Sunday, July 19, 2009

T.S. Eliot International Summer School

An Academic Tourist's Perspective

It’s taking me a while to process my thoughts on the first annual T.S. Eliot Summer School. The nine-day event was jam-packed with information and events. I came away with a spiral notebook completely filled with thoughts and ideas that will have to be sorted out later. In some cases, “later” could mean years. For the time being, all I can do is try to sum up the overall experience in an effort to encourage others to attend the second annual T.S. Eliot Summer School, which is already being planned.

On Saturday, June 27, Ronald Schuchard opened this year’s program by calling for a reevaluation of T.S. Eliot from a 21st century perspective that humanizes the poet and emphasizes the magic of his poetry. Co-director Warwick Gould added that the summer school was an attempt to make the notoriously enigmatic poet more accessible to curious students and casual enthusiasts as well as academics. Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney concentrated on the magic of poetry -- he spoke about the “auditory imagination,” drawing connections between poetry and prayer (both, he said, are vows that we make), and referred to Eliot as modern poetry’s subconscious mind.

In these introductions, it was hard not to hear the voice of Eliot coming through. In a 1930 essay on Dante he wrote, “It is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.” In that same essay he asserted, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

Eliot the Poet

Scottish poet Robert Crawford reinforced this point a few days later, in a revelatory lecture on Eliot’s poem "Marina," illustrating that the “subterrean music” of poetry is inseparable from the poem’s meaning. "Marina," he said, is (at least in part) a poem about Eliot’s longing for a child of his own. Accordingly, the music expresses “atunement with the rhythms of creation.” Paul Muldoon, current poetry editor for The New Yorker magazine and 1994 winner of the prestigious T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize, supported the dialogue about the music of poetry by confessing that his own early (unpublished) poetry was a series of imitations of cadences in "The Hollow Men" – proof that he absorbed the rhythm before he found the words.

Over the course of the week, there were many discussions about Eliot’s attempts to move “beyond words.” Eliot admitted that Four Quartets had been inspired by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, and biographer Lyndall Gordon noted that Beethoven was nearly deaf when he composed that quartet. Just as this string quartet was the musician’s attempt to move beyond music, she said, Four Quartets was Eliot’s attempt to move beyond words. Eliot himself said (in the 1942 lecture "The Music of Poetry") that the poet is always "occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist."

Professor Denis Donoghue strongly disagreed, saying that this statement was “true only in its beauty.” He remarked that it is absurd to suggest that words are somehow capable of moving beyond words… in his opinion, language (to quote another brilliant thinker) is the limit of our minds. Student Ross Cohen spoke up to help mediate the argument – suggesting that the limitations lie not in language but in the mind of the person using it. He referred to Eliot’s infamous criticism of Hamlet to illustrate his point. Gordon reiterated that "all poetry, insofar as it works through metaphor, operates at that frontier" because "metaphor itself pushes language beyond its ordinary limits."

For me, the meaning of Eliot’s poetry was expanded with every lecture and every reading over the course of the week. On June 30, we were treated to a live presentation of the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour, featuring Jeremy Irons, Dominic West, Seamus Heaney and Ann Carteret. Irons kicked things off with a reading of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I was thrilled because this was a combination of two of my personal passions: horror movies and T.S. Eliot. (I am most familiar with Irons from his dual role in David Cronenberg’s horror film DEAD RINGERS. From now on when people ask what Eliot’s poetry and horror movies have in common, I will answer: “Jeremy Irons.”)

That said, I understood why one of my fellow students complained that Irons, whose reading was surprisingly theatrical, robbed the Prufrock persona of vulnerability. No such complaint could be made about his performance in the role of Sweeney, from “Fragment of an Agon.” Irons, West and Carteret brought this dialogue alive so powerfully that everyone in the room was astounded – even Seamus Heaney, who at the end of the performance looked positively giddy. Heaney was a warm and enthusiastic presence throughout the week, but this is the only time that I saw him looking unreservedly gleeful, like a kid at the circus… and his energy was contagious. Afterwards, Heaney joined the quartet for a show-stopping performance of The Waste Land. The poem indisputably came most alive when he read the opening sections of “The Fire Sermon” and “What the Thunder Said.”

