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.

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