Poetry and Poets: May 2006 Archives

John Drinkwater

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An Edwardian poet quoted in The Girls of Slender Means. This appealed to me.

Moonlit Apples
John Drinkwater

At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn light.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no souund at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams;
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams,
And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon,and deep is the silence, deep
On moon-washed apples of wonder.

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Reading Howard's wonderful Dove Descending, I am reminded of how much goes into the art of poetry--every ounce of the life of a poet, and all of the skill that goes into summoning words into living, meaningful, vibrant representations of what is in the poet's head. Eliot was one of the last to write truly meaningful "exterior" poetry. After him a seemingly endless parade of posturing, grinning, self-aggrandizing, self-destructive confessional poets who have as their wares only themselves and their numbingly wearing and wearying dreary dull lives. (Any life lived where the sole object of attention is that person in the mirror who hates me is not worthy of the word "life.") Eliot is one of the few with something important to say. And this is what I both love and hate about Eliot. Unfortunately, there are times when he is all too aware that he has something to say. And sometimes it shows.

But putting that aside for the moment. This morning opening up Howard I tripped over a passage that sent me back to the poem leading me to share with you this marvelous sentence.

"Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter."

It is literally dropped in from nowhere at the end of East Coker, and it is a magnificent and true observation. Love is only love when the self is out of the equation. That can only happen when here and now cease to matter. Howard makes the point a different way:

from Dove Descending
Thomas Howard

But what is this about love being most nearly itself when her and now cease to matter? Just that. The man in whom love has been perfected is at home in any place (here or there) and in any time (now or then). He has gone beyond the futility of nostalgia and wistfulness. He is as fully at peace under the lamplight as he was under the stars with his new beloved. No lamenting a lost youth for him. There is a time for this. It is appointed. The wise man of Ecclesiasitcus has already told us so.

(With that last sentence, I'm a little confused, perhaps because I don't know Ecclesiasticus the way I ought, but isn't it the wise man of Ecclesiastes who told us that "there was a time for every purpose under heaven?")

Selflessness allows the person to range freely and comfortably through time and space. No Billy Pilgrim here with the vertiginous careening through Trafalmadorian interference. Even unstuck in time, the person in whom love is perfected is not disoriented by where or when. Because the where and when is eternal. When love is perfected on participates fully in the life of God and thus partakes of eternity while here on Earth.

So once again, I encourage you all--all you fans of Flannery, you champions of Walker, you admirers of Waugh and friends of Spark; in short, all you who love and support Catholic literature--seek out Eliot's poem (you can find it on the web, if you don't care to embarrass yourself with pretentiousness in a library) and read it. And if it makes no sense, read it again. And if there still isn't an inkling, do Ignatius Press and Mr. Howard a favor and buy the book. You really will be glad you did.

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from Dove Descending
Thomas Howard

[Writing about "East Coker-IV"

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.]

Readers may get lost there [refering to the last three lines noted above]. Can we put it like this:"Die", by this time in the lyric , is our dath to sin and death and hence our birth into Everlasting Life; and it is God who embraces us with his paternal care, never leaving us, but rather going before us all the way ("prevent" is an archaic ususage, meaning precedes").

Now, "prevents" may well mean precedes, and that is a useful help here. However, "precedes" is just as useful and has both the same number of syllables and same emphasis. So why use prevents rather than precedes here? Do we cherish deiberate obscurity? Is Eliot being precious?

Because Mr. Howard is producing a short commentary to ease people into reading the poem, there simply isn't time and space to note every interesting term and every fascinating poetic choice. Therefore, if you're inclined to indulge, some speculations will be recorded here.

Perhaps Eliot is suggesting that as we grow more aware of God's strength through our own weakness and death, we also become more aware of how we are hedged around by love. That is, His will prevents us everywhere from straying over the cliff into the unredeemable. Indeed, within His mercy there is no unredeemable, and so within His grace those who know Him are "prevented" everywhere from wholly falling out of touch with Him.

