(c) Copyright 2014, Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
― T.S. Eliot
I received a jolt, as I always do, when I opened my well-thumbed, binding-sprung copy of Eliot’s Complete Poems and Plays the other night. What was I thinking? I knew better. One’s reading should be more cautious and less challenging late at night if one hopes for a peaceful sleep! Eliot is just not the thing, the glass of milk and a warm cookie, to send you drifting off to a blissful slumber.
Books might be tagged or color coded, you know, just a thought, by recommended hour of the day and circumstances for consuming them? They might carry warnings on their jackets or spines concerning their likelihood of disturbing or waylaying-distracting-upending certain susceptible types under certain circumstances.
Eliot was perhaps the greatest poet in the English language of the Twentieth Century, but he was a difficult, troubled man who wrote difficult troubling verse. Virginia Woolf, a close friend and admirer, remarked several times in her letters how pinched, tense and anxious “Tom” (T.S. Eliot) always was when he visited her in Bloomsbury or at her home in the country. She and Leonard took the bold step of publishing several of his longer works in their private publishing company, Hogarth Press.
Anyone who wrote “The Wasteland” and “The Hollow Men” would have to be pinched and anxious.
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
― T.S. Eliot
“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
― T.S. Eliot
He was an event in modern poetry, the event; he elevated it, challenged us at every turn, and baffled us, while seducing us nevertheless, on and on, teasing out the finest tissues of image and language, but always to one end. Even if you hate him with all of his footnotes, all of the Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Italian epigraphs, all of that pompous mess, you cannot ignore the changes he wrought in poetry. Wallace Stevens finally challenged him on the poetry scene as a contemporary; he had the rare juice and talent necessary to be a credible contender. He crowed his own erudite and beautiful answers to Eliot’s positions and values in an entirely different key and from an entirely different angle, resounding and memorable, but I honestly think Eliot had the last word. Today Stevens may seem more contemporary, but I think that’s because this is an age of drifting, frantic faithlessness, a time when faith itself has become difficult for many and “unfashionable.”
The faith thing, you know, cycles historically, in and out. The same cycling appertains to one’s own faith journey in one’s own life.
“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
― T.S. Eliot
Eliot was a believer, a High Church Anglican, which is very close to Catholicism. When I read him, as I did the other night for the umpteenth lovely time, I am a better and more firm believer. His collected poems are such a beautiful apologia for faith that if you have just a shred of it left or in a dry season in your faith journey, it’s difficult not to come away from reading him feeling refreshed and restored. I re-read his “Ash Wednesday,” well, every Ash Wednesday that comes around, and I feel it more deeply each time I do. And I still stand amazed at his amazing linguistic virtuosity and range, his vast reference, allusiveness and stunning erudition.
Today there are new vaguely similar, superficially and somewhat inscrutable luminaries, Amy Campbell (maybe) among them, who are remotely similar in their daring and putative profundity, who are equally intriguing, though generally faithless, but only time will tell if they continue to speak to us – over time.
I’ll end this idle rumination, the residue of my latest Eliot encounter that cost me sleep, with a short passage from “Ash Wednesday” that illustrates some of the qualities I have mentioned above:
From “Ash Wednesday”
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the center of the silent Word.
[ helpful links
Virginia Woolf – http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VirginiaWoolf
T.S. Eliot – http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T._S._Eliot ]