Archive for the ‘T.S. Eliot’ Category


George Herbert and The Temple 2 – T.S. Eliot

January 29, 2014

Being born into an artistic and wealthy family, George Herbert received a good education that led to his holding prominent positions at Cambridge University and Parliament. As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Herbert excelled in languages and music. He went to college with the intention of becoming a priest, but his scholarship attracted the attention of King James I/VI. Herbert served in Parliament for two years. After the death of King James and at the urging of a friend, Herbert’s interest in ordained ministry was renewed. In 1630, in his late thirties he gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England, spending the rest of his life as a rector of the little parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, near Salisbury. He was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need. Henry Vaughan said of him “a most glorious saint and seer”.

I find Herbert to be closer in spirit to Donne than is any other of `the school of Donne’. As the personal bond, through Lady Herbert, was much closer, this seems only natural. Other powerful literary influences formed the manner of Crashaw, the Roman Catholic convert: the Italian poet Marino and the Spanish poet Gongora, and, we are told, [By Mario Praz, whose Seicentismo e rnarinisrno in Inghilterra is essential for the study of Crashaw in particular.] the Jesuit poets who wrote in Latin.

Vaughan and Traherne were poets of mystical experience: each appears to have experienced early in life some mystical illumination which inspires his poetry. And the other important poet of the `metaphysical’ school, Andrew Marvell, is a master of secular and religious poetry equally. In my attempt to indicate the affinity of Herbert to Donne, and also the difference between them, I have spoken earlier of a `balance’ between the intellect and the sensibility.

But equally well (for one has recourse to diverse and even mutually contradictory metaphors and images to express the inexpressible) we can speak of a `fusion of intellect and sensibility in different proportions. In the work of a later generation of metaphysicals’ — notably Cleveland, Benlowes and Cowley — we encounter a kind of emotional drought, and a verbal ingenuity which, having no great depth of feeling to work upon, tends towards corruption of language, and merits the censure which Samuel Johnson applies indiscriminately to all the `school of Donne.’

To return to the import of The Temple for all perceptive readers whether they share Herbert’s faith or no. Professor Knights quotes with approval Dr. Hutchinson’s description of the poems as colloquies of the soul with God or self-communings which seek to bring order into that complex personality of his which he analyses so unsparingly, but goes on to make a qualification which seems to me very important. Dr. Hutchinson believes that Herbert’s principal temptation was ambition.

We need not deny that Herbert had been, like many other men, ambitious; we know that he had a hot temper; we know that he liked fine clothes and fine company, and would have been pleased by preferment at Court. But beside the struggle to abandon thought of the attractions offered to worldly ambition, Professor Knights finds `a dejection of spirit that tended to make him regard his own life, the life he was actually leading, as worthless and unprofitable’.

Mr. Knights attributes the cause partly to ill-health, but still more to a more ingrained distrust. It was perhaps distrust of himself, or fear of testing his powers among more confident men, that drove him to the shelter of an obscure parsonage. He had, Mr. Knights suggests, to rid himself of the torturing sense of frustration and impotence and accept the validity of his own experience. If this is so, Herbert’s weakness became the source of his greatest power, for the result was The Temple.

I have called upon Mr. Knights’s testimony in evidence that Herbert is not a poet whose work is significant only for Christian readers; that The Temple is not to be taken as simply a devotional handbook of meditation for the faithful, but as the personal record of a man very conscious of weakness and failure, a man of intellect and sensibility who hungered and thirsted after righteousness. And that by its content, as well as because of its technical accomplishment, it is a work of importance for every lover of poetry. This is not, however, to suggest that it is unprofitable for us to study the text for closer understanding, to acquaint ourselves with the liturgy of the Church, with the traditional imagery of the Church, and identify the Biblical allusions.

One long poem which has been subjected to close examination is The Sacrifice. There are sixty-three stanzas of three lines each, sixty-one of which have the refrain Was ever grief like Mine? I mention this poem, which is a very fine one, and not so familiar as are some of the shorter and more lyrical pieces, because it has been carefully studied by Professor William Empson in his Seven Types of Ambiguity, and by Miss Rosamund Tuve in her A Reading of George Herbert.

The lines are to be taken as spoken by Christ upon the Cross. We need, of course, enough acquaintance with the New Testament to recognize references to the Passion. But we are also better prepared if we recognize the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the Reproaches in the Mass of the Pre-sanctified which is celebrated on Good Friday.

Celebrant: I led thee forth out of Egypt, drowning Pharaoh in the Red Sea: and thou hast delivered me up unto the chief priests.

Deacon & Subdeacon: O my people, what have I done unto thee, or wherein have I wearied thee, Testify against me.

It is interesting to note that Mr. Empson and Miss Tuve differ in their interpretation of the following stanza:

O all ye who passe by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climbe the tree;
The tree of life to all, but onely me:

Was ever grief like mine?

Mr. Empson comments: `He climbs the tree to repay what was stolen, as if he were putting the apple back’; and develops this explanation at some length. Upon this interpretation Miss Tuve observes rather tartly: `All (Mr. Empson’s) rabbits roll out of one small hat — the fact that Herbert uses the time-honored `climb’ for the ascent of the Cross, and uses the word `must’, to indicate a far deeper necessity than that which faces a small boy under a big tree.’ Certainly, the image of replacing the apple which has been plucked is too ludicrous to be entertained for a moment. It is obvious that Christ `climbs’ or is `lifted’ up on the Cross in atonement for the sin of Adam and Eve; the verb `climb’ being used traditionally to indicate the voluntary nature of the sacrifice for the sins of the world.

Herbert was, assuredly, familiar with the imagery used by the pre-Reformation Church. It is likely also that Donne, learned in the works of the scholastics, and also in the writings of such Roman theologians contemporary with himself as Cardinal Bellarmine, set a standard of scholarship which Herbert followed.

To cite such an instance as this, however, is not to suggest that the lover of poetry needs to prepare himself with theological and liturgical knowledge before approaching Herbert’s poetry. That would be to put the cart before the horse. With the appreciation of Herbert’s poems, as with all poetry, enjoyment is the beginning as well as the end. We must enjoy the poetry before we attempt to penetrate the poet’s mind; we must enjoy it before we understand it, if the attempt to understand it is to be worth the trouble.

We begin by enjoying poems, and lines in poems, which make an immediate impression; only gradually, as we familiarize ourselves with the whole work, do we appreciate The Temple as a coherent sequence of poems setting down the fluctuations of emotion between despair and bliss, between agitation and serenity, and the discipline of suffering which leads to peace of spirit.

The relation of enjoyment to belief — the question whether a poem has more to give us if we share the beliefs of its author, is one which has never been answered satisfactorily: the present writer has made some attempt to contribute to the solution of the problem, and remains dissatisfied with his attempts. But one thing is certain: that even if the reader enjoys a poem more fully when he shares the beliefs of the author, he will miss a great deal of possible enjoyment and of valuable experience if he does not seek the fullest understanding possible of poetry in reading which he must `suspend his disbelief’. (The present writer is very thankful for having had the opportunity to study the Bhagavad Gītā and the religious and philosophical beliefs, so different from his own, with which the Bhagavad Gītā is informed.)

