Meditating Four Quartets: Little Gidding (II/4)

But, as the passage now presents no hindrance / To the spirit unappeased and peregrine / Between two worlds become much like each other, / So I find words I never thought to speak / In streets I never thought I should revisit / When I left my body on a distant shore.

Strangers yet not strangers, poet-present walking with poet-past—or is it poet-past walking with poet-future? Temporal disjunctions have fallen away. A night of terror has brought about this numinous still point between night and dawn, death and life, “at this intersection time / Of meeting nowhere, no before and after.” In such a moment truths may be spoken and revelations received.

Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us / To purify the dialect of the tribe / And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight, / Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age.

Thomas Howard describes these lines to be “one of the most titanic lines ever spoken about poetry” (Dove Descending, p. 134.) I confess I quickly passed over them when I first read the poem, missing altogether their significance. I have always preferred prose over poetry, except perhaps when reading The Iliad. I deem this a defect in my personality and experi­ence of the world. One of the critical and essential tasks of the poet, Howard tells us, is to purify, break, and remake language that it might become, in the present moment (and it is always the present moment), a revelation of truth and beauty:

Contrary to popular misconception, poetry, far from being a bedecking of language, is a forcing of language through a purifying crucible under the most extreme rigors. In fact, Eliot has Dante [the compound ghost] say something even more drastic than that: language itself requires this fierce treatment if it is not to turn to mere dross. Language, in other words, depends on the poets. If we think this is fanciful, we may ask ourselves where the English language would be without Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. (p. 134).

Recall Eliot’s reflections on poetry in “East Coker.” Every poem, he tells us, is “a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / with shabby equipment always deteriorating.” And in “Burnt Norton” he speaks of the fragility of language:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

We need the poet more than we know, more now than we know. The ideologues and demagogues, the hucksters and twitterers, have captured our speech. On their lips our words have become lies and half-truths that corrupt our minds and darken our hearts and imaginations. The poet, if he is a true poet, seeks “to purify the dialect of the tribe,” to liberate it from its captivity to the principalities and powers that it may once again fulfill its divinely-given purpose. Howard writes: “The job of the poet is never to hail us with new information. That is the job of textbooks, newspapers, and lectures. Poetry always submits to what is and, at best, succeeds only insofar as it vivifies that which is and opens our eyes yet again to what is already ‘there'” (p. 89).

The slippage and inadequacy of language is felt less acutely by the prose writer, “for the simple reason that poetry demands above all an almost hydraulic compression of language  that obtains quite differently when it comes to the work of the prose writer” (p. 86). The prose writer can make his sentences and paragraphs as long or short as he wants, can choose any words that he wants. He is limited only by skill, thesaurus, and grammatical convention. But the poetic form, even when it is no particular form (as in free verse), forces the poet to a deeper level of creativity, a reshaping of language itself.

St Gregory of Nazianzus is acclaimed “Theologian” by the Orthodox Church because he gave to the Church his Five Theological Orations; but he also spoke the same truths, perhaps even more powerfully, in his theological verse:

Soul, why delay? Sing also the Spirit’s glory,
and don’t separate in speech what the nature did not leave out.
Let us quake before the great Spirit, who is my God, who’s made me know God,
who is God there above, and who forms God here:
almighty, imparting manifold gifts, him whom the holy choir hymns,
who brings life to those in heaven and on earth, and is enthroned on high,
coming from the Father, the divine force, self-commandeered;
he is not a Child (for there is one worthy Child of the One who’s best),
nor is he outside the unseen Godhead, but of identical honor.

In the Nazianzen theologian, poet, saint are inseparable.

St Thomas Aquinas explored the mystery of transubstantiation in his Summa Theologiae. His formulation served as the basis for the Tridentine definition of the eucharistic conver­sion yet has also been a point of contention not only within the Western Church but also between East and West. Thomas’s hymns, however, may be of more enduring value to the eucharistic faith of the Church. Of that which the scholastic theologian haltingly speaks the poet may sing:

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Scholars today pump out books upon books on theology, but most are inconsequential and will be quickly forgotten after their fifteen minutes in the sun. They are inconsequential not because the they are not sophisticated and clever but because they are written by men and women who have neither the soul nor linguistic gifts of the poet. Words and more words, yet the Word remains unspoken. And as far as us bloggers … well, those who cannot publish, blog.

In his 31st hymn on faith, St Ephrem the Syrian, whom the Church has honored with the title “Harp of the Spirit,” sings of God the divine poet and his garment of words:In his 31st hymn on faith, St Ephrem the Syrian, whom the Church has honored with the title “Harp of the Spirit,” sings of God the divine poet and his garment of words:

Let us give thanks to God
Who clothed Himself in the names of the body’s various parts:
Scriptures refers to His “ears”
to teach us that He listens to us;
it speaks of His “eyes,”
to show that He sees us.
It was just the names of such things
that he put on,
and although—in His true being
there is no wrath or regret—
yet He put on these names
because of our weakness.

Blessed is He who has appeared to our human race under so many metaphors.

We should realize that,
had He not put on the names
of such things,
it would not have been possible for Him
to speak with us humans.
By means of what belongs to us did He draw close to us:
He clothed Himself in language,
so that He might clothe us
in His mode of life.
He asked for our form and put this on,
and then, as a father with his children,
He spoke with our childish state.

Blessed is He who has appeared to our human race under so many metaphors.

It is our metaphors that He put on—
though He did not literally do so;
He then took them off—without actually doing so:
when wearing them, He was at the same time stripped of them.
He puts on one when it is beneficial,
then strips it off in exchange for another;
the fact that He strips off
and puts on all sorts of metaphors
tells us that the metaphor
does not apply to his true Being:
because that Being is hidden,
He has depicted it by means of what is visible.

Blessed is He who has appeared to our human race under so many metaphors.

In one place He was like an Old Man
and the Ancient of Days,
then again, He became like a Hero,
a valiant Warrior.
For the purposes of judgment He was an Old Man,
but for conflict he was Valiant.
In one place He was delaying;
elsewhere, having run,
He became weary.
In one place He was asleep,
in another, in need:
by every means did He weary Himself so as to gain us.

Blessed is He who has appeared to our human race under so many metaphors.

For this is the Good One,
who could have forced us to please Him,
without any trouble to Himself;
but instead He toiled by every means
so that we might act pleasingly to Him of our own free will,
that we might depict our beauty
with the colors
that our own free will had gathered;
whereas, if He had adorned us,
that we would have resembled
a portrait that someone else had painted,
adorning it with his own colors.

Blessed is He who has appeared to our human race under so many metaphors.

Pray that God will raise up new harps of the Spirit.

(Go to next meditation)

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