But even that could not top Heaney and Crawford’s impassioned reading of Eliot’s final poetic statement – “Little Gidding” – in front of the tiny country church that inspired it. That was all the proof I needed that the music and the meaning of poetry are one. In that regard, this simple reading was an achievement that no written essay could compete with, and a moment that made me extremely grateful to be part of this summer school program.

Eliot the Man

Biographer Lyndall Gordon led the charge on the mission to humanize Eliot for a new generation. She gave a lecture on a pattern of timeless moments – “moments when love moves past its object” – that defined his personal life. The main examples were said to reflect Eliot’s mysterious relationship with Emily Hale, and at least one student was deeply moved by the biographer’s approach to this topic. Hannah Samuelsson wondered aloud how Gordon could take for granted that Eliot had been in love with Emily. Gordon responded that the genre of biography is necessarily somewhat subjective, and said that she chose to emphasize certain facts that might lead the reader to draw this conclusion. As we read about Eliot, each of us develops our own unique perspective on who he really was. (No doubt that’s why there are so many works of biographical criticism on the notoriously secretive poet.)

Professor David Moody dug even deeper into the Eliot’s life by contrasting his worldview with that of his fellow poet and friend Ezra Pound. I found this lecture hugely illuminating because I’ve never been able to wrap my head around Pound’s work. By contrasting Eliot’s mission to save the individual soul with Pound’s secular mission to “save the world,” Moody provided me with a method of approach. I don’t entirely agree with his interpretation of The Waste Land’s fourth section ("Death by Water") as an expression of Eliot’s nihilism – I think that the sense of nihilism in the finished poem has at least as much to do with Pound’s edits as with Eliot’s words – but I ultimately learned more from this lecture than I did from other lectures that reinforced my own thoughts and opinions.

Professor Barbara Hardy managed to put a human face on Eliot by remembering a time when she encountered him in the lift inside the Russell Square tube station. She didn’t address him, but inched closer so that she could look for the initials on his briefcase and verify that she was indeed standing in an elevator with one of her favorite poets. Following Lyndall Gordon’s open-ended reading of The Waste Land and David Moody’s accusation of nihilism, Hardy presented a more sympathetic reading. She opined that the sea imagery echoes a passage in Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, in which one character says that by submitting to the will of the sea – by surrendering to its destructive force – one can stay afloat and survive. Hearing this, I was reminded of something that another student, Tom Day, had said during the course of the week. He finds hope in the fragmentation of The Waste Land, noting that Eliot does not say “I cannot connect anything with anything.” Instead, Eliot affirms, “I can connect nothing with nothing.” The word “can,” for this reader, makes all the difference… and such attention to minutiae serves as an illustration of just how intense the study of Eliot’s poetry can get.

Ron Schuchard offered another reading of The Waste Land, as a “love poem of personal desolation.” He noted that young readers are often energized by the suffering in Eliot’s poetry, rather than disheartened by perceived nihilism, and offered this advice to the next generation of Eliot teachers: “Don’t exclude the mind that suffers from the mind that creates.” Eliot is more like us than we sometimes imagine… a flesh and blood, deeply-flawed human being in search of meaning.

In a 1953 lecture, Eliot said that “the poet has something germinating in him for which he must find words; but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order. When you have the words for it, the ‘thing’ for which the words had to be found has disappeared, replaced by a poem.” Poetry was Eliot’s magic – the creation of a new whole that is more than the sum of old parts – and it retains the power to expand our thoughts, emotions and experiences… enriching us not just as thinkers or writers, but as people.

I believe this is what Eliot meant about “purifying the dialect of the tribe”… He was not merely striving to preserve language; he wanted to expand the limits of our language, thereby expanding the limits of our minds, enhancing our ability to communicate, and enlarging our collective consciousness.