Some of the poems in The Temple express moods of anguish and sense of defeat or failure:

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My dayes were straw’d with flow’rs and happinesse;
There was no moneth but May.
But with my yeares sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a partie unawares for wo…

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weaknesse must be stout.
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

The foregoing lines are from the first of five poems all of which bear the title Affliction. In the first of two poems both of which are entitled `The Temper, he speaks of his fluctuations of faith and feeling:

How should I praise thee, Lord! how should my rymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!

The great danger, for the poet who would write religious verse, is that of setting down what he would like to feel rather than be faithful to the expression of what he really feels. Of such pious insincerity Herbert is never guilty. We need not look too narrowly for a steady progress in Herbert’s religious life, in an attempt to discover a chronological order. He falls, and rises again. Also, he was accustomed to working over his poems; they may have circulated in manuscript among his intimates during his lifetime. What we can confidently believe is that every poem in the book is true to the poet’s experience. In some poems there is a more joyous note, as in `Whitsunday’:

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flue away with thee…

Lord, though we change, thou art the same;
The same sweet God of love and light:
Restore this day, for thy great name,
Unto his ancient and miraculous right.

In The Flower we hear the note of serenity, almost of beatitude, and of thankfulness for God’s blessings:

How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.’

A. Alvarez in The School of Donne says justly of this last stanza: “This is, I suppose, the most perfect and most vivid stanza in the whole of Herbert’s work. But it is, in every sense, so natural that its originality is easily missed.” I cannot resist the thought that in this last stanza — itself a miracle of phrasing — the imagery, so apposite to express the achievement of faith which it records, is taken from the experience of the man of delicate physical health who had known much illness.

It is on this note of joy in convalescence of the spirit in surrender to God, that the life of discipline of this haughty and irascible Herbert finds conclusion: In His will is our peace.


George Herbert and The Temple 1 – T.S. Eliot

January 28, 2014
George Herbert (1593 –1633) was a Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. Herbert's poetry is associated with the writings of the metaphysical poets, and he is recognized as "a pivotal figure: enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist."

George Herbert (1593 –1633) was a Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. Herbert’s poetry is associated with the writings of the metaphysical poets, and he is recognized as “a pivotal figure: enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist.”

Elsewhere on Paying Attention to the Sky, one of our favorite reviewers and critics, Anthony Esolen, writes on The Temple.  Eliot elicits our reasons for returning to the subject again.


The poems on which George Herbert’s reputation is based are those constituting the collection called The Temple. About The Temple there are two points to be made. The first is that we cannot date the poems exactly. Some of them may be the product of careful re-writing. We cannot take them as being necessarily in chronological order: they have another order, that in which Herbert wished them to be read. The Temple is, in fact, a structure, and one which may have been worked over and elaborated, perhaps at intervals of time, before it reached its final form. We cannot judge Herbert, or savor fully his genius and his art, by any selection to be found in an anthology; we must study The Temple as a whole.

To understand Shakespeare we must acquaint ourselves with all of his plays; to understand Herbert we must acquaint ourselves with all of The Temple. Herbert is, of course, a much slighter poet than Shakespeare; nevertheless he may justly be called a major poet. Yet even in anthologies he has for the most part been underrated.

In Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse, which was for many years unchallenged in its representative character, George Herbert was allotted five pages — the same number as Bishop King and much less than Robert Herrick, the latter of whom, most critics of to-day would agree, is a poet of very much slighter gifts. For poetic range Herbert was commonly considered more limited than Donne; and for intensity he was compared unfavorably with Crashaw. This is the view even of Professor Grierson, to whom we are greatly indebted for his championship of Donne and those poets whose names are associated with that of Donne.

And here we must exercise caution in our interpretation of the phrase `the school of Donne’. The present writer once contemplated writing a book under that title; and lately the title has been used by a distinguished younger critic for a study covering the same ground. The phrase is legitimate and useful to designate that generation of men younger than Donne whose work is obviously influenced by him, but we must not take it as implying that those poets who experienced his influence were for that reason lesser poets. (Professor Grierson, indeed, seems to consider Andrew Marvell the greatest, greater even than Donne.)

That Herbert learned directly from Donne is self-evident. But `to think of the school of Donne’, otherwise metaphysical poets’, as Donne ‘s inferiors, or to try to range them on a scale of greatness, would be to lose our way. What is important is to apprehend the particular virtue, the unique flavor of each one. Comparing them with any other group of poets at any other period, we observe the characteristics which they share: when we compare them with each other, their differences emerge clearly.

Let us compare a poem by Donne with a poem by Herbert; and as Herbert’s poetry deals always with religious matter, we shall compare two religious sonnets. First, Donne: 

Batter my heart, three persona God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and o’erthrow mee’, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt town, to’ another due,
Labour to ‘admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’ I love you,’ and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemies,
Divorce mee, ‘untie or break that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you ‘ enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

And here is George Herbert:

Prayer (1)
Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinners towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

The difference that I wish to emphasize is not that between the violence of Donne and the gentle imagery of Herbert, but rather a difference between the dominance of intellect over sensibility and the dominance of sensibility over intellect. Both men were highly intellectual, both men had very keen sensibility: but in Donne thought seems in control of feeling, and in Herbert feeling seems in control of thought.

Both men were learned, both men were accustomed to preaching — but not to the same type of congregation. In Donne s religious verse, as in his sermons, there is much more of the orator: whereas Herbert, for all that he had been successful as Public Orator of Cambridge University, has a much more intimate tone of speech. We do not know what Herbert’s sermons were like; but we can conjecture that in addressing his little congregation of rustics, all of whom he knew personally, and many of whom must have received both spiritual and material comfort from him and from his wife, he adopted a more homely style. Donne was accustomed to addressing large congregations (one is tempted to call them `audiences’) out of doors at Paul’s Cross, Herbert only the local congregation of a village church.

The difference which I have in mind is indicated even by the last two lines of each sonnet. Donne’s

…for I
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, unless you ravish mee

is, in the best sense, wit. Herbert’s

Church-bell beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood

is the kind of poetry which, like

magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn

may be called magical.

Of all the poets who may be said to belong to `the school of Donne’, Herbert is the only one whose whole source of inspiration was his religious faith. Most of the poetry upon which rests the reputation of Donne is love poetry, and his religious verse is of a later period in his life; his reputation, and his influence upon other poets would have been as great had he written no religious poetry at all.

Richard Crashaw, who had himself frequented the community of Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding before his conversion to the Church of Rome, might still have been a notable poet had he written no religious verse — even though his devotional poems are his finest. Herbert, before becoming Rector of Bemerton, had never been a recluse: he had, in his short life, wide acquaintance in the great world, and he enjoyed a happy marriage. Yet it was only in the Faith, in hunger and thirst after godliness, in his self-questioning and his religious meditation, that he was inspired as a poet. If there is another example since his time of a poetic genius so dedicated to God, it is that of Gerard Hopkins.

We are certainly justified in presuming that no other subject-matter than that to which he confined himself could have elicited great poetry from George Herbert. Whether we regard this as a limitation, or as the sign of solitary greatness, of a unique contribution to English poetry, will depend upon our sensibility to the themes of which he writes.

