The Place Revisited in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets
Published in Connotations Vol. 8.1 (1998/99)
Music and place
The Four Quartets1) belong to those poems of Eliot's in which words beginning with re play a constructive part.2) The word "revisit" occurs in the last Quartet, at a cathartic moment: "So I find words I never thought to speak ⁄ In streets I never thought I should revisit" (LG 123−24). But, implicitly, the theme of the revisited place is struck already in the individual titles, which are, moreover, subsumed to an overall musical and numerical one. According to these signals the place revisited is not a peripheral motif but a main theme closely related with the other "dominants" of the structure. The coupling of the term quartet with the names of places clearly suggests, in fact, the analogy of programme music.3)
The places named in the titles are all revisited places in an autobiographical sense.78) Eliot really went there, the re gaining personal intensity and historical importance as the poetry progresses from the country house Burnt Norton to the village of East Coker, the "home" from which the Eliot family "started," to the rocky isles near the seacoast where Eliot used to spend his holidays as a boy and, finally, to Little Gidding, which well deserves the name of a place revisited in English history4) before Eliot makes it the climax of his tetrad of revisited places. It adds to the importance of this thematic pattern that, in a way, he tried it out first (again, autobiographically as well as poetically) in the short "Landscapes" and the "Five Finger Exercises."5)
Eliot had, of course, been concerned with places and musical analogies from the very beginning.6) But it is in the Four Quartets with those four places named that both components become integral parts of an organic whole. This has to be told by the poems themselves but it helps to have [→page 64] the poet's own word for it when he speaks with the voice of the critic. In The Music of Poetry,7) which is contemporaneous with the Four Quartets and, indeed, reads like a theoretical commentary to them, the "music of a word" is placed at the centre of an ever expanding context of relations with other words and meanings.8) This kind of placing, however valuable as an interpretative hint, is soon followed by another one of a clearly geographical, ethnological and even socio−political nature:
The music of poetry … must be a music latent in the common speech of his time. And that means also that it must be latent in the common speech of the poet's place.9)
That poetry and music are one and the same is as much a matter of course to Eliot as it is, for instance, to Plato, or St. Augustine, or Goethe … .79) And it is a kind of poetological imperative with him that it be perceived not in the music of the spheres but in the common speech of the poet's time and, therefore, of his place. This corroborates the working hypothesis that the overall musical title and the place−names functioning as individual titles are mutually expressive, and that only via this mutuality the meaning of the revisited place can be approached.
Place and the objective correlative
The rapport of place and music begins to work when the words of the poem begin to speak for themselves. It is true that the first "thematic group" ("Time present and time past ⁄ … ," BN 1) is ruled by the concept of time which is, moreover, the very sphere of poetry as well as music for
Words move, music moves
Only in time: (BN 138)
But just as music and poetry are twins, poetry and painting are sister arts.10) What time is to the musician, space is to the painter, and the poet is a master of rhythm and melody as well as pictorial evocation. Assuming the "double part" (LG 97) of a composer of programme music is an ideal [→page 65] way of indicating this duality. When we really begin at the beginning, the first words of the Four Quartets are not "Time present and time past ⁄ …" but "Four Quartets" and "Burnt Norton" (not to mention the Heraclitean mottos). Music and place come first, so that, when the theme of time is struck, it is already felt to be part of an alternating rhythm—not, as most critics will have it,11) of time and eternity but of place and time−and−eternity as components of a musical order chiming in with the λόγoς of the first motto.80)
It is the poet's office "to make" "words move … in time" but also to "give to aery nothing ⁄ A local habitation and a name."81) A "nothing" coupled with "aery" denoting the element (air) which conveys a melody (air) to the intersection point of music and the human soul, the ear,12) is a likely paronomasia of "noting." This has been convincingly shown with reference to Much Ado About Nothing.13) Such a melodious or rhythmical noting has been claimed by Eliot (as by many other poets) to be the nucleus of poetic composition.14) But when that musical germ is to expand into the music of a real poem the "aery nothing" must be given "a local habitation and a name," and this, according to the Four Quartets, appears to be one way of realizing Eliot's inevitable mimetic postulate, the "objective correlative."
In the Hamlet essay of 1919 in which that idea originated, one of Eliot's examples of an "objective correlative" is a "situation."82) This, according to the OED, means (3.b.) "A place or locality in which a person resides, or happens to be for the time." This definition fits as a tangent to the epigrammatic description of Little Gidding in Four Quartets:
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always. (LG 52)
The "always" in the last line of the first part of Little Gidding corresponds to the "this way" in the first (repeated like a Wagnerian leitmotif in this part of the poem). "If you come this way" means: if you come here, to this place, "From the place you would be likely to come from" (LG 22). And "always" (in opposition to "never") means at all times.15) So "always" indicates our everyday practice of measuring time by space and vice versa. And it is Little Gidding, historically as well as topographically clearly [→page 66] defined and now revisited, where this point of intersection is fixed and declared to be the very "intersection of the timeless moment" (LG 52).
When the "always" comprises the intersection of time and place, the "nowhere" includes "the timeless moment" since, in this context it says now here, too. The coincidence of nowhere, now here, and always is summarized in the formula "Quick now, here, now, always−" which marks the end of the beginning (BN 174) as well as the end of this quartet of "Quartets" (LG 252).16)
There are, of course, other places where "the intersection of the timeless moment" may be looked for
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England. (LG 36)
For time to become redeemable it must be coordinated with place.17) Perhaps to Eliot the objective correlative is so compelling aesthetically because it helps us realize the idea that the here and now is the very foothold of man's individual, social, and metaphysical self−awareness and responsibility. This is Donne's theme throughout: "here on this lowly ground, ⁄ Teach mee how to repent";83) and there are parts in the Four Quartets, especially "The Dry Salvages," which sound like an homage to Death's Duell and The XVII. Meditation84) as loci classici for solidarity arising out of our human "incarnation" in the here and now of mundane existence:
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, (DS 35−36)
We appreciate this better
In the agony of others, nearly experienced,
Involving ourselves, than in our own. (DS 108−10)18)
To Eliot (or Donne, or Dickens85)) there is perhaps no correlative more objective, no place more exactly intersecting with time and the timeless than the grave which, together with the tombstone, is a locus memoriae as well as a place revisited of the first order. Its "silent motto" (EC 20), "A symbol perfected in death" (LG 195), testifies to the absolute singularity of one human life as well as to its being "involved in Mankinde," especially [→page 67] when the individual data have been engraved in "old stones that cannot be deciphered" (EC 195). And it is just such "an illegible stone" that, in "Little Gidding" is said to be "that … where we start" (227). This is a predication shared by "home," for "Home is where we start from" (EC 189); but "home," again, is a desideratum of poetry, for the poet aims at making "every word … at home" in his sentences (LG 217). The argument resembles a syllogism proving beginning and end, individuality and solidarity, created nature and the poetic word to have a common denominator, with the grave and the tombstone for an objective correlative. Therefore the definition
Every poem an epitaph (LG 225)19)
holds true and, moreover, invites the analogy: every poem a requiem, because the "aery nothing" (or noting) of music is a perfect paradigm of the intersection point of place and time felt to be (mysteriously and ecstatically) surpassing the realm of both these postulates. In the vertical order of the musical chord time seems momentarily arrested while continually flowing on in horizontal polyphony.20)
Number and measure
Eliot not only implies, as Shakespeare does, that the "aery nothing" to be realized has musical qualities but he says so in so many words: these poems are to be regarded as quartets in a musical sense (which in the common speech of our time is the primary meaning, anyway)21) and they are, moreover, four in number. This refers to the very oldest layer of musical theory, that is to say the so−called Greater Perfect System of Aristoxenus, which (in its diatonic form) consisted of two tetrachords separated by a tone.22) Strangely enough the musical system based on this principle (which fitted so ideally into Pythagoras' world−forming Tetractys)23) symbolizes order even more rigorously to us than to the successors of Pythagoras. For whereas to them the system of musical modes was an open one it has become a "perfect" circle since we have begun to think in terms of enharmonic equation.24) With us the two tetrachords [→page 68] function as links in the unbroken chain making up the circle of fifths, the lower tetrachord being the higher of the preceding key and the higher being the lower of the succeeding one.
