October 16, 2004

Line correction

There's a poster on the London Underground advertising the National Portrait Gallery - I just saw one on the wall at Stockwell crossing from the southbound Northern Line to the Victoria Line. In large letters it displays the following quote:

Human kind
cannot bear very
much reality

and underneath, in smaller letters, says:
excerpt from The Four Quartets by TS Eliot.
But next to this claim, somebody has scribbled:

No! It's from "Murder In The Cathedral"!

Intrigued - since one only infrequently sees corrections of attribution scrawled on advertising posters in South London - I went home and looked it up.

The answer - that it's both - reminds me of one of those argument-settling columns you used to get in comics, or still get in the sports pages of some Sunday papers: the reply, in this instance, being "you and your friend are both right". Or, on reflection, that though they're both right, the graffitist, in correcting the poster, was also wrong.

Certainly, the line comes originally from the play - it's spoken by Thomas Beckett in Part II. But shortly after completing the play he wrote Burnt Norton, the first of the Four Quartets, and there it is again:

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
I like Eliot. I think he was the last poet I read properly, since I find it hard to read now, hard to read novels, harder still to read poetry. But I remember going through The Waste Land in my fellow lodger's Selected Poems not long after I arrived in London. (And rereading The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock, which I remember quoting in a long email to my friends just after I got out of hospital, having been close to death, two years before.
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

It's not so important to ask what a poet meant in a poem: the real meaning is the one which you discover in it. But it only occurs to me, now, that I don't know what I meant by that line, when I quoted it then. It sounds confused, permanently changing one's mind, frantic, which is how I was at the time. But it was not the impression I was trying to convey. I was not how I thought I was.)

Anyway, Eliot. I do like him. He's full of thoughts and aphorisms and insights accurately put, the way I like to feel language used, the way I like to see ideas expressed. And he seems to me deep without, in fact, being linguistically difficult, or pretentious: the difficulty is all in the range of reference. Eliot is full of imported verses and bulk quotations, sometimes slightly altered, perhaps most notably the passage from The Waste Land taken from Antony and Cleopatra:

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne
in which Shakespeare wrote not Chair but barge. He knows what he is doing is potentially difficult in a number of ways - I do not think there was any poet before Eliot who provided, with his poems, footnotes to explain his own work. But I do not find him difficult to read.

Anyway, given his technique of importing material more or less directly from previous works and sources, it perhaps should have occurred to me, as it failed to occur to the graffitist, that - like Mozart repeating Non piu andrai, from Le Nozze Di Figaro, in Don Giovanni - Eliot might have quoted himself. Perhaps I should go back to Stockwell Underground station and scrawl it on the poster, just so the graffitist, in the fortunate yet unfortunate position of knowing enough poetry to be wrong - can be put right?


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