It would, however, be a gross error to assume that Herbert’s poems are of value only for Christians — or, still more narrowly, only for members of his own church. For the practicing Christian, it is true, they may be aids to devotion. When I claim a place for Herbert among those poets whose work every lover of English poetry should read and every student of English poetry should study, irrespective of religious belief or unbelief, I am not thinking primarily of the exquisite craftmanship, the extraordinary metrical virtuosity, or the verbal felicities, but of the content of the poems which make up The Temple.

These poems form a record of spiritual struggle which should touch the feeling, and enlarge the understanding of those readers also who hold no religious belief and find themselves unmoved by religious emotion. Professor L. C. Knights, in an essay on George Herbert in his Explorations, both expresses this doubt on the part of the non-Christian and dispels it:

Even Dr. Hutchinson, whose superbly edited and annotated edition of the Complete Works is not likely to be superseded … remarks that ‘if to-day there is a less general sympathy with Herbert’s religion, the beauty and sincerity of its expression are appreciated by those who do not share it’. True, but there is much more than the `expression’ that we appreciate, as I shall try to show. Herbert’s poetry is an integral part of the great English tradition.

Whether the religious poems of Donne show greater profundity of thought, and greater intensity of passion, is a question which every reader will answer according to his own feelings. My point here is that The Temple is not to be regarded simply as a collection of poems, but (as I have said,) as a record of the spiritual struggles of a man of intellectual power and emotional intensity who gave much toil to perfecting his verses. As such, it should be a document of interest to all those who are curious to understand their fellow men; and as such, I regard it as a more important document than all of Donne’s religious poems taken together.


Choruses from the Rock – T. S. Eliot

May 16, 2013

Knowledge without Wisdom, Poster by Paulo Zerbato “What we call "church" is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another "helping institution" to gratify further their individual desires. One of the reasons some church members are so mean-spirited with their pastor, particularly when the pastor urges them to look at God, is that they feel deceived by such pastoral invitations to look beyond themselves. They have come to church for "strokes," to have their personal needs met. What we call church is often a conspiracy of cordiality. Pastors learn to pacify rather than preach to their Ananiases and Sapphiras. We say we do it out of "love." Usually, we do it as a means of keeping everyone as distant from everyone else as possible. You don't get into my life and I will not get into yours.”  Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens

Knowledge without Wisdom, Poster by Paulo Zerbato
“What we call “church” is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another “helping institution” to gratify further their individual desires. One of the reasons some church members are so mean-spirited with their pastor, particularly when the pastor urges them to look at God, is that they feel deceived by such pastoral invitations to look beyond themselves. They have come to church for “strokes,” to have their personal needs met. What we call church is often a conspiracy of cordiality. Pastors learn to pacify rather than preach to their Ananiases and Sapphiras. We say we do it out of “love.” Usually, we do it as a means of keeping everyone as distant from everyone else as possible. You don’t get into my life and I will not get into yours.”
Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens


We are taught by our secular educational masters that Eliot’s greatest poems were his early, bleak ones: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Wasteland. But this, I urge you, Choruses from the Rock, written some seventeen years after “Prufrock” and seven years after Eliot‘s conversion to the Anglican Church is just as worthy a candidate. Here we see Eliot, the older soul in search, who finally found what he was looking for in the Christian Church. Being that I’m pretty old myself, universally acknowledged as downright cranky and am searching in the Catholic Church, this strikes me as a beautiful poem and one of his best.  Read it aloud in your solitary room and see if it doesn’t echo throughout your day:

Choruses from the Rock (1934)

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

The lot of man is ceaseless labor,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.

The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change,
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.

You neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.

Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen.

In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks

Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.

Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore
I have given you the power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.

And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city ?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
You shall not deny the Stranger.

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is shall shadow
The man that pretends to be.

Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of
the Word,
Through the Passion and Sacrifice saved in spite of their negative being;
Bestial as always before, carnal, self seeking as always before, selfish and
purblind as ever before,
Yet always struggling, always reaffirming, always resuming their march on
the way that was lit by the light;
Often halting, loitering, straying, delaying, returning, yet following no other

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened
before: though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no God; and this has
never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.

What have we to do but stand with empty hands and palms turned
upwards in an age which advances progressively backwards?

There came one who spoke of the shame of Jerusalem
And the holy places defiled;
Peter the Hermit, scourging with words.
And among his hearers were a few good men,
Many who were evil,
And most who were neither,
Like all men in all places.

In spite of all the dishonour,
the broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings.

Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And moderate vice

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.

Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or
Joined with the artist’s eye, new life, new form, new colour.
Out of the sea of sound the life of music,
Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the
place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.

The work of creation is never without travail

The visible reminder of Invisible Light.

O Light Invisible, we praise Thee!
Too bright for mortal vision.


What Losing Faith Really Means – Roger Scruton

December 20, 2011

Luis Buñuel has reputation as one of the most important surrealist filmmakers in history. He got his start by collaborating with Salvador Dali on the 16-minute short Un Chien Andalou. His long career in surrealist filmmaking and religious rabble-rousing had its share of peaks and valleys, as he traveled from Spain to France to America to Mexico and back again. Simon of the Desert, his last Mexican film, is certainly one of the peaks. Simon of the Desert is Luis Buñuel’s wicked and wild take on the life of devoted ascetic Saint Simeon Stylites, who waited atop a pillar surrounded by a barren landscape for six years, six months, and six days, in order to prove his devotion to God.

Religion, as Durkheim pointed out in his great study of its elementary forms, is a social fact. A religion is not something that occurs to you; nor does it emerge as the conclusion of an empirical investigation or an intellectual argument. It is something that you join, to which you are converted, or into which you are born. Losing the Christian faith is not merely a matter of doubting the existence of God, or the incarnation, or the redemption purchased on the Cross. It involves falling out of communion, ceasing to be `members in Christ’, losing a primary experience of home. All religions are alike in this, and it is why they are so harsh on heretics and unbelievers: for heretics and unbelievers pretend to the benefits of membership, while belonging to other communities in other ways.

This is not to say that there is nothing more to religion than the bond of membership. There is also doctrine, ritual, worship and prayer. There is the vision of God the creator, and the search for signs and revelations of the transcendental. There is the sense of the sacred, the sacrosanct, the sacramental and the sacrilegious. All those grow from the experience of social membership and also amend it, so that a religious community furnishes itself with an all-embracing Weltanschauung, together with rituals and ceremonies that affirm its existence as a social organism, and lay claim to its place in the world.

Faith is not therefore content with the cozy customs and necromantic rites of the household gods. It strides out towards a cosmic explanation and a final theodicy. In consequence it suffers challenge from the rival advance of science. Scientific thinking brought Christian doctrine to a sudden check. Although religion is a social fact, therefore, it is exposed to a purely intellectual refutation. And the defeat of the Church’s intellectual claims began the process of secularization, which was to end in the defeat of the Christian community — the final loss of that root experience of membership, which had shaped European civilization for two millennia, and which had caused it to be what it is.

The loss of faith may begin as an intellectual loss. But it does not end there. It is a loss of comfort, membership and home: it involves exile from the community that formed you, and for which you may always secretly yearn. Reading the great Victorian doubters — Matthew Arnold being pre-eminent among them — I am persuaded that they were not ready for this experience. Hence they attempted to patch up the social world while leaving the ecclesiastical crenellations intact on top of it. And the remarkable fact is that they were successful. Their loss of faith occurred against the background of a still perceivable religious community, whose customs they did nothing to disturb. They inhabited the same Lebenswelt as the believer, and saw the world as marked out by institutions and expectations that are the legacy of religion.

We witness this in the writings of nineteenth-century secularists such as John Stuart Mill, Jules Michelet or Henry Thoreau. Their world bears the stamp of a shared religion; the human form for them is still divine; the free individual still shines in their world with a more than earthly illumination, and the hidden goal of all their writings is to ennoble the human condition. Such writers did not experience their loss of faith as a loss, since in a very real sense they hadn’t lost religion. They had rejected various metaphysical ideas and doctrines, but still inhabited the world that faith had made — the world of secure commitments, of marriages, obsequies and christenings, of real presences in ordinary lives and exalted visions in art. Their world was a world where the concepts of the sacred, the sacrilegious and the sacramental were widely recognized and socially endorsed.

This condition found idealized expression in the Gothic Revival, and in the writings of its principal high Victorian advocate, John Ruskin. Nobody knows whether Ruskin was a vestigial Christian believer, a fellow-traveler or an atheist profoundly attached to the medieval vision of a society ordered by faith. His exhortations, however, are phrased in the diction of the Book of Common Prayer; his response to the science and art of his day is penetrated by the spirit of religious inquisition, and his recommendations to the architect are for the building of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The Gothic style, as he described and commended it, was to recapture the sacred for a secular age. It was to offer visions of sacrifice and consecrated labor, and so counter the dispiriting products of the industrial machine. The Gothic would be, in the midst of our utilitarian madness, a window on to the transcendental, where once again we could pause and wonder, and where our souls would be filled with the light of another world. The Gothic Revival — both for Ruskin and for the atheist William Morris — was an attempt to reconsecrate the city as an earthly community united by real presences in sacred precincts.

Loss of faith involves a radical change to the Lebenswelt, as Husserl called it. The most ordinary things take on a new aspect, and concepts that inhabit the soul of believers and shape their most intimate experiences — concepts of the sacred and profane, of the forbidden, the sacramental and the holy — seem to make no contact with the world as it appears to the person who has lost hold of the transcendental.

In response to this we might strive as the Victorians did to maintain and repair the faith community, to hope that the process of re-consecration would continue, refurbishing the image of humanity as god-like and redeemed. In short, we could go on stealing from churches. But it doesn’t work — not now. More appropriate to our time is the response of Rilke and Eliot, the two poets over whom I stumbled when first I discovered books. They did not hope for that enduring simulacrum of a religious community, but instead wished to rediscover the real thing, only lying dormant within us.

Among the greatest religious poems of the twentieth century we must surely count The Duino Elegies of Rilke, and The Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot. In the first a private religion is created from the fragmentary offerings of intensely subjective experiences, which are gradually elaborated until they seem to contain the intimation of a personal redemption. In the second the poet is living in a world that refuses his religious yearning; he rediscovers, through a lost but imagined religious community, the experience of the sacramental from which he had been cut off. Both poets are restored in imagination to what they had lost in fact. There is a kind of belief there, but it is a belief that recreates the religious community out of memories, intimations and signs.

In The Duino Elegies the idea of the transcendental is embodied in the figure of the Angel, summoned into existence by the poet’s need, and representing the triumph of consciousness over the world of fact. In all of us, Rilke believes, there is the deep need to transform fact into thought, object into subject, Earth into the idea of Earth: the Angel is the being in whom this transubstantiation is complete. He is like the soul released into Brahma, who has translated matter to spirit so as to be co-terminous with his world.

We emulate this process of translation, but we must begin from the fragments of our earthly experience where the sacred can take root — the places of love, heroism, death and memory, in which Earth beseeches us to take conscious note of her, to ingest her into our own transcendental presence, which is also an absence. For Rilke the experience of the sacred is saturated with the image of community, with the full, conscious rejoicing of the tribe, now dormant in all of us, and resurrected in imagination in the tenderness of sexual love:

Look, we don’t love as flowers love, out of
a single year; there rises in us, when we love,
immemorial sap in the arms. O girl,
This — that we loved in ourselves, not one yet to be, but
the innumerable ferment; not a single child
but the fathers resting like ruined mountains
in our depths –; but the dry river-bed
of former mothers –; but the whole
soundless landscape under its clear
or cloudy destiny –, this, girl, came before you.

In that passage Rilke finds in the intense longing of erotic love the intimations of a religious community — one dedicated to its own reproduction. The transcendental is contained in the moment — the moment of desire that summons past and future generations as witnesses to the present passion. Angels live like this always; we only sometimes, in those moments when we recognize our own mortality and embrace it.

Eliot had another vision, one nearer to that of the Gothic Revival — though his is a Gothic Revival of the imagination, in which the effort of renewal takes place inwardly, in the subjective experience of the suffering poet. His pilgrimage to Little Gidding, once the home of an Anglican community dedicated to the life of prayer, leads him to the following thought:

     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.

This is a very different vision from Rilke’s, of course. Not for Eliot that unvordenklicher Saft in die Arme: the erotic has been banished from his world; or rather, it never intruded there. Instead we have a search for the `timeless moment’ — and, stated thus briefly, it sounds like a chocolate-box platitude. But the context clarifies the thought. Eliot has found his way to a sacred place, and imagined himself into the community that made it holy. He is in communion with the dead, has passed over to them from the empirical world, and is kneeling beside them in that transcendental region. He has rediscovered the sacred, in a world that seemed to exclude it from view.

Eliot’s redemption at Little Gidding involves the imagined recovery of the old Christian community. Rilke’s self-made redemption through the society of Angels involves the invention of a community that is not of this world. Both are quintessentially modern responses to the loss of religion — attempts to recuperate the transcendental and the sacred from the raw experience of the solitary self. But they cannot compensate for that other and greater loss, which is that of the religious community itself. For that community contained a vital store of moral knowledge – knowledge collectively generated and collectively deployed.

The moral knowledge that I have in mind is manifest in our response to other people, in our social projects and in our sense of ourselves. It is also manifest in our ability spontaneously to understand and to act upon human realities. Moral knowledge is a practical, not a theoretical acquisition. It does not consist in the knowledge of truths. Nevertheless it may open the way to such knowledge. For there are certain truths about the human condition that are hard to formulate and hard to live up to, and which we therefore have a motive to deny. It may require moral discipline if we are to accept these truths and also to live by them.

For instance, there is the truth that we are self-conscious beings, and that this distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. There is the truth that we are free, accountable and objects of judgment in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. There is the truth that we are motivated not only by desire and appetite, but by a conception of the good. There is the truth that we are not just objects in the world of objects, but also subjects, who relate to each other reciprocally. There are all the other vital truths that I have discovered through growing up with Sam. To the person with religious belief — whether Christian or Muslim, whether monotheist or polytheist, whether a believer in the afterlife or not — those truths are obvious, and their consequences immediately apparent.