Eliot the Critic

To advance this agenda, Eliot assumed the role of preeminent critic of art and culture in his later years. He aimed to reveal links to the past and the future that could give his readers a sense of their place in the continuum of history, and to a world beyond history.

Professor Jennifer Formichelli argued that the most obvious way the poet did this was through his epigraphs. Through short, mysterious references, Eliot makes the reader want to know the authors he is referencing, she said. I agree completely. In fact, I first discovered Eliot because someone else had made such an allusion to "The Hollow Men" – proof that this technique works. I love Formichelli's “dream” of creating an anthology of the pieces that Eliot alludes to in his works. What a mammoth anthology that would be, including works by Dante, Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, George Herbert and the Metaphysical Poets, and hundreds of others.

The influence of Shakespeare was a popular topic at the summer school. Both Denis Donoghue and Sir Christopher Ricks gave lectures on Eliot’s engagement with the greatest writer in the English language. Donoghue made the case that Shakespeare’s play Pericles and Eliot’s poem "Marina" constitute the height of their co-mingling. Ricks, with a command of rhetorical language worthy of his subjects, reinforced Eliot’s evaluation of Othello as a play about a “universally weak” man, rather than a weak play. Both speakers acknowledged Eliot’s esteem for the mature works of Shakespeare that reflect the culmination of a unified body of work following an intricate pattern.

Professor Jason Harding tackled Eliot’s engagement with a much lesser-known writer, French philosopher Jacques Maritain. I admit I knew nothing about Maritain before this presentation, and so I sat spellbound as Harding explained Eliot’s mindset during the tumultuous years between his religious conversation (1927) and the writing of "Burnt Nurton" (1935) according to the influences of Maritain’s ultra-conservative philosophy. Professor Anthony Cuda cast another light on these dark years by examining Eliot’s evolution into a dramatist during his time as a critic for the London periodical The Atheneaum. From my perspective, both of these lectures on what might seem like minor influences were major contributions to the study of Eliot, and I look forward to seeing them in print.

All of the lectures showed how Eliot’s role as a critic helped to define him as a poet and a person. In a 1956 lecture, Eliot said that his criticism was a “byproduct” of his “private poetry workshop.” Later, he added, “I have written best about writers who have influenced my own poetry.” Eliot has influenced all of us. He is, as Seamus Heaney said, modern poetry’s subconscious mind. I’d go even further to say that he is a significant part of the 20th century’s subconscious mind. We encounter his ideas and his poetic phrases everywhere… Often, they come from people who couldn’t identify the source if you asked them to. The poet and the critic have been completely absorbed into pop culture, and that’s proof that the man knew his magic.


This summary of the (impeccably organized) academic program does not adequately convey the full summer school experience, which also included a few field trips. Professor Wim Van Mierlo led a walking tour of the City of London, pointing out sites that were borrowed for symbolic purposes in The Waste Land. (I posted a shorter-but-similar “virtual tour” on my blog a couple of years ago.)

We also visited three out of the four landscapes that inspired Eliot’s Four Quartets. At each location, we were treated to additional lectures by Mark Ford (on Burnt Norton), Gail McDonald (on East Coker), and Ronald Schuchard (on Little Gidding). At the end of the week, Professor Jewel Spears Brooker gave a stellar lecture about the influence of Julian of Norwich on “Little Gidding.” I will post some thoughts on each of those presentations and also some photos of the locations over the next few days.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Burnt Norton

In her book Landscape as Symbol in the Poetry of T.S. Eliot (UP of Mississippi, 1978), Nancy Duvall Hargrove compares and contrasts the key landscape images in Eliot’s poetry: “These are the city [symbolizing] (boredom, triviality, sterility), the country (release, fertility, rebirth), the desert (chaos, terror, emptiness), the garden (ecstasy, innocence, serenity), and the sea or river… [symbolizing] eternity, destruction, creation, mystery, life, death, sterility, and physical beauty…” She regards “Burnt Norton” as the “most crucial” of the Four Quartets because it introduces a complex symbolic landscape that is central to the Quartets as a whole: that of the rose-garden.

