I remember being electrified in my O-level year at school when I first read ‘The Hollow Men’. From then on, Eliot’s work became one of the most important presences in my experience of poetry. A few years later, at university, I recognised that this hero had feet of clay and that his political views, particularly as expounded in his critical and cultural writings, were miles apart from mine.
Nevertheless, his work remains a significant element in my mental landscape and I hear his lines in my head, as I hear lines from Shakespeare or from the Bible. (They often are lines from Shakespeare or the Bible, or at least from somewhere else.) I think this is because I recognise his struggle through poetry to deal with modernity and to find ‘right action’, and I think that the poetry still works in the 21st century and for post-modernity because it matches the emotions and confusions we are still experiencing. For example, the passage from Section V of The Dry Salvages with its reference to ‘sortilege’ and ‘tea-leaves’ seems as relevant to the disoriented muddle we are living through after the Brexit vote as effectively as it did the trials of World War II.
It is this feeling that Eliot still matters that sent me back to The Four Quartets, not in a spirit of adulation but in an attempt to engage with a work I had read many times but never really got to grips with. Reading it now, I am struck by Eliot’s wrestling with himself and with language and form, and by his compulsion to bring structure, resolution and conformity to a set of poems developed from Burnt Norton, which was originally intended as a single independent long poem. This struggle with form and the wilful drive towards resolution is very evident in Little Gidding and the strain is often apparent, particularly where beautiful, quasi-mystical imagery is employed to paper over the cracks. I find the serenity of tone in the last section beguiling but unconvincing as it asserts a conclusion not actually achieved:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
The predominance of ‘and’, rather than stronger, more syntactically definite conjunctions, reinforces the tone of inevitability and relaxation into acceptance. Moreover, the identity of the fire and the rose, for me, now, is too neat and formulaic
However, the beginning of the quartet is more interesting. It has its basis in beautifully observed physical detail of winter: ‘the brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches’, ‘the hedgerow/Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom/Of snow’. The exactitude of the images allows the poet to move towards traditional conceits and paradoxes of ice and fire, darkness and light and to explore once again ideas about time. The metaphor of snow as ‘blossom’ introduces the possibility of two kinds of time, that related to earth and the seasons and metaphorical or spiritual time which is ‘not in time’s covenant’ and which has its ultimate target as ‘the unimaginable/Zero summer.’ Different readers offer different interpretations for this striking phrase; perhaps it is intended to suggest a perfection which is not achievable in earthly life. The ‘unimaginable/Zero’ carries with it connotations of absolute zero which bring us back to the contrasts of heat and cold.
The poet pursues ‘the intersection of the timeless moment’ , situating it in Little Gidding, the place where Nicholas Farrar founded a religious community in 1625 and where Charles 1, the ‘broken king’, is said to have prayed after his defeat by Cromwell at the Battle of Naseby in 1645. In the second two paragraphs of Section I, he addresses ‘you’, presumably the reader, but also himself. The tone is instructional, even severe:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
The purpose is not intellectual, but devotional; the reward will be communication from the dead whose messages are redeemed through prayer. Eliot refers to the dead being ‘tongued with fire’ a reference to Pentecost, but Pentecostal fire in this quartet is fused with the Purgatorial fire which purifies the soul.
Section II opens, as in the other quartets, with a formal poem in three stanzas. This one seems to be an apocalyptic annihilation of all four elements preceding a Dantesque vision set in the London of the Blitz where Eliot was a fire warden. Once again, this passage gains its power from its foundation in the actual. Eliot writes of the ‘dark dove with the flickering tongue’, a terrifying depiction of a bomber plane, which gains extra force through the ironic negative image of a symbol usually used to represent the Holy Ghost, particularly when conferring the Pentecostal gift of tongues. On patrol amidst the fires of the bombed city, the poet, mimicking the figure of Dante, speaks in the first person to a figure he encounters, ‘a familiar compound ghost’; originally, this was to have been Brunetto Latini, Dante’s dead teacher whom he met in the Inferno, but Eliot revised the poem to make it a much more general representation of the voices of the dead. Also, it may make more sense to place this passage in Purgatory as the poet is concerned with purgatorial fire as the path to redemption. Although there is dialogue between ‘I and ‘you’ and most of the passage is in the voice of the poet’s interlocutor, Eliot recognises the fictional nature of this device when he writes:
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another’s voice cry: ‘What! Are you here?’