Religious people may not express the truths as I have done, since I am adopting a secular idiom. Nor will they normally be aware of the philosophical reasoning that would defend those truths against modernist and postmodernist doubt. Nevertheless that is how they see the world. For them the `human form divine’, as Blake described it, is set apart from the rest of nature. Our form bears, for them, the marks of its peculiar destiny; it is capable of sanctity and liable to desecration, and in everything it is judged from a perspective that is not of this world. That way of seeing people enshrines the fundamental truth of our condition, as creatures suspended between the empirical and the transcendental, between being and judgment. But it deploys concepts that are given to us through religion, and to be obtained only with the greatest effort without it.

If you see things in that way you will find it difficult to share the view of Enlightenment thinkers that religious decline is no more than the loss of false beliefs; still less will you be able to accept the postmodernist vision of a world now liberated from absolutes, in which each of us constructs guidelines of his own, and that the only agreement that counts is the agreement to differ.

The decline of Christianity, I maintain, involves, for many people, not the freedom from religious need, but the loss of concepts that would enable them to assuage it and, by assuaging it, to open their knowledge and their will to the human reality. For them the loss of religion is an epistemological loss — a loss of knowledge. Losing that knowledge is not a liberation but a fall.

Loss is fundamental to the human condition. But civilizations differ in their way of accommodating it. The Upanishads exhort us to free ourselves of all attachments, to rise to that blissful state in which we can lose nothing because we possess nothing. And flowing from that exhortation is an art and a philosophy that make light of human suffering, and scorn the losses that oppress us in this world.

By contrast, Western civilization has dwelt upon loss and made it the principal theme of its art and literature. Scenes of mourning and sorrow abound in medieval painting and sculpture; our drama is rooted in tragedy and our lyric poetry takes the loss of love and the vanishing of its object as its principal theme. It is not Christianity that gave us this outlook. Virgil’s Aeneid, ostensibly an expression of Aeneas’s hope as he is god-guided to his great and world-transforming goal in Italy, is composed of losses. The terrible sack of Troy, the loss of his wife, the awful tale of Dido, the death of Anchises, the visit to the underworld, the ruinous conflict with Turnus — all these explore the parameters of loss, and show us that our highest hopes and loyalties lead of their own accord to tragedy.

For all that, the Aeneid is just as much a religious text as the Upanishads. The world of Aeneas is a world of rites and rituals, of sacred places and holy times. And Aeneas is judged by the gods, sometimes hounded by them, sometimes sustained, but at every moment accountable to them and aware of their real presence in the empirical world. It is for this reason that Aeneas can look his many losses in the face and also set them at the distance that enables him to gain from them. They come to him not as inexplicable accidents but as trials, ordeals and judgements. He wrestles with them and overcomes them as you might overcome an opponent. And each loss adds to his inner strength, without hardening his heart.

At the risk of sounding somewhat Spenglerian, I would suggest that the questing and self-critical spirit of Western civilization distinguishes it among civilizations and informs both the style of its losses and its way of coping with them. The Western response to loss is not to remove yourself from the world. It is to bear it as a loss, to mourn it, and to strive to overcome it by seeing it as a form of consecrated suffering. Religion lies at the root of that attitude.

 Religion enables us to bear our losses, not primarily because it promises to offset them with some compensating gain, but because it sees them from a transcendental perspective. Judged from that perspective they appear not as meaningless afflictions but as sacrifices. Loss, conceived as sacrifice, becomes consecrated to something higher than itself: and in this it follows a pattern explored by Rene Girard in his bold theory of the violent origins of the human disposition to recognize sacred things.[Rene Girard, La violence et le sacre, Paris, 1972]

I think that is how people can cope with the loss of children — to recognize in this loss a supreme example of the transition to another realm. Your dead child was a sacrificial offering, and is now an angel beckoning from that other sphere, sanctifying the life that you still lead in the material world. This thought is of course very crudely captured by my words. Fortunately, however, three great works of art exist that convey it completely — the medieval poem The Pearl from the Gawain manuscript, Mahler’s Kindertotenliederm, and Britten’s church parable Curlew River.

In our civilization, therefore, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. They do not do this in the way of the Upanishads, which exhort us to an immense spiritual labor, whereby we free ourselves from the weight of Dharma and slowly ascend to the blessed state of Brahma. The path of renunciation presupposes, after all, that there is something to renounce.

Modern people pursue not penitence but pleasure, in the hope of achieving a condition in which renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness — only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.


Eliot On Realizing A Humane And Moderate Politics – Roger Scruton

November 23, 2011

T.S. Eliot

An amazing essay that you will read and reread again, posing as it does vital questions about ourselves and who we are as seen through the poetry and criticism of Thomas Stearns Eliot. I confess to have been totally entranced by it. Roger Scruton is a fine scholar and really knows how to grasp the essentials of Eliot and his worldview.  We are so much the better for it.


ELIOT’S LIFE BEGAN WITH A QUESTION: the question of modern life and its meaning. His literary work was a long, studious, and sincere attempt to provide an answer. In the course of this enterprise, Eliot re-shaped the English language, changed the forms of English verse, and produced some of the most memorable utterances in our literature. Although an impressive scholar, with a mastery of languages and literatures that he reveals but does not dwell upon in his writings.

Eliot was also a man of the world. He worked first as a teacher, then in a London bank, and then in the publishing house of Faber and Faber, which he made into the foremost publisher of poetry and criticism in its day. His unhappy first marriage did not impede his active participation in the literary life of London, over which he exerted an influence every bit as great as André Breton over the literary life of Paris.

His refusal, through all this, to adopt the mantle of the bohemian, to claim the tinsel crown of artist, or to mock the “bourgeois” lifestyle, sets him apart from the continental tradition which he otherwise did so much to promote. He realized that the true task of the artist in the modern world is one not of repudiation but of reconciliation.

For Eliot, the artist inherits, in heightened and self-conscious form, the very same anxieties that are the stuff of ordinary experience. The poet who takes his words seriously is the voice of mankind, interceding for those who live around him, and gaining on their behalf the gift of consciousness with which to overcome the wretchedness of secular life. He too is an ordinary bourgeois, and his highest prize is to live unnoticed amidst those who know nothing of his art — as the saint may live unnoticed among those for whom he dies.

To find the roots of Eliot’s political thinking, we must go back to the modernism that found such striking expression in The Waste Land. English literature in the early part of the twentieth century was to a great extent captured by pre-modern imagery, by references to a form of life (such as we find in Thomas Hardy) that had vanished forever, and by verse forms which derived from the repertoire of romantic isolation.

It had not undergone that extraordinary education which Baudelaire and his successors had imposed upon the French — in which antiquated forms like the sonnet were wrenched free of their pastoral and religious connotations and fitted out with the language of the modern city, in order to convey the new and hallucinatory sense of an irreparable fault, whereby modern man is divided from all that has preceded him.

Eliot’s admiration for Baudelaire arose from his desire to write verse that was as true to the experience of the modern city as Baudelaire’s had been to the experience of Paris. Eliot also recognized in Baudelaire the new character of the religious impulse under the conditions of modern life: “The important fact about Baudelaire,” he wrote, “is that he was essentially a Christian, born out of his due time, and a classicist, born out of his due time.”

