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Every poem an epitaph

September 25, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Thomas Stearns Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1934)

Thomas Stearns Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1934)

T.S. Eliot was not the most prolific of twentieth century English-language poets, but despite this he was one of its most important. Eliot said it was, in fact, because of his sparse oevre that he became a major poet. He was right in thinking that writing only a few poems can make each poem you write all the more important–at least, if the poems can bear the weight. The Four Quartets, the last poem, or rather poetic cycle, Eliot wrote, have an enormous amount of weight lying upon them.

They must bear even more weight, I think, because of the nature of the man who wrote them: Eliot by this point was, as he put it, “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” These positions were not too much more popular then than they are now. So the Four Quartets had at the same time to put a capstone on his poetic career, to justify his eccentric personal choices; and–most important of all–to be worthwhile poetry.

The Four Quartets, though they do not attack the reader the way his earlier poetry did, are nevertheless not easy reading; I did not learn to appreciate them until I lived with them for several years. But I now think that they rise to the poetic challenge admirably. They are an immensely personal poem–we never lose sight of who the speaker is, or why he feels the need to speak–without becoming “confessional” in the pejorative sense. They manage, instead, to feel confessional in the deepest sense, to tell “how it is with me” not emotionally but ethically. And they manage to be about poetry, and about the end of a poetic career, without feeling insular or self-involved; poetry, here, means absolute speech, and speech means meaningful action, and to write a poem means to deliberate over what to do when what you do matters absolutely.

Not, of course, that the Four Quartets answer this question directly. Insofar as they do answer it, they answer it four different times, in four different ways, as if to say that no answer to the question can stand alone. This makes them among the most complex lyric poems ever to be written. They are, perhaps, the longest major poetic cycle to have been written without the aid of an overarching structure provided by plot or subject matter.

How, then, do they fit together? In fact, in something of an accident.

A poem by the name of Burnt Norton made its appearance at the conclusion of T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1935. It had an air of finality to it. Its five-part structure, the fourth a short lyric, bore a skeletal resemblance to his 1921 The Waste Land, but the flesh had changed entirely. Not social satire, but mystical philosophy. Not the jarring fragmentation of voices speaking over one another, but the ponderous circling of a single voice around a single thought from many different angles. Not “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” but “Words, after speech, reach / Into the silence.” The Waste Land had made the writing of any further poetry appear impossible, an attempt to bring order to an irredeemably disordered language; Burnt Norton made any such writing appear unnecessary, a violation of the silence that was the most perfect poetry of all.

Then in 1940 Eliot published another poem, “East Coker.” It echoed the structure of Burnt Norton (now “Burnt Norton,” first in a projected four-part series) exactly: part one, philosophical statement and poetic dramatization; part two, lyric statement and explication; part three, journey along the via negativa; part four, lyric challenge; part five, poetic statement and mystical conclusion. The theme was only imperceptibly different; “Burnt Norton” asked how “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past,” while “East Coker” mused on “In my beginning is my end” and “In my end is my beginning.”

1941 saw the third poem in the projected four-part series, “The Dry Salvages.” It repeated the pattern once more, and, by centering its imagery on water, caused “East Coker” and “Burnt Norton” to adopt earth and air, respectively, as their elemental signs. Its other major contribution was to make the religious themes explicit; beginning “I do not know much about gods,” it nevertheless goes on to discuss the Annunciation, Krishna, the “Queen of Heaven,” and how “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”

In 1942 Eliot concluded with “Little Gidding.” The themes of the previous three poems–time, finalization, incarnation–are endlessly recapitulated; but a new strand enters with “the nearest, in place and time, / Now and in England.” History takes on a newfound importance. (It would not do to forget that the poem was written in time of war, or that the American Eliot had adopted British citizenship; several sections of “Little Gidding” reference the bombing of London.) What he says, the speaker realizes, cannot matter absolutely; he cannot speak absolutely, but must speak now, even if what he says can apply absolutely to all other nows. This lack of a final end offers itself as nevertheless a kind of conclusion:


What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
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.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

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.

This fifth and final section of “Little Gidding” is often accused of being overly facile, of imposing its conclusion rather than arriving at it naturally. I cant agree. The key word is “shall”: not a statement, or even a prediction, but a promise. “Little Gidding” arrives, I think, at the realization that the purpose of a word is to carry out an intention; and so at the realization that he could have written more poetry, if he had needed to do so; and, at the same time, to the realization that he did not, and would not. (Save for the occasional occasional piece.)

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