Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Little Bit of Poetry

I've been rather critical of T.S. Eliot on this blog, taking him as an example of the kind of poetic modernism that I detest. In fairness, I should clarify that I believe Eliot was a poetic genius, and indeed that some of his poetry attains a sublimity unlike that of any other poet. (This might almost be a definition of a great poet. His or her poetry is the best of its kind.)

Recently I've had these lines from Little Gidding much on my mind:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.


These lines haunt me and captivate me. Their power is hard to analyze.

Strangely enough, perhaps, the lines that move me the most (although move seems a strange word, considering the hushed, dreamy atmosphere they evoke) are the second and third lines of my selection:

If you came this way
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season

It would always be the same....

One sometimes encounters the silly claim that great poetry deals with the particular and avoids generalization, vagueness and the abstract. (I remember how the submission guidelines of one poetry magazine asked contributors to avoid 'sweeping generalizations'.) It's one of those theories that sounds good but doesn't bear much scrutiny. I can't remember which poet claimed that the words 'over the hills and far away' were the most poetic in the English language. But I know it was Tennyson who, as a boy, used to stand with his arms outstretched and repeat the words 'far, far away' to himself, over and over again. And what about those incomparable words, 'Once upon a time', or their relatives, 'Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away...'? Rudyard Kipling thought that the most poetic words in all English poetry (jointly with a few from Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan') were these lines from Keats:

The same which oft times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn.


I think vagueness can be extremely poetic, and that much of the greatest flights of poetry are great through an inspired use of vagueness. 'Taking any route, starting from anywhere, at any time or at any season' is an example. When I read these words, or say them to myself, I imagine myself walking to an old church through the crisp air of mid-morning on a Winter's day, my shoes crunching over the frosty grass of a deserted field, feeling that the air is alive with an invisible presence.

The other most magnificent lines in this passage are the ones I have italicized below:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.


How majestically imperious are those ten words! How pregnant they seem with the atmosphere of the burning bush or the pillar of fire or the Transfiguration! How they stir that depth within all of us-- even the most arrogant and selfish of us-- that craves above else to fall on our knees and worship!

However, even in this brief selection I think there are clumsy lines. In my opinion (and I accept that it might be considered monstrously arrogant to even offer it, but I believe poetry should appeal to the ordinary reader) these lines seem to lapse from poetry to prose:

And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead.

(I understand that T.S. Eliot once claimed that only poets can criticize poetry. C.S. Lewis pointed out the illogicality and circularity of this claim. How is anybody to know who deserves the name 'poet' if nobody else can hope to judge them?)

But the last few lines of the selection are a resumption of interrupted greatness:

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.


I think these lines might be the best expression of that mysterious state which churches and holy places occupy. We find ourselves using the word 'timeless', but it's not quite timeless. Time and eternity seem to intersect there in a very specific and elusive manner. In the same way, such sacred places seem utterly local and utterly otherworldly at once. I feel this most powerfully when I visit (of all places) the tiny little chapel in the Ilac Centre, Dublin. The sounds of the shopping centre outside-- the voices, the footsteps, the music playing over the sound system-- fill the tiny little space. In fact, there are arcade games right outside the door of the chapel. But even the shrill chirps of the arcade games only seem to make the silence and the sense of retreat in the little chapel more powerful.

I've read two whole books of criticism about Four Quartets, the extended poem which includes 'Little Gidding'. Since I found so many passages of the poem so thrilling, I assumed I simply didn't get the parts that left me cold. Well, after reading both books, and after much re-reading of the poem itself, I've come to the rather simple conclusion that some of the poem is magnificent and some of it (most of it) is far from magnificent. I think all the badness of Eliot comes from his obsession with aesthetic and poetic theories, and all the goodness of Eliot is what survived that obsession.

2 comments:

  1. I haven't read nearly as much Eliot (or criticism of Eliot) as you have, but I have had a similar experience I think - finding his poetry really difficult and more or less opaque, save for flashes of luminous verse (that I can't really understand either, actually, but burst through into the heart - like 'Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown'). The exception for me is 'The Cultivation of Christmas Trees', which is one of my favourite poems. But thank you for saving us so much time - I'd have taken a long time before concluding that it wasn't just my intellect that was letting me down!

    The line 'You are here to kneel / where prayer has been valid' reminds me of R.S. Thomas's 'The Moon in Lleyn' which seems to say something similar.

    Though I have to say I quite like the lines beginning 'And what the dead had no speech for...'. But perhaps that is just because it is very good prose!

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  2. Thanks Dominic! I see what you mean about "and what the dead had no speech for", but somehow it grates on me-- not the thought, which is powerful, but the way it's expressed. It seems a bit awkward.

    I don't actually know The Cultivation of Christmas Trees, so you know more about Eliot there than I do! I'll have to look at that R.S. Thomas poem. There's a poet I know nothing about.

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