Eliot’s indictment of the neo-romantic literature of his day was not merely a literary complaint. He believed that his contemporaries’ use of worn-out poetic diction and lilting rhythms betrayed a serious moral weakness: a failure to observe life as it really is, a failure to feel what must be felt towards the experience that is inescapably ours. And this failure is not confined, he believed, to literature, but runs through the whole of modern life. The search for a new literary idiom is therefore part of a larger search — for the reality of modern experience. Only then can we confront our situation and ask ourselves what should be done about it.

Eliot’s deep distrust of secular humanism — and of the socialist and democratic ideas of society which he believed to stem from it — reflected his critique of the neo-romantics. The humanist, with his myth of man’s goodness, is taking refuge in an easy falsehood. He is living in a world of make-believe, trying to avoid the real emotional cost of seeing things as they are. His vice is the vice of Edwardian and “Georgian” poetry — the vice of sentimentality, which causes us not merely to speak and write in clichés, but to feel in clichés too, lest we should be troubled by the truth of our condition.

The task of the artistic modernist, as Eliot later expressed it, borrowing a phrase from Mallarmé, is “to purify the dialect of the tribe”: that is, to find the words, rhythms, and artistic forms that would make contact again with our experience — not my experience, or yours, but our experience, the experience that unites us as living here and now. And it is only because he had captured this experience — in particular, in the bleak vision ofThe Waste Land — that Eliot was able to find a path to its meaning.

He summarizes his attitude to the everyday language of modern life and politics in his essay on the Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes, and it is worth quoting the passage in full:

To persons whose minds are habituated to feed on the vague jargon of our time, when we have a vocabulary for everything and exact ideas about nothing — when a word half-understood, torn from its place in some alien or half-formed science, as of psychology, conceals from both writer and reader the utter meaninglessness of a statement, when all dogma is in doubt except the dogmas of sciences of which we have read in the newspapers, when the language of theology itself, under the influence of an undisciplined mysticism of popular philosophy, tends to become a language of tergiversation [vocab: evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement]– Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbose. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes takes a word and derives the world from it.
For Lancelot Andrewes (London: Faber, 1970 [1929])

For Eliot, words had begun to lose their precision — not in spite of science, but because of it; not in spite of the loss of true religious belief, but because of it; not in spite of the proliferation of technical terms, but because of it. Our modern ways of speaking no longer enable us to “take a word and derive the world from it”: on the contrary, they veil the world, since they convey no lived response to it. They are mere counters in a game of cliché, designed to fill up the silence, to conceal the void which has come upon us as the old gods have departed from their haunts among us.

That is why modern ways of thinking are not, as a rule, orthodoxies, but heresies — a heresy being a truth that has been exaggerated into falsehood, a truth in which we have taken refuge, so to speak, investing in it all our unexamined anxieties and expecting from it answers to questions which we have not troubled ourselves to understand. In the philosophies that prevail in modern life — utilitarianism, pragmatism, behaviorism — we find that “words have a habit of changing their meaning. . .or else they are made, in a most ruthless and piratical manner, to walk the plank.” The same is true, Eliot implies, whenever the humanist heresy takes over: whenever we treat man as God, and so believe that our thoughts and our words need be measured by no other standard but themselves.

Eliot was brought up in a democracy. He inherited that great fund of public spirit which is the gift of American democracy to the modern world and the cause of so much ignorant hatred of America. But he was not a democrat in his sensibility. Eliot believed that culture could not be entrusted to the democratic process precisely because of the carelessness with words, this habit of unthinking cliché, which would always arise when every person is regarded as having an equal right to express himself. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism he writes:

When the poet finds himself in an age in which there is no intellectual aristocracy, when power is in the hands of a class so democratized that while still a class it represents itself to be the whole nation; when the only alternatives seem to be to talk to a coterie or soliloquize, the difficulties of the poet and the necessity of criticism become greater.
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986 [1961]), 22.

Hence, the critic has, for Eliot, an enhanced significance in the modern, democratic world. It is he who must act to restore what the aristocratic ideal of taste would have spontaneously generated — a language in which words are used with their full meaning and in order to show the world as it is. Those nurtured on empty sentiment have no weapons with which to deal with the reality of a god-forsaken world. They fall at once from sentimentality into cynicism, and so lose the power either to experience life or to live with its imperfection.

Eliot therefore perceived an enormous danger in the liberal and “scientific” humanism which was offered by the prophets of his day. This liberalism seemed to him to be the avatar of moral chaos, since it would permit any sentiment to flourish and would deaden all critical judgement with the idea of a democratic right to speak — which becomes, insensibly, a democratic right to feel.

Although “human kind cannot bear very much reality” — as he expresses the point, first in Murder in the Cathedral, and then in Four Quartetsthe purpose of a culture is to retain that elusive thing called “sensibility”: the habit of right feeling. Barbarism ensues, not because people have lost their skills and scientific knowledge, nor is it averted by retaining those things; rather, barbarism comes through a loss of culture, since it is only through culture that the important realities can be truly perceived.

Eliot’s thought here is difficult to state precisely. And it is worth drawing a parallel with a thinker whom he disliked: Friedrich Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the crisis of modernity had come about because of the loss of the Christian faith. This loss of faith is the inevitable result of science and the growth of knowledge. At the same time, it is not possible for mankind really to live without faith; and for us, who have inherited all the habits and concepts of a Christian culture, that faith must be Christianity. Take away the faith, and you do not take away a body of doctrine only, nor do you leave a clear, uncluttered landscape in which man at last is visible for what he is. Rather, you take away the power to perceive other and more important truths, truths about our condition which cannot, without the benefit of faith, be properly confronted — such as the truth of our mortality.

The solution that Nietzsche impetuously embraced in this quandary was to deny the sovereignty of truth altogether — to say that “there are no truths,” and to build a philosophy of life on the ruins of both science and religion in the name of a purely aesthetic ideal. Eliot saw the absurdity of that response. Yet the paradox remains. The truths that mattered to Eliot are truths of feeling, truths about the weight of human life. Science does not make these truths more easily perceivable: on the contrary, it releases into the human psyche a flock of fantasies — liberalism, humanism, utilitarianism, and the rest — which distract it with the futile hope for a scientific morality.

The result is a corruption of the very language of feeling, a decline from sensibility to sentimentality, and a veiling of the human world. The paradox, then, is this: the falsehoods of religious faith enable us to perceive the truths that matter. The truths of science, endowed with an absolute authority, hide the truths that matter, and make human reality imperceivable. Eliot’s solution to the paradox was compelled by the path that he had taken to its discovery — the path of poetry, with the agonizing examples of poets whose precision, perception, and sincerity were the effects of Christian belief. The solution was to embrace the Christian faith — not, as Tertullian did, because of the paradox, but rather in spite of it.

This explains Eliot’s growing conviction that culture and religion are in the last analysis indissoluble. The disease of sentimentality could be overcome, he believed, only by a high culture in which the work of purification was constantly carried on. This is the task of the critic and the artist, and it is a hard task:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. . . .
East Coker in The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

This work of purification is a dialogue across the generations with those who belong to the tradition: only the few can take part in it, while the mass of mankind stays below, assailed by those “undisciplined squads of emotion.” The high culture of the few is, however, a moral necessity for the many, for it permits human reality to show itself, and so to guide our conduct.

