Monday, June 11, 2012

How Pleasant to Know Mr. Eliot

Today, for the second time in recent years, I borowed Four Quartets by TS Eliot and have been trying to penetrate it. I am generally anti-modern in all things, especially poetry, and so all my life I have felt a hostility to the more obscure works of Eliot-- that is to say, most of them. (Though even a determined reactionary like me can't ignore the sublime lyricism of his works.)

And yet, the more famous and oft-quoted passages from Four Quartets have been haunting me more and more. It was in one of Father Brendan Purcell's philosophy classes in UCD that I first heard the line "distracted from distraction by distraction" and it stuck in my mind. I can't even remember where I first read these lines, perhaps the most profound in all poetry:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Roger Scruton, the doyen of English conservatism (whatever is left of it, that is), in his book England: an Elegy accords the poetry of TS Eliot-- and Four Quartets especially-- a very high place, almost the quintessenial expression of Englishness and English spirituality. Peter Hitchens-- the other English conservative-- also turns to Eliot's religious poems to describe his own spiritual journey.

It has become fashionable to claim that the English are essentially secular, that the Church of England was never anything but a hat-tip to the idea of the sacred, that religious fervour is essentially un-English. I have heard this idea advanced by the journalist Matthew Parris, amongst others. But I don't believe it for a second. I think true Englishness-- for all its understatement, common sense, moderation, and so forth-- is deeply rooted in the idea of the sacred. In fact, all the more down-to-earth virtues of Englishness only make sense when they remain rooted in the sacred, just as a wise-cracking and bubbly individual is only bearable if he retains a seriousness underneath.

So Four Quartets expresses the essence of English spirituality. But what's it all abaht, guv?

I don't know. I can only catch flashes of meaning here and there. To discern anything more, I think I am going to have to consult some works of poetry criticism (gulp). But there are many passages in the sequence that electrify me, even without my fully understanding them, especially this one:
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.

You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. Could it be put any better than that? Could there be any better reply to the scoffers like Richard Dawkins who wonder why the efficacy of prayer can't be proven experimentally-- without realising that praying for the purpose of an experiment is not prayer at all?

And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind...who hasn't prayed and felt this? Who hasn't felt that, even if the mind wanders at prayer, or one doesn't really feel like praying, prayer happens at a deeper level than the conscious mind-- one almost outside time, especially if it takes place in a church, where we feel surrounded by the saints and the ghosts of past congregations?

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