To the poet whose poetry is music, this is only another "way of putting" (EC 68) what the second motto of the Four Quartets says: "The way upwards and the way downwards are one and the same,"25) from C to C (via F sharp interpreted as G flat) upwards and downwards in circular progression. Since the number four is instrumental in this circularity, the symbol of the circle squared seems to emerge. In the Four Quartets this idea (beautifully expressed by a "common word exact without vulgarity," LG 221) comes up in the search for the echoes of the children's laughter in the first part of "Burnt Norton":
… Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. (BN 18−20)
Seen in the light of Donne's Holy Sonnet already mentioned, "At the round earth's imagined corners," this appears as one of Eliot's characteristically "broken images."26) It refers in "complete simplicity" (LG 253) to the mysteries of cosmic geometry being quite literally grounded in the elements, for the square (and implicitly the number four) is an emblem of the earth:
Vierfach ist das Ackerfeld,
Mensch, wie ist dein Herz bestellt?27)
as it says in the German Watchman's Song. But the most elemental of elements would be nonexistent without being regarded by man's mind,28) which has been created capable of contemplating the square in relation to the circle or not at all.86) And this, in Christian iconography, is a paradoxical scheme, for the square is an emblem of the earth as the circle is of God and eternity but there is also the opposite view:
Die Welt scheint Kugelrund dieweil sie sol vergehn:
Gevierdt ist GOttes Stadt: drumb wird sie Ewig stehn.29)
[→page 69] These numerical and geometrical connotations show the idea of Four Quartets to be determined by the co−ordinates summarized in "now, here, now, always," even before the revisited places (that is to say the "programmes" of the quartets) come into play.
This is confirmed when number and measure (not to speak of weight)30) are considered in the light of musical metrics. When the division of the monochord, that is to say, a "spatial" operation, leads to the two tetrachords making up (together with the tonus) the octave, the temporal order of musical metrics quite as easily yields to a quaternion explanation. This is borne out by such a congenial source as St. Augustine's De Musica, which is a treatise of metrics before it turns out to be one of metaphysics.31) Here, strangely enough in the Saint's trinitarian system, the four is, indeed, the "golden reed"32) of musical measurement: in the music of metrics time is measured by space. What in a metrical pattern we call one time is the space that is occupied by a short syllable. Up to four such times find their place in a metrical pattern sharing the name of foot with that member of the human body and age−old unit of spatial measurement.33) And when, in the Confessions, the question comes up where time is, or rather where time past, present, and future are to be measured, this musical (that is to say, metrical) consideration prevails:
Ubi est qua metior brevis? Ubi est longa quam metior? Ambae sonuerunt, avolaverunt, praeterierunt, iam non 'sunt'.
The well−known answer to the question where the vanished sounds or metrical feet still are when they are here no more and where, therefore, time can be measured is:
… in memoria … In te anime meus, tempora metior.34)
Musical metrics are essentially fourfold, and trying to get hold of them, even in theory, means transposing temporal progression into spatial co−existence: "Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit."35) And not only the space is measured where the four times find their places, but the objectivity, the "local habitation" of what otherwise would be "melted into thin air"36) comes again into play: the earth, the "here" where the "now" takes place. [→page 70] "Footfalls"37) which "echo in the memory" denote musical rhythm but they also speak of earthbound living beings touching the ground with their feet. Doing this in a musical rhythm is dancing.
