In the upcoming weeks, a few folks from the Greener Trees community will be sharing their personal responses to The Art of T.S. Eliot. I’m grateful for the opportunity to peer through the eyes of others. We have so much to learn from one another.
The following post was written by Chris Yokel, who is a poet, musician, and writer on art, creativity, and music. Chris lives in Massachusetts. Drop by and visit his blog to explore his writings and music.
The Art of T.S. Eliot - Week 2: The Music of the Four Quartets
You are a creature bound by time. This is probably the most important element governing your life, and yet it is one of the most mysterious. Do any of us understand it? We attempt to measure it out, with our seconds, minutes, hours, and years. We try to manage it with our day-planners and calendar apps and alarms. But in the end (which is an indicator of time), it is as mysterious as the One who created it.
Once upon time, there was a time when there was no time. And then Spirit moved, rapah in the Hebrew, vibrated, like the string of a violin struck by a bow. And time began playing the symphony of its Author, moving, flowing in melody. And in the image of its Maker, seeds sprouted, pushed through earth, climbed to the sun, brought forth fruit, faded, and sprouted again. Children were born, opened their eyes and arms to the world, grew into maturity, fell in love, and begat their own children. Spring gathered its strength into the virility of summer, which matured into fall and then settled into the sleep of winter, until awakened again. Rhythm, recurrence, pattern, without exactness, because no child is a copy of their parent, and no autumn like the one before it.
And yet within these notes of time there seems to be something that is not of time. We are constantly trying to freeze time, especially in our art. The photographer, the painter, the sculptor are all combatants of time. But all of us, “artistic” or not, at certain points want to just suspend the moment, when the end of the day sets the trees on fire, or when the golden hour of summer casts our dancing children in angelic haze. There is something eternal in the heart of time, for its Mover is timeless.
It is the musician alone who embraces time, for without it, music could not exist. Music is the art of time. As Roger Scruton says in The Aesthetics of Music:
“In musical experience, we are confronted with time: not just events in time, but time itself, as it were, spread out for our contemplation as space is spread out before us in the visual field. . . . Music is not bound by time’s arrow, but lingers by the way, takes backward steps, skips ahead, and sets the pace that it requires.”
Music plays with time, and yet in it, too, is something of the eternal. What stills us in the sound of a Bach cello suite, or makes us weep at Ralph Vaughan William’s “A Lark Ascending”? It is something more than the mere combination of wood, metal, hair, and the principles of physics. The Spirit vibrates once again, echoing down through time to us. An intersection of time and the timeless.
It is in this vein, with the ear of the musician and the poet, that T.S. Eliot meditates upon this mysterious intersection in his Four Quartets. He begins in Burnt Norton: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.
Or in East Coker: “In my beginning is my end.”
Or in Little Gidding: “Here, the intersection of the timeless moment/Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”
Variations on a theme, rhythm and recurrence. But more than just addressing time directly, Eliot develops his ideas through symbols, as Helen Gardner points out: “The ‘thematic material’ of the poem is not an idea or a myth, but partly certain common symbols. The basic symbols are the four elements, taken as the material of mortal life” (44).
As Gardner identifies them, Burt Norton is about air, East Coker is about earth, The Dry Salvages is about water, and Little Gidding is about fire. She concludes: “We could then say that the whole poem is about the four elements whose mysterious union makes life, pointing out that in each of the separate poems all four are present; and perhaps adding that some have thought that there is a fifth element, unnamed but latent in all things: the quintessence, the true principle of life, and that this unnamed principle is the subject of the whole poem” (45)
I would argue that the quintessence is the Spirit, for the Spirit is seen in all these elements. The Spirit is air, wind, the ruah who breathes life into us, and blows where He will. The Spirit’s medium is earth, bringing us from dust and back to dust again. The Spirit is water, purifying, cleansing, raining down and refreshing us, making the wasteland bloom, the river within us. And finally the Spirit is fire, empowering us, purifying us, cleansing us, redeeming us from fire by fire.
It is also in the Spirit that time and the timeless intersect. Douglas Jones says in “Music as Spirit” “Rhythm and tempo lie at the heart of musical expression, and history lies at the heart of the Spirit’s work.” The Spirit’s work is time, and in time, yet the Spirit is eternal. And because the Spirit is in us, creatures of time, we who are in time have eternity set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and thus we feel the sense of the divine and the timeless at moments in our lives, as Eliot himself explores in the Quartets.
But finally, the Spirit, taking the elements and taking time, makes a melody of it all. Eliot constantly talks about “pattern”, “movement”, and “dance” in the Four Quartets. In doing so he evokes an idea that we are not that familiar with in our modern scientific age, but that the medievals and ancients believed. C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image refers to it as the harmony of the spheres. They believed that “space is not dark, so neither is it silent. If our ears were opened we should perceive, as Henryson puts it, ‘every planet in his proper sphere/In moving makand (sic) harmony and sound’”. The Spirit is the conductor, the elements are the obedient music. The Spirit is the still point, the creation is the dance. And as Eliot says in Burt Norton:
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
Now, this is all very interesting and a bit academic, but what does it mean for us, creatures of time? Is Eliot telling us anything useful? It is at this point that I am struck by Gardner’s last lines in the chapter:
“The whole poem in its unity declares more eloquently than any single line or passage that truth is not the final answer to a calculation, nor the last stage of an argument, nor something told us once and for all, which we spend the rest of our life proving by example. The subject of Four Quartets is the truth which is inseparable from the way and the life in which we find it” (56).
That is, the Four Quartets accomplishes what any piece of good art should accomplish, which should be to make us live more clearly, more deeply, and more truly. Eliot ends both the Quartets and Little Gidding with these lines: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” That which began with God will return back to Him again. What began in the garden will end in the garden-city. In our beginning is our end.
And so I think the questions Eliot would leave us with are these: “How shall we live in time in light of the timeless? How shall we keep in step with the dance of the Spirit?”
In the power of the Music-Maker, “You are the music, while the music lasts.” Make it sing. Make it dance.
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