But why should the mass of mankind, lost as they are in bathos, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” be guided by “those who know” (to use Dante’s pregnant phrase)? The answer must lie in religion, and in particular in the common language which a traditional religion bestows, both on the high culture of art and on the common culture of a people. Religion is the life-blood of a culture. It provides the store of symbols, stories, and doctrines that enable us to communicate about our destiny. It forms, through the sacred texts and liturgies, the constant point to which the poet and the critic can return — the language alike of ordinary believers and of the poets who must confront the ever-new conditions of life in the aftermath of knowledge, of life in a fallen world.

For Eliot, however, religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular, should not be seen merely in Platonic terms as an attitude towards what is eternal and unchanging. The truth of our condition is that we are historical beings who find whatever consolation and knowledge is vouchsafed to us in time. The consolations of religion come to us in temporal costume, through institutions that are alive with the spirit of history. To rediscover our religion is not to rise free from the temporal order; it is not to deny history and corruption, in order to contemplate the timeless truths. On the contrary, it is to enter more deeply into history, so as to find in the merely transitory the mark and the sign of that which never passes: it is to discover the “point of intersection of the timeless with time,” which is, according to Four Quartets, the occupation of the saint.

Thus there emerges the strangest and most compelling of parallels: that between the saint and martyr of Murder in the Cathedral and the meditating poet of Four Quartets. Just as the first brings, through his martyrdom, the light of eternity into the darkness of the people of Canterbury (represented as a chorus of women), so does the poet “redeem the time,” by finding in the stream of time those timeless moments which point beyond time. And the attempt by the poet to rediscover and belong to a tradition that will give sense and meaning to his language is one with the attempt to find a tradition of belief, of behavior, and of historical allegiance, that will give sense and meaning to the community. The real significance of a religion lies less in the abstract doctrine than in the institutions which cause it to endure. It lies also in the sacraments and ceremonies, in which the eternal becomes present and what might have been coincides with what is.

FOR ELIOT, therefore, conversion was not a matter merely of acknowledging the truth of Christ. It involved a conscious gesture of belonging, whereby he united his poetical labors with the perpetual labor of the Anglican church. For the Anglican church is peculiar in this: that it has never defined itself as “protestant”; that it has always sought to accept rather than protest against its inheritance, while embracing the daring belief that the truths of Christianity have been offered in a local form to the people of England.

It is a church which takes its historical nature seriously, acknowledging that its duty is less to spread the gospel among mankind than to sanctify a specific community. And in order to fit itself for this role, the Anglican church has, through its divines and liturgists, shaped the English language according to the Christian message, while also bringing that message into the here and now of England. In “Little Gidding,” the last of the Four Quartets, the poet finds himself in the village retreat where an Anglican saint had retired to pray with his family. He conveys what to many is the eternal truth of the Anglican confession, in lines which are among the most famous that have ever been written in English:

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.
Little Gidding in The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

Later, returning to this theme of communication with the dead – our dead — and referring to those brief moments of meaning which are the only sure gift of sensibility, Eliot completes the thought:

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
Little Gidding in The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

Much has been written about “Little Gidding,” the atmosphere of which stays in the mind of every cultivated Englishman who reads it. What is important, however, is less the atmosphere of the poem than the thought which advances through it. For here Eliot achieves that for which he envies Dante — namely, a poetry of belief, in which belief and words are one, and in which the thought cannot be prized free from the controlled and beautiful language. Moreover, there is one influence throughout which is inescapable — the King James Bible, and the Anglican liturgy that grew alongside it. Without being consciously biblical, and while using only modern and colloquial English, Eliot endows his verse with the authority of liturgy, and with the resonance of faith.

These lines take us back to the core belief of modern conservatism, which Burke expressed in the following terms: Society, he wrote, is indeed a contract; but not a contract among the living only; rather, it is a partnership between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. And, he argued, only those who listen to the dead are fit custodians of future generations. Eliot’s complex theory of tradition gives sense and form to this idea. For he makes clear that the most important thing that future generations can inherit from us is our culture. Culture is the repository of an experience which is at once local and placeless, present and timeless, the experience of a community as sanctified by time. This we can pass on only if we too inherit it.

Therefore, we must listen to the voices of the dead, and capture their meaning in those brief, elusive moments when “History is now and England.” In a religious community, such moments are a part of everyday life. For us, in the modern world, religion and culture are both to be gained through a work of sacrifice. But it is a sacrifice upon which everything depends. Hence, by an extraordinary route, the modernist poet becomes the traditionalist priest: and the stylistic achievement of the first is one with the spiritual achievement of the second.

To many people, Eliot’s theory of culture and tradition is too arduous, imposing an impossible duty upon the educated elite. To others, however, it has been a vital inspiration. For let us ask ourselves just what is required of “one who knows.” Should he, in the modern world, devote himself like Sartre or Foucault to undermining the “structures” of bourgeois society, to scoffing at manners and morals, and ruining the institutions upon which he depends for his exalted status? Should he play the part of a modern Socrates, questioning everything and affirming nothing? Should he go along with the mindless culture of play, the post-modernist fantasy world in which all is permitted since neither permission nor interdiction have any sense?

To answer yes to any of those questions is in effect to live by negation, to grant nothing to human life beyond the mockery of it. It is to inaugurate and endorse the new world of “transgression,” a world which will not reproduce itself, since it will undermine the very motive which causes a society to reproduce. The conservative response to modernity is to embrace it, but to embrace it critically, in full consciousness that human achievements are rare and precarious, that we have no God-given right to destroy our inheritance, but must always patiently submit to the voice of order and set an example of orderly living. The future of mankind, for the socialist, is simple: pull down the existing order, and allow the future to emerge. But it will not emerge, as we know. These philosophies of the “new world” are lies and delusions, products of a sentimentality which has veiled the facts of human nature.

We can do nothing unless we first amend ourselves. The task is to rediscover the world which made us, to see ourselves as part of something greater, which depends upon us for its survival — and which still can live in us, if we can achieve that “condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything),” to which Eliot directs us.

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.
Little Gidding in The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

Such is the conservative message for our time. It is a message beyond politics, a message of liturgical weight and authority. But it is a message which must be received, if humane and moderate politics is to remain a possibility.


Introducing T. S. Eliot — Roger Scruton

November 22, 2011

Thomas Stearns Eliot

See more of Roger Scruton writings on beauty and other topics here.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was indisputably the greatest poet writing in English in the twentieth century. He was also the most revolutionary Anglophone literary critic since Samuel Johnson, and the most influential religious thinker in the Anglican tradition since the Wesleyan movement. His social and political vision is contained in all his writings, and has been absorbed and reabsorbed by generations of English and American readers, upon whom it exerts an almost mystical fascination — even when they are moved, as many are, to reject it.

Without Eliot, the philosophy of Toryism would have lost all substance during the last century. And while not explicitly intending it, Eliot set this philosophy on a higher plane, intellectually, spiritually, and stylistically, than has ever been reached by the adherents of the socialist idea.

Eliot attempted to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. He assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise. Modernism in art was, for Eliot, an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture.

