Dove Descending: A Journey into T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets
reviewed by Franklin Freeman
Calling T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets his “valedictory to the modern world,” Thomas Howard writes in the preface to his new book that “I myself would place it, along with Chartres Cathedral, the Divine Comedy, van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, and the Mozart Requiem, as a major edifice in the history of the Christian West.”
Dove Descending is not traditional scholarly literary criticism, but a “reading” of the poem, an attempt to explain it to those who might “run aground” without such help. We might run aground on Eliot’s poems (his criticism and drama are comparatively clear sailing) because Eliot “maintained that modern poetry had to be ‘difficult’ since traditional poetic language has, alas, slipped almost wholly into cliché” and that it is the poet’s duty to “‘purify the dialect of the tribe.’”
In other words, the poet cannot reach the modern world using worn-out poetical words or sentiments; he must use modern words in strange and startling ways. “Eliot will have no commerce,” Howard writes, “with sentimentalism. His poetry is ‘dry’. Modern poetry must be thus . . . since the poetry of sentiment does nothing but cater to self-indulgence, and Eliot has something more taxing in mind.”
Howard, who taught English in both colleges and seminaries, is eminently qualified to explain what this more taxing thing is. Four Quartets is a meditative poem divided into four parts, each consisting of five movements. (A musical quartet, Howard notes, “is a piece scored for four instruments, not necessarily a quartet in four movements.”)
The poet’s “instruments” in this poem are probably meant to be Air, Earth, Water, and Fire, “the Four Elements that were assumed to be the major constituents of the material universe before the advent of modern science.” Howard warns against “too rigorous” an identification of one element with each quartet, but the imagery of one does predominate in each.
He does not expressly say why Eliot chose these four elements, but the following quote, I think, suggests an answer: “Eliot, being a Christian and a sacramentalist, believes that the physical is the very mode under which we make our way along to our destiny ( telos) and that the effort to shuffle off the physical, or to deplore it, is both misbegotten and disastrous.” Eliot’s instruments are the rudimentary elements of that physical mode.
In each quartet, the predominating element “points to” (Eliot’s words) the nature of time. “If we can venture, at mortal risk, to attempt a theme for it all,” Howard argues, “we might say that it all has something to do with the odd business of being mortal, that is, intelligent creatures existing here and in time, when all the while we are profoundly dissatisfied with this dismal sequence of past, present, and future.”
The element that predominates in the first quartet, “Burnt Norton,” is Air. This part “is shot through with the language of daylight, sunlight, shafts of sunlight, clouds, wind, darkness, the light glinting on a kingfisher’s wing, and the stars, which are up there, if not in the air, then at least beyond the air, in space.”
Using this imagery, Eliot quietly and methodically (also brutally, as Howard notes) meditates on the nature of time and how moments of timelessness (“The moment in the arbour where the rain beat/ The moment in the draughty church at smokefall”) try to wake us up to grace and our inevitable end: death.
But in Eliot’s words, “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality,” so we become disaffected people “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” Four Quartets reminds us of those timeless moments of grace and our impending death, thereby reawakening us to reality. “The choice is ours: either to opt for perpetual distraction and hence blunder on to that End and find it to be calamity or to ‘descend’ toward the still point and find light, not eternal darkness.”
But once we wake up, what are we to do? “East Coker,” the second section of the poem (East Coker was the English village Eliot’s ancestors came from), tells us, using primarily imagery of the element Earth and connecting that imagery with “dung and death,” that we must go through the “dark night of the soul,” in St. John of the Cross’s words. As the poem says, “You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.”
That is, “Eliot will have nothing to do with any nonsense about our floating off into a vacuous religious ether, nonsense that is always popular with fools, either in ersatz Eastern religion as that is tasted by Western dilettantes or in any of the voguish shortcuts to Nirvana that crop up every hour on the half hour in California. We are talking about a lifetime of immensely taxing fidelity here.”
Hints & Guesses
This becomes clearer in the next part, “The Dry Salvages” (rhymes with “assuages”), the title of which refers to a group of rocks, dangerous to mariners, off Cape Ann in Massachusetts and which also suggests the change of imagery from Earth to Water. In this section Eliot writes,
In his discussion of these lines, Howard explains that the poem “is about sanctity, the Way (up or down) by which we mortals may finally win through to the Beatific Vision. No other ‘reading’ of the poem will do justice to Eliot’s work here.”
In the last quartet, “Little Gidding,” Fire, purgatorial and refining, is the primary element. Little Gidding was an early seventeenth-century lay community in England that attempted a life organized around the canonical hours and the Eucharist.
In this part Eliot meditates on Mary’s fiat mihi (“Be it done unto me according to thy word”) and the descent of the Holy Spirit.
In the quartet’s fourth, lyrical movement, Eliot writes, “The dove descending breaks the air/ With flame of incandescent terror,” then adds that we can be saved from the fires of hell only by, in Howard’s words, “divine fire.”
Eliot ends his poem (“The end is where we start from” he says in this last movement) by referring to Julian of Norwich and Dante in a description of the price, and solace, of being a Christian:
In Dove Descending, Thomas Howard accomplishes what he set out to do, that is, to navigate through the rocks of Eliot’s difficult poetry to find both its beauty and its truth. He has done the most that any reading of a poem can do: send us with zest and knowledge back to the poetry itself.
As Charles Williams (on whose novels Howard has written an illuminating book) wrote in his study of Dante, The Figure of Beatrice, “One goes outside the poem, in following the meanings, but only to return; only to centre again what, for a good purpose, has been de-centred.”
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.
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“Eliot’s Edifice” first appeared in the April 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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