Pursuing the pattern
Dancing is as closely related to music as the word χoρός indicates or as Sir John Davies has shown in the Orchestra38) or as it appears in the sequence of dance−movements called suite, followed historically by the so−called sonata which up to Beethoven retained, and sometimes still retains, the menuet (and other elements) from the old suite.87)
The dance pattern is Eliot's paradigm of man's moving in the now−here of reality. In it the number four in all its arithmetical contexts is reflected in a kind of musical geometry, time and space are juxtaposed in a choreogram, that is to say a fixed, ornamental pattern of movement which seems to serve as a kind of parodic squaring of the circle or vice versa. Dancing is an objective correlative of cosmic order, including the human microcosm as well as the body politic.39) It goes some way towards Eliot's own "Definition of Culture" being a constellation of unity and diversity placed in time.40)
The Four Quartets are, like the Orchestra, very much of A Poem of Dancing from the first mention of the moving "in a formal pattern," and "The dance along the artery" which is "figured in the drift of stars" (BN 31, 52, 54), to the final statements on "The complete consort dancing together" (LG 223). It is, however, in the country dance in "East Coker" that the theme of dancing comes into its own and the compositional elements appear as parts of a choreographic pattern:
In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a Summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
[→page 71] Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. 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. (EC 23−46)
There are the coordinates of place and time, of the field and the midsummer night, of hearing the music and seeing the dance. There is the squared circle of men and women dancing around the bonfire or leaping through it and coming down to earth with their "earth feet, loam feet" which are, at the same time, "rising and falling" in iambic or trochaic rhythm. It is "here on this lowly ground" that this poetry and music and dancing takes place;41) it is real, everyday "Eating and drinking" that appears in a sacramental context and "Dung and death" mark the end of all the "necessary conjunctions," but "earth" rhymes with "mirth" and, what is more, it does so in the form of the cross:
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long under earth.
In this equally stylised and realistic little genre−painting Eliot portrays country−dancing, square−dancing which, in the history of folklore (as well as in musical history) is an offspring of the quadrille.42) This dance indeed "betokeneth" social "concorde,"43) especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when it was practised in the ballroom and adapted for the village−green, with men and women forming four quartets of two pairs each, proceeding from a central square in continually changing patterns of "stars" and "chains" and "mills" and "squares" and "crosses" and [→page 72] "circles" both large and small, and dancing in squares round the centre in concentric circles44) till the end becomes one with the beginning,
To which first points when all return again,
The axletree of heaven shall break in twain. (Orchestra 36, 6−7)45)
Eliot makes us hear the music and see the dance but he insists that we can do so only under one condition:
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a Summer midnight … (EC 24)
Otherwise it is by us that these "shadows" are "offended"46) and the "dancers [will have] all gone under the hill."88) The poet−magician is a necromancer conjuring up the "Mirth of those long since under earth."47) Terpsichore is Mnemosyne's daughter; memory is the place where time past and time future are present and where, therefore, time can be measured. And we can grasp this, perhaps, by an awareness of "footfalls echo[ing] in the memory" provided we "… do not come too close." Men and women, like country dancers, hold each other by the hand or arm or, like dancers in a quadrille, put "dos à dos" only to loosen that hold and performing the next figure,
… keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons.
"Fare forward" is the password. There is no returning to quite the same place or as quite the same person but moving on (as Dickens has it in one of the most moving of his figures)48) in continuous "Attachment and detachment." There would be no dance without the dancers continually faring forward, they and the places where they find themselves never quite the same.
It is the same with music, especially programme music. Coming "too close," that is to say describing the programme too directly would render [→page 173] the music a persiflage, not a realization of musical painting,49) and if not obeying the law of faring forward, music would cease to exist.
