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Filtering by Tag: Remembering Plato

The Soul’s Tempo in Four Quartets - Part II

Rebecca Spears

St John's Church, Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, UK, key in the inspiration for the poem Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot. Taken by uploader, February 4, 2006. Read Part I 

“The Dry Salvages,” the third poem in Eliot’s Four Quartets, thinks about time from the wilderness of rivers and oceans, drawing parallels to the cycles of life and to eternity. Rhythmically, this poem feels like water lapping at the shore: “Where is an end of it, the soundless wailing”; “where is there an end to the drifting wreckage”; “where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing”; “there is no end, but addition.”

“The Dry Salvages”  (1941) evokes Heraclitus’ most famous observation: “One cannot step twice into the same river.” Similarly, in time’s currents, humans are no longer the same travelers they were the moment before; nor will they be the same the next moment.  We are ever changing, but this signals our aging as well. Implicit in wilderness is the idea of an older time,  before clocks: “The tolling bell / Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried / Ground swell, a time / Older than the time of chronometers.” This is nature’s movement, something quite larger than ourselves, something we cannot control.

In nature, time is both destroyer and preserver, signified by “the river with its cargo of Dead Negroes, cows and chicken coops.” Here, Eliot wants us to know that agony is timeless; when we are in it, it seems eternal: “People change, and smile: but the agony abides.” Also, “time is no healer”; instead, time always kills the patient. The speaker seeks refuge from agony in prayer, and finally turns away from ancient remedies of magic and sorcery. He concludes that the only way to live timelessly is through prayer and through the saints. “Little Gidding" (1942), the most overtly religious quartet, moves the speaker from the human experience of time to the threshold of timelessness. Little Gidding is a chapel Eliot made pilgrimage to in 1936, when England was nearing war’s threshold. So too, readers enter the poem at a transitory time, “midwinter spring,” “suspended in time,” where “the brief sun flames the ice.” As in Heraclitus, this flash of light compares to insight. Yet this light is also a “pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year.” We should approach this moment of light prayerfully, Eliot tells us, ready to see our folly and be restored by “that refining fire.” In prayer, a person prepares to cross the threshold and be “transfigured in another pattern,” experiencing visionary detachment that goes beyond desire to love. While history is “a pattern / of timeless moments,” to be transformed people must “arrive where we started from / And know the place for the first time,” “through the unknown remembered gate” (l. 246), to a place and experience humans have only glimpsed on the cave walls.  

My afternoon at the Menil that long-ago September, experiencing Mineko Grimmer’s Remembering Plato, the ice melting, the pebbles dropping and producing a watery music, the projected patterns on the walls constantly changing, I think I felt myself approaching a gate that wasn’t yet open to me. I still carry a vivid memory of that day when the experience touched me so deeply. In Four Quartets, Eliot works his way through ideas of memory and its patterns, and suspended time, toward glimpses of eternal forms, and finally, to the gate of timelessness, or eternity. Following the soul’s tempo, the speaker will gain “complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything) / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well.”

The Soul’s Tempo in Four Quartets - Part 1

Rebecca Spears

Plato On a Friday one long-ago September, after I’d toured several galleries at the Menil Collection with some fellow writers, I was anxious to get outside and enjoy a rare, cool afternoon. However, the guide had one more exhibit to show us, a room-sized sculpture, Mineko Grimmer’Remembering Plato.

As soon as I entered this simple, beautiful space, I forgot my urge to rush outdoors, astounded by the sculpture: At either end of the room, a shallow, rectangular pool rested on the hardwood floor. Stretched across the middle of each basin were two wires. Over each pool, an ice pendulum encrusted with pebbles hung. Spotlights projected the water’s light and shadows onto the walls. The ice was melting; pebbles were dropping onto the wires and into the basins, producing single, musical notes and watery sounds. Simultaneously, the projections on the walls changed, as pebbles falling faster over time disturbed the water. The effect, as Menil director Ned Rifkin aptly explained, is to animate “the internal mechanism of a clock we do not ordinarily see or use, one that corresponds to the soul’s tempo. ”

The patterns on the walls figure largely too in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, where Eliot examines the distance between the ideal form and a person’s changing perceptions of it over time. The quartets, “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding,” also show us that human limitations can become a means of transcendence. If we accept the limits, exercising a measure of humility, then we may be transformed and freed of time. The quartets can be read, too, for their political context and imagery of war, but it is its narrative reflecting the poet’s conversion to Christianity that I find particularly interesting.

While the elements of Four Quartets are wide ranging, and each reader will take something different from the poems, the speaker enacts what it is like to grapple with the sublime. What I love about the quartets is Eliot’s musing on how we may glimpse eternity, where the soul experiences timelessness, and how we may seek God. I think my astonishment upon seeing Mineko Grimmer’s Remembering Plato was an exalted moment for me: I was taken out of time for a few moments and had a glimpse of something greater than myself.

In the first quartet, “Burnt Norton” (1936), the speaker’s perplexity concerning time is at once apparent: “If all time is eternally present, / All time is unredeemable.” The speaker moves toward the memory of a manor and gardens and considers the disjunction between ideal forms and reality in a positive way, namely, that the saving grace of memory is its distance from actual events. For in memory, the speaker can reconsider life and make new patterns of it.

Yet Eliot’s speaker is also bewildered, knowing that humans cannot remove themselves from time. Even when he calls on memory, he must do so in real time. There are glorious moments that humans sometimes perceive, and in those moments, movement is suspended: “The pool was filled with water out of sunlight, / And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, / The surface glittered out of heart of light. ” Like my experience of Mineko Grimmer’s sculpture, such moments are the still point, just as the earth’s axis is its still point. Throughout “Burnt Norton,” the speaker tries to apprehend the still point where the soul can rest, while “desire itself is movement.” One reading of this quartet is the speaker’s striving for love beyond desire, a divine love, a salvation.

Eliot’s second quartet, “East Coker” (1940), moves through the seasons, which in turn give way to years, and years to ancestry and history. There is also motion toward acceptance of human limitations as well as geographic movement away from civilization toward wilderness. The movement of our time in this life is cyclical, and the speaker ponders how he might be released from it. “In my beginning is my end,” he says, recognizing that time is comprised of endless, cyclical occurrences. These are purposeless unless he—and we—begin to view them in timeless contexts.

Eliot also wants to remind us that movement through the seasons points to human frailty: though Plato’s cave-dwellers dance around the bonfire, the dance ends with the dancers. We humans fear the loss implicit in giving ourselves over to someone or something we may lose; fear of “belonging to another, or to others, or to God.” In order to acquire “the wisdom of humility,” we need to face our fears. And to gain abiding faith, hope, and love, apart from cyclical time, we must wade into the darkness. In doing this, the speaker indicates, it is possible to gain the insight of a refining fire.

Read Part II