In my last year at university, I wrote a long essay on T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (I may still have it in a box in the garage somewhere). I don’t know why I chose the topic. I think I would have found TSE a deeply unattractive character, and I still have only a tenuous grasp on his poetry. Eliot was an American by birth, but I think he really wanted to be English and European. As his religion, he chose Anglo-Catholicism, which gave him the chance to hook up both with English history/culture and that of the wider Catholic European tradition. He desperately wanted roots. So the poems are shot through with literary and cultural references, some deliberately obscure. In a way they’re an exercise in intellectual snobbery. Maybe that’s why I chose them to study: I admit there’s more than a bit of intellectual snobbery in me (deeply unattractive, I’d say, and it hasn’t escaped my notice that this post might be a bit of showing-off too. But what the hell).
You might ask what has brought poor old TSE into my mind to be slated like this. Whilst I still find the “Four Quartets” opaque in some ways, Eliot’s themes really resonate with me. He is preoccupied with the difficulty of words and word meanings. How language is fluid, and how hard it is to “fix” a meaning. For me there are two recent triggers for some thought about this. We went at the weekend to another wedding (weddings are like buses, etc.) – this time of a young couple – son of university friends of mine and his fiancee. Lovely, happy occasion – attractive and talented young people clearly utterly committed to the idea of a life together – and both of them (as is the wider family at least on the groom’s side, and probably on the bride’s too) – Bible-believing Christians. Even the presiding minister commented on the fact that the couple had insisted on three Bible readings, not the customary two. Moreover, the readings they chose were those which, in evangelical circles are interpreted to support a very, very traditional view of gender roles in marriage. It’s a view that I have to acknowledge seems to work very well for many of those who sign up to it; but I myself have some problems with the words, handed down through the centuries, which now seem so at odds with contemporary ideas about equality and self-determination. And I wonder what the true cost is to the woman in the partnership in particular.
By way of comparison, the national body of Quakers is currently asking itself if it’s time to revise a book called “Quaker Faith and Practice”. This book is an anthology of Quaker thought, with contributions by a range of authors, from the well-known to the obscure, grouped by themes. It’s also a handbook about how to run Quaker business etc., but that’s not the bit that I’m talking about here. It gets revised (a slow and careful business, involving wide consultation) about once every generation, in order to ensure that as far as possible it continues to reflect the concerns and commitments of Quakers in Britain. So it’s not static – it changes. Quakers love their time-honoured phrases as much as the next group, but some of these may get dropped from the next edition, and new material may be included.
So – what value do we place on old words? Do they stand for all time? Are their meanings not tied to the time/culture in which they were written? Should we be re-interpreting, re-formulating, or not? Should we use words – as best we can – to articulate our experience, or should we start with the words first and use them to frame our lives or even guide us?
The overarching theme of the “Four Quartets” is that of time, and how we are both in it and somehow need to transcend it. (There’s also sub-theme about counter-factual thinking – about all the roads not taken which somehow exist in parallel in our consciousness. This is particularly relevant to me at the moment in relation the One Lump Or Two experience.) I felt as if I was in a time-warp at the wedding. We were in the city and among people whom I knew thirty years ago. It is always a bittersweet experience going back to Cambridge, which on the whole looks so very much the same. Quite a lot is probably invested in keeping it so. I think about happy times now past, but also about all the opportunities I missed (and am glad that our student daughter, in her turn, seems better equipped to seize some of these than I was). I still expect to see friends cycling around on their way to lectures. But the reality is that here they are now, middle-aged like me, and witnessing the marriage of their own recently-graduated children. So somehow the past meets the present, and it makes me think about how our lives – so closely and intensely linked in student years – have diverged. And how some of us have moved on and changed; and yet for some, the old familiar words still seem to mean the same as they always did. I am left with a confused sense of loss and nostalgia.
But I would never go back. I don’t look like an adventurous person. I have never had the travel bug, and my nearest and dearest know how physically risk-averse I am. But, even while I don’t quite know what he means, I am with Eliot here:
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.
And that’s the final thing I want to say about TSE’s poem sequence: in it he wrestles to articulate the paradoxes I think we need learn to embrace (something I have written about in some of my earlier posts). The strange truth, for example, that the more you learn, the more you are aware of your ignorance; or that you have to “let go” (= make yourself vulnerable) in order to live. Like Eliot, the struggle for articulation sometimes take me back to traditional religious imagery with a new appreciation, even while the gods seem alien to me now.
I wanted to include many more quotations from the “Four Quartets” to illustrate my comments. But I found so many compelling, memorable phrases and images that I couldn’t choose. I take it all back, TSE. You wrote some wonderful poetry. And here is a link to the whole sequence, for those who care to look: http://www.davidgorman.com/4Quartets/index.htm