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.
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.
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.
“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
‘But why drives on that ship so fast,
Without or wave or wind?’
‘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
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.
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.”