It is the same with poetry. Sound is the "matter," and musical rhythm may be the germ of an idea and image of poetry, but the poet must not "work too closely to musical analogies"50) or artificiality might be the effect. And this would be contrary to a poetry which (like Shakespeare's) comes into being by first getting rid of artificiality and regaining simplicity, that is to say, "return[ing] to common speech."51) This implies the poet's awareness that "language is always changing."89) And here again (as in so many aspects) human nature and the altera natura of poetry connect, for "Words move, music moves ⁄ Only in time" (BN 148−149), similarly "We must be still and still moving" (EC 203). Then the stillness, the moment in the movement can be felt to be a chance rather than a privation:
Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment (EC 191−93)
In the "movement" wholly devoted to the theme of faring forward, "The Dry Salvages" III, a figural pattern emerges which reveals the different constituents of the course of life and poetry seen in this way:
You are not the same people who left this station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you (DS 139−43)
The traveller here is placed not at "The point of intersection of the timeless ⁄ With time, [which] is an occupation for the saint—" (DS 201−02) but at one of his own moments of intersection in the world of place and time which resembles the intersection point of the St Andrew's cross or an optical diagram making clear where "the unseen eyebeam crossed" (BN 28).52) A cruciform pattern is discernible in the lines of the human wayfarer's life in the "Dry Salvages." This is confirmed by the structural rhythm of the passage: [→page 74]
Fare forward (137)
the past … any future (138−39)
the narrowing rails (141)
the furrow that widens (143)
the past … the future (144−45)
Fare forward (149)
In the spiritual autobiography of the Four Quartets again and again the cross makes itself felt as a compositional element: it is, logically, implied in the paradoxes and the antitheses dominating the structure, but it is also clearly signalled, for instance in "East Coker" I:
In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, (EC 14−15)
This is the "open field" (echoing the "open field" of line 4) where we can "see them dancing around the bonfire" provided we "do not come too close" but keep listening to the crossed structures in the poet's music, for instance in the chiasmus mentioned before:
Earth … mirth
Mirth … earth
or in the antithetic pairing of
… Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death. (EC 37−46)
Furthermore, the word "restore" is used again and again to rivet the reader's attention on the cross. All the words beginning with re help explain the architectural "ground−plot"53) of the work. Many of them are repeated more than twice and placed in an exposed position, but restore stands out among them by being repeated five times. On its first occurrence, in the third line of "East Coker," it is preceded by "destroyed," which comes near to being its anagram, with sound and sense intersecting. Twice it is coupled with "revive," positively when used at the point of intersection where "approach to the meaning restores the experience ⁄ In a different form … the past experience revived in the meaning" (DS 94−97) [→page 75] and, negatively, when degraded to signify mere political restauration: "We cannot revive old factions ⁄ We cannot restore old policies" (LG 185−86).54)
There is, perhaps, one "restored" in English poetry to end all others:
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.55)
When that happens "… all shall be well and ⁄ All manner of thing shall be well" (LG 255−56) and that is, certainly in Eliot's perspective and possibly in Shakespeare's, too, when the cross of the Passion becomes the cross of triumph. Restore derives from σταυρός. A diagram of life's journey in Four Quartets would not show a single line but lines intersecting, charged with the ethos and pathos of "Attachment" and "detachment," in continuous motion from "unredeemable" (BN 5) to "redeemed" (LG 234), with meeting and visiting and being re−visited foreshadowing (in broken imagery) the reality of eschatological return.
Compelling the recognition
Geometry knows of innumerable regular planes but only of five regular bodies; similarly, there are next to innumerable places visited in the pilgrimage of life, but the revisited places named in the spiritual autobiography56) of the Four Quartets are only four in number. That means, apart from all the quaternion symbolism, that the places to be revisited are select ones, charged with the presence of past and future, connected with the elements of personal existence, felt to be meeting places, places of accepting and being accepted, visiting and being visited, points of intersection where "the unseen eyebeam crossed" and experience is full of meaning,57) in other words, places of recognition. That is the English word for αvαγvώρισις. Looking up visito in an etymological Latin dictionary one is at once referred to video, and in English common speech "Come and see me" is a way of expressing an invitation to pay someone a visit.
