Four Quartets

I love T.S. Eliot’s writings. I have trouble sitting down and reading entire poems at once, and I have only read a few of his poems, and add to that that my copy of some of his poems is covered in some book club’s handwriting, and I feel like a bad, uneducated fan. Nonetheless, when I sit down with his Four Quartets or the Waste Land or the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, I can usually find wisdom and beauty in a few lines that stick out to me here or there. How can one react otherwise to great lines like “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”?

When I was much younger, I was a big fan of the musical Cats, which is based on his poetry. After a year or two my interest there faded as I started to look more askance at what was actually going on in the musical. But when, in Junior year, I ran across a few quotes from Four Quartets in a story and was introduced to The Waste Land by Mr. Rayburn’s excellent English class, I was intrigued. I doubt that I interpret the lines anywhere near the way Mr. Eliot intended, but they have plenty of meaning to me. He fits well in my mind alongside HP Lovecraft, despite one of them being a Nobel prize winning poet and the other being something of a penniless shut-in pulp horror writer. Part of it is probably because they were somewhat contemporaries, and part of it is the weird fragmented feeling I have from reading T.S. Eliot’s poetry is comparable to the weird fragmented feeling I have from reading Lovecraft. I think the fragmented impression from Lovecraft comes more from his pulp style and inability to write with what might be called skill than from an intended effect though…

I also like the way he seems to treat time as something fluid, which changes speed. Maybe it’s just my reading of it. One moment you are rushing through a patter of syllables and images and the next he seems to slow time down to a crawl in meditation on one aspect. And some things, like my quote below from Little Gidding, remind me of the monologue from the end of Riven with its cyclical, meditative treatment of arriving back where you started (“Endings and beginings are within the Fissure, that riven cleft of stars that acts as both wall and a bridge…”).

Anyway, I wanted to share some of my favorite lines from these three poems.

My top favorite (which contains a lot of shorter quotes I like individually too) is probably the end of Little Gidding from Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I also have a few favorite sections from The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, in addition to the one I mentioned above.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window panes…

In fact, back in high school I made some art around these lines:

In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michalangelo.

This one is good too, in the vein of the ragged claws quote:

For I have known them already, known them all –
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

From the Waste Land there are some favorites too, this one from The Burial of the Dead:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor…

From A Game of Chess:

Footsteps shuffled on the stair.
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

From The Fire Sermon:

  At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting…

From What the Thunder Said:

  Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road

If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapped in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man of a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

I really like this imagery of a red, sandy, rocky desert, someone struggling through the desert and hallucinating a Christ-like figure on their journey.

  A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings…

And back to other favorites from Four Quartets, the famous opening to Burnt Norton:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future…

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow…

By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.

East Coker – I like this passage’s confusion between doctor and patient:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Little Gidding from Four Quartets is probably my favorite to read, although the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock also seems similarly more concise and on-topic than some of the others I’ve mentioned.

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from…

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report…

We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration.

I’ve tried a few times to put lines from Little Gidding into visual form, but so far it hasn’t worked. Maybe one of these days I’ll manage. The poems give me lots to think about when I read them, and if I get bored of them I can always do research to find out what all the things he alludes to are, since especially The Waste Land is full of them.

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