Dove Descending

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How is the Holy Spirit like a German Luftwaffe Bomber? What exactly is "Little Gidding" or "The Dry Salvages?" What does that Greek stuff at the beginning of Four Quartets mean and how does it relate to the rest of the poem?

Thomas Howard has produced a superb introductory commentary to one of the great poems of one of the most difficult poets of the 20th Century. As an introductory commentary there is much that is missing here, much knowledge that is presupposed, things not explained that might well help more, and as though in a math book many , "proofs left to the student." Which is not to suggest that there is anything lacking here. In fact, these seeming drawbacks encourage the reader to think through the poem and to consider the aspects of the poem on their own. In conversation with Dr. Howard, one pulls out of oneself the ability to interact with the poetry. Where Dr. Howard is silent on a point, the reader can fill in the blanks.

For example, throughout the entire commentary very little is made of the symbol of the rose that recurs. Now, the author might argue that this is because Eliot did not use symbols in that way; however, Eliot was well aware of the multiple symbolism of the rose, and most particularly aware of this in the poetry of his near contemporary William Butler Yeats. However, Howard makes mention of the rose without pointing out that the rose has been a symbol from the beginning of the Christian era for Jesus Christ. Only when the reader realizes this does the end of "Little Gidding" begin to really shine--

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.
When the tongue of flame are in-=folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
and the fire and the rose are one.

These are lines that would take pages upon pages to really unpack. But one clear sense of them is to point toward the trinity. The Crowned knot of fire/the fire/and the rose could easily be seen as the three persons of the trinity, for when the flame is in-folded and the fire and the rose are one, we become aware of the unity in trinity. Eliot is also referring to other things happening through the poem, through time, and in the human spirit.

Eliot's Four Quartets is one of the last masterpieces of modern poetry. It is crammed full of meaning, and freighted with thought that is far beyond most of us. This commentary serves to help open up the compressed language and introduce the timid reader of poetry to one of the great Catholic works of the century. I can truly say that this work stands up to those more accessible, and exceeds them in many ways when the reader allows it to unfold in a leisurely fashion and considers all of its aspects.

Too often we see the short span of a poem and think that we can sit down and read it as we read a novel. But the reality of poetry is that it is condensed beyond any measure of the prose in a novel or short story. Eliot's relatively short poem is the equivalent of reading a moderately long novel; and yet because it seems so short, we're tempted to rush through to the meaning, as though it would be standing, naked and lithe at the finish of the poem. But meaning is constructed throughout, and the only meaning at the end of the poem is that derived from the proper reading of it. Dr. Howard's book gives every reader the opportunity to open up one of the great works of modern literature and to spend time dwelling on and in the meaning of it. For this alone, Howard deserves accolades. But add to that the charms of Dr. Howard's own prose and his reticence in spelling out every single possible variant reading and meaning, and you have a restrained, sustained reading of the poem that is enough and not too much. Dr. Howard gives us a springboard--the reader must execute what dive he or she will in the course of reading.

I cannot encourage everyone enough to give the book a try. But it, get Eliot's poem and read them together--reading through a section of the poem, and then a section of the commentary, and then rereading the section of the poem with the information gleaned from the commentary. It might take as long to read as a novel of moderate length (as I implied above), but one would finally be doing justice to the complexity and beauty that Eliot has wrought in this magnificent poem.

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Anyone who doesn't have an allergy to modern music should listen, if they can, to Igor Stravinsky's setting of "The Dove Descending." Many of Stravinsky's later compositions were religious including one of the most moving settings of the Mass ever made. Leonard Bernstein's recording of it many years ago was one of the things that made me want to become a Catholic.

Stravinsky loved Eliot's poetry and he loved Catholic culture, though he remained Russian Orthodox to the end of his days. He is buried in Venice, on a little island with an Orthodox monastery.

Dear Jeff,

I am an ardent fan of Stravinsky. I was not aware of this particular piece. If I can find it I shall certainly get ahold of it and have a listen. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 4, 2006 9:27 AM.

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