Eliot happened upon this particular rose garden, adjoining a manor house in rural Gloucestershire, England, in the fall of 1934. The manor house and the garden sit directly in front of the site of a much older manor house, which was burned to the ground in the 18th century by its suicidal owner Sir William Kyte. “The [burned] house,” observes Hargrove, “suggests the transitory quality of human existence.” Certainly, Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” is about the transitory quality of human existence… but Eliot may not have known anything about the dark history of Burnt Norton when he composed the poem.

The current owner says that the house would have been vacant at the time of Eliot’s visit, and suggests that the poet discovered the gardens only by happy accident. Will Gray, a student of the T.S. Eliot Summer School, remembers that on a previous trip to Burnt Norton in 2004, he was told that Eliot probably entered first through the “hidden gate” in the darkest, driest corner of the property – identified by the current residents as “the waste land.” The property is essentially divided into four quadrants, like chambers of the heart, and Eliot naturally would have proceeded from an upper chamber toward a lower chamber, then looked down on the dry, concrete pools that he alludes to in the poem. Beyond the pools (which the owner says never held water), he might have turned right into the present-day rose garden.

What matters is not Eliot’s route through the gardens of Burnt Norton, but the impression that the place made on him – and the impression that it makes on us, the readers of Eliot’s poetry, by extension. The garden, as Hargrove says, is an extremely complex symbol. For Eliot, it might be said to symbolize childhood, innocence lost, Paradise lost, time past and unrecoverable, isolation, fantasy, earthly delights, the supernatural, fear, innocence recovered, Paradise regained, timelessness, death, the life after death, deathlessness…

Personally, the garden-as-symbol makes me think of my father, who spends much of his time these days tending his own garden, and of my mother, who likes to photograph different gardens – and all the living things, great and small, within them. It reminds me of the rural Virginia landscape that I grew up in, and makes me long for the color green (greatly lacking from the landscape of Southern California) and for fresh produce, for rain, and for silence. It also makes me think of the more exotic Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California – so strange and colorful that they seem like the setting of a fairy tale, completely removed from the real world.

After wandering around Burnt Norton for a while, I sat down on a quiet bench and wondered what Eliot and his companion, Emily Hale, had talked about during their visit. Instead of their voices, I heard the singing of birds – voices from the poem. For a split second, it was not hard to imagine T.S. Eliot and Emily Hale sitting on that same bench in 1934. Things at Burnt Norton haven’t changed much in the intervening years. The moment was interrupted by the sound of a plane flying overhead. Eliot would have not have experienced such an interruption in 1934. Following this line of thought, the plane suddenly seemed to me like a harbinger of World War II and the London blitz, a foreshadowing of Eliot’s final quartet. (Time past and time future…) A moment later, that thought was also gone.

The current owner of Burnt Norton says that the property appears “brooding and melancholy” at night. We left too early to verify that, but the idea of the landscape wrapped in gothic shadows certainly suits the conclusion of Eliot’s poem -- the poet’s expression of sorrow at the passing of the timeless moment. Professor Mark Ford, in his lecture on “Burnt Norton,” acknowledged this solemn tone and suggested (to my mind, at least) that the poem could be read as a kind of ghost story, complete with “creepy kids” (dead?) laughing the garden and a sense of uncanny dread about what’s behind the door and just beyond the gate: death or deathlessness?

“Burnt Norton” is not just a meditation, but a mediation between fear and love. The only quartet conceived as a stand-alone poem, “Burnt Norton” symbolizes (to use Eliot’s terminology) the end and the beginning.

... Through the first gate,
Into our first world...

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight.

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden...

... My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

Friday, July 17, 2009

East Coker

T.S. Eliot completed “East Coker” in February 1940, having conceived it as a follow-up to “Burnt Norton” in what was to be a four-part sequence. In a sense, he picked up right where he left off – with the darkness and dust at the end of “Burnt Norton.” The follow-up poem begins with images of destruction, reminiscent of the end of The Waste Land, and then moves into the distant past – to a “deep lane… dark in the afternoon” in a rural village in Somerset, near the western coast of England.

