And the end of our exploring

                Will be to arrive where we started

                And know the place for the first time

                Through the unknown, remembered 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 of the apple-tree

                Not known, because not looked for

                But heard, half heard, in the stillness

                Between two waves of the sea…”

We will forget again and fall out of the circle, we will need to be lead through the garden by an innocent thrush once more and find the pool filled with sunlight and the garlic and sapphires by the yew-tree, but we have the key now. We can return.

And I will be. Again and again and again.

“Say not fare well, but fare forward, voyager.”

gardengate

9 thoughts on “Four Quartets

    1. Thank you, Mariel. It means a lot that you took the time to comment, even in the new location. This is a gorgeous piece and I would selfishly like you read it so I can read your wonderful review afterwards.

      1. This is really a stunning piece. I will be coming back to it. You know, I think I will read this too. I love this approach to writing about poetry. I have a lot of leaping out ideas now. What you say about recognition. Yes!

  1. I really hope you do read it, as I said! I would love to see if your emotions and your thoughts follow some of the same tracks I did, and all the wonderful things that you’ll find on your own.

    What “approach” do you mean though? If you don’t mind.. I’d like to know what you mean. Poetry is hard for me to process sometimes (though this work wasn’t- on a basic level), so if anything worked to get an idea across, I’d love to know

    Thanks again for the kind, continuing conversation!

    1. By approach I mean taking him and talking about him with your own replies like it is an extension of a conversation he started. I thought that was cool to capture that.

      1. I see what you mean now. Thanks for explaining. It’s amazing, for as erudite and beautiful as this is, it flows out in such a natural way that it does feel like conversation. I don’t know how he did that. Eliot himself considered it one of the great writing feats of his life to be able to be that simple and still say what he meant. It’s just a gorgeous experience.

    1. Thanks! This is my first Eliot experience, but certainly won’t be my last. Given the excellent dramatic timing and word patterns in this one I think I might try one of his plays next before I approach the beast that is The Waste Land.

      1. It’s nice to see you, too! I love having this little corner of collected awesome reviews.

        Upon further reflection I realized that I had read J Alfred in high school and really liked it- (the image of the ladies going to and fro discussing Michelangelo is the line I remember). I should re-read it, though. I don’t know if I am quite ready for The Waste Land yet!

        I own The Cocktail Party, so I’ll probably read that first, but Murder in the Cathedral sounds like an excellent second destination. Thanks!

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