Here is what the man I consider the greatest english language poet of the 20th century had to say about his own work:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres-
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. (The Four Quartets)
Eliot was a modernist who believed that a new poetic language was needed to address the complexities of a new century. It takes a bit of effort now to understand that he offended the literary establishment of his day the way Picasso offended the art establishment. The first poem in his first published book, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” (1917) begins:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
The literary world was still immersed in the 19th century sensibility; to describe the sky with such a simile was as shocking as a cubist landscape. At the same time, Eliot alienated the bohemian crowd: he became a devout Anglican, wore three-piece suits, worked in a bank, and spoke in the most precise possible manner. He went his own way in everything but kept enough humor to describe himself in this way:
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut,
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But.
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
(Whether his mouth be open or shut).
I read poems like “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland” in high school. They were cool enough that as a sophomore in college, I signed up for a class called, “Yeats and Eliot.” It probably had a more lasting effect than any other college class, since forty years later I still read T.S. Eliot often, usually from “The Four Quartets,” the capstone of his poetic career. The four sections were written and released separately over six years, and first published together in 1943. After the Quartets, he wrote, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which inspired the musical, “Cats,” and spent the rest of his life writing plays and literary criticism. Eliot was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1948.
The title of this blog came from an opening line in “The Four Quartets:” Through the first gate, Into our first world, shall we follow the deception of the thrush?
As I said, I have been reading this poem for forty years, always finding something new in Eliot’s rendering of the human longing for the ineffable (among many other themes). George Orwell dismissed the poem for it’s “religiosity,” though I find that a shallow reading. A passage like the following uses religious symbols, not in the service of preachiness, but to invoke an experience that is perhaps as common as it is difficult to name:
I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant –
Among other things-or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between the yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.
Here is another such passage which I still see quoted from time to time by spiritual authors:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
No single blog post could be more than an introduction to the life and work of a poet like T.S. Eliot, but if these notes inspire anyone to read “The Four Quartets,” http://www.ubriaco.com/fq.html I will be more than satisfied.
Let me end with the end of the passage I began with. After the poet tells us “success” is forever out of reach, he says:
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate-but there is no competition-
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.