East Coker is the village that Eliot’s ancestors came from, before they arrived in America in the mid-1600s, and the poet imagines them among the townfolk dancing at midnight – alive and ecstatic. Then he pictures them in the ground, buried at nearby St. Michael’s Church, their graves marked by illegible headstones. And again, the darkness. If the garden of “Burnt Norton” is a complex image, then the darkness of “East Coker” is even moreso (I won’t attempt an explanation here). In the third section of the poem, set deep in the London underground, the poet anticipates “the darkness of God” – the mystical union that replaces faith, hope and love with complete surrender. I have, for years, believed that this passage is central to the entire sequence, what Eliot calls “the still point of the turning world.” It leads him to contemplation of the Incarnation of Christ in the fourth section.

The next poem, “The Dry Salvages,” ends where “East Coker” begins – in the village in Somerset where Eliot plans to join his ancestors when he dies. (His ashes are, in fact, interred beneath a marker in the corner of St. Michael’s Church.) That was his home because, he says, “home is where one starts from” and also the “significant soil” where one ends up.

After I left London two weeks ago, I flew to East Texas to visit a friend. We met a few years ago, when he hired me to help him tell a story about his family: three generations of ranchers born out of slavery. The land my friend lives on today contains an original plot of land that was given to his great grandfather after Emancipation by his white owner. My friend remains on the land because, since he was a boy, his parents and grandparents advised him to “keep the land… they’re not making anymore.” The larger community lives by the same philosophy: They are caretakers of the land and the legacy of their ancestors. Last week, we took a group of local students on a historical tour and my friend advised them: “If you don’t honor your ancestors, you can’t really know who you are.”

A few years ago, I started researching my own family history. The search led me to a nearly forgotten family cemetery in rural North Carolina, where I stood in front of the tombstone of Joseph Maddrey – my great great grandfather, who died in 1912. Talk about looking death in the face. I continued researching and was able to learn quite a lot about the day to day experiences of my ancestors – where they lived, where they worked, where they attended church, and where and how they died. (For details, see my blog archives from the summer of 2006 – which also includes photos from a trip to Eliot’s boyhood summer home in Gloucester, Massachusetts.) This was, and remains, a very humbling discovery.

Death, for Eliot, provides continuity to the past and the future. It’s the same thing in the East Texas community of Mt. Union, where being closer to the earth brings one closer to God. Allow me to steal an excellent elucidation of this idea from a 2007 essay by Joseph Bottum entitled “Death & Politics” (printed in First Things, issue # 174):

“The significance of life derives from the presence of the future, while the richness of life derives from the presence of the past. How we live is important only if we see the consequential future flowing toward us – beginning, always, with the fact that we will die and must prepare our children to assume the burdens of culture. How we live is thick and meaningful only if we see the momentous past, the ancient ghosts, dwelling among us – beginning, always, with the fact that our parents have died and left their corpses’ care to us. Death is the anchor for every human association, from the family all the way up to the nation-state. It provides a reason for association; it keeps us from drifting by tying us to a temporal reality larger – richer and more significant – than our individual present.”

Sitting in St. Michael’s Church, I was not overcome with some magical or psychic sense of Eliot’s presence, but I was struck by a particular smell – a musty, smoky smell that reminded me of early autumn in my hometown, where the neighbors used wood stoves to stay warm. The phrase “the drafty church at smokefall” (from “Burnt Norton”) sprang instantly to mind. So maybe Eliot was there with us, in a sense.

