Roses From TS Eliot

by Michelle

There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

from TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton, Four Quartets.

In this passage Eliot affirms the experience of something abstract, that is deeply and near-flawlessly realised, the intersection between time and eternity, the point at which memory and imagination reconfigure the present moment, renewing time. Barry Spur remarks in an essay how positive the perspective of this narrator is in comparison to the disillusioned and despairing middle-aged Prufrock, for whom time is repetitive, a monotony, and the instrument of a social facade that cannot be reversed. In Four Quartets, Eliot’s quest for meaning, the still point in the turning world takes place in language, which is both the source and the substance, the image and the voice, casting and uttering itself into being. The poem is a not merely a literary, but a philosophical, an aesthetic act.

(By way of aside, I read a beautiful sequence of poems yesterday in the latest PN Review by Jee Leong Koh. “What the River Says,” in particular, shares some of these themes.)

Eliot was influenced deeply by Eastern spirituality although he was a theologically committed Anglican. There are exoticised traces of Hinduism in The Wasteland, and a Buddhist sympathy that is evident in his expressions of spiritual truth, as acceptance of death in life, and of what exists beyond the spatio-temporal order. Time is crucial here. Eliot is saying that although we are liberated from consciousness in the present moment, which is space, when we enter consciousness we enter time, we rely on memory and delay and therefore language to reconstruct and appraise our experience of what it is to be human in this world. Something new from something old is the quintessential modernist project, and there is only so much of the real which we can endure. Under this mutability, language cracks.

It’s interesting to observe this tension between the Buddhist recognition of impermanent mental states and the writer’s compulsion to explore them. The act of writing is liberating, freeing us from reality, when it should dare to say beauty or to say truth; as moments in meditation when Logos, or thoughts are abandoned, and the experience of light enters the body. The body feels lighter, cooler, as if a sea breeze were passing through the bones. This is not a power, but the reverse of a power, a spiritual happiness, without the contamination of thought, which I would chose over writing, if the work of writing wasn’t somehow asking me to be responsible.

Four Quartets contains patterns, repetitions and contrary motion, which are the juxtapositions of music, the apposition of words, forming cycles rather than straight lines of meaning, invoking waves, rather than forces. It’s worth noting the simplicity of the adverbs and adjectives, their abstractions: “empty”, “dry”, “vibrant”, and the repetition of nouns, objects like “pool,” “bird,” “flowers.” How skilful then, that the poem sequence is so dreamlike, incantatory, a dissonant, intense music, which feels more polished than his earlier work, lacking the irresolute conflict of The Wasteland.

Written in the late 1930’s, Four Quartets seems far removed from much contemporary verse that is dripping with diction, materiality, the excesses and fetishes of language. We live in times when we are consumed by language, by text, as if consumption were our god, our blog, our necessary angel. But today, I have no need for plinky prompts. I have Eliot’s roses @—>—>

Assoc Professor Barry Spur” The Centre of Meaning in Eliot’s Four Quartets