Meditating Four Quartets: East Coker (II/2)

Cosmic conflict. Weeping meteors. Ragnarök. Armageddon. Holocaust. The world destroyed by fire, culminating in the lifelessness of absolute zero.


And then suddenly we hear the voice of the poet:

That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory: / A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion, / Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

Strange and unexpected—I do not recall another poem where the poet breaks out of the poem to comment on what he has just written. It’s as if a director should suddenly stop the play and step onto the stage. The audience is suddenly reminded that they are watching a theatrical production rather than living within the drama. The spell is broken. Yet we are still within the poem.

Why is the poet dissatisfied with the previous lines? I had to turn to the dictionary to learn what “periphrastic” means. It’s the adjectival form of “periphrasis”: “the use of an unnecessarily long or roundabout form of expression; circumlocution.” Apparently Eliot does not like the apocalyptic imagery of those first seventeen verses. They don’t say what he wants to say, needs to say. He prefers more direct, less histrionic speech. Prophecies of cosmic cataclysm may terrify and in a perverse way delight; but they do not accomplish what Eliot intends in these Four Quartets. Plus the poet is unhappy with the ancient metrical form that he (quite intentionally) chose—“worn-out poetical fashion,” as he calls it. The traditional form almost gives the words a sing-song quality. Meter and rhyme can put us to sleep; but Eliot wants to awaken us, to compel us to confront the truth of our lives. New wine needs new wineskins. Authentic poetry, declares Eliot, is “intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.” No matter how delightful or enchanting the final artistic product may be, in Eliot’s view it does not succeed if it does not transform imagination, if it does not become revelation, if it does not initiate the auditor into the Mystery of the still point of the turning world.

It was not (to start again) what one had expected. / What was to be the value of the long looked forward to, / Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity / And the wisdom of age?

To what does the “it” of the first line refer? Is Eliot referring to the apocalyptic vision of the first seventeen lines of the second movement or to the dance of copulation and death in the first movement? I do not know. If the poet is truly starting over, then it seems to me that “it” must refer to the first movement in some way. Thomas Howard, though, suggests that “it” refers to “the thunderous culmination of everything he had tried to evoke in that bombastic lyric” (Dove Descending, p. 73). This sounds plausible. The cosmic cataclysm was certainly unexpected after our gamboling in the woods when everyone lived in harmony, and life seemed to make sense. Perhaps a more logical continuation would have been an invocation of the wisdom of tradition. But Eliot is skeptical.

Had they deceived us / Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders, / Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit? / The serenity only a deliberate hebetude, / The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets / Useless in the darkness into which they peered / Or from which they turned their eyes.

Mere iteration of proverbs and traditional maxims is inadequate to the present situation in which we now live. Eliot may be a traditional Anglo-Catholic; but he also knows himself as a modern man living after the terrible war that was supposed to end all wars, with his nation now entering into a second world war. There can be no return to a simpler, more tranquil time. Industrialism, technological advancement, the development of modern weapons of destruction, the growth of the omnivorous nation-state, the breakdown of family and community—the principalities and powers have conspired to create a world inhospitable to human flourishing. Nostalgia for an age-never-known beckons us; but time must be redeemed within time, without retreating into the past. Houses rise and fall. We indwell the circle of life—copulation and procreation, dung and death.

What happened to the wisdom of the world? asks the poet. Why did the sages fail us? Because, suggests Eliot, they had deceived themselves and thus could only bequeath to us a “receipt for deceit.” Their wisdom was counterfeit, a “knowledge of dead secrets.”

There is, it seems to us, / At best, only a limited value / In the knowledge derived from experience. / The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies, / For the pattern is new in every moment / And every moment is a new and shocking / Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived / Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm. / In the middle, not only in the middle of the way / But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble, / On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold, / And menaced by monsters, fancy lights, / Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear / Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly, / Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, / Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

We must practice a healthy skepticism, counsels Eliot. If we simply receive the wisdom of the past and then uncritically apply it to our lives, we risk distorting, corrupting, falsifying our experience of Reality. We impose the template of the past upon the One who unites past and future and who now presents himself to us in judgment and grace: “For the pattern is new in every moment / And every moment is a new and shocking / Valuation of all we have been.” And in so imposing we render ourselves deaf to the divine voice and oblivious to his presence.

Here is the temptation for all forms of traditional Christianity but perhaps especially for Orthodoxy in the Western diaspora. Orthodoxy lives in Tradition, not only in Tradition but in all the traditions, rituals, customs, pieties in which the Tradition has been embodied. When confronted with the hebetude and torpidity of congregational life, the only solution anyone can think of is stricter observance of tradition and custom. If only our parishes could become like the parishes in the old world; if only our parishes could become like the monasteries of Mt Athos; if only all these ordinary lukewarm believers would work harder and make themselves worthy to receive the divine grace and partake of the Mysteries. And we are surprised when the imposed discipline crushes and alienates the souls of our already exhausted and wounded parishioners. Life cannot be generated by rules and more rules. “For the letter kills,” declares the Apostle, “but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).

Eliot is no anarchist or revolutionary. He is not advocating the abandonment of tradition, as if we could simply form a committee and make a brave new world. We know, or should know, the terrible costs of utopian ideology. But Eliot is urging upon us candid honesty. Let us not pretend that our modern situation is not desperate, that we do not stand on the edge of a cultural and spiritual mire, menaced by monsters of every kind. Let us not pretend that our ancestors were less selfish and egotistical than we are today and that all we need do is to escape into their past. They too were fearful of love. They too were afraid to peer into the darkness. They too were terrified of death. They too shrank from surrendering themselves into the hands of the living God.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless. 

Eliot surprises us with his call to Tradition—not a reiteration of platitudes that probably never worked but the ascetical cultivation of that one virtue that opens us to the truth and salvation of God. Humility liberates us from the pathological need to impose our patterning upon Reality. Humility makes room in our souls for the Other. Humility is the only wisdom, and it is endless.

Eliot is here dealing with a perennial problem. Reality is to be received and not imposed; it is to be received from another and not from ourselves. Yet in the process of receiving it we are inclined to impose our own meaning on reality, and thus we destroy it. This is sin. The opposite of sin is the humble reception of that which is offered, however discomforting it may be—denouncing our selfish inclinations, denying us our cherished pleasures, and shocking us out of complacency into reality. To be shocked thus is to live. The pattern imposed is untrue, an illusion, death. The pattern received is revelation, renewing its recipients. What is needed, if the pattern is to be received and we are to avoid the chaos and experience the eternal order as the ancients knew it, is humility. (John Booty, Meditating on Four Quartets, p. 23)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3).

The houses are all gone under the sea.

The dancers are all gone under the hill.

Double space. Space for us to collect ourselves. The past is in the past. We dance with Eternity in the present, or we do not dance at all.

(Go to next meditation)

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