We sat in the church of Eliot's ancestors while Professor Gail McDonald gave a lecture on the poet’s religious humility, and posed a significant question: How can we make Eliot’s Christianity palatable to secular, liberal, humanist professors? One student rightly responded that we should not have to make Christianity seem palatable in order to present a Christian poem to the world. We don’t preface non-Christian poems, he said, by trying to make a non-Christian worldview seem more palatable. This is a valid point, but I’d argue that Four Quartets should even not be presented as a “Christian” poem. I think the word carries too much baggage, and immediately introduces too many preconceived notions to the reader's mind. Readers should be allowed to find the poem, and its meaning, for themselves... just as people should be allowed to find God on their own terms.

For me, “Do you believe in God?” is not the right question. It’s “How do you believe in God?” In a 1935 lecture, Eliot said, “What I want is a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian.” I believe this comment helps to explain the achievement of Four Quartets – it is a series of poems about belief, not about dogma. And “East Coker” is an expression of a particular stage of belief: the dark night of the soul, which demands a complete surrender of self to a "larger reality." In this stage, preconceived notions must be thrown out the window.

... Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon

And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village...

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark

... Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

I said to my soul, be still...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Dry Salvages

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships...

During the T.S. Eliot Summer School group’s trip to Little Gidding, Denis Donoghue made a casual comment that he considered “The Dry Salvages” to be the least successful of the Four Quartets. Whether one believes this or not, I think “The Dry Salvages” accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish: representing a period of spiritual stagnation and overcoming that stagnation in an honest way.

For me, the landscape symbolism of the river and the sea in “The Dry Salvages” is just as powerful and evocative as the symbol of the garden in “Burnt Norton” and the darkness in “East Coker” – perhaps even moreso, because these symbols of “death by water” have been present throughout much of Eliot’s poetry (most notably in The Waste Land and “Marina”), thereby giving them additional layers of meaning. They are a part of the poet’s identity, and of his American identity in particular.

“The Dry Salvages” begins on the Mississippi River, near Eliot’s birthplace in St. Louis, and then moves to the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where the poet spent his summers as a boy. As the poet himself later pointed out, “The Dry Salvages” begins with his beginning and ends where he hopes to end (at East Coker). The substance of the poem is his human weakness – his reluctance to move forward, toward the inevitable end. (The full loop – “in my end is my beginning” – is held off for the final quartet.)

I have seen the Mississippi River only twice. The first time was three years ago, when L. and I drove across the country. We crossed not in St. Louis but in Rapids City, Illinois, where the river was calm, blue and surprisingly narrow. The second time was one year ago, when I flew into St. Louis during the 2008 Midwest floods. From the air, I saw that the river – now brown, “sullen, untamed and intractable” – had overrun its banks. It was hard to tell where the land ended and the water began. Fields had become vast lakes, and only the tallest structures were visible above the water – like those deadly rocks known as the dry salvages, at low-tide in Gloucester harbor.

I visited Gloucester in the summer of 2006. I tracked down the former Eliot home, just north of Gloucester Point, then went looking for the dry salvages. I didn’t find them, but I did climb among the rocks on the eastern shore in the bright summer sun and stare out at the sea for a while. Somehow, the view of the Atlantic Ocean stretching on forever, never gets old. When I was growing up, my grandparents lived near the ocean and so my family usually spent our summer vacations at Virginia Beach. After I graduated college, I went to live there. During my first summer, I visited the oceanfront every morning, while trying to figure out where I was headed in life and what the future held for me. I could see nothing ahead – no certainties and no limitations – and so I simply stayed put for a while... intimidated by seemingly endless possibilities.

In 1928, Eliot wrote: “Not to have the frontier in one’s blood makes emotional understanding of the United States impossible.” In “The Dry Salvages,” completed in 1941, the poet is trying to communicate that sense of life on the frontier. The poem expresses Eliot’s American-ness – perhaps not quite to his own satisfaction. At various points, Eliot pays homage to other American writers: Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and especially Ralph Waldo Emerson (a favorite of Eliot’s mother) – whose vaguely eastern philosophy of Transcendentalism is a pervasive influence on this third quartet.

