I won’t often devote this column to poetry. Since much of the best poetry is written in shorter forms, it doesn’t really fall within the scope of a “great books” column. (Though, even as I write this, it occurs to me that I may have to write about handfuls of poems by Stevens, Wilbur, and others, someday.) But, I could not long put off writing about T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, for me the best long poem of the English language of the 20th century.
Though I first studied the poem in college — emphasis on “studied”, which doesn’t always mean “experience” or “appreciate” — my first encounter with Four Quartets took place while being chased by fierce thunderstorms across Interstate 70 in Kansas in the early evening. (I learned the next day that I had been surrounded by tornados!) I had put in a cassette recording I’d made off an LP of Four Quartets being read by Sir Alec Guinness.
No, the incredible impression the poem made on me at the time had nothing to do with Obi Wan Kenobi. Guinness’ delivery, though, seems the perfect voice for this poem, much more earnest and spiritually aware than Eliot’s own weary, almost defeated delivery. (The recording is hard to find, but well worth the search. Highly recommended.)
From the beginning, I was captivated by the cadence, the imagery, and the playful, seeking nature of the words. It’s impossible to quote anything less than the whole of the first section:
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.
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.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden 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,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into 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 heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Hamlet is the play, they say, with the greatest number of memorable lines. For me, there’s not a single unmemorable line in what you’ve just read (more than once, and out loud, is recommended).
Perhaps the greatest conundrum of human existence is time, its evanescence balanced by its relentlessness. We can only understand it in the presence of things, such as the “drained pool,” itself a metaphor for time; and we can only understand things in the context of time, their creation, existence, and passing. And, beyond that, most crucially, is what we cannot see or hear or experience as duration, what those of a spiritual bent, “the unseen eyebeam”, perpetually seek: “for the roses/Had the look of flowers that are looked at”. For Eliot, as he says later in Burnt Norton, we can only find that “at the still point of the turning world”, where time and being eternally intersect.
Eliot wrote Burnt Norton in the relative serenity of the mid-30’s. The three remaining long poems that make up Four Quartets — East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding — were written during World War II and with the air-bombardment of London in the background.
In my beginning is my end. In succession
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 the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Here, a description of what would appear to be the natural cycle of creation and destruction, only hints at the larger context. This is not a poem about the war, as such, but clearly the war is at the heart of lines such as this.
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action,
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
Such moments of lucid despair are soon followed by a return to the spiritual seeking which is the great theme of Four Quartets.
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.
At the heart of the third poem, The Dry Salvages, Eliot confronts the existential notion of “right action” in a world whose contradictions we can never fully understand. He draws upon the Hindu teachings of Krishna.
“Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: ‘on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death’ - that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgment of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.”
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle,
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.
But, though it is essential for us not to despair, and to “fare forward,” Eliot brings some light and hope into the equation — assuming that we remain committed to the challenge.
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. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is
Incarnation. Here the impossible union
Of spheres of evidence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement-
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying.
In the final poem, Little Gidding, after describing death by air, fire, and water, Eliot meets “some dead master”, who may be Christ or some other spiritual guide from the past. What follows is a brief sermon, which leads the entire poem back to lines reminiscent of the beginning of Burnt Norton.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
Only there is a new tone, one of comfort and reasurrance. The children of the rose garden have returned, accompanied by the redemptive image of Pentecostal fire.
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 flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Published in 1944, Four Quartets — four poems in five sections each — is less than 50 pages long. I’ve quoted enough of it here, I hope, to convince you to read the entire work. While written by a devoted Christian, it is spiritual without being preachy, its language deeply influenced by Eastern religions. No poem has given me greater solace or hope in the face of what is unknown and unknowable.