Steve Sachs Duke


Sunday, November 30, 2003


What is the late November doing? Last spring, I attended a lecture series for several weeks on T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. I had read the poem for the first time in high school and again in college, after a class on the Divine Comedy, and had always found it worthy of study. My life has also followed Eliot's to some extent--like him, I came from St. Louis via Boston to Merton College, Oxford. (J. Alfred Prufrock was in fact the name of a St. Louis furniture store.) What impressed me about the series wasn't the lectures themselves--which were competently delivered and provided adequate background--but rather the experience of re-reading the poem seriously in order to prepare for them. It was something of a religious experience, far more so than any sermon I've heard in the last few years. I read the poem again recently, after another year of my life had elapsed, and was again moved by its attempt to answer intractable questions that so often go unmentioned. The second of the Quartets, "East Coker," begins with a commonplace yet arresting thought:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.

This attention to the inexorable passage of time, a concern inseparable from our own mortality, isn't something one encounters often in modern life. The idea of a memento mori has almost entirely disappeared from popular culture, in which we are young forever, and then disappear. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course (who wants to be reminded of death all the time?), but the truth is rather different. In such a context Eliot's opening reminder, "In my beginning is my end," becomes all the more powerful. Eliot turns back to his beginning, imagining the lives of his 16th-century forebears in his ancestral village of East Coker, before the long-dead Andrew Eliot departed for the New World:

... Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

In one sense, Eliot was lucky, because his family tree could be traced back several hundred years; he knew his ancestors and knew what had happened to them. I know relatively little of my great-grandparents, and for all I know the villages where their great-grandparents lived no longer exist. But although Eliot may have been more aware of his roots than most, each of us, regardless of whether we have an 'ancestral village,' is tied to a cycle of which we are destined to play only one small part. In our beginnings, regardless of how disparate they may be, we find prefigured our end.

Reading Four Quartets reminded me of two passages in Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind. Nietzsche, according to Bloom, had said that newspapers "had replaced the prayer in the life of the modern bourgeois"; the "busy, the cheap, the ephemeral, had usurped all that remained of the eternal in his daily life." Later on, Bloom writes that "On Sunday mornings educated men used to be harangued about death and eternity, made to give them a bit of attention. This is not a danger to be run in doing battle with the Sunday New York Times." When I first read the Quartets in high school, I had nowhere--except maybe in brief encounters with Ecclesiastes--encountered these thoughts so strikingly presented. Not even on the Rosh Hashanah after Sept. 11, when the traditional prayer of "U'Netaneh Tokef" ("who shall live and who shall die, ... who by water and who by fire") recalled the fragility of life, were they apparent; the crisis was not merely that life is fragile, moment to moment, but that it is short, and that it will end.

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.

What is one to do, faced with such inevitability? One possibility is despair; and despair can surely be found in Four Quartets, in Eliot's cry of "O dark dark dark," in his description in "The Dry Salvages" of the nihilistic "prayer of the bone on the beach." The final three Quartets were written during the darker days of World War II, when ordinary men and women had to wonder if fascism would triumph, and if civilization itself was soon for the pyre. (Are things so different now?) Moreover, Eliot wrote the poem when he was, as he put it, "in the middle way," and did not have much time left. His meditation on memory is clearly that of a man who feels his time has passed him by:

What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?

In the first poem of the four, "Burnt Norton," Eliot fears that his time is "unredeemable"; what might have been "is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in a world of speculation." A man who had been unhappily married until separating from his wife in 1933 (two years before composing "Burnt Norton"), Eliot imagines himself entering an Eden-like garden of missed possibilities, presented with the unbearable thought of the happiness he had missed:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Four Quartets was a terrible poem to read when young. There may be, as Eliot writes, "a time for the evening under starlight, / A time for the evening under lamplight / (The evening with the photograph album)"--the latter hasn't come for me yet, and hopefully won't for a long time. But the pain of Eliot's recollections can be felt even by those who haven't lived long enough to share them. Reading the poem, I'm forced to remind myself that I'm only in my twenties, that my mistakes (I dearly hope) are still to be made. But there are few lines more heartrending than those of the spirit of a teacher, often identified as W. B. Yates, who in the final poem of the Quartets appears to Eliot to impart the wisdom of age:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
   To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
   First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
   But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
   As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
   At human folly, and the laceration
   Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
   Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
   Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
   Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
   Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
   Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
   Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.'

It was in this refining fire that Eliot saw the possibility of redemption; he found his antidote to despair in Christianity and a Church that promised salvation. Yet even those who do not share Eliot's particular faith can share his conviction that despair and hope are often drawn from the same source. "The way upward and the way downward are the same," notes the epigraph. To face the inevitability of human error and still to strive for right action is a brave choice, and its bravery can be the ground of inspiration. It is impossible to read "The Dry Salvages" without hearing echoes of a Kantian view of free will, with its depiction of the moral act as an intersection of the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, as the only act that is truly free:

Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.

There is a certain nobility in the struggle to act rightly, even when our eventual failure is assured. Such nobility would be entirely absent from our lives if we were angels and faced no temptation, if the victory were certain (who would fight for the inevitable revolution?), or, most importantly, if we were not mortal. Imagine what life would be like if our mortality were not guaranteed, if by avoiding risk and eating right we really could live forever. To put it lightly, when Braveheart said that "Every man dies," what if he had been wrong? Who among us would then be willing to undertake danger in a just cause? Would we compromise our own safety, and risk throwing away an infinite future, for the sake of a principle or of others we hold dear?

Our hopes, the Quartets tell us, start with the fact of our limitations. Our finite, imperfect, corrupted nature is where the struggle for life, perfection, and righteousness begins. It is only thus that we can move with Eliot away from despair, and from the predestination of our failure ("In my beginning is my end"). It is worth remembering that, having seen the "darkness into which they peered," Eliot concludes with a very different thought: "In my end," he writes, "is my beginning."

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 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. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. 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.




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© 2011 Stephen E. Sachs


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