[→page 76] The word "recognition" occurs in the passage leading up to "revisit" which begins with placing the scene in the when and where "between" night and morning and "between" three districts. There the meeting of the "I" and the "you" (who do not exist as a "we") takes place, and there the one recognizes while the other revisits:
In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unendingAfter the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tinOver the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurriedAs if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
And as I fixed upon the down−turned faceThat pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first−met stranger in the waning dusk
I caught the sudden look of some dead masterWhom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many; …In concord at this intersection time
Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.I said: 'The wonder that I feel is easy,
Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak:
I may not comprehend, may not remember.'And he: 'I am not eager to rehearse
My thought and theory which you have forgotten. (LG 78−112)<
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds become much like each other,So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.' (LG 120−25)
The metaphor of the stage is omnipresent in Four Quartets,58) but in this passage it is of outstanding importance. First there is the situation of the meeting, stressed by the wordplay on "metal": "I met one," "The first−met [→page 77] stranger," which faintly resembles the stage direction: Enter X, to him Y. This resemblance seems intentional in the light of the words "So I assumed a double part" and "re−enactment" (LG 138). Then the "recognition" takes place at this "intersection time ⁄ Of meeting nowhere," and finally, "wonder" is felt, which together with the assumed part and the recognition in meeting, completes the pattern of a tragedy defined by place and time and action, culminating in the meeting of peripeteia and anagnorisis, ending in a catastrophe and answered by pity and wonder.
The anagnorisis of the Four Quartets is closely modelled on the prototype of Sophocles' Oedipus meeting (or rather being met by) Tiresias.59) The double part the speaker assumes mirrors the confrontation with the self when, meeting and being met by the seer, the speaker sees because he is seen: "And as I fixed … That pointed scrutiny … I caught the sudden look …" (89−92).
The idealist notion60) that knowing is being known is as strongly reminiscent of Pauline theology as is "… time … redeemable" in Eph. 5:16 as a positive foil of "Time … unredeemable" in BN 1−5 (which is, quite literally, "redeemed" in LG 206 and 234). Three times St Paul varies the notion that knowing is being known: "then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Cor 13:12), "after ye have known God, or rather are known by God" (Gal 4:9), and "that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:12). Here Luther has "ergreifen" and "ergriffen" (captured), which is the mot juste for being moved by the pity and wonder of tragedy.
The theme of recognition is struck as early in Four Quartets as in the description of the Garden in "Burnt Norton," which is a place revisited in memory and experience, a place inhabited by echoes to be found "round the corner," where guests are "accepted and accepting," where the roses have "the look of flowers that are looked at," and where
… the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed,
… (BN 28−30)
[→page 78] Here we are back in Sir Thomas Browne's Garden of Cyrus with the quincunx pattern of the trees as a paradigm of God's garden, the world, "artificially," "naturally," and "mystically" considered.61) There the crossed eyebeams serve as an optical emblem for the res in mundo making an impact on the mental retina, so that intellectual recognition ensues which, in the precincts of an idealist ontology, is a necessary condition of existence: creation had not been effected before, on the sixth day, man had been made and the music otherwise unheard and the eyebeam otherwise uncrossed were met by the ears and eyes of the body and mind of man who, on his part, would be non−existent when unknown to God.62)
Eliot "stages" this complex of ideas in the recognition−scene of "Little Gidding," placed in the time of all−clear after a London air raid. The characteristic realism of meeting in the nowhere and now−here of historical reality makes us feel Sir Thomas Browne's Christian idealism, for all its metaphysical similarity, to be somewhat remote. A modern existentialist's view may perhaps serve for a more congenial example of questing for truth by making contraries meet:
Die Idee ist Wahrheit, die ich hervorbringe, indem sie aus einer Welt entgegenkommt.63)
