November 19, 2004

Burnt offering

I was thinking about Eliot again. On Wednesday I met a friend at the British Museum and on the way out we went to the London Review Bookshop nearby. We were particularly interested in the Classics section downstairs, where I would have bought Ste Croix's Class Struggles In The Ancient Greek World had it not been for the thirty pound price tag.

Searching around for something more palatable to my pocket, I found myself looking for a suitable selection of TS Eliot, as their Poetry section is right next to their Classics. I never really found one - either you had to buy a complete works, plays and all, or a selection that while possessing most of the great poems seemed to omit the Four Quartets - and it was these in which I was most interested, since I had been thinking about Burnt Norton ever since writing about it previously.

So I flicked through a few of the texts until I found the first of the Four Quartets, and started to read it again. And it's strange, I didn't much like the opening lines:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
which seem to me to be convoluted, which lack the aspect of linguistic clarity which I admire in Eliot's verse. To say so is not to ask the question what is the poet trying to say?, which rarely has a simple answer, especially not in Eliot, and which isn't, anyway, a question one should really be asking. The meaning of the poem depends ultimately on the reader. But it is to ask the question what is the poet saying?, i.e. what is the plain meaning of the words? What, before you start looking behind the curtain, is occurring at the front of the stage?

So, for instance, in the lines
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
it may be hard to say what is "cruel" about bringing life out of barren soil or in rain engendering new growth. But the lines, the words themselves, are easily followed. Only the meaning is obscure.

But with the opening of Burnt Norton, one feels one is being asked to memorise a formula, a convoluted incantation, trying to work out, as one goes, what time is doing in each instance or which version of time one is referring to:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
That is not Eliot, for me: while the quality of aphorism is the reason, above all, I like him, it is, I think, a necessary characteristic of an aphorism that it should be straightforward. It should be presentable, should seek to make its point. It should not dawdle.

But I moved on to the line which has been picking at me:
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality
and here it is not so much the aphorism which has preyed on my mind, as the line which preceded it.

That said, it is the second part of the line which gives the first its particular mood, and it's that mood which has always attracted and unsettled me - the mood of probable good reason for despair, the mood of likely futility. It is probably is not worth it - people will see what they wish to see, they will not look the truth in the face as they ought to, they will not tell the truth if telling the truth matters.

Because human kind cannot bear very much reality, and therefore those who cannot escape the truth, those who lack that facility for avoiding looking at and dealing with the unpalatably difficult, are always let down by the people who have that apparently perfectly common, normal and probably healthy characteristic. To think, to be unable not to think, is always to be Cassandra, and necessarily to be aware that this is so. And one must therefore always be reminded of it - of the inevitability of betrayal and defeat, and the equal inevitability of being aware of that outcome all along.

I will hear that, now, with the call of the bird. That is what was bothering me. Go, go, go, said the bird: I will hear that sound of despair with the call of the bird. I have never learned that call of the thrush, the bird to which Eliot refers, but I know that I shall listen for it now, and hear it, perhaps, in other birdsong that resembles that repeated monosyllable - the cry of the seagull, the blackbird's caw. Eliot asks:

....shall we follow
The deception of the thrush?
But it is no deception, really - that is another of his paradoxes. It is the absence of deception. That is the whole problem. That is the whole irreconcilable problem.

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation
and we are doomed to remain within that world of speculation, throughout our lives, while knowing, at the same time, that it was bound to turn out as it did, one end, which was always present.


At December 10, 2004 3:56 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is not quite what you're saying, but the meaning of "April is the cruellest month" never seemed obscure to me. I always saw it as a comment on how it is more painful to hope again than just to despair. But then perhaps that's just my personal interpretation.


At January 07, 2006 8:12 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You haven't since bought Ste Croix's book about the Class Struggle have you? I'm looking for an idea for a present!


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