Saturday, 24 November 2018

Books that make my worldview, #1: TS Eliot's Four Quartets

(For the intro to this series, go here.)

I am not doing this series in any kind of coherent order, but just as it comes. So first up, perhaps oddly, is some poetry. I am not a poetry critic, I am not even very knowledgeable about it, but I offer this as a personal reflection. 

It's often difficult to say with any precision what a great poem is "about"; perhaps if we could do so there wouldn't be any need for the poem to exist. Four Quartets, a cycle of linked poems written by Eliot before and during the Second World War, are preoccupied with ideas that for various reasons I find very resonant: time, eternity, regret, memory, and the struggle to retrieve from the conditions of modernity some ongoing sense of stability, of rootedness and of a place within history. The Quartets appeal to me at least in part because they have given me ways of understanding and shaping and articulating my own thoughts and feelings about these complex themes. They are not easy to read, and defy "understanding" in any syllogistic or mechanical sense, but - crucially - neither are they deliberately obscure in the way of some Modernist works. Eliot is simply striving to do justice to the subject matter rather than being difficult for the sake of it or showing off his own cleverness. The references to Eastern mysticism, for example, are integrated into the philosophical arc of the poem, rather than being casually thrown in as part of a try-hard eclecticism.     


Eliot demonstrates in the Quartets how art that is unmistakeably Modernist in form and subject matter can nevertheless be part of the great tradition, respecting and developing what has come before rather than ignoring, belittling or mocking it. There is consolation to be found here too. Not merely personal consolation - the recognition that while life is hard and full of failure and wasted opportunities, redemption is an ultimate reality - but what you might, not very satisfactorily, call political consolation. Part III of 'Little Gidding', which is the last and in my view the finest of the poems, contains one of the finest poetic reflections on the tensions and hopes of the traditional conservative position.

Eliot also captures something of the spirit of what you might call Deep England. In 'Little Gidding' in particular he manages to articulate a spiritually satisfying Christian English patriotism, which is aware of the limits of patriotism when seen sub specie aeternatis but not dismissive of the legitimate ways in which Christianity can (must?) be intertwined with a national culture. My English patriotism has at its heart a somewhat mystical element and Eliot's work both appeals to that and grounds it in something serious. The England I love most deeply is the England of the Quartets, "the draughty church at smokefall" ('Burnt Norton') and "the deep lane / Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon" ('East Coker'). I fancy that I know exactly what was in Eliot's mind when he wrote of the time of year "when the short day is brightest, with frost and fire", when "the brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches", and as he evoked the moment when "the light fails / On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel" ('Little Gidding').

1 comment:

  1. Prior to the most significant religious services of the year I like to get into whatever Cathedral I happen to be worshipping in an hour before the service begins. I take this time to reflect (a serious house on serious earth...) immerse myself in the gathering atmosphere and read from Four Quartets. “....tongued with fire beyond the language of the living” it has permeated my soul like Holy Writ. Thanks for your eloquent reflections.

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