The Art of T.S. Eliot – Week 1
What can I possibly learn from T.S. Eliot, and why does it matter?
To some, the asking of the question itself is offensive. The answers are obvious.
To others, considering such a question is a waste of time. There are more important questions to be asked, after all. “Given the economy, will our finances stretch far enough?” “What if the medical test results bring bad news?” “Is there any chance for healing of that painfully damaged relationship?” Or perhaps most commonly, “How can I rearrange the upcoming week to grant some relief from the frantic pace of life?”
With such “real world” problems, could it possibly be worth the time invested to consider the poetic works of one man who spent most of his life in academia ?
Over the next few weeks, a group of us will be reading through Helen Gardner’s The Art of T.S. Eliot. Please consider joining us. The schedule is as follows:
Jan 7 – I. Auditory Imagination
Jan 14 – II. The Music of the Four Quartets
Jan 21 – III. Poetic Communication
Jan 28 – IV. The Dry Season
Feb 4 – V. The Time of Tension
Feb 11 – VI. The Language of Drama
Feb 18 – VII. The Approach to Meaning
My hope is that in reading along, or in following written responses to each chapter, we may all discover that exploring Eliot’s Four Quartets is worthy of the time and energy invested. Here are a few thoughts to consider from the first chapter:
“The dance of poetry and the dance of life obey the same laws and disclose the same truth.” Gardner, p.9
All good art tells the truth about life. It gives us fresh eyes through which we can view ourselves, others, our world, and our Maker. We leave our experience of that art with a greater awareness of what it means to be human. I’d suggest that’s time well invested.
~ Our own tendency toward law over grace is exposed when we watch Les Miserables unfold on stage.
~ We’re given a rich portrait of the One who came to save us, as we read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.
~ The battle between darkness and light within the world (as well as within each of us) is illuminated in the paintings of Rembrandt.
Eliot was an astute student of the classics. He drew from and built upon the works of those who had come before him including Dante, Milton, and French Symbolists. The Four Quartets, often considered his most significant work, marks a shift in Eliot’s development as a poet.
“From now on, he will try to speak in his own voice, which will express himself with all his limitations, and not try to escape those limitations by imitating other poets.” Gardner, p.20
Eliot found freedom, not in disregarding the past, but in learning from it. He took the knowledge and experienced gained from those who came before him and built upon it. In doing so, he found his own limitations. Those limitations became the turning point from which his most prolific works were created. In Isaac Newton’s words, Eliot was “Standing on the shoulders of giants.”
So are we.
In considering the past, most of us err on one side of the spectrum or the other.
Some tend to disregard the past. We don’t see value in doing the work of exploring the classics, understanding prior civilizations, or even considering the impact that our individual family’s history has upon the present. Our focus is on securing a better future. We miss the lessons learned and the truths revealed through the ages.
On the other end of the spectrum, we can get stuck in the past. We spend our days living vicariously through the lives of others. We may appreciate literature, history, and art, yet are content to be solely consumers. We take without giving back. We live a life of imitation rather than creativity.
A creative life is a messy life. It learns from the past, then moves forward to give to others in unique, specific ways.
If you’re joining us in reading The Art of T.S. Eliot, here are a few questions to consider:
“The Dance of poetry and the dance of life obey the same laws and disclose the same truth.” p. 9
1. What are some practical applications of that statement? Can you think of other laws in the arts (music, dance, painting) to which this principle applies?
“Any attempt to analyze the diction of a passage must murder to dissect, for the life of a passage is in its rhythm.” p. 15
2. In what other areas of life would this statement apply? Where do we murder when we dissect (rather than appreciating in context and as a whole work)? Why do you think our tendency is often to dissect rather than know fully?
“Avoidance of the obvious is not the mark of the highest originality or of the genuinely bold artist.” p. 16
3. What does that mean to you? What examples come to mind?
For further reading: