Saturday, 3 March 2012

40BFL 7: Four Quartets

Not here/ Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

Eliot had a gift for seeing the future. In these lines he remonstrated against the banality of Twitter, before the internet had even come upon us. Earlier in The Wasteland he predicted the Twin Towers attack, listing the centres of civilization fatefully up to New York:

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

Spooky huh?

It is impossible to condense my thoughts on Four Quartets. They were the centre-piece of my ph.d. and I’ve read them so many times that I regularly hear the words in my mind triggered by any old conversation, much like lines from Will Ferrell movies.

When they were published people complained that they were too prosy and unintelligible. People are stupid though. And the theology is excellent. Eliot understands transcendence and writes it beautifully - with the strength of feeling of a convert, which he was both to Christianity and to Englishness. It’s the sort of transcendence that raises the quotidian, transforms experience and gives it new meaning. So it is not a turning against or away from the world, but, through attention and desire, discovering eternity in the world, which points beyond itself to the dancing stillness of God. Through the poems he captures both the cataphatic phase of theology - as God is discovered in all manner of creation, described through faltering over-description, by language stretching beyond its own possibilities, desperately trying to grasp and give shape to experience - but also the apophatic phase, borrowing from St John of the Cross, as the world is stripped away into darkness and poetry fades into silence.

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

But the poems are not abstraction - again and again they focus on the particularity of experience. They are full of England and (the later poems) the war in which they were written. But this is gathered into the richness of the Western Christian tradition and each makes sense of each. So 'Little Gidding' climaxes with a night patrol during the blitz but the language is suffused with medieval theology, drawing a wartime nation into the narrative of God’s love.

Four Quartets have the character of liturgy. Read properly they seek to draw you into the presence of God, to help communicate the structure of the universe in which God and the redemption of humanity can be known through Christ. And this is acknowledged as a communal activity, not just for the saint but for a nation at war: 'History is now and England'. If any book more concisely or beautifully describes the Christian vision of the world I have not come across it.

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