Eliot once wrote to his mother that he disliked Emerson’s imprecision of thought and language, but here he seems to have embraced and absorbed that writer’s style and substance along with the New England landscape – combining passages from The Bhagavad Gita (a major influence on both Emerson and Eliot) with the workaday mentality of Gloucester fishermen, who live always at the mercy of the sea. For them, as for the reluctant warrior Arjuna (in the Gita) – and for the pioneers who settled the American West – thoughts of the frontier between life and death are not debilitating. They know that the only cause of true defeat is surrender... and so they never stop fighting, facing the sea, or moving west into the unknown. Eliot, a pioneer by blood, echoes their mantra: “Fare forward, voyagers!”

The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Little Gidding

I admit that “Little Gidding” – the poem that Eliot regarded as his most accomplished work, and the work that the poet ultimately rested on – has always been a mystery to me. I attended the T.S. Eliot Summer School with the hope that I would be able to gain a deeper understanding of the Four Quartets, and particularly of “Little Gidding.” Appropriately, this poem opened and closed the week. We made a trip to Little Gidding on our first full day together. Seamus Heaney and Robert Crawford gave an astounding reading of the poem, followed by a lecture from Ronald Schuchard and an evensong service in the church. The final lecture on the final day of seminars -- Professor Jewel Spears Brooker’s “The Fire and the Rose: Theodicy in T.S. Eliot and Julian of Norwich” -- was also about "Little Gidding."

Professor Schuchard’s lecture examined the poem within the context of the history of the religious community of Little Gidding – established in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar, an ordained deacon of the Church of England who withdrew to rural Huntingdonshire with his family. George Herbert, a fellow Anglican deacon (and one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite poets), followed Ferrar’s example. The community community also drew royalty: King Charles I sought refuge there from Puritans during the English Civil War. A few hundred years later, T.S. Eliot visited Little Gidding in May 1936. A few years after that, he used the church (and its history) as a symbol of time past and time future contained in time present.

Professor Brooker notes that Eliot composed “Little Gidding” during the toughest period of World War II, when defeat by the Germans seemed immanent in England. Eliot, responding to fears of surrender and fears of defeat in “The Dry Salvages," sat down to write a poem revealing the “darkness of God” beyond faith, hope and love (see “East Coker”). He agonized over this poem more than any other, unsure of whether or not he would could achieve what he desperately wanted to achieve.

As Brooker’s essay reveals, he might not have… if he hadn’t wholeheartedly embraced the revelations of Julian of Norwich. I can’t effectively sum up Dr. Brooker’s essay anymore than I can effectively sum up the poem itself, so I’m going to simply point interested readers to that essay – due to be published in Julian of Norwich’s Legacy: Medieval Mysticism and Post-Medieval Reception (Palgrave, 2010). For me personally, this insightful essay was the academic highlight of the T.S. Eliot Summer School – it left me pondering the possibility that a true understanding of this poem requires a personal surrender to the poem. Critical analysis can only take us so far – the rest is the religion of art.

The evensong service at Little Gidding was equally moving. I love the way that this religious community utilizes stillness and silence in their service. As explained by their prayer book:

“Silence in worship is as important as words, and these services give ample opportunity for times of quiet. Yet it is easy to let the silence be eroded, especially if the group does not know how long to expect the silences to last. For this reason it can be helpful to agree on their approximate length – for example, two minutes after the readings in the Daily Prayer, three minutes for the confession during Communion, and so on. Also during the free prayer we should not be afraid of periods of quiet between the spoken prayers, and we should try to be quite brief in the prayers we say aloud. Rather than feeling that the times of silence interrupt the flow of words, we should regard the words of service as rising out of our silent awareness of God’s presence among us.”

Silence was hard to come by during our visit, amidst the hoopla of the annual T.S. Eliot Festival. But one particular call for silence - the final prayer of the day, at the beginning of our week - might just as easily have come from Eliot himself. It was a reminder that we should let language take us as far as it can, then surrender to silence, and wait: “We thank you for words. We thank you for all the places words have taken us. We thank you for places beyond words….”

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 are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere.

Never and always.