From T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

 

1962 Oil Painting by Sir Gerald Kelly.
National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian Institution,
Washington D.C.

T.S. Eliot has been lauded in this space before. You see, he moved on from the Wasteland and the Hollow Men, and  found succor and refreshment in the fields of the Lord. Even when the world he knew was ramping up for, and rent in two by, war, as was the case when he composed the Nobel Prize winning Four Quartets (1936-1942).

Such was the backdrop of the selection I share with you today. The Wikipedia citation shares the following background information on Little Gidding, which given the wars and rumors of wars we endure today, makes it suitable for the Thanksgiving Holiday to my mind (the links below are mine).

Little Gidding (the element of fire) is the most anthologized of the Quartets. Eliot’s experiences as an air raid warden in The Blitz power the poem, and he imagines meeting Dante during the German bombing. The beginning of the Quartets (“Houses / Are removed, destroyed”) had become a violent everyday experience; this creates an animation, where for the first time he talks of Love as the driving force behind all experience. From this background, the Quartets end with an affirmation of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well.”

The Four Quartets cannot be understood without reference to Christian thought, traditions, and history. Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, and mystics St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. The “deeper communion” sought in East Coker, the “hints and whispers of children, the sickness that must grow worse in order to find healing,” and the exploration which inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim’s path along the road of sanctification.

The first part begins with an examination of conscience, of sorts, and the conditions of the living.

The second part begins and ends with the touch of Julian of Norwich alluded to above. This section of the poem is like a mirror upon which I see the reflection of my own family and perhaps you will see yours too.

In truth, I daresay the reflection of the entire human family can be seen in Eliot’s lines in this third part of his fourth quartet.

Take a look and see if you agree.

Little Gidding, III

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives—unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.
If I think, again, of this place,
And of people, not wholly commendable,
Of no immediate kin or kindness,
But of some peculiar genius,
All touched by a common genius,
United in the strife which divided them;
If I think of a king at nightfall,
Of three men, and more, on the scaffold
And a few who died forgotten
In other places, here and abroad,
And of one who died blind and quiet
Why should we celebrate
These dead men more than the dying?
It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
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.

Read the entire poem here.

  • http://www.eliotsociety.org.uk TS Eliot Society (UK)

    Anyone who is now encouraged to discover more about TS Eliot and his works is invited to visit our website at The TS Eliot Society UK, where there is a wealth of links and resources for enthusiasts and scholars.

  • G

    If you want a thought-through and accessible but profound commentary, you don’t want to miss this book by Thomas Howard, called “Dove Descending” – http://www.ignatius.com/Products/DOVD-P/dove-descending.aspx – a must read!


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