There are, perhaps other intricacies involved with this word choice. It seems important because it is more than merely delbierately obscure, and by the rules of poetic diction and analysis, that implies a meaning that is not necessarily transparent, nor so easily arrived at as might be for other lines.

Perhaps it goes without saying how much I am enjoying Mr. Howards reintroduction to the great T.S. Eliot. It's been a while since I've spent so much fruitful time with this, or any, great poet.

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Wow, The Blogging Experience


. . .in a nutshell.

from Four Quartets: East Coker V
T.S. Eliot

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

It was the underlined section that first led me to post, but reading more carefully and more closely, it seemed that the remainder might also serve as comment on the blogosphere.

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from Four Quartets: "East Coker" III
T.S. Eliot

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

from Ascent of Mount Carmel I.13.11

St. John of the Cross

To reach satisfaction in all
Desire its possession in nothing,
To come to the knowledge of all
Desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to possess all
Desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
Desire to be nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not
You must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
You must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
You must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are not.
When you turn toward something
You cease to cast yourself upon the all,
For to go from the all to the all
You must possess it without wanting anything.
In this nakedness the spirit finds its rest,
for when it covets nothing
nothing raises it up and nothing weighs it down,
because it stands in the centre of its humility.

In the third division of East Coker, T.S. Eliot embarks upon the journey into dark. At first this journey is equated with death, "O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark," is the first line of the section. He then goes through a litany of who "they all" are and the fact that they all go into the dark. He seems to make the point that the dark comes upon everyone whether or not they are prepared to enter it. Then, at the end of the section, Eliot segues to a different dark, another kind of death--the death, while yet willing, of the self and selfishness, which can only proceed along the dark way, the via negativa the "dark night of the soul." It is a dark night because cherished false images of self must die in the light of God Himself. Indeed, the light of God Himself is so light that it appear dark to those ill-equipped to receive it.

Death to self is not death of self. To travel to God in this life, one must die to self, to selfishness, to self-involvement, to all the illusions and images of oneself that have become so cherished. One must consent to being stripped down to the barest nothingness and reconstructed in God's image. This is terrifying, at least in the abstract. But when one stops to consider that nearly everyone experiences this to one degree or another without tremendous instantaneous repercussions, it becomes less terrifying and more inviting. Children are taught by the parents from very early on not to be selfish and self centered. They are constantly reminded "please, thank you, excuse me." They are constantly told, although not in so many words, to die to self.

When a person behaves in "conventional" ways, following the rules of courtesy or etiquette, that person dies to self a little. It isn't a major, earth-shaking trauma, but a small turning away from serving oneself and toward serving another. When one gives place, willingly or unwillingly to another, one dies to self--sometimes reluctantly and bitterly, engendering rage and a desire for vengeance. Sometimes willingly, engendering love and charity.

The death to self must be complete to continue on the path to God. These many small things add up, but each person is asked for more. Each person is asked, in fact, for everything. But most of the time they are not asked for every at once. It is a slow growth, a gentle path, as yet winding through the foothills that lead up to Mount Carmel. The steep ascent is another matter entirely, and there must be a certain amount of shedding of self that occurs before one can set foot on the mountain proper.

But everyone is called, and in this life or the next, all will Ascend through the darkness of the weight of self into the light of the Father. This is what purgatory and heaven are all about--shedding self to become God while remaining distinctly who one is in Him. Salvation--to be who one is without shame; to shine always with His light. But the path of salvation is dark because people tend to love themselves almost to the exclusion of everything else. So it is through darkness that we arrive at light, although as we travel, God's light is all around--so brilliant one calls it darkness.

Later: One is lead to wonder as well whether the first lines of this section of East Coker are not meant to hearken back to a previous poet. Tennyson seems to be referred to, particularly with reference to this poem:

Break, Break, Break

Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

But following the rule of three, one would have to find other correspondences before anything so bold could be asserted. Notes for a future consideration of the two.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from May 2006.

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