Thursday, 22 October 2015

Impressions of TS Eliot's Four Quartets

One of the advantages of having severe recurrent unpredictable migraines is... well, being awoken at three am and treating the headache, sleeping a while, then waking again in a state of peculiar lucidity with the impulse to re-read (start to finish) Eliot's Four Quartets after a gap of nearly three decades.

I was in the perfect mood of receptivity - made more perfect by having just been out among the stars and plants and seen what I never saw before (probably never will again): Venus blazing, a multi-pointed white star on the Eastern horizon with - below and to the left, close together, in a slightly bent line - Jupiter, then Mars.

I have always had a negative feeling about the Four Quartets, before I even read them - and about Eliot. Not a dislike so much as a wariness not to be drawn into his world, his perspective on life - that sophisticated, fluid, memorable despair.

The Four Quartets was the work of a Christian, and a catholic Christian - it is a world winding down, written by a man winding down. The thesis is of this state being eternal - because now is all times. This is not ultimate pessimism - there are many meanings - but it is a sad stasis.

The poetry is close to prose, but has the compactness, epigrammatic, self-aware quality of poetry - and (mostly) a line of two half-lines each with two pulses (like a very loose descendant of Old English alliterative poetry). Eliot has a wonderful fluidity, no perceptible strain, a smoothness, an ability to use complex vocabulary without jarring and continuing the sounds, and (the test of poetry) quotability: this is, of course, reckoned one of the major poetic achievements of the last century.

But what a sad world he brings us into - what an end of civilizations, what a sense of hope-less-ness which pervades even - or especially - the hope that all will be well, all is well, all was well... if all is like this and well, that makes everything much worse!

Is all this the inevitable consequence of intelligence, knowledge and sensibility? That seems to be implied...

It isn't, of course; but that is how one feels during the reading; and no doubt in debate one would be unable to counter the argument by anything which did not sound, by contrast, superficial and crude.

Eliot is never vulgar - even the clashing slang of The Wasteland is parenthetic, ironic, detached; and yet vulgarity is a part of life - and perhaps a vital part of life; lacking which perhaps Eliot's resignation, the quiet aesthetic pessimism, becomes inevitable.

And I think he knew that - but nonetheless did what he did - incomparably well.