An excerpt from
(Poem #532) Little Gidding
Ash on an old man's sleeve Is all the ash the burnt roses leave. Dust in the air suspended Marks the place where a story ended. Dust inbreathed was a house- The walls, the wainscot and the mouse, The death of hope and despair, This is the death of air. There are flood and drouth Over the eyes and in the mouth, Dead water and dead sand Contending for the upper hand. The parched eviscerate soil Gapes at the vanity of toil, Laughs without mirth. This is the death of earth. Water and fire succeed The town, the pasture and the weed. Water and fire deride The sacrifice that we denied. Water and fire shall rot The marred foundations we forgot, Of sanctuary and choir. This is the death of water and fire. 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 fricton of expiring sense Without enchantment, offering no promise But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit As body and sould 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 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.
(Little Gidding: a village in south England, important historically to both Royalists and Anglicans; Eliot was a member of both groups). Eliot and Milton are, I think, the two poets most short-changed by the format we've chosen for this mailing list; although both of them have written some very good shorter poems, their true genius shines through only in their more major endeavours. Unfortunately, works such as Lycidas and The Waste Land are simply too long to be included in our daily emails... more's the pity, since they're among my favourite poems. Little Gidding is the final poem in Eliot's masterpiece, Four Quartets; it is also the last major poem he wrote. In it, Eliot comes to the end of a long and often tortuous spiritual journey, the entirety of which is chronicled in his verse - from the pain of conversion evident in Ash Wednesday, through the asceticism and mental discipline of the early quartets, up to the resolution (not entirely peaceful, it must be said) that occurs in today's poem. The Quartets are equally an investigation of the nature of Time and its relationship to Eternity; in Burnt Norton, (the first, and along with Little Gidding, the most celebrated of the Quartets) Eliot poses the problem of Time and its influence on human affairs; in East Coker and the Dry Salvages he expands the range of his meditation, and in Little Gidding he approaches a solution. So, what is this solution? Well, a complete explication of the poem is beyond the scope of this forum, and _way_ beyond the capabilities of this reviewer <grin>; still, here's my stab at it. The poem opens with a harsh description of the passage of Time. A regular alternation of trimeter and tetrameter, along with a strict aabbcc rhyme scheme and an absence of enjambment , means that the lines are bound into tight couplets. The effect is to convey an impression of a ritual litany; the final line of each stanza acts as a sort of refrain, a chanted "Amen" that lends the process of decay a feeling of inevitability. The lines themselves are predominantly iambic, but with frequently inverted feet; this pattern continues into the second section, which is in an almost (but not quite) uniform iambic pentameter. The second section is actually quite staggering in its achievement. Eliot manages the astonishing feat of describing a scene set in wartime England in word patterns that seem to be straight out of medieval Europe; indeed, Britannica informs me that "the diction is as near to that of Dante as is possible in English" . The section is written in a sort of modified (unrhymed) terza rima ; through it, Eliot manages to link present and past in a manner that's perfectly natural and utterly wonderful. The action is as follows: in the grim aftermath of an air-raid ("the dark dove with the flickering tongue" is a German bomber ), the poet meets a 'familiar compound ghost', whom he recognizes as being an amalgam of 'dead masters', great poets of the past. The ghost describes to the poet the seeming futility of his work, "For last year's words belong to last year's language And next year's words await another voice. " and goes on to catalogue the agonies that old age brings. Yet all is not dark. For the ghost also holds out the promise of redemption: the poet can be restored by entering "that refining fire Where you must move in measure, like a dancer." In other words, the key to redemption is spiritual discipline; Eliot thus paints a contrast between the dark fire of the bomber and the refining fire of religion. Through the latter, the destructive power of the former is negated. thomas.  enjambment, 'the running over of a sentence from one verse or couplet into another so that closely related words fall in different lines'. -- Merriam-Webster, www.m-w.com  Of course, my Italian is about as good as my Klingon, which is to say, it's non-existent. Could some kind member of the list who actually speaks the language comment on the truth of this statement? Cristina?  the same form used in the Divine Comedy; see http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/terza.html  By way of comparison, in Burnt Norton, Eliot likens the descent into a bombed-out subway shelter to Dante's descent into the Inferno. It's links like this which make the Quartets such a wonderfully unified whole. [Links] My comments above notwithstanding, we have, as a matter of fact, run a fair bit of both Milton and Eliot in the past; see [broken link] http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index_poet.html for a complete listing. The entire text of Little Gidding can be found, for example, at www.bath.ac.uk/~bspajs/labyrinth/LittleGidd.html I've barely touched the surface of the meanings to be found in this poem (and in the Quartets as a whole); uncommented are the analogies with music, the symbolism of the flame and the rose, the many allusions to literature and to Eliot's personal experience... For a good introductory analysis, check out http://www.mum.edu/msvs/9199terryLittle.html [Assessment/Analysis] Eliot's masterpiece is The Four Quartets, which was issued as a book in 1943, though each "quartet" is a complete poem. The first of the quartets, "Burnt Norton," had appeared in the Collected Poems of 1936. It is a subtle meditation on