I find lyric poetry difficult, and the more modern, the more difficult. I do not know why. I was an English major. I took several poetry classes. My heart is more poetic than philosophical. Yet I can read and re-read a poem, whether by Keats or Yeats, and be completely unmoved and incomprehending. Sigh.
I have long wanted to read, and understand, The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot. I have made a couple of attempts in the past, but to no success. A couple of weeks ago my wife and I listened to these four poems as read by Jeremy Irons. Splendid, absolutely splendid. I do not know how much I really understood with my mind, but my heart heard the music and rhythm of the language and embraced the imagery. At the end I was still incapable of stating the meaning of the poems (but what is the meaning of a poem but the poem itself?); but I was edified nonetheless.
In the weeks and months ahead I plan to share with you my meditations on these poems. I do not know the precise form these meditations will take. I expect that they will be a kind of stream of consciousness response—more personal impression perhaps than intellectual reflection. I do not know if they will be of any interest to anyone.
Everyone needs a guide when reading Eliot. Alongside the Quartets, I will be referring to Meditating on Four Quartets by John Booty and Dove Descending by Thomas Howard. I’ve owned the former since it was first published in 2003. I purchased the latter a few years ago. Both have just been sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for the right time to be read. Now is that time.
In music a quartet is a composition scored for four instruments. Howard suggests that the instruments in Elliot’s poems are the ancient Four Elements—Air, Earth, Water, and Fire. I did not pick up on this during Irons’s reading. We’ll just have to wait and see if Howard’s suggestion illuminates the text.
The title for each poem identifies a specific place: Burnt Norton, a ruined 17th century manor house in Gloustershire; East Coker, the village in Somerset to which Elliot traced his ancestry; the Dry Salvages, a small group of rocks off Eastern Point in Gloucester, Massachusetts; Little Gidding, an Anglican religious community established in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar.
The Quartets are meant to be read in order. Each poem is broken into five movements. I hope to blog on each movement, one at a time. Perhaps you would like to read the Four Quartets along with me. Perhaps you are already well acquainted with them. In either case, please share your thoughts and feelings about the poems. God knows, I need all the help I can get!