I said: ‘The wonder that I feel is easy, / Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak: / I may not comprehend, may not remember.’ / And he: ‘I am not eager to rehearse / My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten. / These things have served their purpose: let them be. / So with your own, and pray they be forgiven / By others, as I pray you to forgive / Both bad and good. Last season’s fruit is eaten / And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail. / For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.
T. S. Eliot invites his ghostly companion to share his wisdom, poet to poet. But he adds that he may neither understand the words spoken nor recall what he once learned from him. Perhaps he thought he once understood but now recognizes his misunderstanding; or perhaps he did understand but given age and failing powers he understands no longer; or perhaps he never understood. The problem is compounded by the increasing loss of memory as our lives progress. Is what I learned twenty years ago still somewhere deep in the data banks, though temporarily inaccessible, or has it been wiped clean by the purging process of life? It’s very troubling.
I find it difficult to imagine Eliot not comprehending the great poets who formed his imagination, thought, and craft; but perhaps this is how even artists and thinkers always feel about those whom they regard as master. A master is not only one who has taught us much, but one whose work we can never master and thus to whom we can always revisit to our benefit and edification. I have read the Iliad four, maybe five, times, in three different translations, over the past forty-five years. My delight in the epic grows with each reading. I recently acquired Caroline Alexander’s new translation. I am eager to return to the world of Achilles, Hector, and Helen—hopefully this summer. But my analogy is imperfect. I am not a poet and do not read Homer to learn how to write poetry. My priestcraft requires a different kind of master.
The ghost’s first words are surprising: my thoughts and theories, my words and poems, “have served their purpose.” Whether they were written in the 1st century B.C. (Virgil), the 14th century (Dante), or the 20th century (Ezra Pound)—“let them be.” Whatever wisdom they communicate, whatever beauty they embody, they belong to the past. They cannot be replicated. As Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton”:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still.
Poets seek to speak the truth, yet they ultimately fail and must fail. Not only do our words break under the weight of the Absolute, but they are subject to the mutability of the history into which they have been spoken. Just consider the lexical obstacles the modern reader faces when reading the plays of Shakespeare. Vocabulary changes. Meaning changes. Words fall into oblivion and new words are invented. Only Christ abides. As Thomas Howard observes: “The Word is the lasting substance that the poetry only strains at, with shabby equipment always deteriorating” (Dove Descending, p. 132). If this is true for the poet, how much more so must it be true for the philosopher and theologian. “Words are not truth,” an ancient Buddhist sage once said. “Truth is like the moon, and words are like my finger. I can point to the moon with my finger, but my finger is not the moon.”
Eliot, of course, is not discounting the past. Both his artistic and religious life testifies to his reverence for tradition; but he was aware of the limitations of language to express the transcendent Mystery who grounds our existence. Our words can only point. Christians who indwell the apophatic tradition well understand the constraints of theological statement. Thus Christos Yannaras:
Apophaticism means our refusal to exhaust knowledge of the truth in its formulation. The formulation is necessary and required, because it defines the truth, it separates and distinguishes it from every distortion and falsification of it. Therefore for the members of the Church the limits or dogmas are given “fixed points” of truth, which do not admit changes or differentiated versions in formulating them. At the same time though, this formulation neither replaces nor exhausts the knowledge of the truth, which remains experiential and practical, a way of life and not a theoretical construction. The apophatic attitude leads Christian theology to use the language of poetry and images for the interpretation of dogmas much more than the language of conventional logic and schematic concepts. The conventional logic of everyday understanding can very easily give man a false sense of a sure knowledge which, being won by the intellect, is already exhausted by it, completely possessed by it. While poetry, with the symbolisms and images which it uses, always exhibits a sense from within the words and beyond the words, a concept which corrresponds more to common experiences of life and less to cerebral conceptions. (Elements of Faith, p. 17)
A literalism of biblical text or dogma inevitably distorts. Our words shatter at the very moment we speak of the infinite Creator. They cannot contain the living fire. This does not mean that theological statements are thereby relativized, but it does mean that they are always potentially improveable, both by the employment of more sophisticated conceptuality and by deeper apprehension of the Truth that has been revealed in the mystery of Christ. The dogmas of Holy Church are best understood, I suggest, as signposts identifying the bounds of the mystery, bounds beyond which we must not travel. As Hans Urs von Balthasar writes: “Thus the definitions surround the mystery like cherubs armed with swords of flame” (In the Fullness of Faith, p. 107).
We honor the great poets, philosophers, and theologians. We steep ourselves in their wisdom and faith. They spoke the truth at their moment in history. Yet we must also forgive them, says the ghost, both their good and their bad. We stand on their shoulders. We owe them a debt we cannot repay. Yet we cannot simply recite their words by rote. “Last season’s fruit is eaten.” The faith once delivered to the saints must be spoken today. And then having spoken, we must forgive ourselves, both for our successes and failures.
New poets must take up the task of writing the poetry that now needs to be written—“next year’s words await another voice.” Eliot appears to have literally heeded this counsel. “Little Gidding” would be his last published poem. Sometimes we reach a point in our lives where we know that a chapter has closed. There is no point in dwelling upon it in regret. It is what it is. It cannot be rewritten, with mistakes corrected. Our work comes to conclusion. To lengthen the chapter beyond its ordained limit, perhaps to recover a cherished love or experience anew a good once enjoyed, is to lose both love and good.
We must accept all, forgive all, and trust that God will raise up new poets, new artists, new preachers and theologians—and yes, new Fathers and Mothers of the Church. God’s will be done. His will is good and will be good.