Saturday, 23 April 2016

T.S. Eliot, I. A Humoresque: “He do the police in different voices.”

St. John's Church, Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, England

On Thursday the 21st of April Will Johnston, Robert Gribben and I gave a presentation on T.S. Eliot to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Here is the first part of my contribution to the evening.

Thursday the 21st of April 2016 starts early. Intermittent rain predicted.

Because I do not hope to turn again

Because I do not hope

Because I do not hope to turn

I wake up from my sleep. Lorikeets chatter in trees of the Heidelberg District. Today I am committed to giving a presentation in town. It’s going to be about Thomas Stearns Eliot. Stearns always seemed like a warning of what was to come and we all know that Thomas is the one who doubts. Eliot, a moderately common name, however we spell it. I knew someone who had a cat called Eliot.

Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,

          Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,

Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum –

          Names that never belong to more than one cat.

I’m still turning over the dream I just had. It was one of those ‘nothing to say’ dreams. I arrive to give a paper on Eliot and find I have nothing to say.

And should I then presume?

And how should I begin?

My dream had some of the recurring scenes that recur only in dreams. Eliot wishes such formative scenes into his poetry.

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Eliot writes out some of these images again and again, haunted or inspired by their beauty and mystery, as though they held the meaning, even if the meaning could not be named.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden.

Now it really is time to get up.

With the other masquerades

That time resumes,

One thinks of all the hands

That are raising dingy shades

In a thousand furnished rooms.

Or just thinks of getting people ready for work and school. Shave and shower.

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.

Dress and comb. Over fresh orange juice and toast I try to tease out an issue. Question: “Clearly the silence in the last twenty years of his life was the silence of wisdom. And Valerie Eliot helped.” My daughter has only one thing to say: “Oh no, not Eliot, again!” My wife is more sympathetic. “Yes, Valerie stabilised things for him.” Coffee is poured into a large breakfast cup.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

But I have to cut down on my sugar intake. I just read the other day that sugar is actually poison to the system. Soon we will drive to the station. The 7.55 waits at the platform for the usual band of commuters.

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey.

Southern Cross Station, anyway. The sun is up and who knows hot air balloons are rising above the parks. But no, it threatens rain.

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Not that it’s spring here, but autumn. Things start coming back, school lessons, how Eliot subverts the English poetic delight in April, the sign of spring and Easter, that runs from Chaucer’s April with his showers sweet right through to Browning’s now that April’s here. Eliot focuses on the underground suffering that brings life, and on our subconscious dependencies. I gaze out the window at Melbourne passing by.

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,

And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour

Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,

But all dash to and fro in motor cars,

Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.

Eliot wrote those words aghast at the impersonal expansion of our cities, while we take sprawl for granted. We even write poems in praise of sprawl, like Les Murray. I suppose travelling on the escalators of Southern Cross Station feels a bit like Dante in Purgatory. And gazing across the concourses, lines like these come to mind in a certain mood:

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

We, of course, live in the world’s most liveable city. We are told this every day, as though repetition alone makes it so. Liveable city.

Unreal City.

Though in today’s vernacular, unreal is the same as sick and wicked and ‘bad as’ and other negatives turned positives – a term of approval, like ‘awesome as’.

Unreal City.

It could be the rap song on my neighbour’s iPod.

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.

Reading the news on the internet is the first thing to do on arrival at work.

The word of the Lord came unto me, saying …

I have given you speech, for endless palaver,

I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions.

Forty prominent Australians have written to the Prime Minister in light of the Panama Papers. Wesley College was blown up. They still haven’t found the culprit.

Macavity’s not there!

Donald Trump’s hairdresser is interviewed. What would his hair look like if he jumped into a pool? Reply: Have you ever seen Cousin Itt? People use their iPhones each day on average a whopping eighty times. That’s called infotainment. It is curious and challenging to read about all the kingdoms of the world on a small screen and all the worst things happening there.

Some went from love of glory,

Some went who were restless and curious,

Some were rapacious and lustful.

Many left their bodies to the kites of Syria

Or sea-strewn along the routes;

Many left their souls in Syria,

Living on, sunken in moral corruption;

Many came back well broken,

Diseased and beggared, finding

A stranger at the door in possession:

Came home cracked by the sun of the East

And the seven deadly sins in Syria.

Too much internet, too many emails, too many committees, too much politics.

Human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

I work in a library in Middle Park, very near the Bay. If the sea rises, as the climatologists predict, we will soon be under water.

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Eliot worked in a bank, then in a publishing house. He was fortunate, you’d have to say, always landed on his feet. Work became an escape from people, especially his first wife, Vivien. Vivien is an undisputed presence in his great shattering masterpiece The Wasteland.

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

It was all too much by the time Vivien was walking the London streets with a sign around her neck ‘I am the wife of T.S. Eliot’.

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.

