“I thought morning would never get here,” whispers the poet to himself as he steps out of his house to survey the new devastation wrought by the latest wave of German bombers. What he sees sickens him. He finds himself incapable of even punctuation—eleven lines without a comma or period. “The punctuation, or absence, thereof,” notes Thomas Howard, “underscores the unreal, almost nightmare, nature of the scene, since all is run together in one undifferentiated region of ruin” (Dove Descending, p. 131).
In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
“The dark dove with the flickering tongue”—perhaps the poet is thinking of the Luftwaffe bombers and their escort Messerschmitts. But the dove is singular. Eliot strikingly compares the evil that terrorized London for fifty-seven consecutive nights with the dove of the Pentecostal Spirit who came down upon the disciples in power and glory, “tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them” (Acts 2:3). The comparison seems almost blasphemous, yet “not in Eliotean terms, since the bomber and the Holy Spirit do, in fact, bring ordinary expectations and routine to a calamitous end, leaving us with the smoking residue of those routines and charging us with a dramatically altered vista” (p. 130). As I write this paragraph, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation. Through the word of the angel, the Spirit came upon the holy Virgin, and her life was dramatically changed: God was conceived in her womb. From this point on she would always be Theotokos. Elizabeth declared Mary blessed among women. The Orthodox Church acclaims her “more honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim.” Few think themselves blessed, however, when the dark dove rains fire and death upon the world. Will London recover? Will we?
Eliot wants us to think of the Divine Comedy, as the lines in the second-half of this movement are written in a style intended to approximate a Dantean canto. He does not attempt to replicate the terza rima rhyme structure (aba bcb cdc)—apparently English does not have the rhyming resources of Italian—but following the form he versifies a series of tercets and maintains an even iambic rhythm. As Dante met various personages in his journey through hell and purgatory, so now Eliot comes across a man (or more accurately, a man is blown across his path), familiar yet unfamiliar.
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many; in the brown baked features
The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another’s voice cry: ‘What! are you here?’
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other—
And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
And so, compliant to the common wind,
Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
In concord at this intersection time
Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
Who is this mysterious stranger? Some have speculated that he might be either Dante or Yeats, but given that Eliot explicitly describes him as a “compound ghost,” it makes sense to think of him as a composite of all the poets and teachers, remembered and forgotten, who have influenced the poet over his lifetime. Derek Traversi suggests another possibility: “we are here dealing with an intimate self-confrontation” (The Longer Poems, p. 190). The stranger is the incarnation of Eliot’s past poetic self.
The two personae recognize each other and simultaneously exclaim, “What! are you here?” Both are surprised to find the other taking a walk in the early morning, here at this intersection of eternity and time. “Are you here?” “No,” we imagine the poet thinking to himself in paraphrased reply. “I am not the same when I first met you … yet neither are you the same.” The self-in-time is never a completed self. Who am I? I think, therefore I am. I cannot deny the reality of my self-consciousness, yet is that what makes me me? “I was still the same, / knowing myself yet being someone other.” I am me but also the other—but what other? The other of my remembered self, the one who is the the subject of my memories? Am I the same person who went bowling with the Fiorio boys every Saturday morning? How is personal identity established over time? If I think too long on this, I will drive myself crazy, yet if I do not think on this, I may never encounter the stranger I need to meet. I have so many questions for him. Yet even my past-self changes by each act of remembrance. His face is “still forming.” It will always be forming until all my questions are answered and I no longer need to remember. I strain to reconcile past and present and be one man.
After my father died, I sought out relatives who knew him well. I wanted to hear the stories. I hoped that in learning more about him I might find a clue to why he and I never felt comfortable together. We tried to love each other, and did love each other, but we were always at odds, always at loggerheads. And then the Ahlzheimer’s came, and over the course of a decade, he became a stranger to me and I to him. What happens to the self when memory disappears? Death sealed the rupture. Fathers and sons—the son in the father and the father in the son. I have so many questions. How I would love to walk with him and talk about the burdens, joys, and griefs of fatherhood. Until my own son died, I do not think I ever tried to see me through my father’s eyes. I shudder. I beg his forgiveness. I pray for his soul every day. I trust he prays for me.