Today I started reading Thomas Howard’s “Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.” From the back cover of the book is this description:
In this line-by-line commentary, Howard reveals the complexities of the sublime poem with such adroitness that even its most difficult passages spring to life.
In his Preliminary Remarks, Howard says “A poem is a thing. It is not a set of fancy trimmings to an otherwise obvious truth. Many readers suppose that that is exactly what poetry is: fancy trimmings. On the contrary, poetry is language brought to its most scorching, most succinct, most pellucid purity, like a Bunsen burner, where we want, not a bonfire, but a small prick of blue flame.”
On to Burnt Norton, the first of the Quartets…
In the 1962 Harcourt, Brace, and World edition of “The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950”, there is a subscript in Greek under the title “Burnt Norton”. The translation would run like this: “Although Reason is common to all, most people live as though they had reason of their own.” And under that, another Greek statement: “The way up and the way down are one and the same.”…[T]hose Greek fragments lie between the title and the first line of “Burnt Norton”. Both reach deep into the entire work–all four of the “Quartets”: but we may say, sketchily, at the onset, that one of Eliot’s concerns here is the paradox, lamentable to him, obviously, that we all have enough sense (“Reason”) to know that Death will most certainly seal off everything that we have known so far of ourselves and the world, but that we do our best to sweep the baleful fact under the rug. Reason trumpets the fact to us; but we caper, or blunder, or dawdle, along as though we knew something else (some private wisdom of our own that notifies us of some exemption from doom). We will find in “Burnt Norton” lines that will peel the veneer from this idiocy.
I’ve only read Howard’s discussion of the first few lines of “Burnt Norton” and it just keeps getting better…
“If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable.” Period. There’s nothing we can do about it all if the only “reality” is this moment, and everything else (past and future) is illusion. Eliot raises the stakes here by introducing the word “redeem”. He is obviously nudging us toward something more sober than mere nostalgia for the past or pipe-dreaming for the future. To redeem something is to get it back.
I have read the Quartets and I’ve heard a recording of Eliot reading them. This is every bit as enjoyable.