I am a reader of Mr Eliot. There are signs everywhere saying I am going to talk about him tonight. But what am I going to say? Work pays the bills, it’s also a refuge from other cares.

And they write innumerable books; being too vain and

distracted for silence: seeking each one after his

own elevation, and dodging his emptiness.

I’m sure this isn’t the only reason we have libraries, but they do continue to write innumerable books.

Where is the life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

These lines reproach the information revolution our technology now saturates us with daily, while meanwhile libraries go on being selective, restoring what otherwise is lost.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

And if the Antarctic waters cover Middle Park we will have to shift the library to higher ground. Emerald Hill, for example. The satellite graphic in this week’s newspaper indicates it will have to be renamed the Emerald isle.

Do I dare to eat a peach?

My walk to the Middle Park Village to buy lunch means passing cats standing on millionaires’ porches.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,

The reason, I tell you, is always the same:

His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation

Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:

His ineffable effable


Deep and inscrutable singular name.

Effanineffable. Eliot must have made that up. He made up lots of words. Polyphiloprogenitve. Grimpen. The editors of the new Annotated Edition tear their hair out trying to find the first use, but often it’s Eliot. Talking of peaches, has anyone noticed the absence of food in Eliot? Back at the library, lunch in hand, I google ‘Food in T.S. Eliot’: 548,000 hits in 0.59 seconds.

A Cooking Egg.

Not much in the pantry and maybe unexplored potential. Through the afternoon I enjoy remembering enthusiasts who introduced me to influences. We all do this, who live in relationship. I think of my father.

I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different.

He had old Faber originals and would quote from them in sermons.

… this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

Then there’s my school history teacher, Nigel Jackson. We could expect Eliot in any of his classes.

My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

And I remember my university tutor Robin Grove.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Robin quoted this after recalling an experience of hearing the Ormond College bell one night while walking the college path in Parkville.

Only through time time is conquered.

Only later did we see Robin was trying to get us to recognise that experience in our own lives. This was not just some Romantic notion of time standing still, but a pressing matter of awareness, a deepening sharing of presence, the personal place where mindfulness may turn to contemplation, where we are at one, if only for a moment. Robin talked in one lecture about how Eliot’s poetry enacts what it talks about, the poetry describes its subject through its own rhythm, repetitions and sounds. He quoted Burnt Norton.

Only by the form, the pattern,

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

moves perpetually in its stillness.

I remember university friends who are no longer with us. Hugh Crole, who painted artworks based on the line

He do the police in different voices.

Hugh became a dedicated thinker and drinker. We heard at his memorial at Trinity College Chapel that on his deathbed, in that hermitage of artistic escape, Byron Bay, a close friend recited to Hugh the line

And all shall be well.

To which he replied

And all manner of thing shall be well.

And I remember my friend Janet Campbell, someone who drove us all happy and mad in equal measure, who wrote her English thesis on Four Quartets and could quote Eliot at the drop of a hat.

The tiger in the tiger-pit

Is not more irritable than I.

Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

Janet was a qualified enthusiast for poetry and would declare that she had to “do justice to T.S.!”

The houses are all gone under the sea.

Janet would declaim.

The dancers are all gone under the hill.

A steady day at the library. Borrowers

come and go

Talking of Michelangelo

They’re unlikely to think what I’m thinking. For example, what is the purpose of poetry? The borrowers have a purpose, but is it poetry? Re-reading Eliot he offers so many answers.

I am moved by fancies that are curled

Around these images, and cling:

The notion of some infinitely gentle

Infinitely suffering thing.

But as much as he holds to Coleridge’s idea of fancies

Between the conception

And the creation

Between the emotion

And the response

Falls the Shadow

Eliot has read across literature and knows

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

And yet Eliot persists

Since our concern was speech and speech impelled us

To purify the dialect of the tribe

And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight.

What am I going to say about Eliot anyway? The time approaches, if time can be said to approach. Time to close the library.

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table.

Or maybe like a surfer in his wetsuit reclining on the beach. Or maybe like Gene Kelly soaked and singing from a lamppost. My wife and I sometimes play this analogy game, it’s a playful riff. And so, after something light to eat, I head towards St. Peter’s. Going to church became a regular part of Eliot’s life after 1927. And here I am, going to church, as so often and regularly.

And Easter Day, we didn’t get to the country,

So we took young Cyril to church. And they rang a bell

And he said right out loud, crumpets.

I don’t know anyone who goes to church who hasn’t sometime wondered why they’re there, and conversely known it’s precisely where they are supposed to be. Eliot lives with this seeming ambiguity.

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 so we all start arriving at the seminar, by tram or car or train or foot (or, given this rain, by boat). And what if what we say is misconstrued, or the expression unclear?

That is not what I meant at all

That is not it, at all.

And what if instead of Matthew Arnold’s sweetness and light, Groucho Marx hands us an exploding cigar? This is the way the seminar will go, not with a whimper but a bang. And what does everyone hope to hear? I’m not sure, quite.

