T. S. Eliot’s poetry traces one arc of the modern, a development from self-questioning aestheticism, through an often violent, experimental vision of the modern ‘wasteland,’ to a retrenchment or contraction of ambition – whether in adopting neoclassical forms, in focusing on ideological critique (either from the left or the right), or in performing a sort of purgation of the modern waste of spirit. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” exemplifies that retrenchment and contraction. (See Eliot's Four Quartets.)
I’ll concentrate here on “Little Gidding,” which was written at the start of the Nazi bombardment of England, 1940-41. This poem, like the other “Quartets,” speaks above all in the form of oxymoron, in paradoxes which continually take back any assertion of living vitality. In part I, the initial, sensuous image of “midwinter spring” (“Between melting and freezing / The soul’s sap quivers”) is framed by a continuous and stark taking-back: “with frost and fire, / The brief sun flames the ice… / In windless cold that is the heart’s heat.” Or “no wind, but Pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year.” Trapped inside a sort of machine of negation, all the brilliant energy of Eliot’s characteristic use of rhetorical repetition (threaded together with small, haunting changes and embroidered by random rhymes) here avoids any evocation of the sloppy, grimy struggles of living which simultaneously besmirch and enliven “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland.” In the second stanza, the phrase “if you came” becomes a repeated apposition eloquently leading us down a path into the zone of death’s purgatory at “the world’s end.” The only solace is the yearning language of an abstractly unfolding prayer, and the crucial repeated image is that of purgatorial fire: “the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”
In part II of “Little Gidding,” we experience bombed London as the scene of an implacable apocalypse, and onto this cityscape, Eliot leads the ghost of Yeats, who is made to offer Eliot-like advice and self-critique from the beyond the grave. This Yeats is stripped of all his late inspiration: his taking on the Crazy Jane persona in “Word to Music, Perhaps,” or his locating the source of his images in “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” or his monument-building “Under Ben Bulben.” No, Eliot’s Yeats becomes a pale version of Mallarmé: his “concern was speech, and speech impelled us / To purify the dialect of the tribe” – purified and prayerful language must be purged of the “sting” and “stain” of life and “restored by that refining fire / Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.” The form of that restoration is an ascetic, neo-classical retrieval of Dante’s terza rima – to “move in measure,” though without Dante’s intricate rhyme scheme or the pathos and fecundity of Dante’s images, as Eliot here echoes scenes from Dante’s Purgatorio and particularly Inferno (Canto xv where Dante’s meets with his damned teacher Brunetto Latini).
Part III introduces into the cycle of prayer – the movement toward “detachment” and the “transfigured” – the figure of a fourteenth century mystic, Dame Julia of Norwich, whose repeated incantation that “all shall be well” becomes “a symbol: / A symbol perfected in death.” In this pure, autonomous, and even claustrophobically closed cycle, prayer feeds on itself, becoming the “ground” of prayer. The brief part IV is another eloquent evocation of burning “incandescent terror” descending on both bombed London and the enclosed ascetic spirit; such is the double fire of purgatory and of the burning city. The prayer emerging from “tongues” of flame conveys that implacable purgatorial vision: “We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire.” Part V is the poem’s concluding “movement” and uses a public, didactic prosody “where every word is at home…neither diffident nor ostentatious” – Dryden-like and neoclassical in manner – which reminds us that Eliot is affirming not only an idea (and ideology) of purgatorial fire but also, in a moment of peril, his profound Anglophilia: “History is now and England.” The great assurance and authority of Eliot’s voice operate here in tone and diction to proclaim the purgatorial cycling of spirit and of language itself; in this vision (akin to that in his “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) all writing is rewriting, and “every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph.” The authority of Eliot’s “we” reveals the ultimate tradition he celebrates: “We are born with the dead: / See, they return, and bring us with them.” England was, of course, victorious by the end of World War II, but Eliot’s “Little Gidding” suggests the claustrophobia and contraction of spirit which beset Eliot’s vision not only of his nation but of Western Civilization, of its failure and self-destruction in its second cataclysmic war to end all wars. In this poem “consumed by either fire or fire,” Eliot envisions – and celebrates – a purgatorial incineration haunting modernity.
“The Four Quartets” also represent Eliot’s attempt to find in language a parallel form to Beethoven’s four late quartets. These quartets from the 1820s abjure much of the forward thrust of dramatic structure in Beethoven’s previous quartets; those earlier works’ arc of development and their momentum in rhythm and harmony give way in the late works to exfoliating abstruse melodies, which seem sometimes simple and yet continually violate expectations of closure and movement, both harmonically and rhythmically. The slowing of momentum and the interruption of the dramatic arc enable Beethoven to render states of transcendent serenity, spiritual exploration, and sometimes violent fragmentation; the vital, often off-beat, experimental quality of the music breaks new ground in classical music. It does so with a sort of unleashed expressiveness, a creative upwelling which makes Beethoven’s four late quartets one of the great achievements in the history of classical music. Eliot’s ambition (or perhaps his pretention) is to associate his own late poems with the quartets for a variety of reasons, both structural and spiritual, and the most significant of these reasons is that the poems aim to consecrate the state of transcendence associated with Beethoven’s late quartets. That association between the poems and the quartets is questionable, as I hope I’ve shown, for Beethoven’s works are the opposite of a recantation or retrenchment. The music conveys an inspired and generous fertility of feeling, and its constantly exfoliating inventiveness both embraces past musical technique and forecasts future technique. Beethoven’s late quartets do not mark a withdrawal into the circle of purgatorial fire, which constitutes the curtailed vision of Eliot’s ascetic late poems.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]