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other –
And he a face still forming;
Thus the dead do communicate, but only through the voice of the attentive living. The division of the poetic self into two voices reflects Eliot’s predilection for drama or ventriloquism, so noticeable in The Waste Land, but also a force here. It is a device which energises the verse and pays tribute to Dante, but it is also a way of escaping the personal, of donning a mask or masks. The spirit visitant delivers an unpalatable message in a tone of savage irony:
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
In addition to physical decay as ‘body and soul begin to fall asunder, and the painful sense of powerlessness to affect events, the listener is told to expect the ‘rending pain of re-enactment/Of all that you have done and been’. The displacement of this threat to the voice of the ‘familiar compound ghost’ cannot disguise the emotion of guilt which emanates from these lines.
There is one point in Section 2 where the ghost’s address moves from second person into the plural first person, when he identifies a shared purpose:
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
It is the ghost who includes the poet in the tradition of the creators and preservers of language and connects this custody over language with the tasks of ‘aftersight and foresight’. This returns the poet to his theme of time as well suggesting a prophetic function to his work. However, the ghost moves fairly quickly away from the consideration of ‘the tribe’ to the future facing the poet, or ‘the exasperated spirit’ which can only be ‘ by that refining fire’. The soul must suffer the fires of purgatory, but must at the same time ‘move in measure, like a dancer’. This image may refer us back to the dancers in East Coker , whose movements, apparently unwittingly reflect divine order; it may be a suggestion that the tortured suffering of the soul in purgatory is beautiful because it leads to redemption and because it is part of the Divine Plan. I cannot help being reminded, when I read this quartet, of the fantasy children’s novel, The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, which employs the images of fire and roses to purify and cleanse animals and humans. MacDonald was a Scottish Victorian clergyman whose stories were enormously popular and influential.
Section III opens with a botanical image which is very difficult to construe: ‘indifference’ is said to be ‘between two lives –unflowering, between/The live and the dead nettle.’ Richard Mabey, whose Flora Britannica is a comprehensive and definitive guide to British plants, notes in his entry on the stinging nettle, that it ‘marks the sites of many deserted villages, Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire for instance…’. This seems like a sly nod to Eliot but may indicate again that the poet’s imagery stems from observed detail in a specific setting. Stinging nettles do flower, but not so obviously as the dead-nettle which, whether red or white, has a similar leaf. It is unclear whether Eliot is distinguishing these benign plants from the stinging nettle or whether he is making a distinction between different stages in growth of the stinging nettle. The poet is saying something very complicated in this passage but the simile or analogy does not quite work, perhaps because it is not quite sure if it is poetry (simile) or philosophical exposition (analogy). As so often, Eliot reverts to paradox: ‘History may be servitude,/History may be freedom.’ This assertion is followed by an instruction, ‘See’, as if Eliot seeks almost to drag the reader with him into a moment of vision:
See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
Reflections on history and the dead are followed by a reiteration of the words of Julian of Norwich which indicate the conclusion towards which the poem is moving:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
The ‘ground of our beseeching’ is how Christ described himself to Julian.
Section IV is made up of two formally condensed and strictly patterned stanzas which bring together Pentecostal and Purgatorial fire and identify pain and terror with Love. The theology is clear but the lines are too neat. Eliot insists on the path to God through suffering, offering us the fires of Hell or the fires of Purgatory
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
Some readers may reject the ‘we’ of these final two lines. The poet is pushing the work to a conclusion, trying to tie up all the ends in the ‘knot’ of the last two lines of Section V.
A lot of this final section is a recapitulation of the earlier quartets and begins again with what seems like, but is not, an excursus on the composition of poetry.
(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)
Although the prescription sounds slightly prissy, this pursuit of the moving pattern of dance in language reflects Eliot’s apprehension of the divine order as dance and measure, a dance the poet can partake of through language. The dominant pronoun of the last section is ‘we’ and while the reader may not always go along with this inclusiveness, we recognise that the conclusion of the poem posits communion and commonality.
In this series of posts, I have attempted to engage with Eliot’s poem as a lay person, neither academic nor theologian. I recognise that many of the complexities of the poet’s thought have escaped me as have a multiplicity of allusions in a work which is dense with echoes from ‘familiar compound ghosts’. Nevertheless, I have been rewarded by working towards my own reading of The Four Quartets, which I continue to treasure even as I reject much of what it says.