Wednesday, March 31, 2010

From Little Gidding, fourth of the Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

This is an excerpt whose rhythm and contents have been ringing through me for a few hours now, so I figured I should take a look at it again to see how it really goes. It is from Eliot's Four Quartets, and I've always loved this passage in the fourth and last quartet's second part (called Little Gidding, the name of a place in England which Eliot had visited in 1936, prior to writing the three remaining quartets. The first, "Burnt Norton", was written in 1935, at first meant to be a single poem, but was followed by three related quartets in 1939-43.).

Like almost every other part of the Quartets, this section offers new layers of insight nearly every time I read it - if thoroughly done.

In the uncertain hour before the morning
      Near the ending of interminable night
      At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
      Had passed below the horizon of his homing
      While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
      Between three districts whence the smoke arose
      I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
      Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
      And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
      The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
      I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
      Both one and many; in the brown baked features
      The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
      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; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
      And so, compliant to the common wind,
      Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
In concord at this intersection time
      Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
      We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
I said: 'The wonder that I feel is easy,
      Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak:
      I may not comprehend, may not remember.'
And he: 'I am not eager to rehearse
      My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
      These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
      By others, as I pray you to forgive
      Both bad and good. Last season's fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
      For last year's words belong to last year's language
      And next year's words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
      To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
      Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
      In streets I never thought I should revisit
      When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
      To purify the dialect of the tribe
      And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
      To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
      First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
      But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
      As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
      At human folly, and the laceration
      Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
      Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
      Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
      Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
      Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
      Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
      Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.'
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
      He left me, with a kind of valediction,
      And faded on the blowing of the horn.


This is an hommage to Dante, whose style Eliot here wished to imitate. He found it very hard, he said, but I find this section lyrical, flowing, musical and with a rather mystical atmosphere placed as it is between midnight and dawn and with its metal leaves rattling like tin over the empty streets. I guess you can spot a few similarities to La Divina Commedia. One, as already mentioned, is the terza rima style which Dante used in his most central work. Another is how the lyrical 'I' meets a person who seems to be guiding him through this transitional place, like Dante's I meets Virgil. It could also be suggested that it is Dante himself the I meets - although this is a rather far stretch, I agree.

Another literary echo seems to be Hamlet, or rather the ghost of Hamlet's father in the beginning of the play. He, too, appears after sundown and fades at the breaking of the day. And the whole setting is equally mysterious - even spooky.

Still it is a piece of poetry closely linked to Eliot's everyday "routine" during the beginning of the war. He used to be part of a fire guard, walking the streets of London at night looking for fires caused by German planes ("the dark dove with the flickering tongue").

Anyway, the piece has value on its own as well as part of a large tradition and Eliot's personal circumstances. The best thing is of course to read the whole of the work, the four quartets together, for a better insight into this surprisingly manifold piece of literature. A good thing is also to listen to it, if you have access to a recording of the Quartets. Then you will really get it under your skin, rhythm and music especially. Which would probably please Eliot, who esteemed the music of language and actively sought to give his poetry that aesthetic quality.

Enough quartet and Eliot-speak for now? Think so.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Form and emptiness

By Taikkun Yang Li at
As the Sunday settles I'd like to highlight a quote from Dalai Lama on form and emptiness, a closely knit pair:

"Since form (phenomena) is emptiness and emptiness is form, then instead of a hand grasping at nothing, it is better to grasp at someone´s nose because this is closer to reality." How can anyone not be fond of this man?

And so, the subject matter. Empty and non-empty are two impossible ways of describing, in lack of a better word, emptiness. Form/phenomena and emptiness are viewed to be two sides of a coin, two ways of describing the same thing. One cannot, it seems, describe and name the things that surpass language, that lie beyond the scope of conceptualization. How, then, can one grasp this notion?

One is through paradox. By embracing paradoxical truths, sitting with them, walking with them, bending one's mind to them. 'Can I contain this? How does this make sense? What part of my being is touched by this?' And then to quiet one's mind to linguistic intrusion. Language is not the place to get what lies in the form/emptiness thought. Toss any pair of concept overboard, and concentrate on the direct knowing of reality: "At the still point of the turning world [...] there the dance is" (T.S. Eliot). Or

Not dependent on another, peaceful and
Not fabricated by mental fabrication,
Not thought, without distinctions,
That is the character of reality (that-ness). (Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika, XVIII, 9. Transl. J. Garfield.)

At the same time: words are needed in order to get our thoughts out there, and of course to learn what other people are thinking. There's obviously a necessity to travel from a non-verbal state as an infant, into the world of concept and language and then to take a few steps (or more) into the wordless, timeless sphere. "Only through time time is conquered" (my friend Eliot again).
In this wilderness of concepts and words and what one really means by the words one speaks, Dalai Lama seems to have a wonderfully pragmatic and playful approach to it all - at least when he is speaking to us laymen. He seems to emanate a wonderful and easy lightheartedness, a true kind of contentment. To me, only a look at his face makes my heart lighten up. And forget about any tight knot of ideas and language and fuzzy thinking. Life can be so light!

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Name of a Fish by Faith Shearin

Don't you just love this title? And the smooth summery cool it brings along. As well as a quiet blue hope for tomorrow. I didn't know I was looking for this poem before I found it.

The Name of a Fish

If winter is a house then summer is a window
in the bedroom of that house. Sorrow is a river
behind the house and happiness is the name

of a fish who swims downstream. The unborn child
who plays in the fragrant garden is named Mavis:
her red hair is made of future and her sleek feet

are wet with dreams. The cat who naps
in the bedroom has his paws in the sun of summer
and his tail in the moonlight of change. You and I

spend years walking up and down the dusty stairs
of the house. Sometimes we stand in the bedroom
and the cat walks towards us like a message.

Sometimes we pick dandelions from the garden
and watch the white heads blow open
in our hands. We are learning to fish in the river

of sorrow; we are undressing for a swim.

by Faith Shearin
from "The Owl Question", 2002


How well caught the image of the cat walking "towards us like a message". The silent dignity of their charachter transferred to you in a flash.
Then there is an underpinning of water throughout the poem, making it flowing, cool and hydrating while at the same time it is carrying a soothing and reassuring note - and just a hint of melancholy.

Then again, it is the whole of the poem rather than its parts which makes the impression, wouldn't you say?