What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.
February 2014—I began with Burnt Norton. Of course. One begins at the beginning. I had initially hoped that I would be able to conclude my blogging on Four Quartets within three to four months, five or six at the max. How silly. The task was above me. By the time I got to East Coker, I knew I had to stretch things out a bit. So here I now am, on the concluding movement of the concluding poem of this literary and spiritual masterpiece. Am I making an ending or a beginning? What should I do when I have concluded Little Gidding? I probably should begin all over, read the poems afresh. I have forgotten so much. Would I come to them with a different perspective? Will I discover new insights? Yes to both. One could spend a lifetime meditating on the Quartets and never plumb their depths. Four years ago I was paralyzed by a profound grief, as is evident in the early meditations. That grief has lightened. My life now has a different quality. Yet still the tragedy of my son’s death can suddenly overwhelm me and tears will start streaming down my face. But I no longer cry as I did during that first year–each day sobbing uncontrollably on the floor of my downstairs office, Tiriel softly licking the tears on my face. It felt like an end, the end. I could not envision future happiness. There was only the consuming fire of interminable sorrow.
In this concluding movement Eliot revisits the images and themes not only of the previous movements of Little Gidding but of the first three poems of the Quartets, including his reflections on language and poetry.
And every phrase / And sentence that is right (where every word is at home, / Taking its place to support the others, the word neither diffident nor ostentatious, An easy commerce of the old and the new, / The common word exact without vulgarity, / The formal word precise but not pedantic, / The complete consort dancing together) / Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph.
A comma is missing. Delete the parenthetical statement and we have: “And every phrase and every sentence that is right every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, every poem an epitaph.” Shouldn’t there be a comma (or period) between “right” and “every”? Am I being too picky? Probably. This is a poem after all, and a poet enjoys a grammatical freedom than the essayist doers not. If I were to review the earlier poems, I might well discover that Eliot often does this. And he does start a new line after the concluding parenthesis, thereby intimating a comma-pause (or full stop). So let’s not be persnickety. Yet I noticed the absence of the comma. I didn’t notice it earlier; I noticed it now. Eliot wanted me to notice it. In the midst of talking about the proper order of words, he leaves out an expected punctuation mark. Why?
The clauses and phrases within the parentheses read easily. “These lines are smooth sailing even for the first-time reader,” Tom Howard comments. And perhaps that is the point. They embody the principle of which they speak: each word carefully chosen, each in its proper place, each supporting the others in the dance of communication.
Every poem is a creation in time and thus inescapably partakes of the historical. Recall the poet’s conversation with his alter ego in the second movement: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” Struggle as the poet may to speak an eternal word, he can only speak a word that becomes passé, even unintelligible, the moment it is uttered. And so every poem, every novel, every essay, every blog-article is but an epitaph chiseled into the author’s weathering headstone. Little Gidding was T. S. Eliot’s last published poem. Perhaps he wondered about the future of the Quartets, yet here we are meditating upon it 75 years later.
And any action / Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat / Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
And what is true for artistic creation is true for every human act, no matter how inconsequential. It is accomplished in time toward a future we cannot achieve. Mary Queen of Scots, Thomas More, Charles I were beheaded; Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer were burnt at the stake; Edmund Campion drawn and quartered–famous names yet in the end no different than all the millions of forgotten human beings who have died since the expulsion of mankind from Eden. Step by step our lives move to death, enveloped in death; and so we must begin with death if we are to know new beginning.