ELIOT WAS BORN in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888, and educated at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Merton College, Oxford, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, whose Hegelian vision of society exerted a profound influence over him. He came, as did so many educated Americans of his generation, from a profoundly religious and public-spirited background, although his early poems suggest a bleak and despairing agnosticism, which he only gradually and painfully overcame. In 1914 he met Ezra Pound, who encouraged him to settle in England.

He married during the following year, which also saw the publication of his first successful poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This work, together with the other short poems that were published along with it as Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, profoundly altered the course of English literature. They were the first truly modernist works in English, although the most visible influences on their imagery and diction were not English but French — specifically, the fin-de-siècle [vocab: French for “end of the century,” the term sometimes encompasses both the closing and onset of an era, as it was felt to be a period of degeneration, but at the same time a period of hope for a new beginning. The "spirit" of fin de siecle often refers to the boredom, cynicism, pessimism and the widespread belief that civilization leads to decadence, that were recognized as prominent in the 1880s and 1890s] irony of Laforgue, and the symbolism of Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Verlaine.

They were also social poems, concerned to express a prevailing collective mood, even when dressed in the words of a specific protagonist. The wartime generation found themselves in these poems, in a way that they had not found themselves in the pseudo-romantic literature of the Edwardian period.

Shortly afterwards Eliot published a book of essays, The Sacred Wood, which was to be as influential as the early poetry. In these essays, Eliot presented his new and exacting theory of the role of criticism, of the necessity for criticism if our literary culture is to survive. For Eliot, it is no accident that criticism and poetry so often come together in the same intelligence — as in his own case, and the case of Coleridge, whom he singled out as the finest of English critics.

For the critic, like the poet, is concerned to develop the “sensibility” of his reader — by which term Eliot meant a kind of intelligent observation of the human world. Critics do not abstract or generalize: theylook, and record what they see. But in doing so, they also convey a sense of what matters in human experience, distinguishing the false from the genuine emotion.

While Eliot was to spell out only gradually and obscurely over many years just what he meant by “sensibility,” his elevated conception of the critic’s role struck a chord in many of his readers. Furthermore, The Sacred Wood contained essays that were to revolutionize literary taste. The authoritative tone of these essays gave rise to the impression that the modern world was at last making itself heard in literature — and that its voice was T. S. Eliot’s.

THE SACRED WOOD turned the attention of the literary world to the “metaphysical poets” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and to the Elizabethan dramatists — the lesser predecessors and the heirs of Shakespeare, whose raw language, rich with the sensation of the thing described, provided a telling contrast to the sentimental sweetness that Eliot condemned in his immediate contemporaries. There is also an essay on Dante, discussing a question that was frequently to trouble Eliot — that of the relationship between poetry and belief. To what extent could one appreciate the poetry of the Divine Comedy while rejecting the doctrine that had inspired it? This question was a real one for Eliot, for several reasons.

Eliot was — like his fellow modernists and contemporaries, Ezra Pound and James Joyce — profoundly influenced by Dante, whose limpid verse-form, colloquial style, and solemn philosophy created a vision of the ideal in poetry. At the same time, he rejected the theological vision of the Divine Comedy — rejected it with a deep sense of loss. Yet in his own poetry the voice of Dante would constantly return, offering him turns of phrase, lightning flashes of thought, and — most of all — a vision of the modern world from a point of view outside it, a point of view irradiated by an experience of holiness (albeit an experience that he did not then share). And when Eliot did finally come to share in this vision, he wrote, in the last of the Four Quartets, the most brilliant of all imitations of Dante in English — an imitation which is something far finer than an imitation, in which the religious vision of Dante is transported and translated into the world of modern England.

One other essay in The Sacred Wood deserves mention — “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which Eliot introduces the term which best summarizes his contribution to the political consciousness of the twentieth century: tradition. In this essay Eliot argues that true originality is possible only within a tradition — and further, that every tradition must be remade by the genuine artist, in the very act of creating something new. A tradition is a living thing, and just as each writer is judged in terms of those who went before, so does the meaning of the tradition change as new works are added to it. It was this literary idea of a living tradition that was gradually to permeate Eliot’s thinking, and to form the core of his social and political philosophy.

Prufrock and The Sacred Wood already help us to understand the paradox of T. S. Eliot — that our greatest literary modernist should also be our greatest modern conservative. The man who overthrew the nineteenth century in literature and inaugurated the age of free verse, alienation, and experiment was also the man who, in 1928, was to describe himself as “classical in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” This seeming paradox contains a clue to Eliot’s greatness as a social and political thinker. For Eliot recognized that it is precisely in modern conditions — conditions of fragmentation, heresy, and unbelief — that the conservative project acquires its sense. Conservatism is itself a modernism, and in this fact lies the secret of its success.

What distinguishes Burke from the French revolutionaries is not his attachment to things past, but rather his desire to live fully in the concrete present, to understand the present in all its imperfections, and to accept the present as the only reality that is offered to us. Like Burke, Eliot recognized the distinction between a backward-looking nostalgia, which is but another form of modern sentimentality, and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision with which to live in the modern world.


EAST COKER (No. 2 of ‘Four Quartets’) –T.S. Eliot

November 12, 2010

Claude Monet, Wheat Stacks in Summer, 1890-91

What seems a relentlessly dark poem finds (upon several readings, don’t give up) a doomed quality of darkness opens into Godliness, as the quietness of darkness can also represent silence, not the silence of doom, but the transcendent silence of the still point. At some point in our spiritual lives God shows us the darkness: the darkness of St. John of the Cross, of Mother Teresa, where we wait in a timelessness without hope, without love, for to do otherwise is to place one’s self in time.

Michael Novak has written that Saint Thérèse lived for most of her adult life in utter darkness and dryness and abandonment by her divine Lover. She wrote an autobiography about her experiences and how it led her to interpret the inner heart of Christianity. So powerfully and clearly did she write that Pope John Paul II inscribed her name among the historic handful of “Doctors of the Church”teach so profound and so sweeping in their wisdom that they instruct the whole Catholic people.

 Eliot advises to “wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.” 

“Waiting without thought means transcending thought, an experience of that lively state of pure potentiality before a thought has formed. Outside of death or the inertia of deep sleep, transcending is the only way the mind can experience thought-less-ness. To become “ready for thought,” the mind must intimately know the source of thought. Until then thinking, when caught in the web of time, will remain superficial and egocentric.”

Is Eliot suggesting that once the source of thought is established on the level of one’s individual consciousness, as we reawaken to ourselves, thinking can become transformed into something more powerful and fulfilling? The poem sings the Transcendent with a series of zen-like koans or conundrums to provoke us to regard the ineffable along with the poet. 

In order for one’s soul to be ready to go far beyond any human contrivance, one must be willing to go out into the desert and the night. Thus we read of the prophet Elijah:

“At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
 (I Kings 19:9-13)

Thus, also, Job, after he had been stricken with painful boils all over his body, and sat outside where others might mock him, scraping off the scabs, and unable, now, to find the Lord in whom he had placed such utter trust:

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold. My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.”
(Job 23:8-12) 


In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

    In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

                                    In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

    Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.


What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?
Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.

    That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

    The houses are all gone under the sea.
    The dancers are all gone under the hill.


O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
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 and the hope 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.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

                                    You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.


The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

    Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

    The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

    The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

    The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.


So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

    Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.


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