While the idea is the philosopher's immediate concern, the poet's is the word. And this is the theme struck by the master who comes to revisit "these streets," having left his "body on a distant shore." As an impersonation of Brunetto Latini in the Purgatorio, or of Yeats, or any other master representing the wisdom of old age he, too, assumes a double part: he is like Tiresias meeting Oedipus, so that recognition takes place and he is, once more, Tiresias visiting the waste land of the modern metropolis now actually sharing the fate of "Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna." He is a "spirit unappeased and peregrine ⁄ Between two worlds," a sojourner in the land of the dead, in other words, he speaks in the name of Orpheus; and therefore it is not surprising when this Tiresias, revisiting the London of the air raids, finds words which, dramatically speaking, are an anticlimax because they do not concern hell and purgatory and the apocalypse but, of all things, the craft of the poet: [→page 79]
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,Let me disclose the gift reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort. (LG 126−30)
Now, that does indeed recall the Apocalypse though not apocalyptic revenge but reassurance:
be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life (Rev 2:10)
And this, in the Four Quartets, is not the crown of victory or martyrdom but one awarded to a master of his craft, who tries to make the word at home in the sentence, so that it can start working; who seeks for the objective correlative of the intellectual emotions he wants to impart;64) who makes it his office to find the meanings enclosed in experience; and who wants to work up towards the recognition of peripeteia fulfilled in the tragic catharsis. All this can only be achieved by trying to make human speech an echo of the footfalls echoing in the memory which, in a musical way, ring true. To reach this end, the poet revisits Little Gidding.
How the poetry matters
Listening for the echoes of the unheard music of the mind is, according to Eliot, the first step to writing a poem.65) Having entered the precincts of music, he actually goes and revisits places reverberating with the meaningful echoes of past experience. In "Little Gidding" the autobiographical pattern is projected onto an historical one of strong personal impact: Little Gidding may well be compared with London suffering the visitation of the air−raids because it, too, was "slaine" by "warre … tyrannies ⁄ Despaire, law, chance … ,"66) and it is, moreover, the prototype of a place revisited. King Charles (the last time just before his execution) and Crashaw and Herbert did, indeed, come that way "… to kneel ⁄ Where prayer has been valid" (LG 44−45).67)
Long before he wrote Four Quartets Eliot had come to regard Herbert not as a "minor poet" but as a master only to be compared with St John [→page 80] of the Cross for the "expression of purity and intensity of religious feeling, and for … literary excellence," using his skill, moreover, to realize in his poems "the experience of man in search of God and trying to explain to himself his intenser human feelings in terms of the divine goal."68) In "Little Gidding" the old master comes to revisit the younger one to remind him that "our concern was speech." But throughout this Quartet we are reminded that even this crowning act of a "lifetime's effort" is subordinated to valid prayer for "prayer is more ⁄ Than an order of words" (LG 46−47). In this poetic manifesto the shadow of Herbert revisiting Little Gidding is very present and the words "Wherefore with my utmost art ⁄ I will sing thee" and "Small it is, in this poore sort ⁄ To enroll thee," (from "Praise [II]" which is said to have been Eliot's favourite anthem)69) "echo in the memory."
Measured against the divine Word (BN 156) the words of the poet are, indeed, "Small" and "poore" and "The poetry does not matter" (EC 71). But when Eliot says
… prayer is more
Than an order of words
Lesse than the least
Of all God's mercies, is my posie still. ("The Posie" 12)
both poets are speaking of the poetic word not in terms of contrast but comparison with divine matters, which is a humble and yet a proud thing to do.
Eliot makes it very clear at the end of "Little Gidding" that poetry does matter and that in the new style of his late poetry70) he strives, in his own way, for an "utmost art"
… (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident not ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together) (LG 217−23)
[→page 81] The phrase "The poetry does not matter," taken in an absolute sense, would render this ideal valueless but taken relatively helps to define it. The very lines just quoted are an example for the words of poetry serving the real matter, prayer, for they function as a kind of preparatory prayer, giving way, at last, to the prayerbook of the Bible, the Psalter, which is recalled in a paraphrase of the 126th Psalm:
He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. (Ps 126:6)
See, they depart, and we go with them.
