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
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
And so, compliant to the common wind,
My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
Both bad and good. Last season's fruit is eaten
And next year's words await another voice.
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
He left me, with a kind of valediction,
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.