08 July 2006

Bearing Witness: Christian Poetry in the 20th Century (Part I)

Read: T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

I am taking a class at Regent College for two weeks called "Bearing Witness: Christian Poetry in the 20th Century." We are studying three great poets who were Christians (at least they were by the end of their careers): T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Czeslaw Milosz. We have completed our study of Eliot and his Four Quartets now, so I'll only write about him. I hope to do posts about the others later.

Eliot is incredibly hard to understand, but professor Alan Jacobs (from Wheaton College) is doing a fantastic job explaining the background of Eliot's thinking (he was steeped in Buddhism and Hinduism before he became a Christian) so that we can see what he's on about in Four Quartets. Eliot is basically getting to the point of rejecting his past philosophy, but he lets it have its last stand before he sets it aside for good in the final of the four quartets ("Little Gidding"). Throughout 4Qts, he's basically wrestling with three questions:

Question 1. What does it mean to live in time? (Eastern religions consider the temporal realm illusory and aim for the eternal present, whereas Christianity esteems and indeed depends on linear/sequential time of history; we cannot say "I once was lost but now am found" without time. The Incarnation is the intersection of the timeless with time.)

Eliot begins "Burnt Norton" with:

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.

In this first poem, he's still expressing the Buddhist thought of "The inner freedom from the practical desire, / The release from action and suffering." (BN-II) But through a series of experiences and grapplings with this question, he finally comes to hold firm to the faith that there is value in redeeming the time. In "Little Gidding" section V:

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.

Question 2. What is my relationship to God?

In "The Dry Salvages" Eliot is still flirting with the animism and pantheism of eastern religions:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god...
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

But in the ruined chapel of "Little Gidding" Eliot comes to the point where he can finally say,

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Question 3. What is the value of writing poetry? (It is common for Christian poets to doubt the possibility of representing Christian truth through poetry, and even the wisdom of attempting to do that; Eliot wrestles with this problem of the limitation of words vs. his calling to be a poet.)

In "Burnt Norton" section V, he introduces this theme:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

In "East Coker" section II-B, he writes, criticizing his own words of II-A:

That was a way of putting it--not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter...

Later in section V, however, he realizes that he must try, and not worry about whether his words will be successful or not:

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

By the end of Four Quartets, he has finally embraced the fact that although words may be inadequate to express the infinite truths he is coming to believe, words are all we have and we must use them. In "Little Gidding" section V:

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.

Also, there are a lot of references in the poem to concrete experiences in Eliot's life, so if you know a bit about his biography this stuff makes more sense. For example "Burnt Norton" section 3 is all about the London Underground. Eliot commuted to his office via the Tube every day, and here he's using imagery from his experience of descending down the escalator at Gloucester Road station and back up the elevator at Russell Square at the other end of his trip. Hampstead, Clerkenwell, etc., are all stops on the Underground. There are also obscure references to quotes from the philosopher Heraclitus, the philosopher of change, in there. Heraclitus said, "The way down and the way up are the same." Eliot says,

This [the way down] is the one way and the other [the way up]
Is the same, not in movement [like the escalator]
But abstention from movement [in the elevator]; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.

There's so much in there, I could go on. But this is enough to give an idea of the richness of Eliot's work and this class.


Rosie Perera said...

Here's a resource page, with links, bibliographies, and quotes about Eliot, Auden, and Milosz, that professor Alan Jacobs put together for the above-mentioned course.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, this is super super helpful. I've always struggled with Eliot, not in the sense of despising what he did with (or to) poetry, as did Lewis and his cadre, just simply fighting to understand and knowing there are depths I'm not even approaching. What you wrote here makes an enormous amount of sense in a small space. May I use these ideas and even your actual post in teaching Eliot this coming term?

Rosie Perera said...

Yes you may! I'd be honored. I'll try to write more from my notes in the coming days, since you've found that bit so helpful. And since explaining it to someone else will help me learn it better.

Iambic Admonit said...

That's one reason I teach, and love to teach, and study to teach....

Andrew Simone said...

Helpful, indeed! I like some of these thoughts myself. I have the habit of reading through the Four Quartets once a year. I am about due, come to think of it.

I look forward to testing these thoughts.

Incidentally, this blog is so delightful I am going to link to you, if that is acceptable.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks very much for your comment. Of course you may link, and I look forward to browsing your site.

Why do you read Four Quartets every year? Are there other works you read over and over? What draws you to those particular poems? I'm intrigued.

Andrew Simone said...

I reread Four Quartets for a number of reasons, I suppose. Here are a few:

1. Everytime I read them, I pick up something new.
2. Our common fascination with both time and language.
3. I think it is his ripest, most cultivated work (although, I am no scholar).

I also reread the Wasteland at the end of March for obvious reasons.

Other(non-poetic) works I will reread often, if not yearly:

1. This side of Paradise by Fitzgerald
2. A Moveable Feast by Hemingway.
3. Franny and Zooey by Salinger
4. Portrait of the Artist by Joyce (less frequently)

I am of the opinion that, particularly with poets, it is good to find a favorite and stick with him/her. Eliot has been a dear friend, of sorts, since early college.

Andrew Simone said...

Incidentally, I found recordings of Eliot, reading the Wasteland online.

Iambic Admonit said...

Do you know this book?

Dove Descending: A Journey into Four Quartets

It must be terrific! Thomas Howard is an excellent speaker, writing, and scholar on Lewis, Charles Williams, and Shakespeare, to name a few.