Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Towards The Still Point 5 - A Brief Poetic Interlude

T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets

T.S. Eliot at around 40 years old
I have referred often in these pages to the great poets of English literature, viz., our own W.B. Yeats  (1865 – 1939) and Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888 – 1965)  Both these poets, the latter modernist through and through while the former could be considered so in tendency, sought their inspiration from all sources.  Neither was a typical writer of his era.  Both were eccentrics in many ways; indeed, one might say walking conrtradictions.  However, perhaps such is the lot of any great poet?  Please note that I am a lover of poems and can in no sense call myself a critic of poetry per se, hence do not look for complete literary critical accuracy here. 

Anyone who has read T.S. Eliot will realise that he is steeped in philosophy.  This is in no way surprising as he graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in that subject and went on to study it both at the Sorbonne in Paris and at Merton College, Oxford.   Most important, from the point of view of a reader like me with an interest in Eastern philosophy and in meditation that T.S. Eliot was rich enough to be able to support himself at these various colleges in Europe and at home in the States, and that he also had the luxury to spend three post-graduate years at Harvard studying Indian philosophy and Sanskrit.  By 1916, he had completed a PhD dissertation for Harvard on Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley, but he chose not to return to the States for the viva voce exam.

However, what I am about in this post here is a very brief look at T.S. Eliot's reference to The Still Point in perhaps his greatest poetic work, that is, The Four Quartets.  Let me begin this post with a relevant, apt and perspicacious quotation from Terry L. Fairchild of The Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa, U.S.A: 

Thomas Stearns Eliot was a set of contradictions. An American from St. Louis, he moved to England and took British citizenship. A man who had always wanted to be a poet, he studied philosophy at Harvard. A writer who filled his poetry with Eastern philosophy, he converted to Anglicanism. One of the world's great intellectuals, Eliot read detective fiction and wrote limericks about cats in his spare time. The most revolutionary poet of his age (who literally changed the direction of poetry), he is now seen by post-structuralists as a crypto-fascist. These same kinds of opposing characteristics exist everywhere in Eliot's poetry and nowhere more than in his masterpiece Four Quartets. Often called a "negative poet" for his unrelenting attack on modern life in his earlier works, in the Four Quartets he sees things differently. The life of time and change that he had previously depicted as the "wasteland" is in the Four Quartets found to be supported by an underlying, spiritual absolute, a level of life where the two extremes of time and timeless are indistinguishable. Moreover, Eliot espouses the experience of this transcendental field as the spiritually transforming value of all life both for the individual and the world. Therefore, in Eliot's last and greatest poetic effort we find not a negative or dualistic view of life after all, but rather the vision of a man who passionately believed in a spiritual unity.  (See this link here: TSE Terry F

T.S. Eliot towards the end of his life
With these above observations in mind, I wish to place hereunder T.S. Eliot's preoccupation with Eastern Philosophy and Meditation Practices in the form of his poetic description of The Still Point from BURNT NORTON (No. 1 of 'Four Quartets,' perhaps his greatest poem!) Eliot regarded Four Quartets as his masterpiece, and it is the work that led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.It consists of four long poems, each first published separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942). Each has five sections. Although they resist easy characterisation, each begins with a rumination on the geographical location of its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect—theological, historical, physical—and its relation to the human condition. Each poem is associated with one of the four classical elements: air, earth, water, and fire.
(Beginning at line sixteen of Part II of Burnt Norton):

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

The inner freedom from the practical desire,

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner

And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded

By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,

Erhebung without motion, concentration

Without elimination, both a new world

And the old made explicit, understood

In the completion of its partial ecstasy,

The resolution of its partial horror.

Yet the enchainment of past and future

Woven in the weakness of the changing body,

Protects mankind from heaven and damnation

Which flesh cannot endure.

Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future.

Only through time time is conquered.

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