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Wednesday, 2 November 2011

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THE FOUR QUARTETS:

‘Words and music reach the stillness’

TS Eliot remains the most influential poet of the modern age. His most famous work is “The Waste Land” but his greatest is “The Four Quartets” which, in fact, led to his winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948. The recent article on him could not do justice to this poem and this one seeks, therefore, to make good the deficiency.

4Q is a masterpiece for two reasons; its uniquely original meditations on the subject of Time and its uniquely original technique. If we were to attempt a summary of the former with some representative quotations:

Mankind is trapped in time’s continuum, the oppressive consciousness of past, present and future. “Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present All time is unredeemable.”

Our aspiration, our prospect, is to achieve timelessness or eternity, to qualify for which we have to liberate ourselves from time’s tyranny by identifying the timeless element that exists within time but independently of it: “We must be still and still moving Into another intensity For a further union, a deeper communion..”

T S Eliot

This can be discovered within our own experience in those moments of illumination that need to be understood and developed: “Sudden in a shaft of sunlight Even while the dust moves There rises the hidden laughter Of children in the foliage Quick now, here now, always-”

It can also be discovered in the experience of history, in those insights which provide a logic beyond that of official or academic history: “The backward look behind the assurance Of recorded history, the backward half-look Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.”.

Finally, the timeless is discoverable in art with the mastery of form and diction: “Only by the form, the pattern, Can words or music reach The stillness, as a Chinese jar still Moves perpetually in its stillness.” “And every phrase And sentence that is right....Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning..”

This last is where the technical achievement of the poem comes in. Eliot, having already brought about the revolution in poetic language that culminated in Wasteland, goes on in 4Q to achieve a further elaboration of poetic idiom and metric. This makes him the only poet to have effected two developments of technique in his lifetime other than Shakespeare, who “having adapted his form to colloquial speech...began ….to see how elaborate, how complicated, the music could be made without losing touch with colloquial speech altogether.” In Eliot’s emulation of Shakespeare, we find this second phase in operation in 4Q, where the musical elaboration of form and style is what brings out the thematic variety and complexity of the poem.

Walter Pater declared that “All art aspires to the condition of music.” Eliot was particularly enamoured of Beethoven’s last compositions, the five so-called posthumous string quartets, and most particularly the second, Opus 132, of which he wrote to Stephen Spender: “I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety, about some of his later works which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.” How did Eliot endeavour this in 4Q?

In his essay ‘The Music of Poetry’, from which we have already quoted, he goes on to say: “I believe that the properties in which music concerns the poet most nearly, are the sense of rhythm and the sense of structure.” Thus, each of the 4Q has five movements just as Beethoven’s 132 does. And as the composer’s last five quartets are in five different keys, the 4Q have four different titles, Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding. These are place names that also represent the four seasons and the four elements of air, earth, water and fire. Yet, just as the string quartets all have a common underlying musical pattern, the 4Q explore, through their individual seasonal and elemental contexts, the same thematic material summarised above.

But the musical approximation of 4Q does not stop there.In the same essay Eliot refers to the music of imagery in Shakespeare’s plays, and the way in which “the use of recurrent imagery and dominant imagery, throughout one play, has to do with the total effect.” Helen Gardner in her study of 4Q commented that “one is constantly reminded of music by the treatment of images.” Imagery is the chief musical device in 4Q, in examining a sample of which we can better understand its method of thematic development.

The rose garden is the dominant image in ‘Burnt Norton”.It represents the occasion of the moment of personal illumination that was once neglected but should now be pursued. “Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose garden.” “Other echoes inhabit the garden. Shall we follow? Quick said the bird, find them, find them, Round the corner.” “..for the roses Had the look of flowers that are looked at. They were there as our guests, accepted and accepting. So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern, Along the empty alley, into the box circle, To look down into the drained pool...And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight...The surface glittered out of heart of light, And they were behind us, reflected in the pool. Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.” “Sudden in a shaft of sunlight Even while the dust moves There rises the hidden laughter Of children in the foliage Quick now, here now, always-”

Like a musical subject that is developed in sonata form, or a musical theme that is varied in variation form, the image of the rose garden is developed and varied till, like the unheard music it emulates, it fills the consciousness with its manifold evocativeness. Childhood innocence becomes associated with the paradisaic Garden of Eden once enjoyed but now forfeited by man, yet hoped to be regained at some future time. Our adult efforts to relive those remembered moments of bliss are invariably disappointed, but we should keep striving as the one way to keep alive the hope of eternity.

After ‘East Coker’ and ‘The Dry Salvages’ overwhelm us with the sense of the ever changing present and of the relentlessly repeated cycles of Nature, ‘Little Gidding’ points to the refinement occasioned by our suffering these things as the means of our liberation from them.

This readiness to suffer time’s oppression while hoping to be redeemed from time is what enables us to keep searching for the timelessness of eternity. “We shall not cease from exploration.” This resolution is “A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything)”. Thus, though the happy hope of the rose garden has now to be accompanied by the fire of suffering, the poem ends with the assurance that “..all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one.”

Does Eliot in 4Q succeed in “getting something of Beethoven’s heavenly gaiety into verse”, as he desired?. Let Wilfrid Mellers, in his commentary on Beethoven’s last quartets, have the last word. “He (Eliot) would not claim to be a Beethoven; but in his smaller and more self-conscious way he has been trying to deal with precisely the kind of experience with which Beethoven was preoccupied. We should perhaps leave a great poet with the last word, for the conclusion of ‘Little Gidding’ comes about as close to describing in words what Beethoven’s last quartets are about as is humanly possible.”

 

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