Books and Book Reviews: March 2006 Archives

Notice to All Carmelites

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You may not be aware of it, but a translation of the Institutes of the First Monks into English has recently become available. It is published in Rome as a hard-cover work by the Edizione Carmelitiana and costs in the neighborhood of $20.00.

The importance of this work is that it was for a long time second only to the Rule of St. Albert as a source book for understanding the Carmelite charism, way, and path. It was enormously important in the reformation of the order brought about by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, being the main source of inspiration for the "return to contemplation."

I don't know whether or not it could be considered as important a source today, but then, until one reads it, that question must remain unresolved.

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Burnt Norton and the Box Circle


Reading Thomas Howard's Dove Descending and finding the insights helpful in opening up Four Quartets. Obviously in so short a work it is impossible to be exhaustive, but I thought I'd share an insight that came as I was reading the explanation of the "box circle" that occurs in the first division of "Burnt Norton."

Howard offers a very fine explanation of the significance of the box circle, including it as both the hedge and the "box seats" of a theatre performance. But, perhaps because of space, he left out some details that I think add to the density and texture of the poem.

The lines in question refer to a movement in the poem to a garden:

from Four Quartets--Burnt Norton
T.S. Eliot

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. . .

We have been called into this "first garden" by the singing of a thrust. Entering we have found it filled with "presences." Now we are moving deeper into the mystery of time encompassed in the garden. The box circle refers to the hedge of boxwood in a formal garden--a formal designed essence. But what Howard fails to mention, and what I believe to be critically important is that the "box circle" often occurs at the center of the formal garden. It is set so that the person looking from the upper story of a house overlooking the garden will seen at it's exact center a circle inscribed in a square, usually with four entrances in the center of the side of the square.

Also, I think there is reason to believe that this "box circle" is an oblique reference to "squaring the circle." That is, using the primitive instruments of geometry (straight-edge and compass) attempting to construct a square that has exactly the same area as a circle of given radius. This is an impossibility unless we cheat and use a rational approximation of pi. And what Eliot is telling us in this box circle is the impossibility of abiding in this perfect garden for reasons that he will go on to articulate. One of which is eerily reflected in The Haunting of Hill House:

"Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality."

So, I add this little aside to a really fine and interesting study of the poem. Using Howard's insights as a leg up, I'm finding passage through this poem a much more reasonable proposition that it was some years ago. Also, I think this is one of those poems that you have to have lived to begin to understand. This pining and nostalgia cannot make a lot of sense to most twenty-year-olds.

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Dove Descending


Yesterday I received the final package in an Amazon order I had placed some time ago. In this package was a copy of Thomas Howard's Dove Descending: A Journey into Eliot's Four Quartets.

I haven't been able to read much of the book, but this is precisely the right fit. This was what I had been hoping for back when I read Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn and I had been so sorely disappointed. I wanted someone who would treat serious poetry seriously and at length. Howard does that--covering a twenty-odd page poem in a book of some 140 pages.

Four Quartets is a later poem than The Waste Land written after Eliot had reverted to Christianity of the Anglo-Catholic variety. It is every bit as dense and as difficult to follow as The Waste Land even if there is less of the random throwing-in of multiple foreign languages.

Howard's books pulls away the curtains in the first few pages and uncovers theme after theme and symbol after symbol. I've not gotten half-way through the book, but I'm very pleased at the progress so far, and I am much more aware of Eliot's purpose in Four Quartets than I started out being.

If you're interested in tackling and understanding "difficult" poetry, and attempting to understand WHY it is so difficult, this may prove a useful guidebook in your journey. I'll let you know later when I have had more of an opportunity to digest the contents.

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The Collar


Journey: Daily Meditations and Catholic Calendar

I link to this site, just because (1)it is a place that has some very nice scriptural meditations for the readings of each day, in addition to other useful materials; (2) it is run by a cyberfriend from long before the time of blogs or even much of an internet (if anyone recalls the ancient GEnie service, for example); and (3) you need to scroll down to see it, but there's a book that should be of much interest to the parishioners of St. Blogs. I'm anxiously anticipating my own copy and I hope to post a review shortly after receiving it. But I thought y'all might like to know about it in advance of the event.

I include it below as well.


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My current Tag cloud. It reads very nicely:

20th Century American Catholic christian--golden age mystery religion.

Mostly true if you count my birthday as my "age."

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from March 2006.

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