After much knowledge, what forgiveness?

And going away afterwards, what then?

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

Somewhere we have to make a beginning and it’s still Thursday the 21st of April 2016.

Friday, 22 April 2016

T.S. Eliot, II. A Submission: “That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory.”

The Dry Salvages, off Rockport, Massachusetts

On Thursday the 21st of April Will Johnston, Robert Gribben and I gave a presentation on T.S. Eliot to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Here is the second part of my contribution to that evening, which opened with me reading aloud East Coker II.

Poetry is an art of big and small effects. The big effect of The Wasteland is to experience the dissolution of the subjective self into fragments. The big effect of Four Quartets may be our remembrance of how one person uses meaningful places in his own life as ground for meditations on time, memory, humanness and God. Even though these are lasting recollections of the poems, when we wish to draw meaning we go to verses, lines, or even single words, the small effects. It is a few of these small effects in Eliot we turn to now.

“That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory.”

Well why does he bother? What kind of poet admits that? Rowan Williams has described this line as a custard pie in the reader’s face. Words are limited, styles change; we are open to misinterpretation and rejection. Words go only so far, yet are all we have and we are committed to them. Here Eliot upends Romantic notions about absolute statements. This line is an indicator of Modernism, a place where we accept things are provisional, relative, mutable, but will be said. Theologically the line reminds us that our efforts at describing God, ultimate reality, are necessarily limited by our means. Our meditations on God are circumscribed by the medium of language. We are all interpreters.

“Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.”

This is the final line of The Wasteland. In the late 19th-century, when Eliot was growing up, the imperial English-speaking world became conscious of the teachings of other religions in an unprecedented fashion. We think of Eliot as an Anglo-Catholic poet, but really he was first a poet, second a religious poet, and third an Anglican poet. In his now legendary notes to The Wasteland he writes: “Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is our equivalent to this word.” Eliot was a prototype of the modern writer engaged in inter-religious dialogue, confirmed in his own tradition, enacting the struggle of mind and spirit this entails. By the time of conversion in 1927 he poet and Christian first, but still his final word is Shantih.

“A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything).”

It’s telling that such a complex (not simple) person arrives at a place where he extols above all else a condition of complete simplicity. Even to have arrived at such a reduction, such a virtue, implies a great deal of personal cost. We think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, at the same time and unbeknownst to Eliot, writes in wartime Germany of the cost of discipleship. While the lines speak movingly of the determination of Londoners living through the Blitz, they speak of an acceptance of ‘everything’ that is formed and informed by humility. Eliot does not speak lightly when he accepts that simplicity will cost “not less than everything”, nor is he being stoical. The cost is real and the cost must be met.   

“Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore;

Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste;

Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,

Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.”

If asked what a Christian, or anyone really, must do today now, I think this is one of Eliot’s main leads. He is into restoration, whether of the broken individual, the broken society, a broken church, a broken world. Restoration is one of the main themes of his entire writing. Notice how we go from the breakdown of European society and landscape in The Wasteland to the signs of hoped-for restoration in Four Quartets. Notice how Eliot’s own literary adventures involve restoration of say Dante and the 17th-century Metaphysicals, piece-by-piece in criticism and poetry. Restoration, more especially, of the self is work that must not be delayed. Having experienced restoration in his own life, through suffering, conversion and change, Eliot endeavours to offer this as the way for others.

“Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still.”

These lines, repeated through the poem ‘Ash-Wednesday’, are a curious petitionary prayer, at once imploring and comical. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) says the Psalmist. These lines are mimetic of the restless state they wish to overcome. They describe the active person in need of rest and reflection, describe the inner desire for contemplation. Eliot, in his practised brevity, asks that he care, because we are asked to care and care is possible within us. But at the same time we learn to care without caring to excess, wastefully. And there it is again: wasteland and not wasteland. Meanwhile, how can our restless spirit rest? How does it “sit still”? By asking to “teach us to sit still.” Hidden within Eliot’s poetry is an encapsulation of the story of Martha and Mary, active and contemplative together, learning how to pray, as well as work, more effectively.   

“… music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.”

While we have all probably known this state of being and might even describe it like Eliot, the logic of these lines is also a warning about being able to speak with finality about such a state, of speaking of it as an end in itself, or being able to describe it at all. He seems to say that while we “are the music while the music lasts” this is simply one way of talking about an experience, an awareness, that others may call grace. Or we have other analogies. It is one of several examples of “hints and guesses” that Eliot offers. In saying them about-and-about-again he infers that these are ways of understanding “the point of intersection of the timeless with time”, but only that and you will have your own experiences: experiences that equally are “heard so deeply” they are not heard at all. Listened to in the larger context of The Dry Salvages V, where they appear, these lines come as a culminating focus in this section, which is why I conclude here by reading aloud that poem.