See, they return, and bring us with them. (LG 231−33)
True to his description of the use Herbert makes of art in the service of "man in search of God," Eliot, again and again in Four Quartets, is concerned with the poet's lifelong effort "to learn to use words" (EC 173).71) What one uses is a means to an end. "End" is Eliot's code word for the metaphysical oneness of beginning and end, that is to say the first and final cause. Learning to use words is a means to enter this mysterious circle in the world of space and time, provided the learner is aware that "every attempt ⁄ Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure" (EC 173−74) because
The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs. (BN 160−61)
The rule that in poetry "every phrase ⁄ And sentence" has to be "right" and "every word … at home" could never hold without the poetry so ordered being understood as an integral part of "another intensity" (EC 204); and the poet's "utmost art" would become valueless or even self−contradictory when carrying with it the pretension that it mattered in itself, instead of being "involved in humanity."72) Here, again, poetry is found to be analogous to life, for the here−and−now, too, which is the one chance of man's moral existence would be rendered illusory when treated as a permanent home instead of as a step on the stairs. The actual analogy is echoed by rhetorical similarity: "The poetry does not matter" because "… [→page 82] prayer is more ⁄ Than an order of words," and "Here and there does not matter" because "Love is more nearly itself ⁄ When here and now cease to matter" (EC 199−200).
In The Music of Poetry there is a passage which comes as a godsend to the literary historian who wants to realize what the words of the text want to express:73)
The music of a word is, so to speak, at a point of intersection: it arises from its relation first to the words immediately preceding and following it, and indefinitely to the rest of its context; and from another relation, that of its immediate meaning in that context to all the other meanings which it has had in other contexts, to its greater or less wealth of association. (32−33)
In the first sentence the verbum substantivum is, surprisingly, used as a full verb: the music of a word has its being, exists at a point of intersection and it does so, arising from its relation to a wealth of words and meanings in its own or other contexts. One such context to be associated with the music of Eliot's words in this passage are Walt Whitman's in the "Song of the Exposition" concerning the creation of the New World: "E'en while I chant I see it rise."74) The parallel might be pursued further because in Whitman's incantatory free verse as in Eliot's measured prose the world seen to arise when the "music of a word" is called into being, is of an essentially relational character. The very largest or least of parts does not matter in itself but only in its context, bordering on or overlapping with other contexts in every imaginable dimension and in ever extending proportions. A poem or even a poetry that pretended to matter in itself would belie this rule governing the "music of a word." For if the word really is of this musical kind, the word is the work meaning a world, analogous to the whole Bible being the Word of God and "All things" being made by the Word,75) also named deus poeta or The Divine Orpheus.76)
The expression "music of a word" would not make sense outside such a basically "harmonical" world picture. In it each species and each individual and each art strives for perfection only to reach the point where it intersects ("artificially" and "naturally" as well as "mystically") with another one. This is, in the world not of the Saint but of natural man, the point where echoes of childhood are heard, unseen eyebeams cross, and [→page 83] places revisited provide recognition. This would, however, be without tragic impact, if it did not follow the rule of "moving ⁄ Into another intensity." So the recognition won in the now here of the London streets where the master "find[s] words [he] never thought to speak" is placed within the revisited place named in the title, "Little Gidding," where one comes not "to verify" but "to kneel ⁄ Where prayer has been valid."
The idea of music and poetry leading up to prayer fills, of course, a whole chapter in the history of music. With special reference to the Four Quartets it is realized in Stravinsky's beautiful twelve tone setting (in "complete simplicity") of "The dove descending breaks the air," and it is, once and for all, prefigured in Beethoven's string quartet op. 132 containing the "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit in der lydischen Tonart."77)