the nature of time and its relation to eternity. On the model of this Eliot wrote three more poems, "East Coker" (1940), "The Dry Salvages" (1941), and "Little Gidding" (1942), in which he explored through images of great beauty and haunting power his own past, the past of the human race, and the meaning of human history. Each of the poems was self-subsistent; but when published together they were seen to make up a single work, in which themes and images recurred and were developed in a musical manner and brought to a final resolution. This work made a deep impression on the reading public, and even those who were unable to accept the poems' Christian beliefs recognized the intellectual integrity with which Eliot pursued his high theme, the originality of the form he had devised, and the technical mastery of his verse. This work led to the award to Eliot, in 1948, of the Nobel Prize for Literature. An outstanding example of Eliot's verse in The Four Quartets is the passage in "Little Gidding" in which the poet meets a "compound ghost," a figure composite of two of his masters: William Butler Yeats and Stéphane Mallarmé. The scene takes place at dawn in London after a night on duty at an air-raid post during an air-attack; the master speaks in conclusion: 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. The passage is 72 lines, in modified terza rima; the diction is as near to that of Dante as is possible in English; and it is a fine example of Eliot's belief that a poet can be entirely original when he is closest to his models. -- EB [On Eliot as a critic] Eliot said that the poet-critic must write "programmatic criticism"--that is, criticism that expresses the poet's own interests as a poet, quite different from historical scholarship, which stops at placing the poet in his background. Consciously intended or not, Eliot's criticism created an atmosphere in which his own poetry could be better understood and appreciated than if it had to appear in a literary milieu dominated by the standards of the preceding age. In the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," appearing in his first critical volume, The Sacred Wood (1920), Eliot asserts that tradition, as used by the poet, is not a mere repetition of the work of the immediate past ("novelty is better than repetition," he said); rather, it comprises the whole of European literature from Homer to the present. The poet writing in English may therefore make his own tradition by using materials from any past period, in any language. This point of view is "programmatic" in the sense that it disposes the reader to accept the revolutionary novelty of Eliot's polyglot quotations and serious parodies of other poets' styles in The Waste Land. Also in The Sacred Wood, "Hamlet and His Problems" sets forth Eliot's theory of the objective correlative: The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for that particular emotion; such that, when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. Eliot used the phrase "objective correlative" in the context of his own impersonal theory of poetry; it thus had an immense influence toward correcting the vagueness of late Victorian rhetoric by insisting on a correspondence of word and object. Two other essays, first published the year after The Sacred Wood, almost complete the Eliot critical canon: "The Metaphysical Poets" and "Andrew Marvell," published in Selected Essays, 1917-32 (1932). In these essays he effects a new historical perspective on the hierarchy of English poetry, putting at the top Donne and other Metaphysical poets of the 17th century and lowering poets of the 18th and 19th centuries. Eliot's second famous phrase appears here--"dissociation of sensibility," invented to explain the change that came over English poetry after Donne and Andrew Marvell. This change seems to him to consist in a loss of the union of thought and feeling. The phrase has been attacked, yet the historical fact that gave rise to it cannot be denied, and with the poetry of Eliot and Pound it had a strong influence in reviving interest in certain 17th-century poets. The first, or programmatic, phase of Eliot's criticism ended with The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)--his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. Shortly before this his interests had broadened into theology and sociology; three short books, or long essays, were the result: Thoughts After Lambeth (1931), The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948). These book-essays, along with his Dante (1929), an indubitable masterpiece, broadened the base of literature into theology and philosophy: whether a work is poetry must be decided by literary standards; whether it is great poetry must be decided by standards higher than the literary. -- EB [Moreover] Hmm. Brittanica says that 'the familiar compound ghost' is an amalgam of Yeats and Mallarmé. Alternative theories as to his identity abound, however; Swift, Shakespeare and Shelley have all been proposed as candidates. The homage to Dante, though, is unquestionable; compare the following passage from the Inferno, Canto XV: "A company of shades came into sight Walking beside the bank. They stared at us ... Stared at us so closely by the ghostly crew, I was recognized by one who seized the hem Of my skirt and said: "Wonder of Wonders! You?" ... I answered: "Sir Brunetto, are you here?"" And just as Brunetto proceeds to warn Dante of his fate, the 'dead master' warns Eliot of the fate of his poetry. Incidentally, the lines I quoted at the end of the Silk Road theme, "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." are also from Little Gidding, from the final section. (Today's poem is the second of five). Thanks to all the readers who wrote in to appraise me of the fact, thus providing me with my choice of poem for today. The analogies with music in the Four Quartets are legion; the overall structure, the repetition of themes and images, the verbal counterpoint... The immediate comparison, of course, is with Beethoven's final quartets, which form an equally profound statement of redemption in the midst of chaos. I've just found out that each of the Quartets is centred on one of the medieval elements - air, earth, water, and (in the case of today's poem) fire. Neat. thomas.